Starting in June 2016, I’m going to be sharing one new short story per month with everyone who supports me on Patreon. I know the benefits I get from this, so for the rest of this month I’m going to be highlighting one of my previous short stories every day on this blog to show you what you get out of it. Today’s selection is a high fantasy story called “A Matter of Appearances”.
A Matter of Appearances
By Alexandra Erin
Most of the great cities of the south were blessed with a wizard tower. Many of them had in fact sprung up around the towers, and any spot on the map that was important enough to be settled for other reasons would eventually attract one.
The City of Stars alone had two. It was big enough to require more than one wizard, but having a double helping of magic was not necessarily a double blessing. Wizards were prickly and prideful creatures, prone to overweening vanity and destructive outbursts that were tolerated only because their services were too valuable to do without… and because no one was sure how to get rid of them, exactly. The two seemed to do everything in their power to try to destroy or expel the other, and if they had not yet managed it with magical might then it seemed foolish to hope that any mere mortal might accomplish such a feat.
Everyone in the City of Stars agreed that the worst place to stand was anywhere between the two towers, which was something of a grim joke. The tower of Bensalon the Gray stood just outside the town’s southern gate. The tower of Malevole the Red rose just within the north wall. Between them stood almost the entirety of the city.
At night sometimes lightning would dance around one or both of the towers. From time to time a dark shape would be seen streaking through the sky from one to the other, only to rebound and land hopefully in some barren and deserted stretch of land far from the city. Occasionally there would be some otherwise inexplicable eruption or disaster within the City of Stars that would be chalked up the wizards’ feud.
Rumors abounded about what each dire display portended, and what had caused it. Stories were told of the bound demons that Malevole sent to infiltrate Bensalon’s tower, of the hexes that Bensalon wove in retaliation. The red wizard was generally held to be the more aggressive of the two, though his partisans said instead that the grey wizard was the sneakier one.
If the conflict between the two had a source more particular than proximity, it was not known to any save the wizards themselves, and rarely questioned. The folk of the city accepted it, as their parents had.
Some felt that the city’s two wizards kept each other in check, that the need for them to be on guard against each other and to put on a better face for the public than the other kept them from descending to the level of the worst excesses of their distant colleagues.
Since every wizard was different and every city was different, it was hard to say for certain whether this was true. Others believed that the always-simmering conflict between them made things worse, though the two rarely resorted to open warfare as it was destructive and wasteful, and would leave them vulnerable to more subtle attacks from wizards in every city.
As a major port, the City of Stars received many visitors by ship. Those who came by land usually entered through the town’s southern gate, passing within a stone’s throw of the gray tower as they did so. On market days there was a steady stream of traffic, and the tower surrounded itself with a crackling aura of silvery fire that was perhaps specifically intended to dissuade the throwing of stones.
On this particular market day, a young woman in a brown cloak was among those who streamed past the glowing tower. She was alone in the crowd and traveling on foot. She scarcely looked at the tower. She scarcely looked at anyone or anything, save the bit of parchment in her hand. There were not enough lines on it to make much reading, just a name and some directions. It could have been memorized in a single pass, but still she read it over and over again, and gave the impression that she had done so many times before.
Once through the gate, she began to look around… not at the tower or the people, but at the buildings around her and their signs. She moved with the crowd for a short time, and then cut from it to go down a side street where she stopped to check her directions again. She set out again in a different direction, but did not make it far before she had to stop and check her parchment again.
“I know where you’re going,” a voice said from just in front of her.
She looked up and saw a young man, wild tufts of orange hair poking out from underneath his cap. His clothes were well-made but not ostentatiously so.
“I have…” she started to say as she held up the parchment.
“Don’t need those,” the young man said. He snatched it from her hand, crumpled it in his own, and released it in a flash of fire that consumed it completely. She gasped and drew back. Ignoring her distress, he smiled and pointed to the distant tower that loomed over the far end of town. “You can see your destination from here.”
All around the pair, the street was growing emptier. People who had been striding purposefully on a course that would have taken them past the young man were now moving just as purposefully away.
“Sir, I beg your pardon,” the young woman said. “I am to meet my uncle. He is a tailor.”
“That may have been true, but a more exciting opportunity has opened up,” he said. “I am called Winslas… you have heard of me?”
“I am afraid I have not,” she said, and a shadow passed across his face, though he shook it off and re-affixed his smile.
“Well, I am known throughout this city as the apprentice of the great red wizard, the First Wizard of the city, and he has sent me forth to find a replacement for the scullery maid.”
“Replacement?” she said.
