She’d stolen what she’d broken into Namose College to steal and yet it felt like everything was on the verge of going wrong.
Nothing good had ever happened to her in this vile magician’s den, that was true. But she was halfway out of the building. Victory, of a sort, was hers.
And yet… There was something wrong with the air. It didn’t smell right.
She carried on towards the way out. Now and then she stopped, sure she’d heard a noise, that someone would discover her trespassing at any moment.
Eventually, she came to a set of doors that were not her exit but instead an entrance to the stairwell, leading both up to the higher floors of the college, and down into the basement. Tendrils of smoke crept out from underneath the doors.
She pushed one open out of curiosity, only to find another person on the other side of it, slowly coming up the stairs.
They both paused.
The man opposite looked like a student, who ought to know in an instant that she was a fraud and sound the alarm for intruders…
But, she noticed, his robes were much like hers. Mistakes where there should be smoothness. Bad stitching where it should be seamless. He didn’t belong either.
Yet if he too were a fraud, he was playing a different game to her. Behind him, heavy smoke was curling slowly to the ceiling. He grasped blackened rods in his hands.
He’d started a fire? If he’d discovered one, he certainly wasn’t raising a warning. Leora stared at him for another beat of her heart, maybe five, then he shrugged at her and carried on going up the staircase. Leora didn’t feel inclined to follow. What he was doing wasn’t any of her business as long she could get out of there safely.
Once she was out, Leora stood in the park across from Namose as the fire spread, unable to tear her gaze away.
The college was an ugly building that burned even uglier. It had been born a single white tower, glorious in its simplicity, then ruined with countless extensions – one made of glass, another of red brick, another of wood, and so on.
Now set alight, smoke and ash smeared itself onto every surface it could find. The facade was beginning to crumble.
Leora liked to think its ugliness came from the inside, that it could’ve been beautiful if different people had lived inside it.
A crowd of inquisitive bystanders emerged around her as the fire grew larger. They oohed and ahhed with each new explosion or burst of flames as if they were watching fireworks.
“All those poor, uppity conjurers without a home,” said a reedy voice to the side of her. Martin ‘Ose, her oldest friend – only friend – had arrived.
“A real tragedy,” Leora replied, watching carefully as a corner of the glass conservatory collapsed. “But it’s nice to see you. Fire bring you out?”
“Brought everyone out,” Martin said. He turned to her with a grin. “Do I sense your touch anywhere in this business?” He gestured to the flames, out of control, high above the white tower.
“Don’t be indiscreet,” she said, pushing his hand down. “And stop grinning. Before you say anything, that doesn’t mean it’s anything to do with me. Maybe if I’d come up with the idea…”
“Do you think many will die?”
“I hope the worst ones do,” she replied, even as she could see dozens of them escaping, climbing out of every door and window available. “I’d quite happily bury them in one of those giant holes they pull all their magic out of.”
She’d nearly fallen in one once, ten years ago.
She’d been a mere ten years old, and as a birthday present her father had dragged her to the Namose hole for testing, thinking success might bring them fortune.
At twenty feet across and at least twenty feet deep, it looked like a sinkhole, but human hands had made it, widening it year by year as more and more Namosians leant into it for extra power. It was carved out of the ground around the back of the college, in the middle of a large clearing surrounded by trees.
On testing day, ten magicians waited by the side of the crater, dispassionate expressions on their faces, as child after child tried to call magic from the earth.
Most failed. One – Gally Karness, whom Leora vaguely remembered fighting with when they were little – whooped with joy when she somehow created a temporary waterfall inside the hole.
When it was her turn, Leora lay down on the ground and put her arm over the edge of the hole. She pressed her palm flat against the earth as she’d been told and mentally tried to pull something from the soil. Nothing happened.
Leora didn’t know what to do. Her father would say she’d let her mother down; a common accusation whenever he wanted to hurt her. Mother was long dead, but Leora still missed her.
“Time to move,” one of the magicians ordered.
Don’t rush her,” said another, a tall woman with long hair. “There’s something about this one, I’m sure.”
“Perhaps, Halve,” the first shrugged, “but if she had earth magic we’d have seen it by now.”
“Please,” Leora asked, from her awkward position on the ground.
