The Starbucks in Angel is on the corner of the busy intersection of Pentonville Road and Upper Street, set deep into the offices around it with a glass front that lets in the light. The counter’s at ground level but climbing to the first floor gives a view down onto the high street and the crowds streaming in and out of Angel station. Opposite the Starbucks is Angel Square, a huge sprawling weirdly-designed building checkered in orange and yellow and topped with a clocktower. The clocktower looks down onto City Road, a long downhill highway linking Kings Cross and the City. It was 11 AM and the morning rush was long past but the roads and pavements were still crowded, the steady growl of engines muffled through the glass.
Inside, the shop was peaceful. Two women in work clothes chatted over their lattes and muffins, while a stolid-looking man with greying hair hid behind his Times. A student sat absorbed in his laptop while three men in business suits were bent over a table-full of spreadsheets, their drinks forgotten. Music played quietly over the speakers, and the clatter of cups and coffee machines drifted up from the floor below. And near the window, my chair turned so that I could watch both the street and anyone coming in, was me.
I like the Angel Starbucks for meetings. It’s easy to reach, there’s a nice view, and it’s just the right balance between public and private. Usually it’s quiet – most of the trendy people prefer the cafes north along Upper Street – but not so quiet as to give anyone ideas. I’d probably like it even more if I drank coffee. Then again, given how much people like to complain about Starbucks, maybe I wouldn’t.
I’d already checked out the surroundings and the other customers, so when the woman walked into the shop downstairs I was free to focus on her. There are two ways of getting a look at someone with divination magic: you can look into the futures of you approaching them, or you can look into the futures of them approaching you. The first is better if you want to study them, the second is better if you want advance warning of what they’re planning. I chose the first, and by the time the woman stepped onto the first floor I’d been watching her for nearly a minute.
She was good-looking – really good-looking, with gold hair and sculpted features that made me think of old English aristocracy. She wore a cream-coloured suit that probably cost more than my entire wardrobe, and everyone in the room turned to look as she passed. The three men forgot about their spreadsheets, and the two women put their chatter on hold, watching her with narrowed eyes. Her heels clicked to a stop as she looked down at me. “Alex Verus?”
“That’s me,” I said.
She sat opposite me, legs together. I felt the eyes of everyone in the room comparing the woman’s outfit with my rumpled trousers and sweater. Now that she was on the same level I could see that it wasn’t just the heels, she really was tall, almost as tall as me. She carried nothing but a small handbag. “Coffee?” I said.
She glanced at a slim gold watch. “I only have half an hour.”
“Suits me.” I leant back on the chair. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re after?”
I held up my hand. “I was hoping you might introduce yourself first.”
There was a brief flash of irritation in her eyes, but it vanished quickly. “I’m Crystal.”
I already knew her name. In fact, I’d gone out of my way to find out quite a bit about Crystal in the two days since she’d contacted me requesting a meeting. I knew she was a Light mage, one of the ‘nobility’ with lots of connections. I knew she wasn’t a player in Council politics, although she had friends there. I knew the type of magic she could use, where in England she was based, and even how old she was. What I didn’t know was what she wanted me for, and that was what I’d come here to find out. “So what can I do for you?”
“I expect you know about the White Stone?”
Crystal nodded. “Isn’t it due to start soon?” I said.
“The opening ceremony will be this Friday,” Crystal said. “At Fountain Reach.”
“Fountain Reach is my family home.”
My eyebrows went up at that. “Okay.”
“I want you to help manage the event,” Crystal said. “It’s very important that everything goes smoothly.”
“Providing additional protection. A diviner would be perfect for that.”
“Right,” I said. I’ve run into this a lot lately. People hear about my background and assume I must be a battle-mage. Now it’s true that I’m a mage and it’s true that I’ve fought battles and it’s even true that I’ve fought battle-mages, but that doesn’t make me a battle-mage myself. “I’m not really a bodyguard.”
“I’m not expecting you to serve as a battle-mage,” Crystal said. “You’d be more of a . . . security consultant. Your role would be to warn me of any anticipated problems.”
“What sort of problems?”