“A new scullery maid, I mean,” he said. “And now I’ve found her. Oh, don’t worry. To be a servant in a wizard’s tower is better than being the lady of any house! That’s not to say that there won’t be work to be done, of course, but there will be wonders to behold as well. Wonders, and great pleasures.”
“Sir, my uncle…”
“Will have no cause to complain for your absence,” he said. “What is your name, girl?”
“Mari,” she said. “Mariana Eskul. Sir, I do not wish to seem ungrateful…”
“Of course you don’t, but no worries. You will have ample opportunities to show me your gratitude at the end of your work day,” Winslas said. “Now, give me your hand… it is not good for servants of the red wizard to tarry so near the tower of the gray.”
“Scoundrel, that may be the first true thing you’ve uttered!” a voice boomed down from above them. There was a crack like thunder, and a man dressed in gray robes cinched with a silver-threaded waistcoat appeared between them.
The young man yelped like a kicked dog and took off running, losing his cap and a shoe and not looking back. The woman, Mari, fell backwards onto the cobblestones in her shock.
The gray wizard looked around, then closed his eyes and leaned on his walking stick for a moment. Nodding in satisfaction, he reached down and extended a hand to the woman.
“Lord Bensalon the Gray, my lady,” he said. “First Wizard of the City of Stars. I hope you have at least heard of me.”
“I had thought you would be older, my lord,” she said, accepting his help to her feet.
“One day I intend to be,” he said. “You mean you thought I would have a great big bushy gray beard and long gray hair to match, of course. But I have been a gray wizard all of my life, even when my hair had more brown to it than it does now. Gray is the color of my mind, of my temperament. Steely. Balanced. Subtle. Boring, to hear some tell it. Gray is the color of my magic.”
“And your wardrobe,” Mari observed, a twinkle in her eyes.
The wizard Bensalon laughed.
“So much of wizardry is a matter of appearances,” he said. “How would people know that I am Bensalon the Gray if I did not wear it plainly for all to see? Especially when I do not have the beard. But, come. We must get you off the street.”
He put his hand on the woman’s shoulder and began to draw her back towards the gate.
“I thank you for your intervention, my lord, but my uncle…”
“Will be in as much danger as you if you go to him now,” the wizard said. “The red wizard’s weasel will go skittering back to him to complain of your perceived insolence, which he will take personally. The only place that will be safe for you is within my tower.”
“So I am rescued from one wizard to become the captive of another?” Mari said.
“Not captive,” Bensalon said. “And you won’t be a servant, either. I will simply protect you until you can make arrangements to depart.”
“I can’t leave the city,” she said. “I came here because I have nowhere else to go. My uncle has a job for me.”
“There are other cities. One assumes they have positions for a young woman..”
“Not for a young woman who desires a life of her own,” she said. “I don’t want to sleep on a tatty straw mattress for a fulsome four hours of sleep and then work a loom the rest of the day. I don’t want to scrub floors and mind brats.”
“I take your meaning, but please, let us walk while we argue,” he said. He linked arms with her and set off at a brisk pace, which she matched.
“Why?” she asked him.
“We are too in the open here.”
“Can you not simply take us to your tower in the same manner in which you arrived?”
“I am,” he said. “To walk the streets cloaked in invisibility is no small thing. To bound the gap between the tower and the city in an instant is a different matter entirely.”
“Why were you walking the streets unseen?”
“I sensed mischief,” he said. “Meaning, of course, that wretch Winslas. I was following him. His master dares not venture so close to my tower unless he desires a confrontation, so he sends his apprentice when he desires something from the market… or when he has some scheme against me. I watched to see whether it was mischief or business that brought Winslas out… when I realized that his business was mischief, I intervened.”
“Would what he proposed have been so terrible?” Mari asked. “I am not saying that I’m not grateful, or that I would have wanted to go with him…”
“Exactly,” he said. “He would have taken you where you did not want to go. Is that not terrible enough? I have never seen inside Malevole’s tower, though I have my suspicions about how he uses his servants… and how his second does. In any case, it would have been terrible for a young woman who desires a life of her own.”
“I see your point,” Mari said, and she offered no further objections.
The silvery fire around the tower parted away from the arching set of double doors as the pair approached.
“Looks impressive, doesn’t it?” Bensalon said, waving his hand at the flames as they passed underneath them.
“What does the fire do?” Mari asked.
“Exactly what I said: it looks impressive.”
“But what would it do to one who touched it?” she asked.
“Disappoint briefly, and then relieve profoundly,” he said. “It looks impressive, though. As I said, much of wizardry is about appearances.”
