Eyes straining in the dim light of a tallow-candle stub, Estefan worked a carpenter’s marking pencil around the curve of a second-hand protractor, sketching the precise lines of a thaumaturgic diagram. His paper, one side defaced with a smeared broadside advertisement, had been discarded from the printer’s down the row. Soon he’d be doing this on fine vellum, ready for submission, but cheap pulp was good enough for a first draft.
He finished his Modified Pentacle of Attraction just as the candle stub gutted out. He’d salvaged several dozen of those from a bin at the chandler’s across the street. His rule was that when the candle went out, it was time for sleep; he had a tendency to work till cock-crow otherwise. He set the sketch atop a pile of similar student work, curled up on his cot, pulled a scratchy wool blanket over his shoulders, and slept, dreaming of his admission to the Collegium Arcanum.
The next morning was drudgery, as mornings had been ever since an unexpectedly large load of green hides had come down the Al-kabir River three weeks earlier. Estefan’s patron employer, Aazim the furniture maker, had secured a discount on the prepared leather by lending the labor of his staff—which was to say, Estefan—to the process of cleaning, curing, and tanning the hides. By noonday break, Estefan reeked of urine and lime, and despite his best efforts at a public washing fountain, he still bore a distinct aroma as he passed through the public entranceway of the Collegium’s library. Several students wrinkled their noses at him as he passed.
Well, let them. He’d paid his study fees, and had the same rights of use as they did. He answered their sniffing with a cold stare of contempt for their fine linens and soft hands, and slid a twine-wrapped package of his rough-draft sketches across the countertop to the librarian on duty.
“Hello, Nelam. I’d like to submit this for first review.”
The woman blinked at him, emerald eyes framed by lashes dark with kohl. He knew those eyes well, and the outline of the face beneath them. High cheekbones and a sharp, imperial nose were tantalizingly half-hidden by the sheer, nearly transparent, veil that local custom assigned to a woman working outside her own household. He’d spent many hours attempting to deduce the wonders of that face without appearing to stare.
She laughed. “Estefan? Why are you here? You could have just given this to me at breakfast.”
“And rob you of your reader’s fee? I wouldn’t hear of it.”
She raised one perfectly arched eyebrow. “That stiff northern pride of yours again?”
She laughed again. “Well, I hope you don’t mind if I bring my work home with me tonight.”
He assured her that he would not, and, accepting the receipt for the package, exited the cool, marble halls for the heat of mid-day. The central square of the city was crowded with noontime buyers and sellers. He grimaced. He’d taken advantage of his status as a resident outlander on his way in; while the faithful were busy with noon prayer, he, as an unbeliever, was free to travel, so long as he was respectful, and did not disturb those bowing to the south and east. But prayer was long over now, and the tannery was down by the river docks, far from the city center.
In any other city in Europa, he could have gone to a public apportation kiosk, and, for a copper quarter-bit, would have been instantly transported to any registered destination in range. But in any other city in Europa he could not have made a living, however poor, constructing furniture by hand, not in competition with magical factories. Since a city whose main industry is the teaching of sorcery cannot afford to have the lines of magical flow constantly tweaked and twisted by ten thousand minor spells, non-educational magic above the level of a good-luck charm was strictly forbidden within an hour’s march of the city walls.
Then a hubbub broke out on the other side of the square, near the farmer’s market. Voices rose against the background murmur:
“Challenge match, student challenge match!”
“Witch fight! Witch fight!”
Estefan was tempted to stay and watch; but as the crowd surged towards the free entertainment, a clear path opened towards his destination, and his sense of duty to his patron won out. He’d barely left the square when he heard a roar of crowd satisfaction break into volleys of laughter. Damn. Must have been a good one . . . .
Details had to wait until dinner time. As a non-family member, Estefan had to stay in the kitchen, so that Aazim’s daughters could remove their veils to eat, but he could follow conversation through the open door. Nelam’s younger sister, Tahia, who handled household affairs since their mother’s passing, had been at the farmer’s market buying a rabbit for stew, and had been in an excellent position to see the entire affair; her perfect-pitch ear for gossip had filled in the rest of the details.
