A MAGE BY ANY OTHER NAME,
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Mary had only been Wizard Williwim’s assistant for a month when the challenge came. A black pigeon fluttered through the open window, landing on the back of the wizard’s chair. He freed the tiny parchment cylinder from the bird’s limb.
His wrinkled face grew more wrinkled when he read the message.
“Bother,” he muttered, his white hair floating around his head like a dandelion puff. “This is far sooner than I’d anticipated.”
Mary set aside the mortar and pestle she’d been using to crush the dried rose petals into a dust fine enough for the most discriminating spell caster. Pigeon mail meant bad news, and bad news for her employer was bad news for her.
“Has someone died, sir?”
“I’m sure someone has died somewhere, but it has nothing to do with the message.”
Williwim renewed the animal’s health with a rub of his index finger and sent it flapping back out into the summer morning. “It’s a wizardrite challenge.”
“Are you being invited to referee?” she asked hopefully.
He shook his head. “We should be so lucky. It’s a challenge for me.”
“You? But you haven’t been challenged in ages.” Rumor was, Williwim had transformed the last opponent into an animal of some sort. It had been hushed up by the Council, but no one had wanted Bannoch-Faoran enough to fight him for it in years.
Until now. The timing was a bit too on the nose to ignore.
“I suppose they think I’m getting decrepit.” Williwim didn’t meet her gaze. “Why couldn’t they pester Cheng or that Annui woman? They’re both a hundred and forty if they’re a day.”
Apprehension curled through her like ivy. “It’s because of me, isn’t it?”
“Nonsense.” Williwim allowed the parchment to curl back into a cylinder, a tiny phut of sound. “I kept it quiet when I let Tomas and Frieda go.”
“It’s got to be me. Most wizards have experienced assistants, while I—”
“Need to finish the roses. When you’re done, we’ll discuss the challenge. I need to think.” The frown line between Williwim’s brows deepened as he unrolled the parchment and released it again. And again. Phut, phut, phut.
Mary shut her mouth and ground the pestle into the remaining petals. The powder might put Williwim one step closer to perfecting the youth spell he intended to name after his patron, but it didn’t lessen her anxiety one bit.
During a wizardrite challenge, the strongest assistant stood beside the wizard on the field. Mary was Williwim’s only assistant. While they’d developed a friendly rapport, she wouldn’t say they worked together as well as a...mortar and pestle.
More like a dog and pony, before they’d trained for that show.
If Williwim were to lose the challenge, he’d be demoted to mage and the winner would take his place as wizard here. Williwim could find another job, but Mary needed this one. This particular one, with Williwim, whose powerful magics obscured her own and whose status gave her access to the central library. The other option that would conceal her magics was a spellball factory, but that would be unwise, considering why she left the last one.
She’d known when she’d applied to Williwim that challenges would be inevitable, but she hadn’t counted on her new employer firing his other assistants in one swoop. She hadn’t counted on being thrust onto the challenge field so soon, if ever.
Considering she knew no disguise spells that would survive tournament purification, she had to find a way out of this. Not only would it be embarrassing when her true appearance came to light, but that combined with the alias would cause Williwim to distrust her.
A wizard wouldn’t want an assistant he couldn’t trust, and he surely wouldn’t grant her library access.
The rose petals reduced to dust, Mary sealed them into a baggie. “I’m finished.”
Williwim paused in the act of unrolling the parchment. “Did you save all the dust? We can’t lay hands on that particular species again for a year.”
“I was careful, sir.” She shifted her bulk in the hard seat. “Can we talk about the challenge now?”
Phut. The parchment curled around Williwim’s finger. “I suppose.”
“Who is the challenger?”
“Not someone I’ve seen on the circuit before. A Professor Grantus. Are you familiar with him?”
“Did you say Grantus?” Surely she hadn’t heard correctly. The sudden buzzing in her ears had drowned Williwim out.
“He’s with Concerto College. It’s in the Velde-Faoran district. Primarily a shield and bludgeon sort of mage, but he’s got admirable reserves. Drat his hide. I should have known during the last lecture series he was up to something beyond his regular posturing.”
The bottom fell out of Mary’s stomach. Grantus on the wizardrite circuit? Grantus the Lion, who loved his role as big mage on campus? “Could you have misread the parchment? Perhaps he’s officiating.”
Williwim glanced at her with mild irritation. “I have access to a wellspring. There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight.”
“It’s just, I never thought he’d have the stones to—” Mary stopped herself with a shuddery exhale. “I’m sorry, sir. Questioning you was rude of me.”
