“So what are we doing, exactly?” I asked Instruktanto Cooper as we drove through some random small town in New Zealand.
“We are meeting Cheryl Castor.” Cooper was back in his suit, and he looked weirdly uncomfortable in it. This guy could look professional in purple Hulk shorts, but put an actual suit on him and he looked ready to crawl into his own mouth. “Like you, she’s cursed. We’re here to offer her training, but there’s a… complication.”
“Ah. What did her curse do?”
“Nothing. That’s the problem. Cheryl’s been cursed for seventeen years and it’s done nothing. People in that position can become… complacent… about the risks of their condition. I’m hoping you can convince her that she needs training.”
“Right, but why me? Kylie’s curse has actually killed people; mine just – oh. You think I’ll make a better impact because of the media shitstorm.”
“The media coverage of your case isn’t all that bad.”
“Just bad enough that I can serve as a living example for someone in a totally different country?”
“When you win your trial, the media attention will fade. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“That doesn’t stop my family and friends from being harrassed right now. And what makes you so sure I’ll win my trial?” I pulled my attention back to the task at hand. “So, Cheryl. She’s seventeen and she’s kept her curse suppressed all this time?”
“She’s nineteen. It hasn’t activated since she got it seventeen years ago; that doesn’t mean she’s suppressed it. And even if she has, there’s no reason to think she’ll be able to do it forever. As you very well know, curses can be triggered by all kinds of things, and there’s no easy way to know what they are in advance. Even those without random triggers… well, you only have to lose control for a moment. She could go to bed one night and set her house on fire while she sleeps, or happen to stand in the light of a full moon on an astrologically important night and raise every corpse in the town, or find that her breath has become toxic to anybody over the age of thirty.”
“What’s that about the full moon? There’s a zombie raising curse?!”
“The point is, despite this danger, she’s been putting us off. We’ve been trying to convince her for two years and she’s finally offered us one meeting. If this goes badly, I don’t think we’ll get another. That’s why I need your help.”
“Oh. So no pressure, then. Guess I’ll just have to suddenly become great at convincing people or risk a zombie apocalypse in New Zealand.”
“Perhaps I used a bad example. There’s only one known curse that does that, and it hasn’t been seen for over two centuries.”
“So what you’re saying is, there’s a zombie raising curse out there and you have no idea where it is?”
“I feel like perhaps you’re focusing on the wrong thing here.”
I glanced out the window. It was weird, being back in the… well, the normal world, I supposed. Most of the houses we passed had a sprig of mistletoe or holly on the gate, and every fourth or fifth one had a full wreath on the door. Just an old anti-curse tradition that nobody every really thought about; except, of course, cursed people.
I zipped my jacket up, overcome with the worrying thought that people could somehow sense my curse through my clothes and more layers were going to help. Ugh, I remembered feeling like this. Why had I ever considered not taking the Initiation, again?
Of course, everyone knew I was cursed now anyway, so…
“So if she’s nineteen, she’s too old for the school, right? We’re trying to talk her into an apprenticeship? Casey explained them to me,” I added at Instruktanto Cooper’s confused look.
“Ah, of course. Yes, we’re trying to talk her into an apprenticeship. I already have several candidates open to taking her on, although the issue is complicated because we don’t actually know what her curse does.”
“Can’t Malas just come and do his magical scan thing?”
“Even if she would consent to such a thing, which I doubt, and Malas could leave the school grounds, which he can’t, that’s very unlikely to help very much. Malas knows a lot about the more common spells that the school has, and he can learn a bit about new spells that are active; what they do, how strong they are, how they’re affecting the body. But the spell has to be active. A dormant spell, either locked away or simply never triggered, tells him nothing, and since Cheryl’s curse doesn’t seem to be doing anything yet…”
“Maybe, if we leave it alone, it’ll never do anything.”
“Maybe. How many lives are you willing to bet on it?”
“Well, if we’re so dangerous, why did you wait this long?”
“Believe me, Kayden, I’m on your side with that one. We contacted her as soon as we were allowed to, when she turned seventeen. And it’s taken us this long to convince her to actually meet with us.”
“What do you mean, as soon as you were allowed to?”
“Some countries have… overzealous child protection laws. We’re not allowed to ‘recruit’ – a term with a dangerously lax definition, we’re basically not allowed to contact – cursed New Zealanders under the age of seventeen, except in critical circumstances.”
“Critical circumstances being a curse going haywire?”
“Exactly. And by then, it’s often too late. You’d be amazed at how many parents think we’re here to hurt their children.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t.” He shot me a sideways glance. “It’s sixteen, by the way.”
“The age at which we would’ve contacted you, if your curse had stayed dormant. Sixteen, in Australia. We wouldn’t have left you to fight alone if we’d had any choice.”
“So you have a school for fourteen-year-olds and a scholarship you can hardly ever offer to anyone under sixteen?”
