I woke early the next morning but didn’t immediately head to Renshaw’s for breakfast. That was difficult, because there was a knot of hunger in my belly that wanted to go intrude on the wizard’s hospitality as soon as possible. Nevertheless, if I was going to spend a significant portion of the day ashore, I’d have to be cognizant of how much time I had on my Uproot ability.
I had eight hours on land before I died. Long before that I’d be uncomfortable, not only feeling the pull of the sea but the soles of my feet would start to burn, then my legs. I hadn’t stayed ashore long enough to experiment yet, but I imagined it would just get worse until my timer elapsed and I fell to the ground in agony, my HP sapped before anyone could so much as splash me with a bucket of water.
So it was mid-morning before I climbed out of the harbor and quickly made my way to Renshaw’s home/school. He’d shut it up against the predicted heat of the day, so I knocked on his door. It was a minute before he answered, long enough for me to deliberate knocking again. He was glad to see me, though.
“Come in, come in! I was going to have your input on what you wanted to eat but you’re later than I expected, so I set to cooking.”
I followed him back to his kitchen, my stomach rumbling. “I’m sure whatever you make is fine. I’m sorry for my lateness.”
He waved away my apology and I observed what he was cooking. He’d grilled the wing meat from a flying boar and was now adding the eggs for an omelet. Yes, what he was making was fine indeed …
“You’ve been busy the last few days?” he asked me as he tossed egg shells. Those were larger shells than I’d expect from most birds, but I wasn’t familiar with the inland species wherever I went.
“Sort of. Sailed out for a scavenging job, had some trouble with the boat. Spent just as much time bailing water as anything else!” Renshaw chuckled, but I already knew he didn’t have the seamanship skill and wouldn’t question me on my tale.
“What about you? Been booked with private lessons? Teaching the little hellions?”
“Oh, there’s a share of hellions in any group, I imagine. I wasn’t one myself, growing up, but my best friends were. They’ll irk me now and then – or on the regular, even – but I wouldn’t teach if I didn’t enjoy seeing some people’s desire to know what I’ve learned.”
That painted him in a different light than I’d seen him during our last lesson, but it fit him better. “I’ll admit the only time I get along with kids is when they’re part of a ships’ crew, and then I’m treating them as a man.”
“I’ve found that’s often the best way to treat them. Sure, children need to be handled, but they want respect just as much as you and I. Talking to them like they’re immature insults them and stunts their learning. Of course, I’m an educator and not a parent, so my perspective might not be the one for you base any fatherly philosophies on.”
“Any parenting style is a good one.”
He turned from his omelet – which was turning into a magical creation of its own in my eyes – and regarded me oddly. “I’m not sure if that’s spoken like a person with great parents or terrible ones.”
Absent ones, I thought. I’m sure if I’d had a father with a bad parenting style, I’d have hated him all the same. But I couldn’t help but think that would have been better than not having him there at all.
My mother had deserved better. She wasn’t just a female for men to pay for the opportunity of relieving their urges before moving on. Even if my father had been the deceased Marston son, he should have married her to make an honest woman of her – not leave her friendless and helpless at the mercy of those with social power.
Not leave me to be a boy without a father.
I didn’t say any of these things out loud. That was twice now that thoughts of my parents had come up in my conversations with Renshaw. Why? I only imagined it was because I was learning from the wizard the way I’d wanted to learn from my father. I didn’t see Renshaw in a fatherly light, despite this. I was a man grown; I wasn’t looking for a substitute daddy. I knew I was paying Marcus for his time and instruction, and he was getting more of my time because he was interested in knowing more about my oddities – and maybe because he was a bit starved for conversation.
In any case, not even my real father would get that ‘father-son attachment’ from me. That took time to build – and it wasn’t just quantity of time but being there at the right time. He wasn’t. I didn’t care who my father was. I would never look for him, but if I ever found him he’d get nothing from me but cool professionalism as he boarded my ship. That had been the old dream, anyway. Now that my ship and I were both cursed in nature, not even that would happen.
“I can see this isn’t something you want to talk about, and I won’t pry. I jut hope you’ll take breakfast as an apology.” Renshaw divided his large omelet in two and handed me half. Actually, he’d divided it a bit unevenly and given me the larger section. I guess he’d heard my stomach.
“Nothing to forgive, ignore my wandering mind. I will enjoy this breakfast, though!”
