Is This Apocalypse Necessary?
by C. Dale Brittain
Part One - The Master
The midnight knock came sharp and hard. I had no way of knowing that the knock meant that in two minutes I would be kidnapped and in three weeks dead.
I rolled over, too sleepy to bother with a spell. It had to be someone from here in the castle, so eager for my wizardly wisdom that he couldn't wait until morning. "Mmm?"
The knock came again. "Come in," I mumbled, not recalling for the moment how rarely my wisdom was sought this eagerly. "The door's unlocked."
It slowly creaked open, letting in a cool, damp wind but at first nothing else. It was the darkest hour of the night, the hour when it seems that the sun must this time be gone for good, and the furniture has taken advantage of its absence to metamorphose into something large and predatory. I sat up, abruptly wide awake. Through the doorway stepped a pair of hooded figures, barely visible in the shadows.
Just inside, they paused to light a magic lamp, but their hoods hid their faces from the lamp's glow. The aura of wizardry emanated from them like heat from a stove. Two strange wizards, in a kingdom where I was the only one? My heart slammed against my ribs as I scrambled belatedly for a spell.
"Don't struggle, Daimbert," said one, "and don't make a sound." His was no voice I recognized, though he seemed to know who I was. "Is anyone here with you?"
"No!" I said loudly and stretched out a hand, adding the two quick words that should have knocked them flat. The words had no effect.
Instead a loop of air around my chest suddenly became solid. They were using a binding spell on me.
I struggled to free myself, but with two of them joining their magic together I didn't have a chance. The binding spell held me tighter than any rope and kept my mouth closed, so I could do no more than thrash and make inarticulate grunts as they advanced toward the bed.
"We told you not to struggle, Daimbert," said one reprovingly. "And stop making that sound before we have to paralyze you, too. Good thing we practiced our binding spells before we came!"
So they wanted me alive. I stopped grunting and rolled around so that I could look at them. I could see their faces now but still didn't recognize either one. The first wizard's hair was snowy white above a pink and youthful face that looked as if he usually wore an expression of enthusiastic good-humor, though now he was frowning and shielding his eyes from the glow of the magic lamp. The other had a prominent cleft chin which he carried with pride. It was he who had addressed me. Young wizards, I thought, with the complacency that comes from having carefully-practiced spells work right the first time, but without the experience to know that no wizard's command of magic is ever flawless.
And I had better find the flaw in their magic, and fast.
The one with the chin said the words of the Hidden Language to lift me slowly into the air and move me toward the door. I let him do so, lying still as though in resignation but probing furiously at the binding spell that held me. It was very tidily done, just like in the book--a spell right out of the wizards' school.
A student prank? I wondered as the cold night air hit me. The last time I had been at the wizards' school I seemed to remember spotting a white-haired, pale-skinned young man among the students, but I didn't get to the City very often and had not paid much attention. And I had tended to avoid the school ever since Elerius had joined the faculty.
In my own student days I had carried out a certain number of pranks, and Whitey looked as if he would enjoy a joke at someone else's expense, but it seemed unnecessarily elaborate for them to have flown two hundred miles, from the great City to the tiny kingdom of Yurt, just to play a trick on its Royal Wizard, me.
They extinguished their magic lamp and looked cautiously from side to side, but the castle courtyard was dark and quiet. Everyone must have long been asleep; there was no sound but the whispering of the wind. The only sign of life was a faint glow from the watchman's lantern, near the gate. I considered trying somehow to attract his attention, but he would have had even less luck against these wizards than I was having.
"This way," said Chin quietly. He seemed to be the leader. "Back over the wall." They sailed me up over the castle battlements while I silently cursed myself for not having magical spells in place that would have alerted me to any invader. I had placed such spells at one time, years ago, when Yurt was attacked by unliving warriors made of hair and bone, but the spells had been too hard to keep going during the peaceful years that followed.
Beyond the moat I could make out a squat, winged shape, which in a second I recognized as an air cart. It was the skin of a purple flying beast which, even long after the beast had died, would keep on flying if given magical commands. The school's air cart? I thought in amazement. Could Chin and Whitey have stolen it? Either these two young wizards had gotten themselves involved in a student prank so serious that expulsion from the school would be a pathetically weak punishment, or else others were involved, faculty as well as students.
As they tumbled me into the air cart and Chin gave the command to lift off, I thought I knew, with a cold certainty that chilled me much more than the night wind. Elerius. He had to be behind this. When I looked toward Chin and Whitey, darker silhouettes against the dark sky, I seemed to see not them but an older, black-bearded wizard, contemplating me from under peaked eyebrows with thoughtful, tawny eyes.
And all the time I kept on probing their binding spells, weakening them a tiny bit at a time, first here, then there, so small a change in any one spot that they might never notice that the solid air that held me was gradually diffusing back to its natural state, until--I hoped--it would be too late.
The air cart's wings beat steadily as it carried us away from Yurt and through the night. The rain had ended, but clouds half covered the stars. It was impossible for me, lying at the bottom of the cart, to determine our direction, but my guess was that we were heading toward the coast and the great City. I hoped that by staying perfectly quiet I might lull the two young wizards into an unguarded conversation that would allow me to learn where we were going and why, but they too were silent, except for occasionally giving a low command to correct the cart's course. At one point Whitey seemed about to say something, but Chin shushed him.
The last of the binding spell that held me came apart. But I remained still, eyes shut, breathing very shallowly.
Whitey bent over me and this time did speak. "Did we knock him unconscious?" he asked, sounding worried.
"He's only realized it's no use struggling against superior magic," said Chin, sounding unconcerned. "Isn't that right, Daimbert?" addressing me derisively. "I told you this would work," he continued to Whitey. "I looked up Daimbert's old academic records once, the time I got into the main office at night, and, you know, he nearly flunked out of the school. He never stood a chance against the two of us--in fact, one alone could have done it."
Don't check your binding spell, I thought desperately. Whatever you do, don't check your spell.
He didn't check his spell. Much too unconcerned, I thought. If these were Elerius's agents, he should have trained them better. I might indeed have almost flunked out of the wizards' school, but that had been over thirty years ago, and I had picked up one or two magical tricks in the meantime. Chin was going to pay for that remark.
Very slowly, so cautiously that even an experienced wizard might not have noticed, I started putting together a transformations spell. The danger of having one's magic work perfectly, as I had learned from experience over the years but hoped they hadn't, is that it makes one careless: even a spell that comes out just like in the book may not be sufficient. Chin and Whitey, thinking me securely tied up, must have forgotten that I still had a great deal of magic available to me. Being turned into tadpoles would remind them. Once they were safely transmogrified, I would give the air cart my own commands and get back home to Yurt.