“We’re expecting over a hundred mages for the tournament. Initiates and journeymen, including a number of Dark representatives.” Crystal clasped her hands. “There’ll be competition. It’s possible some of the participants will carry grudges off the piste.”
It sounded like a recipe for trouble. “And stopping them will be . . .”
“There’ll be Council battle-mages present. We’re well aware of the potential for trouble. There will be sufficient security. We just need to make sure the security is in the right place at the right time.”
“You haven’t received any warnings or threats?”
“Nothing like that. There’s been no suggestion of trouble so far, and we’d like your help to make sure it stays that way.”
I thought about it. I’ve usually steered clear of Light tournaments in the past; my teachers thought they were a waste of time and on the whole I agreed with them. But if there were initiates there that changed my feelings a bit. Trying to protect adult mages is a thankless task, but apprentices are another story. “What exactly would you be expecting me to do?”
“Just to keep an eye on the guests. Possibly some investigation if anything comes up. We’re particularly concerned about keeping the younger apprentices safe, so we’d been hoping you could help with that.”
I started to nod— and stopped.
Crystal looked at me. “Is something wrong?”
I kept still for a second, then smiled at her. “No. Not at all. You mentioned investigation work?”
“Obviously, some mages are more likely to make trouble than others. We don’t have anybody we’re especially suspicious of, but it’s likely things will crop up to turn our attention to someone. When they do, it would be very helpful if you could find things out for us about them. Their background, connections, that sort of thing.”
“I assume the place is staffed?”
“Oh yes, the servants will handle all that. You’d be considered one of the guests.”
“And you said the opening ceremony was on Friday. The guests will be arriving on what, the same day?”
“Exactly.” Crystal was relaxed now; the interview was going well. “We’re expecting the first guests by the morning, although of course the sooner you can arrive the better.”
“And regarding payment?” I thought about cash, as soon as possible.
“Future service, as usual. Though if you’d prefer something more tangible that’s perfectly acceptable.”
“When could you arrange payment by?”
“Immediately, of course.”
“Well.” I smiled at Crystal. “That settles that.”
“Excellent. Then you’ll be able to come?”
The smile vanished from Crystal’s face. “I’m sorry?”
“Well, I’m afraid there are a couple of problems.” I leant forward casually. “The first issue is that I’ve had a lot of approaches like yours over the past few months. And while they all looked good on the surface, the last couple of times I’ve said yes they’ve turned out to be . . . well, let’s just say I don’t feel like a repeat performance.”
“If you have a prior engagement I’m sure we—”
“No, we couldn’t. Because the second problem is that you’ve been reading my thoughts ever since you sat down.”
Crystal went very still. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.” she said at last.
“Oh, you were very subtle,” I said. “I’d guess most mages wouldn’t even notice.”
Crystal didn’t move, and I saw the futures whirl. Flight, combat, threats. “Relax,” I said. “If I was going to start a fight I wouldn’t have told you about it.”
The futures kept shifting a moment longer, then settled. “I’m sorry,” Crystal said. She brushed back her hair, looking remorseful. “I shouldn’t, I know. I was just so worried you’d say no.” She met my eyes, entreating. “We need someone as skilled as you. Please, won’t you help?”
I looked back at Crystal for a long second. “No,” I said at last. “I won’t. Goodbye, Crystal.”
Again the smile vanished from Crystal’s face, and this time it didn’t come back. She watched me without expression for a long moment, then rose in a single motion and stalked away, heels clicking on the floor.
I’d known Crystal was a mind mage, but even so I hadn’t noticed her spell. Active mind magic like suggestion is easy to spot if you know what to look for, but a mage who’s good with passive senses, reading the thoughts that others broadcast, is much harder to catch. The only thing that had tipped me off was that Crystal had been too neat. In a real conversation no-one tells you exactly what you want to hear.
That last reaction had made me wonder, too. In between her magic and her looks it occurred to me that Crystal probably wasn’t very used to not getting her own way. I’d better be careful around her if we met again.
I noticed suddenly that everyone in the shop was watching me. For a moment I wondered why, then smiled to myself as I realised what it must have looked like. I left my drink on the table and ran the gauntlet of stares as I walked down to the ground floor and out into the London streets.