It was cooler inside, so we sat in his teaching room. Renshaw sat cross legged like it was second nature to him and ate with his plate on his lap. I imitated him as best as possible, but the position wasn’t nearly so natural to me.
I didn’t notice the first few bites besides that they were very good. Once I reminded myself to slow down, I enjoyed the flavors immensely. The pork was especially good. Most avian creatures I’d had tasted the same to me, but pork was distinct in any cuisine and the wing meat of a flying boar was a unique flavor of its own. To my understanding, boars were a common nuisance everywhere, flying or otherwise. If they weren’t so overabundant, I could imagine what I was now enjoying being a delicacy.
“So,” Renshaw said after we’d both savored a significant portion of our meal. “What exciting things happened over your trip?”
“Exciting things?” I said. “What makes you think it was exciting? As I said, bailing out water the whole way back.”
“Your aura. My apologies if I’m indecorous with this, but when we first met I noticed you smelled of the sea. Nothing too noticeable, I wrote it off as how you make your living. Yet last night I noticed a difference. Your aura has distinctly changed. Please don’t be offended!” he exclaimed as I’m sure my cheeks turned just a bit red. “I’m not saying you smell bad, I’m saying that around you … well, you remind me of the sea. I know that seems trifling in a port town, but it’s like you bottled up the essence of what it means to be a seaman underway and are using it as a perfume. Hence my question: what changed?”
What changed, indeed. I’d claimed my ship, that’s what. I’d noticed my – aura – as well, earlier. I hadn’t thought twice about it, given that I was used to certain odors occurring after enough time. Now I needed to think up a story that Renshaw would believe but didn’t out my secret.
No, I wasn’t skilled enough to do that. Maybe Hali could come up with a lie elaborate enough to fool a trained mage, but I knew I couldn’t. Deceit wasn’t my forte. Better to play ignorant.
“I don’t know. There were a couple unique aspects to the job. The whole boat repair/bailing water thing was annoying, but on the whole I enjoyed the work.”
“What were you doing?”
“Oh, I’d forgotten that I hadn’t shared that already. I work a salvaging job. I’m a sailor by trade, but I wanted to be able to stick around town long enough to get a bunch of different training. I scavenged an adventurers’ bag from a wreck before I came here, so I’m paid well to reach some areas.”
Renshaw examined my bag. Given that I’d had it freshly restored, I didn’t mind bringing it around for his examination. Being secretive about it struck me as a bad idea. If no one knew I had it, that was best. If they did know, trying to hide it seemed suspicious.
“A spatial container! I regret not picking one up when I had the opportunity. A guild of mages struck a deal to acquire a certain number of these bags at a frankly exorbitant cost that I balked at. Now I see it would have been an opportunity. I’ve known people who try to get around the adventurer society’s stringent controls, but it doesn’t always work out. I even knew a woman who tried researching another method of spatial magic, but the society successfully had her censured.”
“I’ve met adventurers and seen their bags before, but I never realized until recently how unique and rare they are.”
“To my admittedly limited understanding, there is indeed a difficult process to create them. If it was easy, there’d be black-market operations to create them all over. However, they undergo a steep markup even to society members. It’s part of how the society finances itself. Certain adventurers or government officials might question you on it if you claim not to belong to the society. I don’t have a good enough understanding of salvage law to know whether they’d have grounds to take it from you. You were lucky to find it, though!”
“I know,” I said simply. I was sure I’d used up my lifetime’s supply of luck in that one week, however. “Anyway, I enjoyed my time in the wreck. It reminded me of the first ship I ever sailed on.”
“Hmm, the connection might be as simple as that. There’s a philosophy that the simple answer is always the right one, but I’ve disproved enough assumptions to ignore that philosophy. I may be scorned for imaginative ideas, but it pays dividends. Did you use your water magic on this wreck?”
“Yes, actually. I practiced quite a lot there. Practicing underwater felt easier, though it came with its own problems.”
“Yes, yes. The aura on you reminds me of the aura developed by some elementalists, but you haven’t progressed nearly enough down that path for that. Have you? If your affinity was extraordinary enough … but no, your application just hasn’t progressed yet.”
Because I knew nothing about magic, every theory he postulated sounded plausible to me. If I hadn’t known what I did about myself, I’d believe him. I tried to remember everything he said, though, in case I needed to explain it to someone else. The one about having a super strong affinity for water stroked my ego, I could see myself going with that.