But I hesitated with my transformations spell incomplete. It might be better to wait until actually brought before Elerius. I had always known I would have to face him sometime, even though I would have preferred not to do so wearing crumpled yellow pajamas. Much as I would have liked to distance myself by several hundred miles from him and his schemes, I knew that if he wanted me he would keep coming after me. Better to confront him now and learn his plans at once than to go home and wait for his next attack.
Especially if I confronted him carrying his two treacherous agents wiggling in a jar.
Elerius was the best wizard to come out of the school in my generation, or probably any generation since it was founded. He had long played a waiting game, readying himself for the day when he could take over the leadership of organized magic and reshape it to suit his own vision. His ideas and mine on the purposes and goals of institutionalized wizardry differed enough that I doubted he had sent for me to ask my opinions. But he had--rather inexplicably, I always thought--concluded some years ago that I was a better wizard than I actually was (though he had neglected to tell his agents this), and must have decided to silence me before I could disrupt the plans he was even now putting into effect.
But he couldn't be planning to kill me, I tried to reassure the cold fear at the pit of my stomach. Chin and Whitey could have subjected me to much worse had they wanted; clearly I was required intact. Of course, the logical conclusion struck me with depressing force, it was also possible that Elerius wanted to kill me himself to make sure there were no mistakes--and no survivors.
I jerked my mind from the question of my personal safety to the question of what might actually be happening at the wizards' school. All I could conclude was that Elerius had managed to embroil some of the students in his schemes, but that was not nearly enough to go on.
For starters, what were his schemes? It was no secret that he intended some day to become the new Master of the school, but so far he had been content to wait. He had always been enormously ambitious, and because he was smarter than anyone else he had quite early decided that whatever he thought best actually was for the best, but so far his self-assurance that he would always work for the benefit of everyone had restricted his ambition. But had he now thrown aside waiting and assassinated the old Master? Was he bringing to the City, one by one, any other wizards he imagined might be rivals and killing them too?
"I don't even know why he's so interested in Daimbert," Chin commented in an irritated tone, startling me out of my train of thought. "You'd expect he'd trust us enough to tell us why he wants him. What's so special about this wizard anyway?"
Oho, jealousy, I thought. I wasn't going to learn Elerius's plans by eavesdropping, but might I be able to play on that sense of aggrieved pride enough to swing these young wizards over to my side?
Of course it would have helped if I could talk. But doing anything beyond grunting would advertise that I was no longer held by a binding spell. And this time Chin might make his threat good and paralyze me, at which point I wouldn't even be able to think.
Time to take action. We had been flying long enough that the eastern sky, behind the air cart, was gradually lightening from black toward gray. The clouds had rolled away, and I could see the stars fading out. The two wizards' faces were just visible as I peered up at them from behind lowered lashes.
"There's the City on the horizon," said Chin quietly, gazing ahead and giving the final magical commands that would guide the air cart to a landing at the school. I waited until they both were looking away, then muttered under my breath the words of the Hidden Language to make me invisible.
In the space of one second my body disappeared, and I was up and over the edge of the air cart and flying along beside it, the wind whipping at my invisible beard. It might be interesting to see how they explained my absence to Elerius.
"He's gone!" gasped Whitey. So they still taught them at the school to recognize the obvious.
Chin sprang forward, feeling around the bottom of the air cart as if thinking I might have just rolled to one side and been hidden by the shadows. Before us in the west the sky was still dark and star-studded, but the yellow lights of the never-sleeping City, ahead of us and a quarter mile below, made an island of brightness at the edge of a dim landscape. Beyond, still black and unfeatured, stretched the sea.
Both young wizards were on their feet now, looking around wildly, with the desperate expression of those who realize they have just made a major mistake and are wondering what they can possibly do to correct it. I recognized that feeling; I had had it often enough myself.
"He can't have gone far," said Chin in sudden resolution. "I should be able to detect somebody working magic. In fact--"
He was just too late. He discovered and was dismantling my invisibility spell as I turned him and Whitey into frogs.
I collapsed back over the edge of the air cart, whose wings kept resolutely flapping, and wiped my forehead with a pajama sleeve. The frogs looked at me with human panic in their amphibian eyes. One of them was mottled green and brown, with an unusually prominent lower jaw for a frog, but the other was the color of chalk. I slowly caught my breath and waited for my heartbeat to return to normal before trying anything else. Flying was hard enough physical and mental work by itself without having to do so while invisible, much less transforming young wizards into frogs at the same time.
At the last moment I had decided against tadpoles. I had no jars of water with me, and if they had dried up and died while transformed they would have been just as dead when turned back into wizards. It seemed a bit excessive to put them to death for kidnapping me.
Besides, they were not my real enemies. Elerius was, and he was waiting just ahead.
The air cart began spiraling down, toward the sharp spires of the school on the highest central point in the City. The school was not one building but many, built or added to over the last two centuries and all connected together, glittering both with magic lights and with illusion. Below the spires, below the maze of offices, meeting rooms, lecture halls, and library, were storerooms, the rooms where the teachers had once kept a very small dragon (strictly for instructional purposes), and silent rooms closed with magic locks where, the new students told each other, demons lived, though I had always found that unlikely. I expected the cart to settle, as usual, into the school courtyard, but instead it tucked its wings tidily and dropped like a stone the last thirty feet, to land on a balcony jutting out from one of the towers.
The frogs were catapulted upward by the force of that bone-jarring landing. I grabbed one in each hand and stuffed them into my pajama pockets. Maybe there was an additional magical command one was supposed to give to make the final approach easier, a command I didn't know because I would never have presumed to bring the air cart down here--this was the balcony of the private suite belonging to the Master.
Which meant that Elerius must indeed have already disposed of him. I took a deep breath and climbed out. The frogs were giving their calls, which I had thought frogs gave only to attract mates, but presumably they had no other way to scream in terror--or warning? I paused for a second to cover my pajamas in illusion: a white linen shirt with lace at the cuffs, dark red velvet jacket and trousers, embroidered all over with the moon and stars, a golden pendant around my neck, and a long black cape over all. Then I stepped through the tall open window and inside.
A voice spoke from somewhere ahead. "Did you bring the wizard?"
* * *
The corridor before me was dark, but a magic lamp's glow came from an open doorway. In two strides I was at the door. "No thanks to your assistants," I said, "the wizard brought himself."
But something was wrong. That had not been Elerius's voice, and this was not Elerius before me. It was the old Master of the school, lying in bed propped up with pillows, looking up at me from frost-blue eyes.
I was so flabbergasted I didn't know what to say, and instead gave him the full formal bow, first the dip of the head, then the widespread arms, and finally the drop to both knees. Even if he'd ordered me kidnapped, he was still the head of organized wizardry in the west, and had been for forty years both my superior and the closest thing I had to a father.
"Is that illusion, Daimbert?" he asked. "No offense, but you usually don't dress this ostentatiously. And where are my assistants?"