Why was this happening? Of all the mages she’d ever met, Grantus was least likely to drag himself out of his cozy academic world for a run at a wizardrite. She’d banked on that when she’d come up with this plan.
And of all the districts in all the kingdom, Grantus just had to challenge the wizard in this one. This tiny, unimportant district she’d chosen because no-one coveted it and the wizard had two assistants already.
Mary swallowed hard enough that her tongue clicked. This could go from terrible to worse very quickly. This could ruin everything she’d been striving for. “Who...who is Grantus’s second?”
Williwim glared at the parchment, as if by the power of his will he could change the words. In fact, he could, but that wouldn’t change the message.
“Black Lily,” he finally answered.
Mary slumped against the back of her chair, the blood draining from her head so fast it left her dizzy. Her heart pattered like a trapped bird. If she hadn’t had herself tested by one of the best curse-breakers in the kingdom, she would have wondered if her consistently rotten luck were magically-induced.
Alas, it was Mary-induced. And here was more of it, coming home to roost above her head and shit upon her.
“I thought,” she began in a squeaky voice, “Black Lily was on the quest for the dragon fire scepter.”
“Apparently she’s back. Hm. Isn’t she a college-named mage? I can’t recall where she matriculated.”
“Nor I.” If her heart leapt any more, it was going to choke her. She surreptitiously pinched the fat of her thigh to reroute the building panic.
Luckily, Williwim was too intent on the parchment to notice her reaction. “If it was Concerto, wouldn’t that be a kick? I gather mage students hate their professors by the time they finish schooling.”
“I’ve heard,” she ventured, “they have good reason.” Mage professors were responsible for busting inept students off the path to high magics, and their methods could create ineptitude where none had been before. It wasn’t a pleasant undertaking for anyone involved.
“Perhaps.” Williwim flattened the parchment. “Quite the coup on Grantus’s part either way. I wonder if signing the notorious Lily is why he, as you so eloquently pointed out, developed the stones to pursue a wizardrite?”
It wasn’t as much of a coup as the rest of the magical community might assume. More like favors of one nature begetting favors of another. She couldn’t share that information, though. Williwim would want to know why, and lying to his face was more difficult than lying by omission.
Instead, Mary said, “Could be.”
“I’m sure he offered a bonus the size of Mount Vorundum. This new generation is so mercenary. I’m glad you’re not collegiate.”
Mary managed a weak smile. If only he knew.
He slapped a hand against the tabletop. “No matter. We’ve got this. You won’t lose your position so soon.”
“I’m not worried about my position, sir.” She had more to worry about than a job with Grantus and Lily involved. Was the challenge their way of letting her know they’d found her, or was it a coincidence of the worst sort?
Williwim raised a thumb. “That’s the spirit, Sally. I’ve handled worse than Black Lily in my day.”
Mary gave him an even weaker smile. Her stomach graduated from floppy to queasy. Even if he pulled a win, or a bunny transformation, out of his pointy hat, there was still the issue of what he’d do when he realized she’d lied to him. And what would happen when Grantus and Lily recognized his assistant.
His quiet, harmless nobody of an assistant who was only trying to keep her head down and use her magics for the good of the kingdom. They had to be used, after all. As she and her estranged parents knew all to well, damming them up was unhealthy for anyone in the vicinity when they broke loose.
“We’ll start preparing this afternoon,” Williwim said with a decisive nod. “We haven’t tried combining our power as much as I’d like.”
They hadn’t tried combining their power at all. “When is the challenge?”
Maybe she had time to contract a disease. Get pregnant. Run away. Possessing the moral fiber to see things through was overrated when you stood to gain nothing but humiliation. Or worse.
Williwim sighed. “As to that, well, it’s tomorrow. He’s trying to ambush us.”
“Wow, that’s...a surprise.” The words could scarcely pass the lump in her throat.
“They do call it a surprise attack.”
What in the stars had she done to deserve this? Besides nearly explode a city block full of people when she’d been sixteen and totally untrained, that is. All she’d done beyond that incident was stroll past the wrong, supposedly deserted storeroom at the wrong time in college.
He folded his message parchment into quarters. “I wouldn’t have pegged either of them for the sort to pop onto the wizardrite circuit with no fanfare. And to challenge me first? I might be old, but I fancy I still have a fearsome reputation.” He flicked the parchment across the table like a tiny missile. It landed in a basket.
Thoughts spun in Mary’s brain like a drunken May circle. She shoved her mortar, pestle, books and papers aside on the wide table. She needed a clear space in case she was forced to bang her head. “Holy Stones of the Father, this cannot be happening.”
