“They sent a nice man in a suit with a lot of paperwork, to explain it to us. He said there was a school, where people like me could learn to control their curses. They could provide funds to pay all my medical bills. I was too young to go to the school right away; it’s a curriculum designed for fourteen year olds and the minimum age they accept for cursed students was twelve. But there was a workaround – an apprenticeship, where I would be paired up with a full-time tutor who could help me control it, get me up to speed academically, and then when I was twelve I could take a standard academic test and, if I reached the minimum standard, be moved into the school.” He smiled, but there was no humour in it. “It all seemed a bit too good to be true, to be honest. But they explained that magic stuff was their responsibility; it was their job to clean up after curses like this. And we didn’t have any other options. So my parents signed the paperwork and the mage helped me memorise the Vow of Service to recite – I couldn’t just read it out, of course, now that I was blind – and once I was out of hospital, I packed up and headed for a new home.”
“What went wrong?”
“Nothing, technically. We both fulfilled our ends of the bargain. I watched and learned, and he taught me to control the curse. And it never hurt anybody again. My master wasn’t what I would describe as great with kids, especially naive, terrified ones coming to terms with new disabilities and being away from their parents for the first time. He was not a patient or friendly man. But I learned, and I helped him maintain the house and helped augment his magical power with mine.”
“By… purifying stuff for him?” I asked, confused.
“Sometimes. But at-will casting isn’t the most flexible way to use power. The flexible way is to use the ichor directly.” Talbot tapped the mark on his palm. “This stuff is incredibly versatile, and two mages produce more than one.”
“My friend says it’s a really bad idea to drain too much ichor. He says the body compensates and things can get unstable.”
“He’s right, which is why a smart mage would be careful not to overdraw his own ichor. I didn’t know the dangers, of course; my master was my main source of magical knowledge. I was just happy to help him out. And when I was twelve, we came to Refujeyo and I sat an academic competency test.” He sipped his tea.
“And you’ve been here ever since?”
“Oh, no, no. I failed. I failed hard. I had no idea what anything in that test even meant. It was for a curriculum designed for fourteen-year-olds, and I had a nine-year-old’s schooling. I hadn’t sat a class for three years so I was very rusty.”
“But wasn’t your master supposed to – ”
“Yes, he was. But when I got to his place, he focused exclusively on educating me about my curse. This seemed pretty sensible since it could kill me. Once I mastered that, normal education just kind of… never really resumed. I was a kid, I hated school, so I never really questioned it, and eventually I just kind of forgot. I had no scale for how far behind I was until I took that test. And then I overheard him talking to the teachers, about how sad it was that I was so far behind, about how hard he’d tried to educate me and how he was contacting specialists about my obvious learning disabilities, it was probably the brain damage from the accident, et cetera. All of that was a lie. He’d never tried to teach me anything that wasn’t relevant to how I could help him, and here he was painting this picture for the staff of how hard he’d tried in the face of my inability to learn.”
“He didn’t want you to go to school.”
“Right. There were two ways to end the apprenticeship, according to our contract – I pass the minimum requirements and get into school, or he eventually pronounces me competent and releases me as a qualified mage. But the fact that he was sabotaging me like this made it obvious that that wasn’t going to happen. He liked the convenience of having someone around to do the housework and manage the house when he was gone, he liked having someone to provide him with extra magical power when he needed it, he liked the prestige of being able to go to events and have it be known that he was doing his civic duty, training up an apprentice. He was never going to let me go. I had to engineer my own escape.”
“I waited until he was distracted by a big project and, very carefully, snuck out of the house. It wasn’t hard; I’d been sneaking out pretty much since I got there, because my master deemed anything that didn’t directly support his interests as ‘a waste of time’, so I had to sneak out to have any fun. I knew my way around town. I snuck out, I went into town, and I got myself a library card.”
“A library card?”
“You bet! I couldn’t read, of course. I hadn’t learned braille either, and the library only had about four books in braille so there was no point. But they had a lot of audiobooks. I’d borrow audiobooks and listen to them at night after my master fell asleep. When he went on trips, I’d spend my days in the library, and people would read books to me or explain concepts to me. You’d be surprised how much trouble people will go to to help a kid who just wants to learn. The library had a couple of computers for patrons, and the librarian found a text-to-speech program to help me navigate the internet. I hadn’t used a computer since I was nine so it was a bit of a learning curve, but I got there. I got invited to a kind of after-school tutoring group, and I showed up to their sessions when I could, which wasn’t very often. But I did everything I could to get myself up to scratch, and when I was thirteen I sat Refujeyo’s test again, and I passed. Barely. Honestly, I think I technically failed and they marked me very leniently, because they want as many people going through the school as possible. And one month later I walked into the Initiation, and I haven’t had to deal with that absolute bastard ever since.”
“Now you just have all the bastards here,” I said.