My finery was already starting to fade. I stood up, snapped my fingers to end the illusion, and drew the frogs out of my pockets. "I decided they'd be safer like this," I said. "Less likely to paralyze me and drop me out of the air cart by mistake while it was flying. Think how upset with them you'd have been."
He looked at them thoughtfully, stroking his snowy beard. Whitey's hair was white because he had been born without pigmentation; mine had turned white overnight due to certain hellish experiences shortly after I graduated from the school; but the Master's was white because he had lived far longer than any wizard ever known: at least four hundred years by most accounts, though some said five hundred or even six.
"I told them to bring you at once and to bring you quietly," he commented. He spoke with his accustomed assurance and authority, but there was a tremorous undertone to his voice I did not recall hearing before. "Perhaps they went beyond their orders. Could you turn them back into themselves?"
A year ago he would have worked the magic himself in a second. I made no remark but set about undoing my spells. If Chin was jealous because the Master considered me special--certainly more special than he was--but wouldn't tell him why, he might well have chosen to misunderstand his orders.
But why was I, Royal Wizard of one of the smallest of the western kingdoms, suddenly so special?
In a moment I had turned my frogs back into young wizards. They staggered for a moment, then straightened themselves up, heels together. A minute ago I had thought of them as the power-drunk agents of Elerius. But if these were indeed the Master's assistants, I had to change my opinion of them. I saw them now as thoroughly humiliated students a whole lot younger and more inexperienced than I was, even if they might, given a chance, someday turn into better wizards. Though they now were grasping at dignity, they knew perfectly well that they had been showing off their newly-learned spells by trying to bring me here forcibly, and not only had they failed to do so, they would now have the shame of trying to explain why they had thought it such a good idea.
The Master shook his head almost imperceptibly in their direction. "I'll talk to you two later," he said, and they turned around and shot from the room, slamming the door behind them without waiting for further dismissal.
"By the way," I commented, "when you talk to them, ask them about breaking into the office and looking at old academic records."
The Master's eyes twinkled, and for a second I allowed myself to think that he was in bed merely because it was still before dawn, a time when all sensible wizards should be sleeping off last night's dinner and wine. "I expect that in that case they discovered the results of that disastrous transformations practical exam of yours," he said, "where you had all that trouble with the frogs. Perhaps it will be educational for them to realize that wizards can keep on learning even if they're past thirty."
They were never going to let me forget that incident here at the school. I managed a small smile. But I was distracted from humiliating memories by seeing a little pile of silver bells lying on the table. They brought back much happier memories, of learning the spells that would make such bells rise and fall in a constantly-repeating waterfall of soft and musical sound. An elegant touch for a wizard's chambers, but these were dusty and still, as though their spells had not been renewed for a long time.
"But I didn't bring you here in such secrecy, Daimbert," the Master continued, suddenly completely serious, "to joke about frogs."
I hooked a chair closer with a foot and sat down beside him. I was still recovering from the shock of discovering I would not have to face Elerius after all, but now that I thought about it, it seemed very strange that if the Master had something to say to me he had not simply used the magic telephones.
He held my eyes for a moment. "Daimbert, I'm dying."
My immediate reaction was to think that this must be one more prank. The Master couldn't possibly be dying. He had founded the school--it was his school. It was neither morally nor physically possible for him not to be here. He must have meant something quite different.
I found myself speaking. "Are the doctors sure?"
Dawn was breaking at last, and the first light came in through an eastern window. He smiled a little, but I could see clearly now the pallor of his cheek. His face had been lined as long as I knew him, but the lines had deepened and multiplied. "It's no use asking the doctors. All they have are the herbs and simple spells we wizards gave them generations ago. I'm sure. After all these years, I know this body better than any doctor ever could. Magic can slow aging, as I would have to be the first to affirm, but it has no ultimate power over the cycles of life and death. As long as one lives old body parts keep wearing away, and there are only a certain number of times one can renew the material."
The blow hit at last, the realization that this was not a joke gone wrong, or any kind of joke at all. I put a hand over my eyes; he didn't need to see my sudden tears.
"You are," he said quietly, "the first I've told."
I lifted my head. Again, why me? "I'm terribly sorry, sir."
"You needn't be sorry on my account," he said with something of his old energy. "I've had a much longer and much richer life than any man could possibly expect to deserve, though all those priests with whom you're such good friends will probably tell you I should have spent more time thinking about my soul."
"I am not," I said crisply, "good friends with 'all those priests.' The bishop of Caelrhon is my oldest friend, but that has nothing to do with him being a priest."
Sorrow made me speak more sharply than I intended, but he let it pass. "Well, if he asks you can tell him I'm still not particularly worried about the afterlife. Instead I'm worried about the school."
So was I, though it was still a secondary concern, much less important than the idea that I would never see him again. I nodded and waited for him to continue.
"When I established the school a hundred and fifty years ago," he said slowly, "I did not originally intend to establish an organization and structure that wizardry had never before had. At first my thought was only to regularize the teaching of magic, so that there would no longer be the enormous variety of training and methods that made it so difficult for wizards when we wanted to work together--as when we stopped the Black Wars." He caught my expression and lifted an eyebrow in amusement. "Yes, I know that for you it's something out of ancient history, but I remember the Black Wars."
"But I've never heard you speak of them before," I said eagerly.
"At one time," he answered, looking out the window, "I'd planned to write my memoirs before I died, and I would have put everything in there. It's too late now, but it really doesn't matter. There are enough written histories of that time already, and enough stories remembered among the wizards, all close enough to accurate that the accounts don't need my own view. I became a teacher rather than a historian. And I've succeeded much better than I ever expected. There are virtually no wizards left in the west trained under the old apprenticeship system, or at least not wizards in important posts. As of last month, I believe that every Royal Wizard in the Western Kingdoms has been trained here, under me."
My predecessor at Yurt had learned his magic as an apprentice over two centuries ago and had trained would-be wizards of his own in his time, but I had never been nor had an apprentice.
"Which means, Daimbert," the Master continued, looking back at me, "that magic now has the kind of centralization that even the Church has never managed. I'm not just the head of the school. I'm the central authority over the way that wizardry is approached, understood, and practiced. Whoever became Master after me will be able to direct how wizardry functions for the next two centuries."
"In that case, sir," I asked tentatively, "why haven't you told Zahlfast you're dying? I mean, he's smart, I'm sure he's realized you're sick, but if he's suddenly going to have all this authority--"
"Who said anything about Zahlfast?"
"But," I said, still tentative, "he's been for years your second in command in almost everything here at the school. I know officially he's only head of the Transformations Faculty, but he's had a hand in all your decisions. So if you're not here--"
"--he'll just take over," the Master finished for me. "At one time I thought so too, Daimbert. I've never asked him what he thought himself."