“That’s about it, yeah. Some countries are better than others about this.”
“And Cheryl doesn’t want help at all?”
“Well, she’s old enough to have established a life for herself and she’s been cursed long enough that she’s confident she can suppress it indefinitely. Also, commonfolk rarely trust us, for some reason.”
“Maybe because you call them commonfolk?”
Instruktanto Cooper looked puzzled. “They are commonfolk. What’s wrong with the term?”
“Kind of insulting, isn’t it? Also really, really vague. We should call them mundane… ah, no. Magically deficient? Ew, worse. Oh! What’s a word for ‘magicless’ in Ido?”
“You mean, nemagio?”
“That’s what we should call them! Nemagio!”
“Nemagisto. For people.”
“Okay, sure. Nemagisto. That’s better, actually; nemagio sounds like an Italian restaurant. Point is, nemagisto don’t trust you because your PR sucks. A bunch of mages who answer to no nation running around taking people’s cursed kids to a secret location where they can’t be called or emailed? That’s terrifying! Can’t you at least do pamphlets?”
“I always bring pamphlets.”
“I mean in advance! Like, send out ‘So You’ve Been Cursed’ pamphlets to those career fairs where there’s always a mage doing little light tricks. Get a website for the school! Make a silly cartoon about Refujeyo and market it worldwide! The first time people learn anything substantial about you should not be when you show up and explain that you want to take their kids away. I know you market for rich people, because all the non-legacy mage trainees have to find the place somehow. And you’re getting away with that despite the no-recruit rules. So just do that, but broader.”
“It really isn’t that simple.”
“Nothing is ever simple, but that’s no excuse not to figure it out.”
We pulled into the driveway of a small timber house with an overgrown lawn and ducked under four wind chimes to reach the front door. I inspected a small decorative angel on one of the wind chimes while Instruktanto Cooper, careful not to disturb the massive wreath on the door, knocked.
The woman who answered looked exactly how I’d expect a Cheryl to look. Her bleached blonde hair was cut at exactly jaw length, and the bottom of a tattoo (dragon? Something reptilian) peeked out under the short left sleeve of her fitted blouse. Her right forearm was swamped in chunky bangles and bracelets made of natural materials. On her left hip, she held a baby, who looked about six months old. It blinked at us sleepily.
“So you’re the mage, then,” she said.
“Taine Cooper. This is Kayden, one of my students.”
Cheryl’s eyes flicked to me, and widened slightly. She did recognise me. Fantastic.
“We have to make this quick,” she said, stepping out of the doorway and waving us in. “It’s nearly Holly’s bedtime. Do you take your tea traditional, or modern?”
“You have traditional tea?” Instruktanto Cooper asked.
“You know holly water’s poisonous, right?” I asked.
“Everything in life is poisonous,” Cheryl said, “and we live on regardless. But, if you insist.”
A few minutes later, she pushed a stack of magazines off an old table to make room for three cups of tea (without poison), settled down with Holly on her left knee, and said, “Okay, I’m listening.”
“Skolala Refujeyo would like to offer you an apprenticeship with an accredited mage for the purposes of you learning to safely handle your curse,” Instruktanto Cooper said. “We can pay for most of your expenses, including relocation to – ”
“No, thanks,” she said.
“But this is your best chance to – ”
“I’m not relocating. I have a life here. A job, friends, family… and to be perfectly honest, I don’t trust people who come to my door and offer me amazing free deals.”
“You’d… prefer we didn’t pay expenses?”
“No, obviously, but you have to admit, it’s suspicious. There’s this thing my Mum likes to say a lot – if you’re getting something for free, it’s because you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Free media, ladies-drink-free nights at bars, and, I suppose, mysterious apprenticeships offered by shady mages.”
“Is that so? What about social services? Medicare systems, parenting and disability benefits, government-funded drug rehabilitation schemes?”
“The product is usually political PR to gather votes. Or healthy bodies to drive industry. Or whatever. I’m not saying I disagree with free stuff, I’m saying your offer is suspicious as hell. What do you get out of it? I think you’re bullshitting me.”
“Miss Castor, we as a society have taken up responsibility for magic as a whole. We believe it’s our duty to help people like you to – ”
“Yeah,” I said, “he’s bullshitting you.”
Instruktanto Cooper stared at me in surprise.
“Well, probably not on purpose; he might believe that crap. But this is one of those things that comes down to PR. If people like us run about causing magical accidents everywhere, people get more afraid of magic, and therefore more suspicious of mages. The big powerful society of mages might have nothing to do with it, but it’s to their benefit that magic as a whole is associated with as few melted faces and random explosions and zombie hordes as possible, right? It’s a small expense to them to train us so that happens as little as possible. Call it a sense of duty or call it pragmatism, it all shakes out the same – the product they’re investing in is dramatically reducing the possibility that you’ll show up as a gory news item to remind everyone why they hang wreaths on their doors. Trust me; I know from experience.”