“Why, is all of magic nothing more than an illusion?”
“No,” he said. “For instance, your uncle’s note really did burn. A small fire, completely natural, consuming such fuel as fire would favor… that is not so hard to manage. A great big pillar of silver flames that dance around stone without consuming it? That is a different matter. But I must ask your pardon as I attend to the door.”
He touched the end of his walking stick to the door and closed his eyes. After a few seconds, both doors melted away.
“Was the door real?” Mari asked as they stepped inside. They only went a few strides into the dim corridor beyond when the door popped back into place, leaving them in darkness.
“Oh, in the sense that you mean it, yes,” he said. He waved his hand and torches lit themselves all along the stone corridor. “Else we could have simply walked through it. But it is not a real door. Rather, it’s part of the wall that must be removed to enter. This is a big thing, a difficult thing… but it is the only way in and out of my tower, and worth the effort to create and maintain.”
“Why not simply have a door?”
“It would not be as secure.”
“Then why make it look like a door?”
“So people… even wizards… will waste time trying to open it.” He pointed up at the high stone arch at the end of the corridor, which they were approaching. “That is the next stage of my defenses. It strips away all illusions.”
He gestured for her to pass through it first.
“Do I make you nervous, my lord?”
“Say instead that I am nervous and this will make me feel secure. One must be careful,” he said. “Naturally, I performed what divinations I could out in the street. Winslas was wrapped up in charms and glamours, as well a wizard’s apprentice might be when straying into hostile territory. I sensed nothing about you… but one cannot be too careful.”
“Fret not, First Wizard,” Mari said. She turned to face him and took a step backwards through the arch. “I am as I appear.”
“You are indeed,” he said. “But mind where you put your foot… the stairs are just behind you.”
Mari turned and looked behind her, letting out a small squeak of surprise when she saw how the floor dropped away into the darkness.
“Fear not,” he said. “There are stairs, though they are hidden. Take my arm and walk slowly.”
She complied, and they began to descend the invisible staircase.
“Why are we going down, when the tower is above us?”
“It is largely solid through and through,” he said. “More misdirection. The red wizard and my more distant rivals expend their energies trying to penetrate the wards built into the tower’s outer walls, and when they find naught but stone or darkness inside they think I have found some new means of obfuscating their sight. Or perhaps they see through it. Perhaps many of them have done the same. What I think of, another man may think of also. In any event, it may give them some pause.”
“Is all of a wizard’s time spent foiling the attacks of other wizards?”
“Much of it,” Bensalon said. “Understand, I feel little real rivalry, with Malevole or any other man… but I cannot control how my brethren feel about me, and if they believe I am a threat to their supremacy or might pose an impediment to their plans, they will strike at me as they can. Thus I must be on my guard.”
“And do you never act against them?”
“Well… from time to time, I must do something to ensure they remain occupied with other matters, or to show them that I will be no easy prey for their ambitions, or to prevent one of them from gaining enough power to make a decisive strike,” he said. “But I am a gray wizard, so it’s more a matter of maintaining the balance of power than trying to shift it in my favor.”
“Imagine if all wizards feel that way?” Mari asked. “What if none among you truly desires the struggle with the others? What if you each act against each other out of fear of what the others would do, unchecked?”
“It is a thought that has crossed my mind,” he said. “But if it is true, what of it? The situation is unaltered. Hold, here we must stop… the abyss is real, just ahead of us, but our destination is at hand.”
He turned and touched his hand to a section of the wall, and it swung inwards on a hinge.
“A door that looks like a wall,” Mari said.
“And not a drop of magic about it,” he said. “As hard to see with a wizard’s eyes as with anyone else’s.”
Just inside the door was a room of scant furnishings and modest proportions. There was a writing table with a chair, and a shelf with some books on it. Two doors of a more ordinary sort led out of it.
“My chambers are perhaps less impressive than you might have expected, but my needs are simple.”
“You live alone?”
“I have no need for servants,” he said. He leaned his walking stick in a corner. “Malevole the Red prefers to lead the life of a lord in fact, where I value my privacy too much to give it up for a little convenience.”
“I have noticed,” Mari said. “But have you no apprentice?”
“Not at the present time,” he said. “I have yet to find a candidate with the suitable qualities.”
“What qualities are those?”
“Among them are a keen mind and an inquisitive nature,” he said. “An uncommon reservoir of willpower, and the most elusive trait, at least in conjunction with the others: a certain amount of deference. Magic actually requires arrogance to work, but learning magic requires humility.”