I never used to get offers like these. A year ago I could go weeks at a time without seeing another mage. In magical society I was an unknown, and all in all that was how I liked it.
It’s hard to say what changed. I used to think it was because of that business with the fateweaver but looking back, I get the feeling it was more to do with me. Maybe I was just tired of being alone. Whatever it was, I got involved in the magical world again and started getting myself a reputation.
Although not necessarily a good reputation. I got the fateweaver against some stiff competition, making a couple of very powerful enemies in the process, one of which came back to bite me five months later. A Light battle-mage named Belthas was trying to get sole ownership of a very nasty ritual, and when I tried to stop him it came down to a fight. When the dust settled, Belthas was gone.
That was the point at which other mages started to take notice. Belthas had been good – really good, one of the most dangerous battle-mages in the country – and all of a sudden a lot of people were paying attention to me. After all, if I’d been able to defeat someone like Belthas, I’d be a useful tool to have on their side. And if I wasn’t on their side . . . well, they might have to consider doing something about that.
All of a sudden, I had to play politics. Take a job, and I’d be associated with whoever I worked for. Turn one down, and I’d risk causing offence. Not all the job offers were nice, either. More than one Dark mage figured that since I’d knocked off one Light mage I might be willing to do a few more, and let me tell you, those kinds of people do not take rejection well.
But I’m not completely new to politics, either. My apprenticeship was to a Dark mage named Richard Drakh, in an environment where trust was suicide and competition was quite literally a matter of life and death. It’s left me with some major issues with relationships, but as a primer on power and manipulation it’s hard to beat. Crystal hadn’t been the first to try to take advantage of me – and she hadn’t been the first to get a surprise.
But right now I didn’t feel like dealing with that. I put Crystal out of my mind and went to go find my apprentice.
Mages don’t have a single base of operations – there’s no central headquarters or anything like that. Instead the Council owns a selection of properties around England that they make use of on a rotating basis. This one was an old gym in Islington, a blocky building of fading red bricks tucked away down a back street. The man at the front desk glanced up as I walked in and gave me a nod. “Hey Mr. Verus. Looking for the students?”
“Yep. And the guy waiting for me.”
“Oh. Uh, I’m not supposed to talk about—”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks.” I opened the door, closed it behind me, and looked at the man leaning against the corridor wall. “You know, for someone who’s not a diviner, you seem to know an awful lot about where to find me.”
Talisid is middle-aged with a receding hairline, and every time I’ve seen him he always seems to be wearing the same nondescript-looking suit. If you added a pair of glasses he’d look like a maths teacher, or maybe an accountant. He doesn’t look like much at first glance, but there’s something in his eyes that suggests he might be more than he seems.
I’ve never known exactly what to make of Talisid. He’s involved with a high-up faction of the Council, but what game they’re playing I don’t know. “Verus,” Talisid said with a nod. “Do you have a minute?”
I began walking towards the doors at the end of the hall. Talisid fell in beside me. “Since you’re here,” I said, “I’m guessing I’m either in trouble or about to get that way.”
Talisid shook his head. “Has anybody ever told you you’re a remarkably cynical person?”
“I like to think of it as learning from experience.”
“I’ve never forced you to accept a job.”
The doors opened into a stairwell. Narrow rays of sun were streaming down through slit windows of frosted glass, catching motes of dust floating in the air. They lit up Talisid and me as we climbed, placing us in alternating light and shadow. “Okay,” I said. “Hit me.”
“The task I’d like your help with is likely to be difficult and dangerous,” Talisid said. “It’s also covered by strict Council secrecy. You may not tell anyone the details, or even that you’re working for us.”
I looked over my shoulder with a frown. “Why all the secrecy?”
“You’ll understand once you hear the details. Whether to take the assignment is up to you, but confidentiality is not.”
I thought for a second. “What about Luna?”
“The Council would prefer to limit the number of people in the know as far as possible,” Talisid said. “However, due to the . . . nature of the problem I believe your apprentice might be of some help.” Talisid paused. “She would also be in greater danger.”
We reached the top floor, at the doors to the hall, and stopped. “I’ll be down the corridor,” Talisid said. “Once you’ve decided, come speak to me.”