“One more try,” said Halve grudgingly. “But don’t let us down.”
This time Leora decided to flat-out cheat.
She leant over as far as she could, so they wouldn’t see, and instead of pressing her palm against the wall of the earth, she held it close but not quite touching. Ever since she was little Leora had been able to feel the magic of the air. As she grew older, it was as easy as breathing to cream some off the top. All she had to do was hold her hand still as could be, feel the energy, then draw it in.
What she could do best was finding things. Could be something lost, could be something she needed. She’d never found riches just by thinking about it, but the neighbors knew her well enough to pay a little coin now and then if there was something small they wanted looking for. Lockets, lost animals, a stash of liquor perhaps – the magic led her to them.
She focused on finding something new or big that might impress these judging magicians. Then, letting the air magic guide her, she felt something. It tickled her palm at first… something rough, something sticking out of the earth that hadn’t been there before. She stuck her tongue out as she pulled hard, then stood up triumphant, holding her treasure in the air.
Only to look up and see she’d found a lump of coal.
All the magicians laughed at her, except for Halve, who looked furious.
Her father rushed over and started trying to usher her away but Halve walked around the edge of the hole to meet them. She held out her hand and grabbed the edges of the blackened chunk. “Something we can remember you by,” she said loudly. “You embarrassed me,” she said in a quieter voice. “I don’t want to see you here again.”
Leora didn’t want to give the coal up. She held on tight. Her father wrested it away, his hands callused and hot. Then he gave it to the magician like it was nothing. “You’ve shamed us all,” he whispered on the long walk home. “What would your mother say?”
Leora didn’t go back to Namose until five years later.
The evening had begun with her father throwing his mug of beer across the room. “You’re good at finding things. Go find some money!”
Leora wiped the edges of her skirt where some of the liquid had spilled. “You know it’s not that simple.”
“Rent’s due,” he said, shrugging. “We won’t make it unless you do something.”
She swore softly. He spent all his coin on beer. Leora struggled to earn any at all unless it was through finding things for people, and they too expected more than she could offer. Granny’s misplaced necklace – fine. Expensive jewels that they wanted but had never owned – well it hadn’t happened yet, had it?
She wished she could leave him to it, but the only good memories she had were at home, back when mother was alive, back when home meant comfort and happiness. At least he’d stuck around when the worst happened. Other men might’ve gone years ago.
She kicked an empty chair – her father didn’t blink an eye – and stormed out of the house. They lived on a narrow road on the edge of Critan, where the houses were cramped and small, for families whose parents had employment but not much of it. No one had work for her – she’d asked all of them the day before – and she couldn’t steal from them. Not if she wanted to keep on living around there.
She walked for an age, ending up at the biggest building in the city: Namose College. She knocked until somebody pulled open a little hole in the door.
“No more deliveries today,” a voice said.
“Not a delivery, though I could do that if you wanted. I’m looking for employment.”
The door opened. It was Halve behind it, the magician who’d tested her all those years ago. “Let’s talk in my office,” she said.
“The truth is, we don’t really have work for outsiders,” she said from behind a dark wooden desk, in a spacious room lined with bookshelves. Leora tried not to marvel at the fineness of it all. “The people here study exceedingly hard to protect this country. We are not here to offer work to the neighbors. We are already working for you.”
Leora stopped listening once it became clear Halve had invited her in for a lecture and nothing more. On the shelves behind her, amongst all the books on history and earth power, sat a solid black lump with a rough, choppy surface.
It didn’t matter what you discovered if you couldn’t take it. Leora’s fingers itched. “I think I found that coal,” she said, pointing at it, trying to sound as if it meant nothing to her at all. And really it shouldn’t have done. “I was a child,” she said, “here for the testing a long time ago.”
The magician laughed, leaning back in her chair. “I remember you. Think many children give us coal instead of magic? I keep it as a symbol of what people will cling to.”
“I found it,” Leora heard herself saying, almost like the words had thrown themselves out of her mouth. “It’s mine and I’d like it back.”
Halve stood up. “I’m afraid it’s time for you to leave.”
She rounded the desk and grabbed Leora’s arm to pull her to the door.
“Gally!” she called into the corridor.