“Afifa Al-Wadi started it all; she’s a first-year who thinks she’s already graduated; you know the type. Building mana through prayer or meditation just wasn’t special enough for her; she had to challenge an upperclassman. She comes up behind Zuleika—that was her target, Zuleika Hierodule—comes up behind her, clears her throat so loudly that half the market turns around, puts her hands on her hips, and says, ‘Well, if it isn’t Zuleika! Has business been good for your mother lately?’ ”
Nelam snorted in amusement; her father didn’t understand. “And what’s wrong with a woman having a profession? It’s not the sixteenth century anymore . . . ” His voice trailed off as the question brought laughter from his daughters; Estefan wished he could see the expression on his employer’s grey-bearded face.
Nelam explained. “Zuleika Hierodule is from the New Babylonian colonies, in the West Indies; her mother is a Priestess of Astarte. Temple prostitution is a sacred thing to them. “
“If Afifa thought she’d gain some advantage by angering her opponent, she made a big mistake,” Tahia added. “You might as well insult a fish by calling it wet. But Zuleika understood the intention; she turned about, as cool as a fresh-cut melon, and issued formal challenge then and there. The second the proctors arrived Afifa let loose with a Blast of Purity—“
Estefan muttered “Bad move,” into his stew bowl.
“—which was funneled right into Zuleika’s shields. Zuleika reached up and lifted her veil—you should have heard the men ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over that—and blew the energy right back into Afifa’s face; there was a crackle-snap-bang—and suddenly Afifa was dressed in a harlot’s silks, bare face hanging out all painted and pretty, and she started waggling her hips, and offering herself to every man in the crowd!”
Laughter erupted around the table. Aazim recovered himself enough to ask, “Did anyone take her up on it?”
“Oh, the proctors rushed her off to the woman’s dorms, and slapped a Veil of Chastity on her, which calmed her down a bit. The change in attitude appears to be permanent, though. Ruined as a competitor for this year, of course; not just from mana loss; all of her patron spirits were chaste symbols, Artemis, and Hestia, and the Virgin Mother, that sort. It’ll take her months to realign to Aphrodite or Inanna.”
Estefan nodded silently. The girl had compromised her own strategy with the opening insult; the false balance of equating a holy position with being a street tramp would have left a clear line of weakness in her defensive equations. She was lucky to have learned the lesson early. Between students, losing a challenge match transferred half of your personal mana to the victor; on the professional level, the risk was for all of your mana, along with, more often than not, your life.
“Well, I’m ready for my evening constitutional,” said Aazim. Estefan grinned. That meant his employer was heading down to his favorite haunt for mint tea and hashish. “Cover your faces, girls, so the lad can clean up before I leave.” It wouldn’t be proper for Estefan to be alone in the house with two unmarried women, of course.
Estefan had barely finished scrubbing the stew-pot out when Nelam poked her head in the kitchen door. “Estefan? Could we talk in the garden for a moment?” The “garden” was actually just a gap, barely ten paces wide, between the family residence and Aazim’s workshop. But there was a trellis with climbing roses, and a bench where one might enjoy their fragrance in the cool of the evening. More importantly, the space was in view of the street beyond, which made it a place where a young man and woman might meet in reasonable privacy without the need of a chaperone.
He emerged from the residence to find Nelam already sitting, his student sketches resting in her lap; he felt cold sweat at the back of his neck. “You’ve finished the review already?”
“It was a quiet afternoon, and I called in a favor or two to keep my schedule clean. Besides, it wasn’t a difficult job.”
He wondered if that was good news or not. “And . . . ?”
The hint of a sigh escaped from beneath the veil. “My professional opinion is that these spell-sketches are extremely competent, clean of line and complete on every level, without a single obvious flaw. If you had the tuition, I would estimate nine chances in ten that you would be accepted.”
He sat down beside her. “Let’s assume that I don’t have the tuition fee at hand,” he said lightly. That was a safe wager; even royalty winced at the cost of a Collegium education. “How do my odds shape up then?