“My lord, forgive what may be a lack of deference, but I find myself quite without prospects at the moment, and I believe myself to be somewhat keen and quite inquisitive,” Mari said.
“To be a wizard’s apprentice is a serious commitment,” he said.
“I have nowhere else to be,” she said. “I should like to get in touch with my uncle, but if it isn’t safe for me to be about the City of Stars without a wizard’s protection… well, this seems to answer a need, does it not?”
“A need for you, but what of me?”
“Do you not have better things you could be doing every time the red wizard’s pawn goes to market?”
“You do have a certain sharpness of wit,” Bensalon said. “And you may be quite bright… but no wizard has ever had a female apprentice.”
“Oh? You know what your brethren do in their towers?”
“Magic is about appearances,” Bensalon said. “And a girl for an apprentice… well, it wouldn’t look right, would it?”
“Is this what you think, or what you imagine they all think?”
“It comes to the same thing, mostly,” he said. “But… there is nothing in the nature of a woman that is necessarily incompatible with the practice of magic. There are seers and healers in every village and town across the southlands, after all. Perhaps a small test is in order, and depending upon what it reveals, there may be some things I can teach you.”
“My lord is generous,” Mari said.
“I am not agreeing to a full apprenticeship, you must understand,” he said. “Just some means by which you may better protect yourself against unwanted attention in the future.”
“Of course,” she said.
“Take up my walking stick.”
She went over to where he had left it. It was wood, though inlaid with silver and capped with a gray pearl the size of a cow’s eye. She touched it gingerly, then grasped it firmly and lifted it.
“Good,” he said. “Now, hold it level in front of you, outward from your body.”
She raised it slowly and pointed it out in front of her in no particular direction… but then turned sharply on her heel to aim it at Bensalon, a triumphant look on her face. That look vanished as the gray wizard did, too, and the stick in her hand turned into a snake, its fanged mouth quite near her hand.
She shrieked it and dropped it, jumping back… and bumping into the robed wizard, who clapped his hand on her shoulder.
“So this is what you really look like, ‘Winslas’,” he said. He spun her around. His stick was in his other hand.
“You were right, I’m afraid,” she said. “My Lord Malevole thought a female apprentice wouldn’t look right, though he agreed to take me on all the same.”
“I suppose that was the scullery maid that I chased off, then.”
“A stablehand,” she said. “His face was his own, by the way… the model for the one I wear when out in public, altered only to be somewhat more pleasingly symmetrical. So if you had stripped off his glamour, it would have revealed nothing. When did you know?”
“That you were his apprentice? When you tried to use my wand against me,” he said. “I suspected it before, as impossible as it seemed… but Malevole has tried more desperate tricks in his war against me, so I had to be certain. What you would do when you thought you held my wand was the test. If you had not tried to use it, I would still have assumed you were a spy or even an assassin, but I would have been on guard for hidden daggers rather than spells.”
“I could still become your apprentice.”
“Why would you betray your master, and how could I ever trust you if you did?”
“Because if you took me as your apprentice, as I am in truth, then I would be loyal to you in truth,” she said. “I’m loyal to Malevole because he has done for me what no other wizard would, but it is not what I want. I told you that I’m a young woman who wants a life of her own. My life, not the life I feign to suit him.”
“He could never let the insult go.”
“He could never acknowledge it,” Mari said. “If he were to accuse you of stealing his apprentice, he’d have to reveal that his had been a woman all along… and he couldn’t say a word about you having a woman for your apprentice, because he would know that you knew the truth about his.”
“That may be, but what you want can never be,” he said. “If you agreed to this desperate plan of your master’s in the hope of entering my service, then you have thrown your life away for nothing.”
“In truth, I did not have much hope that it would work,” she said. “Malevole was not the first wizard I approached, and you are not so different from the rest as you might like to imagine. I thought it was worth trying, that there was no harm in asking… but it would simply have been something of an unexpected bonus if you had agreed. Otherwise, I was prepared to fulfill the original plan I contrived for my master.”
“Foolish girl,” Bensalon said. “If that was your intention, you should have asked before you made the attempt because now you’ll never have another chance. I know you came in with neither staff nor wand… I would have seen either upon you quite plainly… and you’ll never wrest mine from my grip.”
“I don’t intend to,” she said.
Whatever reply the wizard would have made to this was lost as he stiffened and grimaced, then looked down. Mari’s fist was clenched around a handle that protruded from his vest.
“You should have kept guarding against knives, my lord,” she said. She twisted the knife. The stick clattered to the floor as he clutched at the wound. “So much of wizardry is, after all, a matter of appearances.”
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