As she was being dragged, Leora – now fueled by fury – stole the only thing in grabbing distance, a small notebook on the side of the desk, and shoved it up her top. She could figure out later whether it was worth anything.
Gally led her back out. “Funny world isn’t it,” she said, smiling lightly. “Born two streets apart, and I get to live in Namose while you aren’t even allowed to beg here.”
Leora snarled at her. “Funny? You breeze around, funded by the Kingdom, while your old friends struggle for their next meal. You think I care about you and me when there’s a whole world of difference between us?”
Gally pushed the door open. “There’s a world of difference because we’re employed to save you people. We have to be better than you. I’m not sorry about that.”
“Are you sorry for being a dick?” Leora asked, then grinned as Gally raised her fists.
Leora had been in significantly more fights than Gally, so the tussle was one-sided to begin with. After a few quick jabs she knocked Gally into the door, where she hit her mouth hard on the doorknob and fell to the ground.
Gally looked up from where she lay, blood dripping from her mouth, and smiled.
Leora realized her mistake too late.
Lying fully on the earth, Gally wouldn’t need to dig a hole to draw power from it.
Gally pushed herself up to kneeling, muttering magic as she went. Her hands clawed down and soil spat up.
Leora went to run at her but something invisible punched her hard in the side. Before she could react, another thud landed hard on her shoulder, knocking her to her knees.
Then some kid jumped between them. Thin. Smaller than her. Unsteady on his feet. “Leave her alone,” he yelled.
As if Gally were going to pay attention to a brat like him. Leora sighed. She was going to get her arse kicked.
But Gally stopped. “You,” she said with a disdainful sneer. Then Gally looked around the boy to point at Leora. “Don’t come back.”
She disappeared with a slam of the college doors.
The boy wandered over to Leora and held a hand out, though he didn’t look strong enough to pull her up. Leora leaned on him anyway. “Thanks,” she said, not used to feeling grateful.
“I’m Martin,” he replied. “Anyone they hate, I like.”
And with those few words, Leora liked him back. “Want to see a notebook I found?”
Leora laughed to herself as the flames burned on.
“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Martin asked.
“Memories, that’s all. Thinking about when you had to rescue me from a fight right over there. The day we met. I’d never seen anything so ridiculous.”
“I had no choice,” Martin replied, in a mocking tone. “I pitied the poor girl being beaten by the magician and had to intervene. Good thing she was so afraid of me.”
“Afraid? It was your name she didn’t like, nothing else.”
“The joys of being an ‘Ose.”
Leora felt for him. Very few magicians kept their children. They were given the name ‘Ose and fostered out instead.
They fell to silence for a short while, watching the flames blaze.
“Your mother could be dead in there,” Leora said to Martin, as if that fact might comfort him somehow.
He shrugged at the smoke and the darkness. “I still don’t know who she is. For all I know, she deserves it.”
“Ever imagine what life might’ve been like if she’d kept you?”
“Can’t imagine any world where a magician would keep someone like me.” He meant his legs, which weren’t very strong. Something to do with his birth taking too long. Or at least that’s how it had been explained to him. “It doesn’t matter. I prefer reality.”
Leora reached out and squeezed his hand. “Let’s stay in it, then.”
But her mind wandered. Thinking about Martin’s mother led to thinking about her father, which inevitably led to thinking about his final days.
One year ago, nineteen-year-old Leora had spent an evening writing notes among the ever-decreasing margins in the stolen notebook.
She finished marking the new prices they’d have to pass down to the retailers, and went to blow the candle out when she heard a thud behind her.
A hand clasped over her mouth, hot breath on her ear. Then a voice. “You’re coming with us. Don’t scream. It’ll only make things worse.” Dread and certainty settled in Leora’s stomach. She’d always known this day would come. Rip off enough traders and sooner or later one will come looking for you.
Not seeing a way out of it, she let herself be led into the cool outside air.
The man was rough and his friends, who emerged so suddenly it was as if they were made out of the night, more so. They pushed her down the street, and when Leora caught sight of her drunken father stumbling down an alleyway and casting a confused look in her direction, she hoped to the earth’s core that he saw her shaking her head. Don’t follow me. Go home. Be your usual obnoxious self there.
She was relieved to see him sit down, his back against the wall of the alleyway, drinking whatever he had in his flask. With luck he’d stay there until morning.