“Not coming in?”
Talisid shook his head. “The fewer people that know of my involvement, the better. I’ll see you in twenty minutes.”
I watched Talisid go with a frown. I’ve done jobs for Talisid before, and while they’d generally been successful, they hadn’t been safe. In fact, they’d been decidedly unsafe. If he was calling the job ‘difficult and dangerous’ . . . I turned and pushed the doors open.
The top hall had once been a boxing gym. Chains hung from the ceiling, but the heavy bags had been removed and so had the ring at the centre. Mats covered the floor and light trickled in from windows high above. Two blocky ceramic constructions were set up at either end of the hall, ten feet tall and looking exactly like a pair of giant tuning forks.
Inside the room were five students and one teacher. Three of the students were against the far wall: a small round-faced Asian girl, a blond-haired boy with glasses, and another boy with dark Indian skin and the khaki turban of a Sikh who was keeping an noticeable distance from the first two. All looked about twenty or so. I didn’t know their names but had seen them around enough times to recognise them as seniors in the apprenticeship program.
The next girl I knew a little better. She was tall and slim, with black hair that brushed her shoulders, and her name was Anne. And standing close to her (but not too close) was Luna, my apprentice.
The last person in the room was the teacher. He was just under thirty, well-dressed and affluent-looking with short dark hair and olive-tinted skin, and he stopped what he’d been saying as I walked in. Five sets of interested eyes turned in my direction, following the teacher’s gaze.
“Hi, Lyle,” I said. “Didn’t know you’d taken up teaching.”
Lyle hesitated. “Er—”
I waved a hand. “Don’t let me interrupt. Go right ahead.” I found a spot on the wall and leant against it.
“Um,” Lyle looked from me to the students. “Er. The thing– Well, as I– yes.” He floundered, obviously off his groove. Lyle’s never been good with surprises. I watched with eyebrows raised and an expression of mild inquiry. I didn’t feel like making it easy for him.
Lyle was one of the first Light mages I met when Richard Drakh introduced me into magical society. We’d both been teenagers then, but Lyle had a few years of experience on me: his talent had developed earlier than mine and he’d had time to learn the ins and outs of the social game. I’d been a Dark apprentice and there’d never been any question but that Lyle would try for the Council, but all the same we became friends. We were both the type to rely on cleverness rather than strength, and our types of magic complemented each other nicely. Unfortunately, our goals turned out to be less compatible.
At the time I was still feeling my way, unsure of what I wanted to be. Lyle on the other hand knew exactly what he wanted: status, advancement, prestige, a position in the Council bureaucracy from which he could work his way upwards. And when I lost Richard’s favour and with it any standing I might have had, Lyle had to choose between me and his ambitions. Supporting me would have cost him. So when I showed up again, alone and desperate, Lyle’s response was to pretend I wasn’t there. Under mage law the master-apprentice relationship is sacred. An apprentice is their master’s responsibility, no-one else’s. I’d defied Richard, fled from him, and it was Richard’s right to do with me as he pleased. The Light mages knew that Richard would come to collect his runaway and so they shut me out . . . and waited for him to finish things.
But something happened then that the Light and the Dark mages did not expect. When Richard sent Tobruk to kill me – the cruellest and most powerful of his four apprentices – it was Tobruk who died. And in the aftermath, instead of coming to take vengeance Richard vanished, along with his last two apprentices, Rachel and Shireen. I was left alive, safe . . . and alone.
Technically, under mage law, I hadn’t done anything wrong. It’s not illegal for an apprentice to successfully defend themselves against their master, it’s just so bloody rare no-one’s ever bothered to pass a law against it. But I’d broken tradition older than law. An apprentice is supposed to obey their master for good or ill, and no other mage would take me on – after all, if I’d rebelled against one master, I might rebel against another. Besides, no-one was quite sure what had happened to Richard. He might be gone for good – or he might suddenly reappear, in which case nobody wanted to be anywhere near me when he did. So once again, other mages distanced themselves from me and waited.