I let him postulate for a few minutes while I finished my meal – which hit the spot, alright! Then I asked a question I wanted to know about.
“When I practiced my spells on land my mana pushed and pulled the water – and I only felt myself controlling the water.”
“Well, when I practiced underwater, it wasn’t the same. I didn’t just push the water away from me, I pushed myself away from the water! How is that? Why the difference?”
“Ahh, what you discovered is one of the many idiosyncrasies with magic. When you have yourself rooted you only see the effects of your mana. If you’re standing on the pier, a powerful water push can move a ship out to sea. You are not straining yourself to do so, as you are not doing the work.
“However, when you are in suspended animation in liquid – and only in liquid – your water spells may behave differently. A water summoning spell would not change but launching an ice spike would cause a reaction you normally wouldn’t feel. It’s theorized that because you are part of the environment you are shaping, the magic has an opposite effect on you. It is a consistent, measurable effect; but it is not necessarily in direct relation to the mana spent or spell type. Summon water has no opposite effect, ice spike will have some ‘recoil,’ and force abilities – such as water push and pull – will cause an equal, opposite reaction. Essentially, your spell is half the strength because half the energy is affecting you.
“Air magic has a similar caveat. If you jump in the air and conduct an air push, you will have the same effect that you had when suspended in water. Water and air are very similar as far as behavior and application go. If you wanted to learn fire or death magic, I’d have to teach you different theory because they behave very differently from what you’ve unlocked.
“Again, with either magic the case requires you to be suspended in that element. I’ve done a number of experiments with engineers who were similarly interested in the relationship between magic and physics, and I can say that if you anchor yourself in any way you’ll return to the ‘normal’ method of casting. Interestingly enough, earth magic requires a firm foundation for spell casting no matter the environment …”
As Renshaw started to talk about earth magic, I mentally tuned out a bit to process what he’d told me. In water, I believed that it would give me greater mobility – which was a plus. Air magic on the other hand sounded like a pest. I hadn’t learned it yet, but changing direction mid-jump because you cast a spell seemed disorienting. Of course, some people would find the ways I was adapting my water spells to be disorienting too.
Renshaw stopped lecturing when he realized he was rambling and polished off his breakfast. I took the opportunity to ask him about my spells being unavailable immediately after using them. He rubbed his hands together in excitement.
“Oh, I wish my entire class was here to hear our conversation! Not really, we probably wouldn’t get around to answering all your questions. But oh, I can see you’ve been doing some experimentation and keen observation of your own!”
“What you observed is the cooldown period after a spell. The expenditure of mana into a complex structure carries a cost to your body. You might not have to think about what the magic is doing when you trigger the spell, but it is doing work! The tension of what the spell is doing carries an effect where your mana core won’t be able to replicate it for a certain period of time. The more complex the spell, the longer the cooldown.
“You might think mana cost is a good indicator of complexity, but that’s not necessarily true. If you upgrade your water push to move tons of water, it would still be simpler than a normal spell of something like, oh … summoning a water construct. In either case, your core knows what it can’t handle and you can’t exceed those limits. Of course there are abilities that temporarily reduce cooldowns, but that is its own expression of magic to reinforce your core. Reducing cooldown times is one of the functions of the Wisdom attribute. With your level of Wisdom, I’m frankly surprised you noticed the cooldown on water push at all!”
“I may have been spamming it as fast as I could.”
Renshaw smiled. “Getting the spell was a rush, wasn’t it?”
“Oh yeah! I felt like I was actually a mage. Unlocking air and water magic was cool, but it wasn’t real to me until I could use it, does that make sense?”
“Of course. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy teaching. When you acquire more spells the novelty may disappear, but I’ve never lost the thrill of it!”
He stood and took my plate. I unfolded my legs and stretched when I stood. That particular crisscross position was something that needed working up to. I could only imagine how my legs would feel if my Agility stat was lower. They’d have fallen asleep before Renshaw finished talking about my aura!
While Renshaw was in the kitchen, someone knocked on the door before letting themselves in. I recognized it as the boy who’d been meditating outside last night.
“Good morning,” I greeted.
He bowed slightly in my direction. “Good morning, sir.”