A mile or so later, she was pushed into a storeroom. Its shelves were full and the white floor under their feet was cleaned and polished. This was a building of some wealth.
Of the men who’d accosted her, one waited at her side while the other two went back outside. They ignored her pleas for information.
An age later a small man with a smug, round face appeared from a door on the other side of the storeroom. “Did you get it?”
Her attacker passed over an object: The notebook. The recipe book.
Leora’s stomach started to freefall. Shit and damnation. Martin would be furious. All that work gone.
And then she realized. She had to be inside the storerooms around the back of Namose. The shelves all around her… she almost smiled. She’d made a fortune out of all those jars.
The small man pursed his lips as he flicked through the book. The recipes were half-spells. Not the actual components of magic, but things to improve it. Powder for their hands to increase the power they pulled from the earth. A drink that could increase how long their magic might last. All featured strange ingredients.
“When did you work out what to do with this?” he asked.
Leora shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The man sighed. “It took us a long time to realize what was going on. Price-gouging every single unique material we needed. Buying up stocks so that our retailers only had a few places to go to. Increasing the prices bit by bit.”
“Sounds like natural price variances,” she said.
“Our funds to strengthen this country, frittered away.”
“Wasn’t me,” she said stubbornly.
“We think it was. A little girl with big aspirations.”
That angered her. “I’m a grown woman, damn it,” she began, but she couldn’t answer the rest of the question because just then there was a commotion at the door. It opened and a man with a familiar face fell to his knees on the floor.
No, no, no. Leora knelt next to her father. “What are you doing here?”
But she knew. For the first time in his life he’d found himself curious about what Leora was up to and he couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it.
The small man looked cheered. “Ah, the convenient arrival of your father means we don’t need to threaten anyone else you care about.”
Leora stood up. “You don’t have to threaten anyone.”
“Don’t I? You’ve been stealing our money for four years.”
“I won’t do it anymore,” she said. Better to promise her future away than wait until they involved Martin, too. They worked together, of course. Leora found the goods and the contacts to sell them, and Martin was the brains behind their pricing strategy.
One of the thugs from outside brought in a large water collector. Full to the brim, it dripped murky water onto the clean floor.
Leora stepped forward. “What if I tell you whatever it is you want to know?”
“This is a punishment, not torture for information.”
Then it began. Dunking her father in until he couldn’t breathe, until he vomited when they did bring him out for a brief respite, only to submerge him again.
Leora wept. “Can’t you use magic instead?” she begged, trying to think of anything at all that wouldn’t be so cruel. She tried to use her own magic to find a weapon on the shelves behind her, but she couldn’t keep her head cool enough to focus.
“No. It would be a waste of our powers.”
The punishment continued, until her father was half-unconscious and Leora’s throat raw from crying.
“Next time we’ll burn you alive,” the small man said.
He threw her out the door, and her father with her.
They stumbled home in the darkness.
But the next morning her father did not wake up and go out in search of wine or beer. He did not sit at the kitchen table complaining or telling her to make money.
Leora looked for him when the quiet became too much, and found him in bed in the same position she’d left him in, his face grey and his body cold.
Her poor, awful father. Gone forever. The magicians almost certainly to blame, but nothing she could do about it. Nothing she could even think of to do to them.
She hated them all.
That hatred had never ebbed, not even twelve long months later. It had propelled her into the college that night, looking to take what was hers.
That someone had sought to burn the place down at the same time was a bonus.
Most of the crowd had faded away as the night wore on, as the magicians’ attempts failed, as the building continued to burn, but there were still enough bystanders for Leora and Martin to stand among them unnoticed.
“You honestly had nothing to do with this?” Martin asked, trying his luck one more time.
Leora shook her head. “No – honestly. I was in there, all right, but I didn’t start it. I had other plans. Sometimes there’s more than one villain at work at any time.”
“You wanted the notebook back,” he stated.
“No. It’s not important any more. Maybe if I’d got there earlier I’d have done a finding, but there wasn’t time. As long as it burns up with the rest of the place I’ll be happy.”
Leora opened up a large pocket on the side of her coat and showed Martin what was inside.
“Coal?” he asked. “Your coal?”