“Maddening, isn’t it?” Williwim agreed. “I hardly have time to choose and bespell a tournament field, post the announcement, notify the Council, and find an appropriate referee, much less prepare you for your first wizardrite event. It doesn’t seem fair.”
He had no idea how unfair it truly was. Mary wracked her brain for escape clauses. “Can we postpone? Claim hardship?”
“What hardship?” Williwim gestured, and the parchment returned to his hands, where he prepared to flick it again. “We’re not under attack or pestilence, and our employment rate is favorable. Comparatively.”
This time the parchment missed the basket.
“I thought two fortnight’s notice was standard.” Damn Tomas and Frieda, getting themselves fired like that! Why did they have to go and get pregnant?
“Standard but not required.” He scratched his scalp with a crooked wand. “Bugger it.”
“They should require it. These things take time.” Who could stand beside Williwim in her place? George, from the factory? He owed her a huge favor. Karina, the village hearth witch? At least she could stand there and look pretty.
“The wizardrite system exists as it does for a reason. You must be able to defend your patron and community at a moment’s notice,” he pointed out. “Only our best and strongest can wield the wellsprings.”
“I know, I know. It’s for the rite. It’s for the kingdom. It’s for the good of all.” It would be simple for Williwim to defeat any mage with the wellspring, but that wouldn’t be a fair assessment of which practitioner deserved to be wizard of the district.
“You took the oath when you took the position with me,” he reminded her. “Didn’t you read the contract, Sally? You seem so meticulous.”
“I read it, sir. Didn’t it mention—” Mary drew it out as if trying to remember, when in fact she knew the oath and its fine print by heart. “Hm. Was there something about how a host wizard can skip field preparations if desired?”
If Williwim didn’t organize a safe battlefield ahead of time, it would delay the tournament by a day or so. Every second might count.
“That wouldn’t be wise.” He shook the wand like one of those newfangled mercury thermometers. Smoke poofed from the end. “It’s the politics of the thing. Refusing such a courtesy implies you’re desperate to save strength. That puts you at a disadvantage, especially if your patron has reason to be displeased with you.”
As if conjured by mention of a displeased patron, Countess Bannoch burst into the chamber. She held a larger parchment in her age-spotted hand and brandished it like an accusation.
“Willie, what’s this nonsense?” she shouted. The Countess was very fond of shouting.
“Darling, so nice to see you.” Williwim rose and dusted his robes.
Mary popped out of her chair and bobbed a curtsy that nearly sent her to the ground.
“Careful, there,” the Countess told her.
Not only were her knees half-jelly with anxiety, but at times she forgot to take her camouflage weight into account. Everyone she’d met since donning this particular alias thought she was oafish.
While Mary righted herself, the Countess leaned on the cane she carried to whack at things she didn’t like. She groused at Williwim. “Your optimism always gets us in trouble. You promised we wouldn’t have to muck around with challenges for years if I let you try that spell out.”
“That was the plan,” he agreed. “Unfortunately, Grantus didn’t get the pigeon.”
“I don’t want that two-faced, stuffed shirt of a goat monger as the resident wizard for Bannoch-Faoran.” The Countess’s voice rose with every word. “Someone needs to remind him the last mage you faced ended up on four paws, wagging a tail.”
Mary blinked. She’d heard the rumors, of course, but rumors weren’t to be trusted. “Then it’s true, sir? You changed someone into an animal?”
“I wondered when you’d get around to asking,” Williwim said with grin. “Impressive, eh?”
The confirmation was reassuring, to know he had that capability, but it wouldn’t help Mary’s problem. If he forced her to stand in the tournament with him, purification and exposure were unavoidable.
“You need to transform Grantus.” The Countess slapped a cabinet with the cane, rattling all the bits and bottles. “Let’s see the Council cover it up twice. Blasted busybodies.”
Williwim hastened to the Countess and soothed her with small pats on the back. “There’s no need to abuse the furniture, Amelia. Grantus the Lion is a worthy opponent, but his skills aren’t on par with mine. You’ve nothing to fear.”
“Don’t patronize me. I’m the patron here.” The Countess shook the parchment as if it were a castanet. “What about this Black Lily? The news scrolls describe her as some kind of whiz.”
“Black Lily has barely breeched the world of high magics. She couldn’t have earned her mage name more than ten years ago. She’s a child.”
The Countess raised an eyebrow. “And? The scrolls say she’s published. Some articles and a grimoire that sold a thousand copies.”
Williwim shrugged. “Mine sold more.”
The Countess rapped Williwim’s leg. “She led that quest thing for that scepter thing, I forget what, but it was a big deal. Had a stone in it.”