Normally I’d have waved him off calling me ‘sir’, especially if we were on a ship. I didn’t know what Renshaw’s rules were, though, and if he was a disciplinarian with his class I didn’t want to undermine him.
Renshaw didn’t seem like a disciplinarian when he returned from the kitchen and saw the boy. “Bing! How are you?”
“Doing well, master,” the boy replied, bowing just as he had to me. Renshaw didn’t bat an eye.
“This here is Domenic, a friend and student.” Calling me a friend after two visits seemed premature, but I wasn’t opposed to the idea. “He just learned his first abilities, and we were just talking about the early process. I think you’d get something about sitting in on the conversation.” He shot me a look as though to ask whether it was fine by me.
“Sounds fine by me!” I said. Especially when I wasn’t being charged for the lesson.
“Good,” Renshaw replied, immediately sitting down cross legged on a rug. Bing followed suit, mirroring Renshaw’s position, so I did the same even if I’d rather have a stool or chair.
“We just talked about cooldowns; did you have any questions about that?”
“No, though I’m sorry I don’t have an opening for Bing to listen to.”
Bing didn’t say anything, but Renshaw explained, “Bing already knows the theory behind cooldown periods, so he’s not missing an opportunity to learn.”
Then why is he learning from me and not the other way around? I didn’t voice my question, but instead asked a question on a different topic. “How do I go about upgrading my abilities? Is it possible to jump from knowing a weak water push to learning a really strong one?”
Renshaw studied me closely, and I began to wonder if I’d said something utterly moronic without realizing it. Then he turned to Bing.
Bing looked as surprised as I. “Master?”
“Domenic won’t take offense from learning from a boy.” He shot me a look as though to tell me I’d better not. “This is an opportunity for you and he both.”
Bing nodded and turned to me. “Changing an ability is an incremental process. Attempting to relearn it at a different stage is counterproductive. Have you been trying to learn a stronger water push by using raw mana to move more water?”
I glanced at Renshaw, surprised at the knowledge, confidence and acuity of Bing’s response. The old wizard was grinning like a loon. He didn’t give any explanation why a boy with no magic abilities had the expertise for this.
“Yes, I have.”
Bing nodded. “That is a productive use of practicing mana manipulation, but an ineffective way of upgrading your push.”
“That’s a very polite way of saying I’m messing it up.” I knew I miss-stepped the moment I said it, as his eyes looked down and his cheeks turned red.
“My apologies, Master Domenic,” he said with a mini-bow.
I waved my hands to try and stop both his protestation and Renshaw’s move to bite my head off. “Please! I wasn’t talking down to you! I just noticed how delicately you phrased that. I thought it was something you picked up from Renshaw. I’d have made the same quip to him. He can vouch for that.” I turned to Renshaw as though begging him to do just that.
His temporary anger had abated. He turned to Bing again. “Go on, but don’t call Domenic ‘master’.”
It sounded like a rebuke to Bing rather than a reminder that I was a student. Why would Renshaw do that? Why the sensitivity over Bing’s instruction? Why did Bing call me master in the first place?
Was calling me ‘master Domenic’ when we both knew I knew nothing and he knew everything his way of insulting me?
The clever stinker. If he really had done that on purpose I was proud of him.
Bing continued. “Upgrading abilities can be used in conjunction with mana manipulation, but there’s no proof that adding additional mana to a spell facilitates the learning process.”
“I for one am a believer in the theory,” Renshaw interjected. Bing waited to see if Renshaw had more to say, then went on.
“Practicing a spell with the attempt to create a different result will modify how your core uses the mana. You may make miniscule adjustments to your base spell, but your core will discover the adjusted manner of performing it. Then you will have ‘two’ spells: a weaker one and a stronger one. With practice, you can vary the intensity between these two for a scale that applies to the situation. You can use a halfway strong spell. The mana cost will skew to the more expensive of the two abilities, though, so ‘halfway in power’ may mean ‘three quarters the mana’. You can’t vary the power like that above your highest spell, either. You have to unlock the next tier of the spell first.”
I rubbed the facial hair on my chin as I considered what he said (it had been a few weeks since I’d shaved). I also tried to consider the application of how I’d go about learning stronger spells. It was hard to picture.
“So, if I want to learn the next level of a spell … and I practice the spell a lot … I’ll learn it?”