She shook her head sadly. “Estefan, there are five hundred applications for sponsored scholarship submitted to the Collegium every year, and five are granted at most. It takes more than competence to win; there must be something unique about the application, some spark that makes it stand out from the crowd.” She straightened herself. “On the plus side, a submission this detailed would almost certainly earn a recommendation to the Academy of Vocational Magic. Father could ask the carpenter’s guild to sponsor you . . . “
A long silence followed. Eventually Estefan stood, and retrieved his sketches from Nelam’s hands. “Thank you, but if I wanted to be a hedge-magician, I would have stayed in my home village and carved runes in the handles of hoes and sickles like the other dirt farmers.”
He shook his head. “No; if I’d wanted kindness, I’d have asked your opinion as a friend. I insisted on professionalism, and that’s what you’ve given me. It’s not your fault that the truth is brutal.” He straightened his shoulders. “Excuse me, but I must be at my studies.”
Trading the perfume of the garden for the stink of tallow candles, he entered the workshop. It had taken him two years, working during the day, studying third-hand texts at night, to save enough for one season’s study fees, one chance at sponsored scholarship. There was no reason to think another two years would improve his chances. It was time to shoot his bolt.
He removed his remaining savings from their hiding place, and compared his resources with his needs. The needs were vellum, quills, special inks—there must be iron gall in compulsion spells, ash from lightning-struck trees in anything concerned with weather control, a dozen other spell-specific ingredients—and the carefully neutralized paperboard box, opaque to magic, to contain his finished spells for submission. If he used all his coin, all of it, he could just make it. He placed his hand over his heart at the thought, touching a small, leather bag.
The next day he purchased ink, quills, and exactly fourteen sheets of vellum; one for each of the thirteen required diagrams, with one extra sheet set aside in case of error. Unable to afford false starts, he worked with slow deliberation. Unlike his earlier efforts, these sheets were each imbued with a touch of himself, a minor portion of his own magical potential, a leavening of his true name. Some could then be called up with only a thought, or gesture; others, more complex, would require the diagram’s physical presence as a focus.
His efforts were made easier when the leatherwork finally finished up; not having to travel to and from the tannery added nearly an hour per day to the time when he could work magic. He finished almost a full week before deadline. In the end, thirteen spell diagrams were spread across his work table, each unique to him, each clean, complete, competent . . .
. . . And, he realized to his despair, utterly unremarkable. He’d tried with each one to capture that elusive something necessary to catch the eye of the Magister. And he knew that he had failed.
It was gallingly unfair. He’d never aspired to genius. He knew he was no Myrdden Ambrosius, to found a dynasty of knowledge, or an Albertus Magnus, to find common ground of all faiths in pure mathematics, nor even a schemer like Montevaldi the traitor. All he’d ever wanted was to be properly trained in the one profession that spoke to his soul. It was wrong that others would receive the education he longed for, for no better reason than that they had wealth he lacked.
But money, it seemed, possessed a magic of its own.
He sighed from deep inside, and then straightened his shoulders. Forlorn or not, the slimmest hope is better than its lack. It was time for his final purchase.
He had held off buying the insulating box until last; it was the most expensive single item, and he didn’t want to risk some accident compromising it before use. He counted out the small amount left to him: Ten copper pieces, less than a quarter of what the box would cost. With a half-smile he pulled out the leather pouch that he kept around his neck day and night, and removed a single, slim silver coin, badly tarnished, the last coin remaining from the sale of his late father’s farm three years ago. The rest had been spent to pay his way to The City of Knowledge Unbounded. Along with the coppers, it was just enough.
He had to clean it first, of course. One of the prime rules of magic is that endings resemble beginnings; paying for his passage into a new world with tarnished silver would be a poor omen. Borrowing a bit of polish from Aazim’s supply shelf, he scrubbed the coin to a bright glow.
His heart thudded. Something was wrong. He held the coin to the candle light, and stared, unbelieving. A streak of brass showed through thin silver plate. Counterfeit!
How could it be? How could even his farm bumpkin younger self have missed so glaring a flaw? There was less than a week to the deadline—he’d never be able to raise the money in time. For half an instant he considered attempting to pass the coin as genuine—but his own stiff-necked honesty aside, endings resemble beginnings. He could not pay for a new life with false coin, not without poisoning his own hopes. Nor could he ask for Aazim’s help; the shop barely showed a single silver’s profit in a week.