“That’s a… cynical view, Kayden,” Instruktanto Cooper said.
I shrugged. “It’s mutually beneficial. I was terrified of my curse until I started learning from professionals.”
The stone beads and wooden charms on Cheryl’s many bracelets clinked together as she drained her tea in one gulp. “Yes, well, I have no need to be terrified of mine. I have it perfectly under control.”
“So did I. Until I didn’t. That thing could up and kill you any – ”
“So could a car accident. Or a heart attack. But I’m hardly going to uproot my entire life based on such a possibility, so I’m afraid I have to refuse. Now if you will excuse me, I need to put my daughter to bed. Enjoy the tea.” She scooped the baby up in one arm and stalked towards a door in the back of the room, bending awkwardly to try to pick up a raggedy stuffed bunny and open the door at the same time.
I swooped over to grab the toy. “Allow me.” I followed her down a short hall and into the baby’s room, and tossed the toy into the crib.
“Thank you,” she said, laying Holly on a change table and undressing her with one hand. “I won’t be a minute.”
I closed the bedroom door. “The curse is on your right arm, isn’t it? About here.” I tapped a spot almost halfway up my forearm.
“Ah, you saw. I know, I really should wear long sleeves.”
“I didn’t see it. That’s just about the midpoint of your bandage of anti-curse objects. I gotta say, you put a lot more effort into the trinkets than I ever did. Did you carve the little wooden charms yourself?”
“It’s a fashion statement.”
“That mage out there who lives in a mountain might assume that, and the people who live around here might assume that, but I’m cursed too, remember? I know girls who wear chunky natural bracelets, but nobody wears that many of them for fashion. Plus, I know birch and yew when I see it. And several of those bits are charred, so I’m guessing you actually took the time to find a lightning-struck yew, yourself, because everyone knows the lightning-struck yew bits you buy off the internet are just faked by some guy with scrap wood and a lighter. That’s dedication. Does yew even grow here? And those stone beads… the small ones have to be drilled, obviously, but the holes in those big ones are obviously water-bored. How many forests did you have to trek through to find that many natural stones which water had put a hole through? That cord the beads are strung on is too rough to have been made by a machine; you home span that from bark. How long did that take? You’re wearing your dedication quite literally on your sleeves, or where your sleeves would be if you were wearing long sleeves. And you think you’re doing fine with your curse? You don’t want it to control your life? It already is.”
Cheryl fetched a clean nappy and slid it under her daughter one-handed. “That’s a bold claim to make just because you don’t like my fashion sense.”
“You don’t have time to maintain your lawn, but you’ve got a massive wreath on your front door – that’s an unusual priority. You have a whole bunch of wind chimes, and I couldn’t figure out why until I checked the litte decorative charms – some of them are actual, genuine silver. You’ve found a way to surround your house with bared pure silver, disguised so it won’t be stolen. You take traditional tea with holly water, which nobody does outside of old movies and fairy tales any more because holly is toxic, you named your daughter Holly, and don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve not touched her or anything of hers with your right arm since we got here. That’s what I’m basing my bold claim on. You’re terrified of that curse, aren’t you? You don’t know what it does or when it’s going to do it, and all you can do is live your life one day after the other and just kind of deal with it. You don’t want to treat it like it’s a big deal because that’ll make it a big deal, but you’ve built a life around holding it down; a life you’re afraid to make any changes in because you don’t know what changes will set it off. What’s an apprenticeship going to do to you that’s worse than what you’re doing to yourself?”
“So that’s your experienced position? I should change my entire life and go along with the offers of this stranger who says he can solve all my problems?”
“That’s what you’re doing, I suppose?”
“No. I’m doing something different, although I did have to leave home to do it. And… in the interests of honesty, I should add that more experienced people don’t necessarily agree with my position. The most intelligent mage I know once told me that getting involved in this world is something you should only do if you’re sure you want to, not because you don’t like the alternative. And the only guy I know who’s gone through an apprenticeship would tell you to be very, very careful and absolutely certain you want to proceed before taking any vows. But I’d say that’s easy advice to give after the fact and if he hadn’t taken vows he’d definitely be dead by now, so… y’know, six of one.”
I went back to my tea. Instruktanto Cooper and I waited in tense silence until Cheryl emerged, took a deep breath, and nodded.
“Okay. I’m not signing anything or agreeing to anything today. But if you find someone who wants to teach me, I can probably find the time to talk to them. I won’t promise more than that.”
Instruktanto drained his tea and stood up. “I understand. Thank you for your time, Miss Castor.”
As we climbed back into the van, he said, “I can’t believe you got her to agree to a second meeting. What did you say to her?”
“Nothing you’d understand.” I buckled my seatbelt. “Can we just get out of here? This place gives me the creeps.”
So we drove, in relative silence, back home to the halls of Skolala Refujeyo.