“Desire isn’t the focus so much as intent. Or rather,” he paused to think for a moment. “Your intent is best framed as your attempt to change. You can try casting the spell repeatedly with the mental picture of the spell doing more than it will. Or, you can do as Master Renshaw prefers, using mana manipulation in addition to your spell. Both convey the attempt to change how your core utilizes the magic, so both are effective means of upgrading the spell.”
I nodded. Another boy had knocked and entered, and Bing glanced over at him like he was nervous. I assumed Renshaw would interrupt if too many from his class showed up, so I asked another question.
“The variation between two spells, how does that look? How do I control that?”
Bing didn’t answer. Instead, he looked to Renshaw.
“Precision control over something like that is an advanced technique that would take you a lot of practice, so we won’t linger on it.” The wizard said. “You may find yourself pulling a half-measure if you’re internally unsure over which variant to use. Remember though, this is all still just one spell. Your intentions change how your core uses your mana pool. If you know the exact effect you are trying to achieve and cast the spell for it, it will happen. That’s assuming it’s within your range, of course.”
There were more children and adolescents entering now, and Bing looked back at them before looking to Renshaw as though looking for permission for something. Renshaw nodded subtly.
“Bing, I’d like to talk to my friend alone for a few minutes. Why don’t you wait outside and direct the class to meditate out back?”
Bing stood smoothly and bowed. “Yes, master,” he replied before escorting the boys out.
When they’d left I looked to Renshaw, a question in my eyes that didn’t have to do with the nature of magic.
“Bing is incredibly intelligent. His parents can afford my prices, so they have him train here. He hasn’t unlocked any magic yet – he’s only eleven – but they want to send him to a mages college.”
“I thought … well, I thought you were the person to go to when people wanted to avoid the colleges.”
“That is my primary clientele, yes. However, the colleges wouldn’t accept Bing because of his age, and his parents refused to accept that. Frankly, I think Bing will excel at anything he sets his mind to, but he’s too timid to cross his parents. Or anybody, really. I know he has bullies among his peers, but he seems to handle them well enough for a boy who I don’t believe has thrown a punch in his life.”
“He is remarkable,” I said. “I don’t doubt he’s more intelligent than I am. Has he put all his stats in intelligence?”
“You didn’t analyze him? Bing is only level two. His intelligence stat is 11. That’s high for someone not even a teenager, but it’s his brain that’s impressive. Not his stats.”
“Fascinating,” I said, and I meant it.
“Well, I have to teach these hooligans coming in. You’re free to leave if you wish, though I hope you’ll stay. We may have answered your questions about your water magic, but I’d like to coach you through air magic this afternoon.”
“I’ll stay, though I won’t be able to spend much of the afternoon here. You said something about me learning something by sitting in on the class?”
“You absolutely can. What you’re receiving is a crash course on applicability. Your goal is to learn how to wield spells. There’s only a handful of boys in this class and the one after it that have unlocked spells, so the applicability of magic is useless to most of them. They are learning the theory. Understanding that will help them unlock fields of magic, but it will also be a groundwork for discovering more things on their own once they do.”
“I’d be honored to sit in.”
“Perfect! You can follow along however you like, but if you’d like something to do I’d recommend meditating or try to change the appearance of your mana manifestation.”
“Great! How do I meditate?”
I’d caught Renshaw off guard a number of times, but I hadn’t seen him so flabbergasted.
“You mean to tell me you’ve never meditated?”
“I only unlocked magic a little while ago, remember?”
“Meditation has nothing to do with magic! It’s how you examine yourself! Have you never looked inward and analyzed yourself? Not ‘analyze’ like the skill, but …”
I held up my hand to stop the wizard. “I got you. You say ‘meditate’ I say ‘introspection’. Same thing, only I don’t cross my legs.”
Renshaw growled. “It is not the same thing! Meditation is a careful practice of sorting out your own emotions and seeing within your mind and your core!”
“Does it require emotional stability and result in a deeper understanding of yourself, your attributes and the progression of your skills?”
“Okay,” I said with a smug grin. “I’ll cross my legs and do my introspection. You can sort me out with meditation later.”
Renshaw shook his head, but I saw he’d cracked a smile. “And here I thought you were more mature than the rest of my students. I’m still your tutor, you know!”
“I know, I won’t undermine your authority in front of your pupils. But unlike the pups out there, I pay for your time.”