He paused for a moment, breathing rapidly and shallowly. He was trying his best to treat this as a normal conversation, but I could see that, even aside from the subject matter, he was having trouble talking this much. Doctors might shortly be arriving to see how their patient had passed the night, regardless of his opinion of their abilities. I leaned forward; this could be the last chance I would ever have to speak with him alone.
"But Zahlfast is smart, as you observe," he continued after a moment, lifting a hand from under the covers to wipe a bead of sweat from his forehead. "He will recognize that he is old, not as old as I am but old enough that he will not outlive me by very many decades. What the school needs now is a younger man."
I closed my eyes. He was trying to break it to me that he had designated Elerius to succeed him. He knew that Elerius and I had had our differences in the past, and he was going to reassure me that someone that intelligent and that skilled would do an excellent job of reshaping the school in his own image.
Or--since the Master had apparently not told anyone else that he was dying, did he expect me to carry this glad news to Elerius myself? He could not have chosen a messenger less willing to carry such a message.
"For years," he said slowly, "I acted as though I thought I would live forever. Of course I was sick a few times, and of course I knew that magic can only delay, not deny, the natural rhythms of life and death. But I never arranged for my succession. The faculty has never even discussed what method might be used to find a new Master. Well, if I had been suddenly killed somewhere along the way in the last century or so, which indeed almost happened several times, I presume they would have talked it over, become very irritated with each other, refrained by sheer will from turning each other into caterpillars, and finally settled on the same method the Church uses to elect new bishops: having the men who will be governed by the new Master choose him from among themselves. Probably an admirable method in its own right, but as long as I am here, as long as I know that I'm dying far enough ahead of time that I can do something about it, I consider it far too risky. I want to designate my successor myself."
Here it comes, I thought. Should I smile and make some comment about Elerius's remarkable magical abilities--not that they needed any praise from me? Or should I make a desperate attempt to talk him out of it?
"I think you know what I'm about to say," he said with a faint smile, "though you're doing your best not to show it." I was indeed doing my best not to show how truly worried I was about the future of organized magic. "Daimbert, I want you to succeed me as the new Master of the wizards' school."
This was all a dream. That was the only explanation. Yes, that was it. Very soon now I would awaken to a knock at my door, and it would swing open not on mysterious hooded wizards but on a pretty serving maid, who would bring me tea and cinnamon crullers.
I waited expectantly, but no tea and crullers appeared. I toyed with an alternate explanation, that the Master in his illness had mumbled something hysterical that only sounded as if he wanted me to succeed him, and in a minute he was going to say something else on another topic altogether. But he was watching me with an intensely pleased smile. Perhaps I should answer.
"This is an even better joke, sir, than having me kidnapped."
He shook his head, still smiling. "No joke, Daimbert. I can see you didn't expect this. And that's exactly why it has to be you. I acquired the kind of power and authority I have here in the West essentially by accident. No one, especially not a wizard with awesome powers, can be trusted to take charge of institutionalized magic if it is his driving goal to do so."
"You mean, you want me as the new Master because I don't have any particularly awesome powers?"
"I want you as the Master because you are the only one who can stop Elerius."
I covered my eyes again. "I'm sorry sir," I mumbled. "I know you're sick and I know you're trying to do what you think is best. But there's no possible way I can keep Elerius from becoming Master." Even as I spoke I was thinking with a kind of amazement, So he knew all along that Elerius couldn't be trusted. He didn't always think, along with everyone else at the school, that Elerius's opinion was as certain as the sunrise to be good.
"You're the only one who has been able to curtail any of his plans in the past, Daimbert," said the Master, still smiling. "I've been watching you since you first climbed up to the school from the warehouse sector of the City to beg me to take you on as a student. Several times I almost despaired of you, but you've got an improvisational flair that makes up for a grasp of academic magic that has sometimes been, shall we say, patchy. Every time you've had to face a challenge, even a challenge that would have daunted many more experienced wizards, you've risen to it. I believe indeed you have abilities of which you are not yet even aware yourself. Part of it may be your capacity to make friends who will be there to aid you when you most need them. And you've got a quality I hardly ever see in a powerful wizard: you're good-hearted toward the weak, not just because you've been sworn to help them, but because you're personally concerned about them."
"And it's that concern," I said at once, "that makes me know I would be your worst possible choice."
"You've also got an unparalleled improvisational flair, and you have never been proud and boastful." He continued to smile, enjoying using what might be his last strength to surprise someone who was not delighted at the surprise but horrified. "You invented the far-seeing attachment for telephones, one of the more useful breakthroughs in technical magic of this generation, but I still hear you modestly insist that you know no technical magic."
"Sir, that was over thirty years ago, and I did it by accident!" I had spent those years quietly proud of my accomplishment, but if I didn't repudiate it fast I would find myself, with no experience whatsoever in organization, trying to supervise a group of wizards who were all much older and better than I was, failing miserably, and seeing Elerius take over after all.
The Master nodded, as though I had just unwittingly proved his point for him. "That's exactly what I mean, Daimbert. And you recognized Elerius for what he is long before the rest of us. Even now most of the faculty would vote for him if there were an election, which is why I have to make certain there will not be one."
I realized slowly what the Master was really saying and went cold inside. Even before his present illness would lead to his death, it had already taken his magic from him, so that he did not trust himself to oppose Elerius directly. But where had he gotten this idea that I somehow could?
"He'd be more than delighted to take over the school," the Master continued, "with his calm belief that he knows better than people do themselves what is best for them, and that if a few rules have to broken along the way it scarcely matters as long as his own self-evidently laudable goals are reached. I've run this school as successfully as I have for as long as I have by realizing that grand organizational plans won't work--the world is too messy and too unpredictable for any wizard to direct it all, even one as good as Elerius."
I closed and opened my eyes as the Master stopped for breath. For twenty years I had distrusted Elerius. The entire time, whenever I didn't doubt my own judgment of him, I had been convinced that no one else would accept the opinion of someone who had graduated from the school only by the skin of his teeth over that of the school's newest and most honored faculty member.
But was the Master himself seeking to establish his own laudable goals through the faulty means of forcing me on an unwilling school? And in the highly unlikely event that I actually became Master, was I then supposed to ram through my own choice of successor, regardless of whether everyone else wanted Elerius and his followers?
No time for theoretical speculation. "I'm very glad, sir, you realize Elerius would be nearly your worst possible successor, but there could still be one thing worse than having him in charge of the school. And that would be having a mildly competent wizard, who had almost flunked out himself thirty years earlier, suddenly elevated from Royal Wizard of a tiny kingdom into a position of power where he hypothetically could, if he wished, make even the mightiest kings obey him."
The Master stopped smiling at last. "You're going to try to refuse the position?"