His dreams were smashed by the loss of half an ounce of paperboard, a box not even intrinsically valuable; it was the transportation across the war-torn wilds of Europa that raised the price so ridiculously. In Germany, where they were made, he could have bought one with just the coppers . . .
That thought slowed his panic. The rules said his submission had to be presented within a magically neutral and insulating box, so that the stored spells were safe from accidental interaction with those of other applicants. But the rules said nothing of the manufacturer. The Germans had a monopoly on the combination of magic-free embossing and watermarking processes that allowed such boxes to be mass produced—but the principles and symbols used were common knowledge.
A manic grin spread across his face. If he had learned one thing under Aazim’s tutelage, it was how to work wood, metal, and leather. He would have to make sure that none of the materials had any intrinsic magical or symbolic potential—or rather, to make sure that any such potentialities cancelled each other out . . . . Grabbing the familiar marking pencil and a sheet of broadside pulp paper, he began calculating the specifics. By the time his candle stub burned out he had confirmed that he could both reduce his expenses, and make his submission stand out from the crowd, with a single stroke.
Reviewing the materials available in Aazim’s shop, and what he could build with ten copper’s worth of them—after employee’s discount—took up most of the next night. The details of design and symbology, took four more. He began allowing himself a second candle-stub per night, and then a third, and then abandoned limits altogether. The actual assembly of the box itself took place in a single night of focused effort. The hardest part was not placing a piece of his self into the construction, which would have defeated the whole purpose. Somehow it felt like magic, even though it wasn’t.
When he made his submission, in the last hour before deadline, the application clerk appeared dubious. But after examining the package with a monocular scrying crystal to verify its lack of magical leakage, he eventually shrugged and accepted it.
Estefan felt an almost catastrophic sense of relief. Two weeks until the results are posted. Two weeks with nothing to do at night but catch up on my sleep. Paradise !
Unfortunately, his body and mind, habituated by years of late hours, refused to cooperate. He spent the first restless night memorizing the grain of the planks in his ceiling. The second found him obsessively calculating the hours left until the Collegium posted the acceptance list. By the third he was in the deepest pits of despair, certain that his spells were worthless, and his presentation box destined to be the butt of jokes for generations of application clerks yet unborn . . . .
On the afternoon of the fourth sleepless day, Aazim, observing his assistant nearly sawing his own thumb off, took the lad by the shoulder, and led him down the street to the Axe and Oar, a pleasant tavern catering to a mixed crowd of locals and outlanders, each sipping or puffing their own poison. There he gently, but firmly, oversaw the administration of several flagons of sleeping aid, while limiting himself to nothing stronger than mint tea. Estefan woke late the next morning, head pounding, with the distinct feeling that the entire city guard had been on patrol inside his mouth in their stocking feet. Thereafter he reduced his dosage to a single flagon of strong ale each night, just before bed. If he did not sleep well, at least he slept.
Finally came the dawn of the day of posting. Estefan resisted the urge to camp in the town square overnight, but was on his way the moment one could tell a white thread from a black. He found the area around the public notice board already surrounded by his fellow applicants, many of whom looked every bit as haggard as himself.
He had barely begun to push his way through the crowd of hopefuls, when a blast of trumpets sounded from the watchtowers along the city walls. Not the familiar call to prayer, but a strange, martial rhythm he had never heard before. The crowd around him grew still, faces paling in shock.
“What is it?” he asked a random stranger.
“Enemies at the gate,” the stranger replied. And then a second trumpet call sounded; one familiar to Estefan from his studies; a challenge match approaching, on the Master Magus level. A challenge to Magister Sonas himself!
The city guard began clearing the crowd. “Move along! Clear Way! Challenge match! You don’t want to be caught in the crossfire, do you? Make way!”
Estefan found himself pushed aside with the others, to the edge of the square. He heard murmurs from the crowd, recalling rumors whispered by river travelers at the Axe and Oar. Vienna had been taken in this manner six months ago, and Paris three months after that. In each case, conventional troops had apported in, just outside the city’s defensive wards, followed by a magical challenge to the local master magus. In both challenges the defender had lost, leaving the besieged city to choose between fighting a ruinous battle with their main magical strength vanquished, or else surrender. Neither had chosen to fight.