Williwim’s expression didn’t change by as much as an eyelash flicker. “That doesn’t change her inexperience. This isn’t academia. She’s never been in a real wizardrite tournament, and neither has Grantus.”
The same could be said for Mary, and the Countess looked happy to say it. She assessed Mary with a frown. “Who’ll be your second? I can’t spare much gold. Could you rehire Tomas for the day? After all, it’s his pecker’s fault we’re in a lurch.”
The wizard waved a nonchalant hand. “No need. Sally is quite capable.”
Mary straightened her shoulders and tried not to reveal how the Countess’s disregard hurt her—even though she agreed. She wasn’t a good choice for Williwim’s second. “If gold is the issue, Lady Bannoch, I can help fund my substitute.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the Countess and Williwim said together.
“You can’t afford to help on what we’ve been paying you,” the Countess got in first. “Unless you’re an heiress?”
“I’m not,” Mary said, somewhat afraid the Countess would whack her for it. Even if she had been, her parents had disowned her when the Council had bustled her off to Concerto to receive emergency training. In the ensuing years, she’d drowned out the hurt with determination. It didn’t mean the hurt was gone, but she had a plan.
“Didn’t think so.”
“I know a few magicians we could hire cheap,” Mary offered. “I can pigeon mail them. They could be here before luncheon.”
“Both of you hush,” he said. “Sally is my assistant. She’ll stand beside me as my second.”
Mary clenched her plump, trembling hands. “I’m not good enough.” Or brave enough. Or was it stupid enough? “I...I refuse.”
“You can’t refuse.” Williwim stared at her as if seeing her for the first time. Tomorrow, he would be. “This was in the contract, too. It’s part of your duties. Is there something you need to tell me?”
She considered confessing everything. Dropping the disguise and gushing the truth out like water from a broken dam. If Grantus and Lily were challenging Williwim because of her, he deserved to know. But she wasn’t certain that’s why they’d challenged him, and oh, how angry he’d be! He might be angry enough to serve her up to them on a platter, with a side of carrots.
No, she’d withhold the confession as long as she could in case an alternate solution presented itself. She’d give herself until tonight.
No, tomorrow morning. First thing. Right after breakfast.
Mary took a deep breath.
“I only want what’s best for Bannoch-Faoran,” she told him, since it was true. “I don’t think it’s me. Maybe if we’d had more time to train.” Maybe if she’d had more time in the central library to find a stable disguise...or a new identity entirely.
“The girl is as pale as whey,” the Countess stage-whispered. “I think she’s going to pass out. Willie, do something.”
Mary did feel light-headed. Panic had that effect on a lot of people. “Perhaps I should...”
She sat with a thump as her pulse drummed in her ears. The chair legs creaked in protest.
“First wizardrite fears are natural,” Williwim said. “Remember, these aren’t the dark ages. Mages only die in two to four percent of challenges anymore, and we’ve whittled bystander deaths down to, oh, point five percent, I’d say. I won’t let any accidents happen.”
“I know you’ll do everything you can to protect your people.”
“Yes, I will. It’s in my contract,” Williwim said. “I’m confident tomorrow will be fine.”
“You look like a rat in a trap, girl,” the Countess observed. “When people get like that, they do foolish things. You do realize you can’t quit without two week’s notice? Takes at least that long to dissolve the oath.”
“Section 7b in the contract,” Mary muttered.
Williwim’s gaze on her sharpened. “What’s that?”
She wanted to pinch herself for letting the mouthiness slip. She’d kept that part of her under wraps, too, the past month.
“I wasn’t thinking about running,” she said. “I know you could find me.”
“Willie, stop being so stubborn.” The Countess jabbed the cane at Mary. “Sally knows this is idiotic. She’s having a fit of nerves at the mere idea of a challenge. She doesn’t have articles published. No spells in collections. Never been on a quest. She certainly doesn’t have a name. She’s helpful enough, but she’s not up to this yet. You might have blinders on for your protégée, but I don’t.”
“I only wear blinders for you, my dear,” Williwim said mildly. “Have faith.”
“Pfaugh.” The Countess didn’t appear to be mollified. “I’d have more faith if you had a trained second.”
“Training isn’t everything,” Williwim said. “Native ability is important too.”
Mary held her tongue. She did have a name and training, but she longed to be rid of them. A position as a wizard’s assistant was a vital step in her plan to do just that.
Her second plan, that is. Her first plan at the factory had been a misfire almost as disastrous as the original misfire that had landed her at Concerto. Then there was the misfire after that, which had resulted in her desperate need to avoid Grantus the Lion and Black Lily.