I had been squeezing the arms of the chair so tightly that my palms were slick. I made myself let go and wiped my hands on my pajamas. "I'm sorry, sir, I appreciate the honor enormously, but I'm afraid you're entirely mistaken in your estimation of me. You tried to put me on the faculty once before, and I told you then to wait fifty years to see if I'd be ready. It hasn't been fifty years--it hasn't even been fifteen."
"Well, I foolishly thought then I might live another fifty years. Neither one of us has the time he thought he might have. The school needs you, Daimbert--the western kingdoms need you."
This was taking on a nightmare quality, and exhaustion didn't help. "How could the school possibly need me?" I burst out. "I know nothing at all about how it's run. I don't have the first idea of its financial arrangements. I don't know what you have down in the cellars. I couldn't name you all the members of the faculty. I'm not even sure what the graduation requirements are--except I am fairly sure I never actually met them. There are whole branches of magic where I don't know even the simplest spells. There are--"
He interrupted me, a hand raised. The veins stood out like cords on the hand's back, brown-spotted with age. "That isn't what matters," he said, quietly but firmly. "It's all in the files, and anyway Zahlfast can acquaint you with the principal details you'll require. What the school needs in its new Master is not someone who's memorized the library's shelf-list but someone who can set the direction for the next two centuries, both how students are trained and how the practice of magic is coordinated among all the western wizards."
I took two deep breaths, then spoke fast before I could change my mind. I had been keeping this a secret from the school for years, and even here, snatched from my bed for a dawn conversation with a dying man, it was hard to break that silence. Theodora was going to be furious with me for betraying a secret that was hers as much as mine, but I had no choice. "You can't possibly make me Master, sir. You couldn't even put me on the faculty. I've gone against all the traditions of wizardry. I'm married, and I have a daughter."
* * *
It was not until I saw how he had to turn his head to look up at me that I realized I had jumped to my feet as I spoke. He did not appear nearly as horrified as I had expected--he didn't even look surprised. After a moment I said, "Perhaps you didn't understand me."
For a second his eyes twinkled again; I noticed they had become bloodshot. "My body's going fast, and my grasp of magic isn't nearly what it used to be, but my mind is still perfectly functional, Daimbert. I've know for some time that you were married."
"To a witch," I said, sitting down faster than I intended.
"To a witch," he repeated.
"Elerius told you?"
He nodded. "I suspect in an attempt to turn me against you. And I have other sources of information as well. But this isn't nearly as startling news as both you and Elerius seem to think it should be. You needn't look so shocked! Wizards really don't marry in the normal course of things, because our first allegiance is to magic itself, but you certainly aren't the first wizard in the West to establish a long-term relationship with a woman, or to father a child." I started to say something, but he was still speaking. "Haven't you, for example, ever wondered about Elerius's own parentage?"
Too stunned to answer for a moment, I turned this over. The Master already knew my deepest secret, and Elerius had a secret that went even deeper. I had several times suspected he had grown up in an aristocratic court, although he never talked about it, and if he had grown up, say, the son of a Royal Wizard somewhere, and if that wizard had already begun teaching him magic when he was a little boy--the way I had begun teaching Antonia--
"Elerius's father was not school-trained," the Master continued, with an almost boyish delight in revealing what someone else had thought hidden. "And Elerius keeps his private life private much better than you do--if anyone else had the same interest as I do in the Royal Wizard of Yurt, they too would have found out all about you and your witch. But the head of a school for wizards has ways of learning things. No, Daimbert, I can appreciate why you're reluctant to take on the responsibilities of leadership so abruptly, and perhaps I should have brought you to the school much sooner. But the fact that you've had a woman back home whom you've thought of as your wife won't stop you from becoming Master here."
The way he phrased it made it clear that for him Theodora and Antonia were no more than a trivial distraction, one I'd be happy to put behind me. One more reason to refuse to become Master. But we were interrupted before I could answer.
A bird called suddenly above my head, causing me to jump. I looked up to see that it was not a real bird but an automaton, silver inset with chips of quartz. It perched on an irregularity on the wall above the door, singing through its metal beak. Its silver was tarnished but the note was almost unbearably sweet.
"An announcement that someone's here," said the Master, enjoying my surprise, "someone to whom I've taught the spells to activate the bird from outside. Melecherius brought it back years ago from the East, where I gather the mages make such automatons. Didn't I give you his book to read once? Come in!" he called.
The door opened and Whitey came in, carrying a tray which he placed on the bed. He stood silently, doing his best to pretend I didn't exist, until the Master nodded dismissal.
"Have some breakfast with me, Daimbert," he said when we were alone again. He pushed himself slowly and carefully to a sitting position and then poured tea. "Were you thinking I was about to expire this morning?" he asked, looking at me sideways in amusement. "You found me lying in bed because that's where all sensible wizards spend the night, not because I'm completely incapacitated. You'll still have several months to get used to your new position."
I shook myself and took the cup he offered. I appreciated his effort to make light of his approaching death, but I didn't believe him. The hot tea did only a little to take the chill from my insides. "By the way," I said, "do you think Elerius can hear us?"
He drank tea thoughtfully for a moment. "I do not believe so. Of course, he could theoretically overhear any conversation in the school if he wanted to, but not even he could be paying attention to what every single person is saying at all times. I brought you here in the dead of night, telling no one beyond my two young assistants, to make sure he would have no reason to pay attention right now."
The Master was eating dry toast with his tea. I forced myself to eat a piece, but it crumbled and seemed almost impossible to swallow. I had been wakened in the middle of the night, kidnapped, brought two hundred miles, and told I was going to have all the administrative responsibilities for western magic as soon as I stopped a wizard who would transform me into a tadpole without a qualm if he thought I stood in his way.
"Are you sure, sir," I ventured slowly, "that it would in fact be truly terrible for the school to have Elerius at its head? After all, he really does always try to act for the best . . ." And a few years back, I thought, he had summoned creatures of wild magic to attack the City, as part of one of his schemes. Well, I never had been able to prove that one on him definitively. But there were several other incidents I could think of in which he had sought to gain power, ranging from having a fanged gorgos attack the cathedral of Caelrhon, to working closely with a king who had sold his immortal soul, to digging up a dead body for his experiments. . . .
"Elerius's rule would be the end of wizardry as you and I know it," the Master said soberly, looking at me from under shaggy eyebrows. "You know the old expression: There are three who rule the world, the wizards, the Church, and the aristocracy. And I suppose one really ought to add a fourth, the mayors and city councils of the commercial centers throughout the Western Kingdoms. Elerius doesn't just want to be the head of the wizards' school. He wants to be the head of everything."
I stared at him a minute without comprehension. "Nobody can be the head of everything."
With breakfast inside him, the Master seemed to have revived a little. "You haven't been out of your little kingdom much the last few years," he said, "or you'd know what's been happening. You perhaps heard that the king whom Elerius had long served died last year?"