If the same tactics were being used here, then there was only one person the challenger could be; Montevaldi, once Magister Sonas’ greatest pupil. Montevaldi, who had stolen the scrolls of Myrdden, betrayed his oaths, sold his skills to the highest bidder, and in so doing almost single-handedly sparked the war that had raged across Europa for five years. Montevaldi, who, even before his turning, had never lost a challenge match.
And indeed, here he came, escorted by an honor guard of twenty men in magically augmented armor. A slender man, pale of skin, lean of face, clean shaven, clad in a red silk robe embroidered with dragons, his long black hair flowing over his shoulders. He floated two feet above the ground, standing on an ornate carpet of oriental design. The aura of his personal mana was so bright that Estefan was forced to close his inner eye against the glare.
And from the Collegium grounds, unescorted, strode Magister Sonas, wearing the simple black robe of his office, his forked white beard threaded through rings of gold and amber, his shaved head gleaming in the morning light like polished mahogany. His own aura of power, though no match for Montevaldi’s, was solid and steady. And in his hands, he held . . .
Estefan blinked; blinked again; rubbed his eyes with both fists. It’s happened. The stress, the anticipation, it’s all finally come to a head. I’ve gone mad.
But no; it was impossible, but there, in the hands of the greatest Magus of the greatest magical seat of learning in Europa, was the box, his box.
With a hundred feet still separating the combatants, Sonas stopped, and addressed his rival. “So, Angelo, you’ve finally come back. I assume that you are not planning to return the scrolls?”
“The scrolls ceased to exist a long time ago, old man,” Montevaldi replied, “except in here.” He tapped the side of his own head. “If you want their power back, you have only to defeat me.”
“Is that all?” Sonas asked. “And I thought this was going to be difficult.”
Montevaldi sighed, rolling his eyes. And from out of a clear, blue sky, lightning crashed down upon the Magister. His personal shields held, of course, diverting the force into the ground. “Elemental Magic? Angelo, I thought you more sophisticated than that.”
“Merely stretching the muscles, old man.” This time Montevaldi made a subtle gesture with one hand, and the air around the elder sorcerer solidified into diamond. But again, his shields held, maintaining an egg-shaped zone of safety around him. A moment later Sonas made a gesture of his own, and the crystal shattered, dissolving back into air.
The Magister smiled mockingly. “Honestly Angelo; you know the strength of my defenses; we could be all day at this, and I have budgets to review. If you are such an unstoppable force as rumor claims why are you wasting time playing with me? I was your first mentor; surely I deserve the best you have to give.”
Now Montevaldi scowled. “If you are in such a hurry to die, don’t let me delay you.”
He stepped off his carpet, set his feet firmly upon the ground, held his hands above his head, and pronounced six words in a forgotten language. Flames burst from his fingertips, leaping upward to form a humanoid shape thirty feet tall. The giant roared with the voice of a volcano, and advanced on the Magister, whose eyes grew wide at the sight.
“An afreet, controlled without Solomon’s seal? I’ll admit to being impressed—” His observations were interrupted as the fire demon’s first blow smashed down upon him. Sonas’ shields waivered, cracking badly, the transmitted force driving him to his knees. “Yes, a most worthy effort—”
A second, double-fisted blow shattered the shields entirely. From his place on the ground, Sonas nodded approval. “Yes, this ought to do.” With that, he opened Estefan’s box. Six sheets of parchment flew out, each covered in equations and geometric figures. Almost instantaneously they interlocked, folding into a complex solid whose shape constantly shifted, invoking higher dimensions, and with them, higher magics.
The afreet paused, gazing at the construct. A strange smile crossed its molten face.
The Magister smiled as well. “The question, dear Angelo, is whether your defensive skills are of the same quality as your attacks.”
With a hissing blast of laughter, the afreet turned about and lunged towards Montevaldi, who barely got his own shields up in time.
“I know your name,” Montevaldi screamed at the creature. “Obey me! Destroy him!”
The afreet’s reply was a grin which shifted into a blazing deaths-head grimace. Flowing his entire being into a swirling storm of liquid flame, the monster poured white-hot death down upon his erstwhile master. Montevaldi’s shields, backed by the mana won from dozens of victims, held for several seconds, but then began to melt; before they failed entirely, he threw up a second set, even stronger; these held for almost half a minute before they too began to weaken.