They waited and waited, and kept waiting so long they forgot all about me, by which time I was glad to let them do it. I started to make a new life for myself. I travelled, had some adventures. As a result of one of them I inherited a shop, a little business in the side streets of Camden Town. I’d only been planning to run it a few months, but as the months turned into years I realised I enjoyed what it brought me. The shop and the flat above it became my residence, then my home. I made new friends. Gradually I began to remember what it was like to be happy again.
And then one day Lyle walked into my shop and brought me back into the mage world with its politics and its alliances and its dangers. This time I was prepared. And this time, to my surprise, I found I liked it.
I snapped out of my reverie. Lyle was talking and seemed to have regained his confidence, though it was obvious that he’d prefer it if I wasn’t here. “—remember that in a duel, you’re representing both your master and the Council,” Lyle was saying. “Now, I know some of you have done this before, but it’s very important that your form is exactly right. Let’s go through the basic greetings one more time . . . Yes?”
The one who had raised her hand was Luna. “Um,” Luna said. “Could you explain how these duels work?”
Lyle blinked at her. “What do you mean?”
Luna looked around to see that everyone else was watching her. “Well . . .” She seemed to choose her words carefully. “You’ve explained about the selection process. And the rituals and the salutes, and the withdrawal at the end. What about the part in the middle?”
“Um . . . the actual duel.”
“Well, it depends, I suppose.” Lyle looked confused. “Styles change and all that. Personally, I find the performance is more important.”
“We’re supposed to be practising for the tournament today,” the Sikh boy said. He sounded unfriendly.
“Oh.” Lyle looked around. “Well, um . . . yes, maybe a practice match then.” Lyle glanced quickly over Luna, then pointed to the other two girls. “Natasha and, um, Anne. Why don’t you go first.”
The round-faced girl, Natasha, looked at Anne in anticipation. Anne bowed her head slightly to Lyle. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
Natasha made a rude noise and the boy with glasses rolled his eyes. “Oh god, not this again.”
“Er . . .” Lyle looked taken aback. “Is there some medical reason—”
“No, she’s fine,” Natasha chipped in. “She just won’t do it.”
“Anne?” Lyle said. “Is there a reason?”
“I’m sorry,” Anne said again. She had a soft, quiet voice. “I don’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“It’s nothing to do with trouble,” Lyle said with a frown. “Unless you or your master can give a good reason you’re required to participate.”
Anne didn’t answer. “All right then,” Lyle said, gesturing to the centre of the hall. “Off you go.”
No response. “Anne?” Lyle said irritably. “Did you hear me?”
Anne stood silently, looking back at Lyle. “This is an order,” Lyle declared, pointing to the mats. “Get over there and participate.”
Anne still didn’t move. Lyle was left standing with one arm outstretched. Not only did he look vaguely ridiculous, everyone else in the room was watching him. Lyle hesitated, then lowered his arm quickly. “Anne, will you do as you’re told, please?” It was probably supposed to sound authoritative, but it came out more like a pleading.
Anne shook her head mutely. “Oh, this is such crap,” Natasha said angrily. “How come she gets to do this?”
“Just do the duel already,” the other boy said.
“Yes, er . . .” Lyle said. “I need to impress on you the seriousness of this. Refusing a direct order from an authorised teacher is—”
“Why don’t you guys ever do anything about her?” Natasha demanded. “She always does this and you always let her get away with it.”
“Leave her alone,” Luna said.
“You stay out of this.”
“Yeah, what makes it your business?” Luna said. “You want a duel so badly, try me.”
“I don’t have to—” Natasha started saying angrily. The boy with glasses started to talk over her, and both Luna and the Sikh boy started talking over him, raised voices making a clamour.
“Quiet,” Lyle said. “QUIET!” Gradually, he was obeyed. The five students fell silent, glowering at each other.
“As I was saying,” Lyle began, then looked at Anne and trailed off. Anne hadn’t moved. Her stance wasn’t confrontational, but she was looking at Lyle with a sort of quietly polite expression. Lyle looked at Luna, then at Natasha.
It was easy to read Lyle’s thoughts. He wanted to force Anne to do as she was told, but he couldn’t think of any way to make her do it. The alternative was to let Luna step into her place, and he didn’t want to do that either, in case that ticked me off. In the end Lyle did what Lyle always does: pass the buck. “Er,” he said, looking up at me. “If your apprentice doesn’t mind . . .”