My immediate reaction was that Elerius must have killed him. But that would be a little too much for someone who prided himself on working for everyone's benefit. "Yes, I knew. My own king traveled to the funeral."
"As did many of the western kings. His was one of the wealthiest and largest kingdoms. Perhaps you didn't know that Elerius had continued as Royal Wizard there even after joining the school faculty?"
When I had earlier been offered--and refused--a position on the faculty, it had been clear that I would have to leave Yurt permanently if I accepted. "But he couldn't do that!"
"Well, he persuaded us that he could. After all, his kingdom is located just south of the City. And then last year, when the king died and the young prince was still too young to inherit, Elerius also became regent."
I had already had too many shocks this morning. "You mean he's acting as king? Of the West's most powerful kingdom? And now you're going to tell me he's planning to become head of the Church as well?"
The Master shook his head, for one moment looking amused again. "I don't think even Elerius would try that--for one thing, the Church doesn't have a single head, any more than there's a single emperor over all the western kingdoms. But he is hoping to become mayor of the City."
"I hadn't heard that the old mayor had so conveniently died," I said grimly.
"He hasn't. But his six-year term is almost up, and Elerius has become a candidate, and is actively campaigning against the old mayor's reelection."
My teeth were clenched; I made myself relax in the forlorn hope of coming up with better ideas. "Timing," I said after a minute. "Elerius has always held himself ready, incorporating whatever opportunities arise into his long-range plans. Last year he became a king, this year he'll become mayor of the West's largest city--are you sure your illness now isn't due at least in part to him?"
"Quite sure. But he's always known I couldn't live forever--even if I sometimes forgot that myself. And he knew he could prolong his regency and keep on having himself reelected mayor until I did die, at which time his plans would be complete."
"That is," I said, mostly under my breath, "now."
"So you see, Daimbert," said the Master, pushing away the breakfast tray, "I have no choice. I need to name my successor immediately, to ensure it will not be Elerius."
"Then," I said darkly, "he will just spend the time between now and when--when the issue of succession arises--in getting me out of the way: by telling the rest of the faculty, for example, about me and Theodora, or by reminding Zahlfast about the more hilarious aspects of that episode with the frogs, or even by ensuring that I have an unfortunate accident."
The Master had started to lean back against the pillows, but at this he sat up again. I could see the strain on his face, which he was doing his best to keep out of his voice. "Then we will not give him any time to formulate such plans," he said decisively. "Instead of announcing my decision to the rest of the faculty now, as I had intended, I shall give you a letter to show them immediately upon my death." He reached for paper and a quill from the table by the bed and began to write. His handwriting was just a little shaky. "As soon as you hear of my death, come straight to the City with this letter." He finished and held it out for the ink to dry, waving it gently. "You'll be elected at once, and Elerius will be stymied."
I took the paper as he handed it to me but did not look at it. I had almost expected him to write in letters of fire, or to put a spell on the words so that they would be invisible until another spell was spoken over them, but he had worked no magic on it. All he had done was write out what might as well be my own death-sentence.
He fumbled on the table for a book. "I should also give this to you now."
"What is it?" I asked without interest. The book was small but very thick, bound in crumbling leather; the cover looked as if it had once been stamped in gold.
"It belonged to the man who taught me magic--and I'll leave it to you to work out how long ago that was. He had it from even further back, from his own master. It's an account of the Dragons' Scepter."
"The Dragons' Scepter," I repeated dully. "I've never heard of it."
"Few people have. But the wizard who taught my own teacher had become a friend of the dragons."
I looked at the floor. A story that old was bound to have been improved greatly over the years. No one became a 'friend' of dragons. Next he was going to tell me that this ancient wizard had taken a thorn out of one's claw.
"This is his own account." I looked up, suddenly intrigued in spite of myself. The book had fallen open to show parchment pages, closely written in faded ink. An old book of tales was one thing--a ledger of spells written down by the man who had once worked them might be something much better. "He became not just the dragons' friend but to some extent their master, developing extremely powerful spells that even they had to obey. But still he, probably the greatest of the wizards of antiquity, found the magic very difficult, so he bound these spells to a special scepter. With it, anyone could force the unchanneled wild magic of the land of dragons into the structures of wizardry."
"And what became of this Scepter?" I asked, highly if unwillingly interested. "Do you think it still exists?"
"I am certain it does, Daimbert, or otherwise I would not be telling you about it. But when he felt his own death coming, he decided it was much too powerful to allow to fall into another wizard's hands."
"He feared someone like Elerius among his own pupils," I suggested. But it wouldn't have to be someone like Elerius. The thought of any wizard with authority over dragons made me all cold inside again.
"So he left it in the land of the dragons, concealed by spells that should elude even the best wizard--unless that wizard had his ledger."
"Then do you have the Scepter here?" I said excitedly. With that kind of power, the Master should be able to dispose of Elerius all by himself, and he certainly wouldn't need me.
He pulled the sheet up to his chin, shaking his head. "The spells, as far as I could puzzle them out, are enormously difficult and enormously dangerous. At first, when I acquired this book as a young man, I thought I would wait until my own mastery of magic had deepened. But with maturity came the realization that I could not trust myself with that much power. I did occasionally toy with the idea of how I could reshape the earth in the image of my own vision if even the dragons obeyed me . . . But like my own master I finally set the spells aside, thinking I would reserve finding the Scepter until a desperate time arrived and I had no other choice. Now such a time has arrived, and I find my ability to work magic has weakened too much to try the spells."
Part of the quiet despair I thought I could now hear in his voice was from loss of the powers that had been his for centuries, but part, I thought, was due to him being genuinely afraid of Elerius. That made two of us.
"So you want me to have a dragon eat Elerius, is that it, sir?"
"You always were one for the joke," the Master said, half-closing his eyes and smiling. I had not been joking. "I want you to locate the Scepter before Elerius does and keep it from him."
"So he already knows about it," I said flatly. I might as well jump off the balcony without bothering with a flying spell and make it easy on myself.
"I told him a little about it some years ago," said the Master, his eyes closed and voice low. "At that time-- Well, at one point I believed he was the person I would want to find it if anyone did. And I thought it would help that he knew some of the old magic of earth and herbs, as well as the modern scientific spells we develop and teach here at the school--you know some of that old magic too."
Though I had never apprenticed under him, my old retired predecessor as Royal Wizard of Yurt had taught me a lot of his herbal magic, when I first arrived with my brand-new and precarious school spells, and he'd left me his books when he died. Over the years I had also picked up other tidbits of the old magic. "But if Elerius already knows the spells to recover the Scepter . . ."
"He doesn't," said the Master, eyes flicking open again. "I never showed him this book I am now giving you."