The heat of the attack drove onlookers out of the square. Even Montevaldi’s guard, although partially protected by their enchanted armor, gave up ground. Estefan, unwilling to leave, found refuge in the same public fountain he had washed in weeks before. As a consequence, he was the only civilian to directly observe the fate of the infamous traitor.
The mercenary magician could conjure up new shields almost as quickly as the afreet could disrupt them, but the important word was “almost.” With each repetition, the shields grew smaller in diameter, until they were all but skin-tight around him. The afreet swept itself into a spinning pillar of fire that dissolved into a shower of laughing sparks, and vanished, revealing Montevaldi’s ashes compressed into a smoking statue of charcoal which still held a look of astonishment upon its face.
The Magister’s spell-sheets disconnected from each other, and flew back to the box, which Sonas closed before rising to his feet. “Yes,” he said, “That did quite well. Poor Angelo; he always did place too much faith in the strong offense.”
He closed his eyes, and suddenly his aura blazed with the personal force that had previously belonged to the late Montevaldi. He opened his eyes again, glaring at Montevaldi’s guards, scattered about the square. He gestured, and the armor peeled off their bodies, dissolving into rusted corruption before the pieces even reached the ground, leaving them in nothing but their long, woolen gambesons.
He spoke, and his voice was like thunder. “Your army has been similarly disarmed. Leave now, if you wish to continue in the habit of breathing.” The invaders bolted towards the city gate. Magister Sonas snapped his fingers. Montevaldi’s carpet, somewhat singed, flew to him. He stood upon it, and, with quiet dignity, floated back towards his office.
Estefan stepped out of the fountain, speechless. To have seen such events . . . no, to have been part of such events . . . Magister Sonas had chosen his handiwork as worthy to be part of his victory; surely that meant . . . He rushed to the notice board, and ran his still-dripping finger down the list of names. Some were marked “Accepted”; others “Rejected”, or ‘Recommended to Vocational Academy.” None seemed to say “Accepted, with Scholarship.” Finally he found his own name. The notation next to it read: “Please contact the Magister’s office.”
He ran the whole way, arriving quite flushed, and still somewhat damp. A fussy little man with a drooping moustache stared up from behind a desk. A sign proclaimed him to be the Magister’s private secretary. “Can I help you, young man?”
Estefan nearly broke his neck nodding yes. “My name is Estefan Delgadillo. There was a note on the public board saying I should report here—”
The little man’s expression softened. “Oh, yes, I have the package here.” He reached into a desk drawer, and pulled out a standard, white, insulating box of German manufacture. Standing, he walked around the desk to hand it to Estefan. “You’ll find all your spells in here, along with twenty gold; payment for your work.”
“The box. Magister Sonas said it was the finest piece of magic-masking carpentry he’d ever seen; exactly what he needed to camouflage his new Defensive Reflection spell until the right moment to use it.” His eyes brightened. “Did you see the match? I scryed it from here. Masterful, wasn’t it?”
“B-but,” stuttered Estefan, “but—my spells . . . .
“Oh, yes.” The secretary’s puckered face shifted into an expression of sympathy. “I’m sorry, young sir. There were so many fine submissions this year; he was unable to approve them all.” He smiled gently. “But there’s a certificate inside, a personal recommendation to the Vocational Academy.” He opened the door, gesturing Estefan out. “Have a pleasant day.”
Estefan stumbled into the hallway, his mind numb. He wandered the streets of campus and city aimlessly, until, at length, he found himself at the entrance to the Axe and Oar, where at last a course of action presented itself to him.
Entering, he stepped to the bar, and asked the tavern keeper what the most expensive drink he had was. Examining Estefan’s disheveled and water-stained appearance with a dubious eye, the bartender reached under the counter, pulling up a dusty bottle with an ornate, gilt-lettered label. “Royal Seal mead-brandy; brewed with honey taken from hives kept in the Caliph’s own hemp fields, blended with essence of kif. A half silver per shot.”
Estefan slapped a gold coin onto the countertop. “Leave the bottle.”