“True that! But at least we can commiserate about the bastards here with other bastards!” He lifted his teacup in a mock toast, then swigged back the remains. “Kayden, if you go ahead with an apprenticeship, you won’t have the easy out I had. You’ll be there until your master decides you’re done. So if you do this, make sure you get someone you trust.”
“I don’t know how much choice I’m going to have, to be honest,” I admitted. “I don’t know how many people Refujeyo is going to be able to find that would want me as an apprentice. My curse is… well, it’s going to be inconvenient for them. Maybe dangerous.”
“That’s the point. That’s what they’re supposed to train you to deal with.”
I shook my head. “This isn’t dangerous like your thing. It’s different.”
“Something you can’t explain for sixteen more hours?”
“Fifteen and a half, now. But yeah. Nobody’s going to want it around their magic.”
“Well, you can always refuse to take the vow and just go home.”
“That’s not a great option either. Thanks for telling me this.”
“It was this or math homework. Say hi to the other one for me, alright?”
I headed back to the school, bracing myself as I headed into the tunnel, wondering if it would take me… but no, it led me right back into the school. Only then did I relax. I hadn’t been comfortable with meeting on the island, but it had to be somewhere that Talbot and I both had access to, and there was nowhere private enough to talk in the gym. I’d had to risk it.
And what had the risk bought me? Some information, I supposed. Nothing I couldn’t have deduced myself, so far as the risks involved with an apprenticeship were concerned, but it was nice to have a first-hand account. After I spoke to Cooper and he arranged everything, I was sure to learn more about how the system worked. But I had a feeling he’d downplay any problems with the system.
Maybe I should go home. Drag my feet on taking any vows until after the trial, so I’d still have Casey, then just say no to everything. Take my chances on whether the jury would believe my curse was invoked accidentally or not… hell, there was a pretty good chance they’d find me guilty and I’d end up in prison and not have to worry about any of this.
I tried not to think about that.
On my way to the cafeteria for dinner, I heard Magista’s laugh. I slowed, not really wanting to deal with the Magistae dorm right then, but it was alright; Simon wasn’t with her. She was exiting the cafeteria with Clara and (surprisingly) Kylie, and all three of them were giggling about something. In the spirit of a boy encountering a gaggle of giggling girls anywhere in the universe, I had to fight down the worrying notion that they were, for some unknown reason, giggling about me.
“Kayden!” Magista gave me a little wave and a bright smile. “How are you?”
“Uh, fine. What are you guys talking about?”
“Oh, nothing important. Listen, I need to know when your birthday is, for the calendar.”
“Yes. For arranging the birthday parties, you know? Imagine how awful it would be to accidentally arrange some other event on someone’s birthday! This is why we need Facebook here; the lack of internet is ridiculous.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying!” I said. “Well, not about birthdays. But this is a school and we can’t use the internet? That’s insane! How are we supposed to learn anything?”
“The school intranet is a better source for magical books than the internet,” Clara pointed out.
“Well, yeah, but we have to learn other stuff too. I’d hope all the powerful mages in the world were taught, you know, basic science and world history and stuff. And we don’t even have wikipedia.”
“Wikipedia’s unreliable,” Clara said reflexively.
“Actually, it isn’t,” Magista said. “Compared to the encyclopaedias it replaced, wikipedia’s accuracy is – hey, Kylie! Where are you going?”
We had stopped to chat, but Kylie was still marching forward at a steady, almost robotic pace. I jogged forward and grabbed her arm; she stopped without resistance, eyes staring vacantly forward.
“It’s okay, guys,” I told the others, quickly pulling out my tablet to record. “Her curse is just – ”
“Playing up, we know,” Magista said. “Shouldn’t last more than a few minutes, right?”
“What do you mean you know? How do you know?”
“We had this problem yesterday. It was freaky, but she explained it’s harmless.”
“Wait. You had this problem yesterday? Her curse has been playing up without me? When did that – ”
“Under watch of his writings and deep in his cave
The Staffbreaker works, shave by shave
Piece by piece, strips secrets bare
Knowing not of the dangers that lie under there.
Closer and closer, his naive blade runs
And now he will perish in iron and blood.”
Kylie blinked. “Did I – ?”
“That was so cool!” Clara gushed. “Who’s the Staffbreaker?”
Kylie’s eyes widened. She looked at me. I nodded.
“Where?” she asked.
“The dorm – ”
“Gotta go!” She grabbed my wrist and together, we bolted down the hall, towards Dorm Australia. Gasping, Kylie slammed her hand on the access panel hard enough to bruise and I threw myself at the door as it unlocked. “Max!”
“Huh?” Max looked up from his desk, where he was carefully stripping wood from Miratova’s staff. As soon as he saw our expressions, he put the plane down and headed over to talk to us over the bed. “What’s wrong? Is somebody hurt?”
“No,” Kylie said. “No, it looks like we’re here in time.”
“Prophecy,” I said. “You nearly perished in iron and blood, apparently.”
“In what? Are you sure? I’ve been in here. Everything’s perfectly safe – ”
And that’s when the staff exploded.