Unless Elerius had at some point quietly borrowed it.
"When you have the Scepter, Daimbert," the Master continued, "you'll have enough magical power that even Elerius won't dare oppose you. Now that I think about it, perhaps it would be best if you recover it at once, so you'll already have it by the time I die." We were interrupted before he could say more by the silver bird announcing someone. "It seems very early for that doctor Zahlfast insists I see," he grumbled.
I opened the door. This time it was Chin. He too tried to imply that he couldn't possibly have kidnapped me because I didn't even exist. "Excuse me, sir," he said to the Master, staring past me as he would past a piece of furniture, "but would you be able to have a visitor? Elerius wants to see you."
* * *
The Master gave an abrupt start, but he managed to say calmly, "Bring him up in about five minutes." As soon as the wizardry student had shut the door behind him he pushed the book toward me. "Go! Go at once! He can't find us together or he'll know. If I don't have a chance to talk to you again, be sure to bring that letter to the school as soon as--well, you know."
I sprang toward the window but stopped myself. "Good-bye, sir. And--" There didn't seem any good way to say it, so I didn't. Instead I said, "Thank you for accepting me into the school all those years ago, and for having faith in me."
And then I was gone, shooting out the window and across the City, a small yellow-clad form that Elerius should not even deign to notice. That is, unless Chin happened to mention that the new piece of furniture in the Master's chambers was also the Royal Wizard of Yurt. I flew eastward, the newly-risen sun in my eyes. It was that and exhaustion, I told myself, that made me start weeping.
The letter designating me as the Master's choice for his successor was folded and stuffed inside the cover of the old ledger book. I had no intention of ever producing that letter. I considered letting it flutter away to oblivion, but sentiment, the knowledge that it was the last thing I would ever have from his hand, stayed me. After all, I thought as I doggedly flew toward Yurt, I had promised the Master nothing. He might assume that when he was gone I would blithely try to use his dead influence and some long-forgotten spells out of the old magic to keep Elerius from heading the school, but I had never said I would do it.
Dear God. I was about to defy the dying wishes of the man who had made me a wizard.
It was a long flight back to Yurt, tired as I already was, so it was late afternoon before I came across the last stretch of woods to the castle. It reposed peacefully in the sun, its towers whitewashed, its moat dotted with swans. The royal flag snapping from the highest tower showed that the king was in residence.
I hovered for a moment, looking down. The staff was playing volleyball in the courtyard. Among the players I spotted the chestnut-colored braids of my daughter. I smiled and quietly descended.
Antonia was in most ways the same little girl she had always been, but her legs had become startlingly long in the last year or two, and her shape had begun subtly to change; before too long it would be a woman's, not a girl's. She was flushed and laughing from the game and did not at first notice me.
A player on the other side spiked the ball downward, apparently a sure point, but just before the ball touched the ground it abruptly stopped and reversed itself. Another player on Antonia's side batted it up and toward her. She and the ball rose majestically into the air, waiting until the opposition had jumped and come down again. Then she struck the ball hard and true over the net and slowly descended to the ground while her side cheered.
That was interesting, I thought. She'd used a lifting spell on the ball, but it was not the standard school spell. It looked like something she'd improvised herself.
A stable boy spotted me. "Wizard! Antonia's cheating again! Make her stop!"
She saw me then and ran toward me, pushing loose hairs away from her forehead. "There you are! Did you go somewhere exciting? Why didn't you take me along? And I'm not cheating! I told them I wouldn't work spells any more than once every five minutes, and I didn't."
"I just had to go to the City," I said, taking her comments in order, "and you wouldn't have found it exciting. Antonia, I think they'd really prefer if you played without working any magic at all, so why don't you try it that way for a while?"
"But she can't stop now!" a serving maid called to me. "Your daughter worked lots of spells when she was playing for the other side, so now it's our turn!"
"Make her stop, Wizard!" the stable boy protested again. "Can't you cast a spell that will keep someone from working any magic?"
"Well, yes, but it's a very complicated spell, and I don't want to take risks on its side effects just for a game." This was something I really didn't need to get into. "Besides," I said to Antonia, "you're all hot and sweaty from playing--I'm tired just looking at you! Why don't you take a little rest?"
She gave me a saucy look that could have been her mother's. "And are you hungry as well as tired? Shall I have a little snack too?" When I couldn't help laughing--probably undercutting months of conscientious fatherly discipline--she added, "And what are you still doing in your pajamas? Did you wear them to the City? If so I'm glad I wasn't along! It would have been so embarrassing."
I and the last shreds of my dignity retreated into my chambers to wash and change. The volleyball game started up again behind me.
* * *
Antonia and her mother lived in the city of Caelrhon, but I visited them and Antonia visited me frequently. Theodora still made her living as a seamstress and always insisted that the kingdom of Yurt didn't need a Royal Witch to go with its Royal Wizard, especially not one who would always be expected to sew on other people's buttons for them.
Two days later I took Antonia back home, her visit to Yurt over for this month. She hadn't seemed to notice that I was saddened and sober; now all I had to do was try to keep it from Theodora. She would be very sympathetic to hear that my old teacher was dying, but how was I going to explain that I had been offered the position of Master of the wizards' school and had refused?
I had an air cart of my own, in which we flew under the late summer sun toward the cathedral city of Caelrhon. Antonia's flying abilities might allow her to cheat at volleyball but were not yet up to a forty-mile flight. But she insisted on saying the spells herself to direct the skin of the purple flying beast, as it carried us across woods and ripening fields.
The old ledger with the centuries'-old spells was hidden behind other books at the back of my shelves. I was not even going to look at it, I told myself. I had seen enough books of spells out of the old magic over the years to know that between over-optimism on what a few herbs could do, a tendency not to bother writing down the steps that seemed self-evident to the writer, and badly-faded ink, most of them wouldn't work at all without extensive revision. Even aside from the impossibility of facing Elerius, I had no intention of going into the lair of dragons and using a defective spell in an attempt to reveal a Scepter that would, theoretically, make them treat me as their master rather than swallowing me in one gulp. Being swallowed whole remained by far the most likely outcome. The second most likely outcome was that a dragon would chew me up a little first.
Since this made such good logical sense, why did I feel so miserable?
But in the meantime I should try to enjoy being with Antonia. "Isn't your school starting up again soon?" I asked to make conversation.
She pulled her mouth into an expression of disgust. "I wish I didn't have to go to school in Caelrhon. I already know all the things they want us to learn! And they never teach us anything interesting, like about the land of dragons or secret treasure. I bet I could start at the wizards' school already if you and Mother would let me." I started to say something and changed my mind. "Besides, she says I can't do even the tiniest little spell while I'm at school. She says she doesn't want people to know that we're witches! I told her that I was a wizard instead, but it didn't make any difference."