The bottle sat half empty on the table. Estefan’s arms and legs felt all a-tingle, and his head floated several feet above his shoulders. He had never had a taste for hashish; his rare attempts to sample it had all ended in coughing fits. But here, enjoying its virtues in this golden fluid, he finally understood what Aazim saw in the stuff. He was, at last, high above his worries, high above his failures. So high, in fact, that he barely even noticed the confrontation at the door.
“I’m sorry miss,” said the bartender. “It’s city regulations.”
“But he’s right there. All I need to do is talk to him.” The voice seemed familiar to Estefan, sweet and light, like a songbird. Like a dream he had once entertained . . .
“I’m very sorry, but the law says that no veiled women can enter.”
“Oh, is that all?” replied the woman’s voice. There followed the sound of tearing cloth, and a collective gasp from the patrons of the bar, and suddenly Estefan found he was no longer alone at his table. An unveiled woman, quite pretty, sat across from him, her bare face filled with a mixture of concern and anger. “Estefan, what has happened?”
He had trouble focusing his eyesight. There was something about her face; the eyes seemed familiar. “I’m schah—sorry, miss, I’m not innereshted today. Or proba’ly capable ri’ now . . . .” There was a brief pause, which ended when the woman slapped him across the face. He blinked, shock clearing his vision. “Nelam? Is that you?”
“Well of course it’s me! Who else would bare her face in a place like this for your sake? I didn’t want to believe Papa when he told me where he had found you—or what you called him when he tried to get you to leave! “
”You’re pretty!” he said. “I always knew you’d be pretty . . . ” His observations were interrupted by another slap. “Oww!”
“Estefan, what’s happened to you ?”
He grinned, rubbing his face. “Congratulate me; I’ve been accepted to the Vocational Academy. Me an’ all the other hedge-magicians.” He pushed the German insulating box towards her. She opened it, examining the contents. Her eyes grew wide at the small silk bag holding the nineteen gold coins remaining; her expression softened to sympathy as she removed an embossed certificate addressed to the administrator of the Academy of Vocational Magic. Then her brow furrowed in thought. “Estefan, have you actually read this?”
“Why bother?” He poured himself another drink; Nelam slapped the glass out of his grasp, spilling the precious contents across the table. “Hey, that stuff is expensive!”
“You can afford it. This isn’t just a recommendation; this certificate is a directive to the Academy to immediately register you as a Magical Craftsman, Master Class!”
“Wha—let me see that!” She handed him the parchment. Sure enough, the certificate said exactly that. More, a notation was made in the Magister’s own hand:
“In recognition of Applicant Estefan Delgadillo’s great skill and practical knowledge, demonstrated in the construction of a containment system capable of camouflaging a Grand-Magus-Class defensive spell from enemy scrying, thus contributing greatly to the security of both the Collegium Arcanum, and of The City of Knowledge Unbounded in general, I hereby direct the exchequer of the Academy of Vocational Magic to lend, without interest, whatever funds are deemed necessary for him to establish a business for the manufacture of same, provided it be maintained within the city limits. (Signed) Lazarus Sonas, Magister of the Collegium Arcanum.”
Estefan took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Well, that’s something, I guess.”
“You guess!” Nelam clawed her fingers towards her bare, pretty face in frustration. “Estefan, this containment system he mentions—would that be the box you were working on two weeks ago?”
“Why yes . . . “
“And what went into its making?”
He shrugged. “I used the left-over cedar-wood and leather from that last order of storage trunks, some cold-iron brads, oak scrap from—”
“The bottom line, please?”
That figure he knew by heart. “Ten copper pieces.”
“Ten coppers. And for that, you got this!” She picked up the bag of coins, and shook them out across the table in front of him. “And here you have the Magister’s endorsement, on public record. Every magician in Europa will want one! You’ll have to beat the customers away with a bludgeon!”
“But—” he protested feebly, “but that’s not magic!”
She rolled her eyes towards the heavens. “So? I told you, your work is good enough for simple admission. Take a year, or two, or five, to build your fortune, and you’ll be able to pay your own way in! Besides, you’ve found a way to turn ten coppers worth of scrap into a bag of gold! I call that the greatest alchemical conversion in history!”
He gaped, face blank. And then he began to laugh.
Money, indeed, possessed a magic of its own.