“Careful,” he said, pointing to me as he left to gather his flock of students. “I just might charge you for this class!”
I chuckled and moved to a wall where I thought I could be at least a little inconspicuous. Then I had the inspiration to take down one of the chairs stacked with the little desks along one wall. That was much better. I’d get around to practicing proper mage meditation later.
Renshaw shook his head when he returned as saw me but went about giving direction to the kiddos. I had spoken true when I said I didn’t get along so well with kids. I hadn’t even when I was one, I was an old soul at heart and obsessed with the sea to boot. I’d hung out with some town boys for a little bit but had no friends among them. I’d gone to sea and had a crew. That was better.
I didn’t usually notice kids, because I didn’t concern myself with them unless they were aboard my ship or practicing the pickpocket skill on me. A mass of kids like this had its own brand of intimidation, though. I knew of some schools that advocated for teaching kids basic skills like literacy and numeracy early; they had setups like this. Most people I’d known had a parent or relative teach them what they thought they needed to know.
You didn’t necessarily need to be literate or numerate to understand your own stats or others. I’d known men who couldn’t do either. They said it was a pain analyzing anyone else as they couldn’t glance over them so quickly, but on their own selves they instinctively understood what their skills were and how powerful it was. It was still a severe disadvantage, but the system the world operated in wasn’t dependent upon the language you knew.
If you learned multiple languages, you could change up how you saw your own stat sheet. Anyone analyzing you would still see it in their own language. I analyzed an elf and saw their stats in my tongue, in the way my mind categorized things. They saw my states in elvish, with different categories.
I was the object of a good deal of interest for the class, judging by the lingering stares and looks I was getting. I was guessing they didn’t often have adults drop in. I thought that was a pity, as more adults might have kept more order among the kiddos. Then again, it might not.
It always amazed me how any group would establish its own structure of power. That worked the same for ships, inside a nation, and even among groups of nations. This class was no different. The structure was a lot more whimsy than any of those, but it still existed.
The class seemed primarily divided by parentage. That made sense for social standing, as everyone did that and kids copied their elders. What was interesting was that the rich and privileged weren’t necessarily on the top of that heap. ‘Class’ meant less in Tulisang. Here it was about whose parents or relatives were the most powerful – pirating being the given trade. Wealth always spoke but the rich kids without the power-standing congregated around the ones who did have it, even if their clothes weren’t nearly as fine.
After societal pressure came size, because they were kids after all. The stronger kids had more power than the weaker kids, so they required more respect.
Maybe that wasn’t exclusive to children.
After I’d observed long enough to see these shifts and realize where the kids placed themselves or tried not to place themselves, I realized that Bing was on the bottom of the pecking order. I guessed his parents were government officials based on what Renshaw had told me of them and how the other kids treated him. He was also small – he was getting ready for his growth spurt, but it hadn’t hit him yet.
The smartest kid in the bunch was relegated to the very bottom of the power structure. Sadly, that seemed typical of what I’d seen in a lot of places.
The lecture Renshaw gave was interesting, mostly because it wasn’t exactly a lecture. He refused to give the kids that kind of leeway and required them to be involved. He asked them for their opinions or questions, he demanded answers from them that I guessed they were required to know from previous classes.
He never called on Bing.
At first I thought he was ignoring the boy, but he called on nearly everyone else. I realized he was trying to avoid inciting the others against Bing. Because Bing would know the answer, and he would give it correctly. The other boys would see his intelligence and sneer. If Renshaw called on one boy who didn’t know and then asked Bing, it would be even worse because the runt of the class had shown them up. Bing was trying to get the other boys to ignore him, so Renshaw went along with his plan.
It upset me more than it should have. I tried to focus on changing my mana manifestation from seawater to air but had no luck. My attempts drew the attention and whispers of the class, as they turned around to watch me. I dropped the attempt so Renshaw could go about his business.
I listened to Renshaw and what he was teaching. I thought he might have even adjusted what he was talking about a bit to apply to me better. But my interest was on the kids, how they formed their cliques, how they responded to the instruction, how they manipulated their mana. There wasn’t much of that last bit, as I gathered very few could.
One boy had seen my manifestation and tried to stare me down as he summoned his own: a purple and green-tinged manifestation around his hands. I didn’t know what kind of magic it was but judging by the attitude of the boy and the way others treated him, I was guessing it was death magic. I considered opening my stats to him in a power move, letting him see my attribute levels. I reminded myself that he was just a kid and there was no point playing power games with him.