"Um, well, at least nobody minds if you work spells in Yurt," I said. I wasn't going to get into the volleyball issue again.
"I know," she said thoughtfully, "but Mother still told me not to turn anybody there into a frog, not even for practice. But there's this bully at school," she added with new enthusiasm, "and I bet lots of people would be happy if I turned him into something. Do you think I could transform him into someone who wasn't a bully? Do you think I could do it in a way that no one would know it was me?"
"Spells can be traced," I said quickly and evasively, "and a transformations spell won't change someone's character. Besides, I think your mother would figure it out pretty quickly even if no one else did." How, I wondered, had a daughter of mine gotten so good so young on transformations spells? She would never have had trouble at Zahlfast's practical exam. But then I remembered. Elerius had taught her.
* * *
Theodora was sitting by the open casement window, sewing, when I brought the air cart down into the quiet cobbled street where she lived. Timbered house-fronts leaned over the street, but a ray of sunlight shone on the sea-green silk she was embroidering.
"Is that a skirt?" asked Antonia, kissing her mother. "Who is it for?"
"One of the mayor's daughters," Theodora answered. Then, when Antonia took her little bag off to her room, she added to me with a smile, "It is in fact not a skirt but, if you'll believe it, a dress. It's the latest style for young women at fashionable late-night dances. This skirt-part sits on her hips and keeps her legs decently covered, though the slit on the left side is designed to make sure that no one speculates in an untoward and uninformed way that those legs might be unattractive! And then this rather filmy part I'm embroidering now makes a tactical advance northward from the waistband, just about keeping her decent, as long as she doesn't dance too hard and disarrange the straps. And lest you fear that too much bare skin might be exposed, you'll be pleased to hear that she'll wear it with green ribbons wrapped around her left leg and both arms."
"Wow!" I exclaimed. "Is she coming by soon for a fitting? Do you need a helper?"
Theodora laughed, gave me a push, then relented and kissed me. So far, I thought, I was doing a good job of suggesting nothing was wrong.
"How about this black crepe?" I asked, noticing a pile of scraps on the table. "Are fashionable young ladies of the merchant class now wearing black for dances?"
"No, that was for a funeral just two days ago," Theodora said more soberly. "One of the masters of the dock-workers' guild was killed when a whole pile of crates fell on him. Apparently he lived just long enough for his wife to get down to the docks, and he told her, there in front of everybody, about this illegitimate son he'd had years ago! It turned out the lad knew perfectly well whose son he was, but they'd always kept it from the wife. But she was very gracious about it, even invited the son to the funeral."
"Would you invite my illegitimate son to my funeral?" I asked teasingly.
Theodora gave me a quick look from amethyst eyes. "If I learned you'd had a child I hadn't known about, of course I'd invite him or her to your funeral: a funeral that would happen very soon!"
We both laughed, and I was kissing Theodora properly when Antonia came back. "When I get married," she pronounced, "you aren't going to catch me doing that mushy stuff all the time."
* * *
After Antonia had gone to bed that evening, Theodora and I sat a little while by the dying fire, me on the couch and she on the hearth-rug, her head leaning against my knee. I worked my fingers through her curly hair to find and trace the edge of her ear, staring the while into the red and orange coals before us.
"At least Antonia isn't interested in boys yet," she commented. "A good thing, too. Even if she's just been away for a few days she always surprises me when she comes back by how grown-up she looks. She's going to be a lovely young woman."
"A young woman who's going to be locked up for ten years from the time she first looks at a man with interest," I said firmly.
Theodora laughed and squeezed my leg, although I had been at least partially serious. "Have you spoken recently to the bishop?" she asked.
"Joachim? No. Is there something I can do for him?"
Theodora embroidered altar cloths and sewed vestments for the cathedral, and it sometimes seemed these days that she saw my old friend the bishop of Caelrhon more than I did. "Apparently he's worried about something to do with the bishop of the great City," she said. "I was just wondering if you'd heard about it, since the wizards' school is also in the City. I told him you were coming today, and he left a note for you."
Affairs of the Church held no interest for me. "The Master of the school is dying," I said suddenly.
Theodora turned then to look up at me. "I'm very sorry. Is that what's been bothering you?" When I cocked my head at her she added, "You should know me better than that, Daimbert! Did you expect your light-hearted joking this afternoon would make me think everything was fine?"
I touseled her hair. "Well, everything in Yurt is fine. And the Master is very old--we all knew he couldn't live forever." I was thinking, if I had agreed to pursue the Master's idiotic dying scheme, I would be here telling Theodora good-bye forever.
"So will they just elect a new head from among the faculty?" Theodora asked thoughtfully. She shook her head and squeezed my hand. "I'm sorry, I know in some ways the old Master was like a father to you, but I'm afraid I'm thinking not about him so much as how the school might change. You know you've said several times that some members of the faculty seem open to the idea of starting to accept women as students as well as men."
"Well, by the time Antonia would be ready to go to the school," I said noncommittally, "there may well have been some changes." Elerius might once have taught my daughter some magic, I thought, but I was absolutely determined that he would not have a chance to get his hands on her again. Theodora and I would train her ourselves.
"I visited the Master the other day," I continued slowly, "probably the last time I'll ever see him. And I--I told him I was married to you. We've always kept this from the school, and I'm sorry I didn't ask you about it first, but I thought for various reasons that I should tell him now."
Theodora rested her chin on my knee, her amethyst eyes dark in the shadows. "But you don't sound as though the school is planning to cast you out of institutionalized wizardry."
I shook my head. "No, no," I said, not meeting her eyes. "In fact, just the opposite! I think," I added in a rush, "that the Master considers this a temporary situation, and that I'll tire of you sooner or later. He is, of course, completely wrong."
Theodora smiled and rose to her feet. "Time for bed," she said, taking my hand and pulling me up with a tug. "You can show me just how tired you are or aren't of me!" I slipped an arm around her waist, but she paused by her cloth scraps. "Here," she said, digging among them. "I should give this to you before I completely lose track of it."
It was the note from Joachim. I stuffed it into my pocket and nuzzled Theodora's hair, wanting distraction from thoughts of the school.
But she stepped away. "I won't think you're tired of me if you want to read your letter first. After all, it's from the bishop!"
I pulled her toward me again but obediently broke the seal on the letter with the thumb of my free hand. "Didn't anybody ever tell you," I asked with a chuckle, "that witches aren't supposed to have any respect for the Church? It can't be anything very important or he would have telephoned."
Joachim's note was short--he had never had any use for chit-chat. But it turned out to be very important after all.
"There is a problem with the election of the new bishop of the City," it read, "and the cathedral there has asked other western bishops for assistance. Normally I would never bother you with this, but there seems to be a difficulty with the wizards' school trying inappropriately to influence the election. I need your advice on the wizard Elerius."