I nodded at Luna. “Ask her.”
“Er,” Lyle said again. “Right. Well. Natasha and, er, Luna. Take your focuses.”
Natasha was whispering something to the boy with glasses. I walked towards Luna, aiming to meet her by the table in the corner, but Anne got there first. “You didn’t have to do that,” Anne said quietly.
Anne is tall and slender, only a few inches shorter than me, with dark shoulder-length hair framing a face the shape of a downward-pointed triangle. She looks about twenty-two, Luna’s age, which is on the old side for an apprentice – most graduate to journeyman by twenty-one or so. Her eyes are an odd red-brown colour, set at an angle that give her a slightly catlike look, and there’s a stillness to her movements. She’s striking, but she has a quiet unobtrusive manner that tends to make her fade into the background.
Luna looks very different. She’s average height, with wavy brown hair worn up in bunches and a fair complexion inherited from both her Italian father and her English mother. She’d blend into a crowd, if she’d ever willingly step into one, which she wouldn’t. She used to always have a distant look, but these days she feels more animated, connected to the world. As Anne spoke Luna gave her a quick glance and moved automatically away. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I don’t want you to get in trouble because of me.”
Luna shrugged. “She was getting on my nerves anyway.”
Anne had been standing with her back to me, but as I came up to them she turned and dipped her head slightly. “Hello, Mr. Verus.”
“He hates it when people call him that,” Luna said without looking up. “Just call him Alex.”
Anne looked between me and Luna. “Ah . . .”
A sharp voice spoke from a little distance away. “Anne.”
I looked up to see the Sikh boy. He was frowning, and made a quick beckoning motion. “I’m sorry,” Anne said. “Could you excuse me a second?”
I watched Anne walk away. “Very polite, isn’t she?” I said once she was out of earshot.
“She’s always like that,” Luna said absently. “Okay, help me out here. I have no idea how to use these.”
The Sikh boy was talking to Anne under his breath, making quick hand movements. He kept his face turned away, but from his stance he looked tense. I watched a second, then shook my head and turned back to Luna. “All right. How much has Lyle taught you?”
“A lot of stuff about how to bow and curtsey.”
“Square one then.” I nodded to the giant tuning forks at either end of the hall. “Those ceramic things are azimuth duelling focuses. When they’re activated, they maintain a conversion field around the person they’re targeted on. The conversion field takes any external magical energy that tries to penetrate it and transforms it into light. Basically, it’s a wide-spectrum shield. If a magical attack hits you, there’s a flash and nothing happens. The flash is used for scoring. One flash, one point.”
Luna nodded. “Okay.”
“That covers defence. But some mages can’t do direct magical attacks.” I gestured to the table. “That’s where the focus weapons come in. They act as conductors. You channel your magic through them. Hit the other guy with one and it’ll trigger the conversion field.”
The table Luna had been looking at held what looked like training weapons. There wasn’t a great selection and they had a worn, chipped look; the kind of things I’d sell at a deep discount. Luna hesitated, then picked out a sword made out of some kind of pale wood. As she touched it the silver mist of her curse flowed around it, soaking in.
Luna’s an adept, not a mage. Adepts are the next step down on the magical pyramid from mages, and the best way to think of them is as mages who can only cast one spell. That doesn’t mean they’re weak – in fact, since adepts spend so much time practising and refining their one spell, they tend to get really good with it – but they don’t have the range and breadth of abilities that mages do. Luna’s unusual for an adept in that her magic doesn’t come from within, but from without: her spell is actually a curse, passed down from daughter to daughter. It brings good luck to her, and bad luck to everyone else, which can range from ‘papercut’ to ‘struck by lightning’, depending on how careful she is and how close you get.
Usually a curse like that just keeps working on its subject forever, but in this case something unusual happened. The curse has grown up with Luna, woven into her so that it can’t be removed – but just as it’s a part of her, she’s a part of it, and over the last year she’s started to learn to control it. She can’t shut it off and she definitely can’t let herself touch anyone, but she’s gotten a lot better at guiding her curse away from people she doesn’t want to hurt – not to mention sending it at people she does.