Misfire Mary. That should have been her name, but what she’d gotten stuck with was a thousand times worse. Damn and blast her no good, terrible, horrible, very bad luck.
Williwim was still watching her in a way that made her squirmy. And tearful. He couldn’t read her mind without the assistance of the wellspring, though, so her secrets were safe for now.
“Sally came to me with high recommendations from one of the foremen at Practical Spellworks,” he told the Countess. “You may remember him. George O’Malley? He installed the sanitation spellball dispenser in the kitchen.”
“Low magics.” The Countess thunked her cane. “How can low magics help in a wizardrite challenge? Is she going to bless their crops until they beg for mercy?”
“She’s capable of more, or I wouldn’t have hired her. And it’s rude to talk about her as if she isn’t in the room.”
The Countess raised an eyebrow. “You’re doing it, too.”
As they argued, Mary inspected a hangnail and pretended she was invisible. If she were the Countess, would she trust an untrained, unnamed assistant when her beloved’s wizardrite was at stake?
No, she would not. And the Countess only possessed half the information. As far as she and Williwim knew, Mary, aka Sally Fay, was a poor but honest magician Williwim had saved from the drudgery and eventual burnout of a spellball factory.
Tomorrow the tournament purifications would reveal Mary for the pathetic fakery she was. The woman with no place in high magics or low ones. The woman who’d nearly killed her own parents. She had certain skills, it was true, and power aplenty, but she didn’t see how it could save her skin by tomorrow.
She was simply out of time. Williwim was already winning the argument with his lady. Mary could tell because their patron was no longer shouting.
“You have to understand where I’m coming from,” she said in a moderately indoor voice. “If you lose, you’ll have to leave my district. That will make things excessively difficult.”
“I’m not going to let anyone separate us,” he promised, clasping her hand atop the handle of her cane. “Have I ever failed in that goal?”
“I suppose the challenges were bound to start up sooner or later.” The Countess heaved a great sigh. “I’d forgotten how much I hate this part.”
“You don’t hate it when I win,” Williwim said with a twinkle in his eyes.
Unless Mary was mistaken, the Countess blushed. “We’re too old for this kind of stress.”
“With the new youth spell Sally and I are perfecting, we have years ahead of us.”
Williwim kissed the Countess on the cheek. “You know I’d do anything for you.”
Their devotion touched Mary, even as it stabbed her with guilt for using them to seek...well, she didn’t want vengeance. Wasn’t owed revenge, by karma or anyone. She just wanted a life.
The Countess started to speak, and Williwim interrupted. “I’d do anything except hire a different second by tomorrow. Trust me. Grantus and Lily will bark all the way home.”
“I trust you.” The Countess crumpled her message parchment and tossed it onto Mary’s table. “I’d just feel better if a little birdie whispered to them about Bertie the Howler. Maybe it would scare them off.”
Mary raised her head. “Who?”
“Bertelmus the Howler,” the Countess repeated, as if Mary should know already. “That poncy jackdaw Willie turned into a dog. Weren’t you listening?”
“I didn’t make the connection.” Mage Bertelmus, who specialized in wind and blizzard attacks, was a familiar figure on the wizardrite circuit. He liked to intimidate opponents by howling, growling and frothing at the mouth. It had yet to succeed. “Mage Bertelmus barks and sports a tail. Everyone says those are affectations.”
Mary’s eyes widened. “That means your transformation spell resists tournament purifications.”
Nothing else did. Couldn’t have competitors stuffing aces and stones and wands and such up their sleeves...or pretending to be people they were not. The wellsprings had too much power for mages to scam their way into a wizardrite.
Williwim rocked on his heels, grinning like a naughty boy. “Partly. He does use two legs, though, and I gather he no longer sniffs people’s bums in public.”
“Oh, you,” the Countess said. “You can guess why the Council hushed it up. Willie wasn’t even allowed to publish it. We would have made so much money, too.”
Mary popped to her feet. This time her knees cooperated. “Can you teach it to me? We’ll use it tomorrow and win straightaway.”
Williwim laughed. “While I appreciate your eagerness, I was ordered by the Council not to use it again until they, or I, find a way to break it. There’s no telling how mages would cheat in challenges if this spell got out.”
Mary winced inside, struggling to keep her expression neutral.
“Mages can’t be trusted,” the Countess agreed. “You don’t count, Willie. And whether I trust you or not, one thing is certain. Our lives are about to undergo a monstrous change.”
Although Williwim soothed his Countess to the best of his abilities, Mary had to agree. Without his spell, the best she could hope for tomorrow was for everyone to be so distracted by the tournament’s aftermath she could slip away, humiliated but alive.
© 2011 Jody Wallace
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