It didn’t surprise me when class ended and that boy found his way over to me, brash as could be expected. I handled him with kid gloves, recalling what Renshaw had said earlier about kids wanting to be treated like adults. Thankfully the kid wasn’t brazen enough to actually cause a scene.
What I didn’t expect was for Bing to make his way over after all the other kids had chosen to ignore me.
“I hope you will forgive me for earlier, Mister Domenic.”
I was about to repeat that he’d done nothing wrong when I considered how smart – and devious – this kid was. “Hmm, I already pled my error. So either you didn’t believe me, or you just wanted an excuse to come talk with me.”
His eyes widened a bit, but then they sparkled. He didn’t crack a smile.
“It’s smart to apologize as a way of assuring someone that you’re not offending them.”
“Some would say that apologizing is a sign of weakness.”
“Is that what they believe where you come from?”
I smiled. “What makes you think I’m not from here?”
“You’re not a pirate, and you’re not native to Andros. You’re a sailor, so you’re not from Makam either.”
“The ‘new human empire’ to the east. Everyone calls it the human empire except for government officials, because the king mandated that it not be called an empire.”
“Very interesting. Your parents are government officials?”
“Master Renshaw already told you everything about me.”
“No, he told me you were incredibly intelligent and that your parents could afford his rates – both of which I could observe with my own two eyes.” I leaned forward. “There’s a game I used to play when I was younger. I’d watch the ships come in and I’d see their crews get off. I’d watch them and try and figure out their stories; where did they come from? I picked up my observation skill doing that. It was fun, and I was good at it. Are you familiar with this game?”
“Good! Let’s play. I may be a bit out of practice, but I think my observation skill is higher than yours. We’ll call that an even playing field.” I took a breath and began.
“Your parents are both government officials, at least one of them is a senior member here. Probably your dad, and he’s probably military. Your mum could be military but more likely she’s into local politics. They want to send you to the mage colleges of Andros but they won’t accept you despite how smart you are. So, they send you to the local magic trainer because if Andros can’t shut Renshaw down in Tulisang, they might as well use him to give you a leg up.
“Now you’re taking classes because your parents want you to absorb as much as possible to increase your odds of unlocking magical abilities. Only classes are a pain for you because you’re the bottom of the barrel to these kids, and all your effort is on appearing insignificant instead of threatening. You get most of your learning from your private sessions with Renshaw, because he understands your level of intellect and knows how to fill it with knowledge. I’d go so far as to say you believe no one understands you the way he does. You don’t know that you want to be a mage but you’re willing to give it a go because you want to be like him. Am I warm?”
“You couldn’t have deduced my parents were refused by the mage colleges.”
I shrugged. “Eh, Renshaw let that slip too. Other than that?”
“You need my validation?”
“Don’t string me out here, Bing. I just ran my mouth off and now I’m dying of curiosity to know how close I was! I didn’t even peek at your stat sheet.”
The corner of his lip quirked, but he still didn’t smile. “Very close.” After letting me sit for a few more moments he relented. “My mother isn’t in local politics, she’s with the military. She helps direct the administrative affairs.”
“Close enough. Are you an only child?”
“No, my older sister also works for the government. My mother got her a job at the local library.”
The gears in my head started grinding. “Wait. Does your sister talk in a monotone, use as few words as possible, and read erotic novels?”
His lips twitched again. “Don’t let on about the erotic novels, father disapproves.”
“I won’t tell. But you can tell your sister she’s a twit.”
Bing finally smiled. “I’d prefer that revelation didn’t come from me, but I see you’ve visited the library.”
“Is that a surprise?”
“In this town, yes. You normally spend much time at libraries?”
“Uh-uh. I ran my guesses off you, you do the same. Wasn’t that why you approached me?”
“No. I approached you because I couldn’t place you. You’re a man from a dozen lands.”
“Don’t tell me you can’t read me well enough to guess. You may be the boy genius, but my own intelligence isn’t zero.”
“You’re from Andros, only you’ve been sailing most of your life.”
“I guessed more than that!”