It’s not actually forbidden for adepts to train as apprentices, but it’s not customary either. So far it hasn’t come up, partly because no-one wants to be the first to get between a mage and their apprentice, and partly because Luna’s area of magic is so poorly understood that not many mages can tell the difference between a chance mage and a chance adept anyway. It’s probably going to cause trouble one of these days, but that’s a worry for another time.
Luna studied the sword as her curse twined lazily around it. To my mage’s sight Luna’s curse looks like a silver-gray mist, shifting and changing, constantly seeping from her skin and soaking into everything around her. To living creatures that mist is poison, invisible and utterly lethal. I’ve seen people survive brushes from Luna’s curse with nothing but a few bruises – and I’ve also seen a man die a violent death within seconds of touching her. That’s why it’s so dangerous – you can never predict what it’ll do. “What do I do?” Luna asked.
“You’re doing it,” I said. “As long as you hold it, your magic’ll keep it charged.”
Luna looked down dubiously. “It doesn’t look like . . .”
“Like anything’s happening?”
I smiled. “Focus items depend on who’s using them. Your magic’s subtle, so the effect’s subtle.”
“Is it okay to hit her with this?”
“The azimuth shield’s enough to take most of the punch out of a magical strike. Don’t go sitting on her, but a couple of hits won’t do her any harm.”
I became aware that the rest of the room had gone quiet, and looked up to see that everyone was waiting for us. Natasha was standing at one end of the azimuth piste. Unlike Luna, she wasn’t wielding a weapon. “Luna?” Lyle said. “Are you ready?”
Luna nodded. “Ready.” She walked out onto the piste. I saw Lyle concentrate, channelling his magic, and to my mage’s sight the two focuses lit up with power, energy extending from them to weave a shield around the two girls. Luna flinched and glanced back as the effect touched her, and I saw the silver mist of her curse flicker and twist, merging with the shield. Natasha just looked bored. Anne and the two boys had spaced themselves along the wall.
“Er,” Lyle said. “Let’s say first to three. Ready and . . . go!”
Luna darted forward, sword raised, and blue light welled up around Natasha’s hands.
The bout was to three points. The score at the end was 3-0. Natasha and Luna fought two more bouts. The score at the end of each of those was 3-0, too.
It’s not that Luna’s clumsy or anything. And she’s no stranger to fighting; there are fully qualified mages who’ve seen less combat than Luna has. But all the fights Luna and I have been through have been the nasty, lethal, anything-goes kind, where you stab the other guy in the back before he does the same to you. A duel is very different. It’s not combat, it’s a sport, with rules and regulations and a referee. Winning a duel and surviving a combat are very different things, and being good at one doesn’t necessarily make you good at the other.
Luna’s opponent Natasha wasn’t especially strong or quick. But like all elemental mages she had the great advantage of range. While Luna had to run all the way up to Natasha to hit her, Natasha could just smack Luna off her feet with a water blast.
Which she did. Repeatedly.
When Lyle finally called the fight I waited at the table for Luna to get back. She was moving stiffly, but I could tell she was more angry than hurt. “Good job,” I said as she reached me.
Luna gave me a look.
“That’s your idea of a good job?”
“Everyone loses their first duel,” I said. “What matters is you put up a fight.”
“Did you know I’d lose that badly?”
“I didn’t check.”
Natasha was talking and laughing with the boy with glasses, her hands moving in animation as she relived knocking Luna down. “All right,” Lyle called. “Charles and Variam, why don’t you go next?”
I looked at Luna. She was annoyed, obviously embarrassed about losing . . . and yet she looked better than I’d ever seen her. When she’d first walked into my shop a year and a half ago, she’d been silent and detached, never showing her feelings. Apprentice training isn’t easy, but Luna was engaged now; she had a place in the world. “Come on,” I said. “We’ve got a job offer.”
I knew Lyle wouldn’t question me taking Luna out of the class, and he didn’t. As the door swung shut behind us, I got a look at the two boys, Charles and Variam, facing off against each other on the piste. From a glance into the future I knew this match was going to be a lot more eventful than the last one.