“Yesterday was the anniversary of father dying and I didn’t think I cared ‘til it came. Once I stopped crying, I decided I wanted a small piece of revenge.
“This is what I went in for. Halve had this on a shelf in her room all these years.”
“Scum,” Martin said, then spat at the ground.
“Sometimes I think we’d be better off away from this place, burnt down or not. It’s no good for either of us living here.”
Leora exhaled loudly. “If it were that easy to start over somewhere new, I’d have gone years ago.”
They stood side by side until the fire was only a glow. Martin waited for Leora’s nod and shuffled home. Leora left in the opposite direction, striding away full of thought and satisfaction.
The next morning, after a negligible amount of sleep, Leora waited by the pond on the edge of the city. She’d chosen the location for its proximity to Martin’s house, to ease his journey ahead of what might turn into a very long day.
He was sniffing at the air when he finally approached. “That fire still stinks.”
“Still burning, most likely.”
He stubbed his toe into the ground, turning the grass over. “Gonna tell me why we’re here?”
Leora pulled her prize out of her pocket once more.
“It’s not coal,” she said to his questioning look. “It was never coal.”
“That makes no sense whatsoever.”
“I assumed it was coal, but I was ten years old, wasn’t I? Halve stole it off me and put it on a shelf. No one’s ever seriously looked at this thing. We all assumed its insides matched its outsides, that it was nothing important.”
“Yes,” he said slowly.
“But you and I should know better than that. Assuming anything is dangerous. I found this in a magic hole, for earth’s sake. For all I know, it was buried there long ago by the very first Namose magicians. Perhaps the sheer desperation I felt as a child, failing my tests, led me to it.”
Martin shrugged. “Still doesn’t look like anything special.”
Leora turned it over. The other side was a mess where she’d spent half the morning taking it apart. Inside, something glistened. “The more I held it, the warmer it got. The warmer it got, the softer and waxier it got. When I started picking at it, the layers peeled away.” Leora dug her fingers in, wrestled around, and pulled out a stone. It was largely dull but shone in one corner.
“Is that a diamond?” Martin asked in wonder.
“I think so,” Leora said. “Not the only one, either.” Her hand closed around it and she shoved it in her pocket again. “It’s worth a small fortune. They probably won’t even know it’s missing, considering the fire. But I’m not staying here. The building’s gone but those bastards will rebuild. These diamonds could take me across the world. Only thing is, I don’t want to do it on my own. Will you come too?”
“Do you really have to ask?”
They packed up that afternoon, just in case anyone had seen Leora at the College and might come looking for her.
It began to pour down as they walked out of the city, but the raindrops fell too late to soothe Namose’s smoldering ruins.
Leora scowled at its remains as they strolled past. She shifted the bag she carried on her shoulder, and hoped they could get away quickly.
There was only one moment for pause on their journey, when they came to a crossroads and saw a figure on the other side, most likely waiting for a horse or carriage. Leora thought she recognized the man, that he was the firestarter she’d encountered in Namose. He too had a heavy bag, as if he’d had to run from something.
She didn’t want to ask outright and arouse suspicion if it wasn’t him, but she couldn’t say nothing, either. So instead she simply waved.
The man waved back, and Leora couldn’t resist. “Thank you!” she yelled.
“You’re welcome,” he shouted as reply.
“I think he looked a bit like you,” Leora said to Martin later, as they walked further into the countryside. It would take a good few nights of camping before they’d find a town in which to sell their merchandise. “A cousin perhaps.”
“Even a brother,” Martin suggested. “I wouldn’t know. They foster us out to so many different places.”
“So many children,” Leora said with a sigh. “So many left hungry for something more out of life.”
“And of the two you know,” Martin said with a grin, “one’s most likely burned down a building to make himself feel better about it all, and the other’s run off to see the world with a diamond thief. It’s not all bad.”
No, it wasn’t, she supposed, letting herself smile for once. Smiling was hard. So was hope – but she thought she could get better at both with time, now that they finally seemed worthwhile.
With every step they took away from Critan and Namose, she felt lighter, as if a pressure she hadn’t realised was on her were finally melting away.
She decided that she’d never look back.
The past was ashes and ruin. The future could be almost anything at all.