“You got things wrong though.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it; I loved this precocious child. I couldn’t say that he reminded me of myself, the only similarity seemed to be that he was an old soul too. Otherwise, I’d say he outclassed me at half my age. “Be a mage. Be an army officer. Just promise me you won’t be a politician, you’re far too …”
I drifted off as I saw smoke through Renshaw’s window. People were standing outside, looking at it. It was a deep black and swirled upwards like a cyclone before billowing out. That didn’t look like a normal fire.
“Renshaw,” I said, interrupting his conversation with another student. My tone of voice made him come look immediately. He followed me outside – Bing tagging along too. Outside, I could see there was another smoke cloud, and it looked like another fire was extinguished before it could get started, a massive column of steam rising into the air instead. We could hear the sounds of fighting from here. The sounds were coming from all over the town.
Renshaw cursed, then announced to all the kids that his home was a place of safety. Most of the kids immediately returned, but some took off. Either they felt safer with their families, or they were going to join their families in the fighting.
“Care to explain to a passerby what’s going on here?” I asked.
“Wait,” he commanded. He put out his hands and cast magic, half a dozen rats appearing and lining up in front of him immediately. He cast another series of spells over the rats, then sent them scurrying in all the directions we heard fighting. His next casting called a seagull to him, and he performed a similar series of castings over it. Then he turned to his home and raised his hands as though to transform it into a castle, but he lowered them and cursed again.
“My knowledge of enchantments is limited. If I try using what I do know here, it will wipe out my mana.”
Bing spoke up. “It’s better to have you able to cast more than have a secure location. The whole residential bloc should be pretty safe.”
“You’re right, Bing.” Renshaw said. “Have everyone assemble inside, though.” Bing looked like he didn’t want to oversee that, but he did so.
“What’s going on,” Renshaw said in weary reply to my early question. “Is that the factions of Tulisang are going at it.”
“Factions, like more than two?”
“Yes, there are four. Tulisang has always been a hotbed of unrest, it’s how it’s received its reputation as a pirate town. Previous monarchs allowed it because they didn’t really want to shut down all the black market dealings and the effort of excising the town’s power structure would involve nothing less than a major military operation, one they’d have to defend against as every pirate in the area started to look for ways back in or around. It would be kicking the proverbial bees nest; they’d rather just appreciate the honey.
“The current monarch is a boy, just 15 years old. He’s ben ‘ruling’ since he was 9. He’s been interested in taking control of Tulisang back, among his other pursuits and mandates. Rumor is that he is pandering to the human empire to the east, Makam. They have control over a massive territory and want to connect the outer oceans with the inner. That would be a huge boon to them, both in economic trade and power. They’re fighting with the elves of Elessar up north, that leaves Andros and Carr standing between Makam and the Passive Ocean. Maybe it’s wisdom, but the boy king has been rolling over for Makam. They wanted coastal access; he looks into taking Tulisang over. That riled up the two main factions in Tulisang: loyalists and pirates. That was shaping up to be bloody enough.
“What really did Tulisang in was he accommodated Makam on their slave laws. That had a lot of consequences, there’s been organizations fighting Makam for decades, including an organization calling themselves the Free Brethren that are extremely anti-slavery. Now I don’t care for the new slave system that’s been put up, but I wasn’t going to raise a fuss over it. These brethren, though, they saw Tulisang as a new front to fight on. That split Tulisang. Now you have four factions: loyalists and pirates, slavers and Free Brethren. They mixed everything up, as there are pirates who are both pro- and anti-slavery. Government officials too, though the dissidents among them who are anti-slavery aren’t likely to raise arms against their comrades like the pirates will – or are.”
I whistled slowly. “I had no idea Tulisang was such a tripwire. I just thought it was a pirate town and didn’t run into much trouble even for that.”
“Yeah, well, it means I’m battening the place down. I’ll take care of all the kids I’ve got here. It’s not perfectly safe, but I should be a match for any enterprising officer looking to take out the ‘unlicensed magic teacher’.”
I glanced at him and joked, “You sell yourself short. I think you could take on two such officers.”
He snorted. “It’s not about that. It’s the fact that if I have to put up a stiff defense, there’s going to be a lot of destruction. I do that, and I pretty much exile myself. I’ll lose all my students because they were all put in danger, and I have kids from every faction in here.”
I sympathized with Renshaw, but I had my own problems. I was over halfway through my timer, and the route back to the sea had just become cluttered with combatants.