August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
Mage's Gambit - Leigh Kimmel
On the hearth the fire crackled, muffling the patter of rain against the windows of the Collegia Magica library. Although the air was cold away from the fireplace, this room was still a refuge for a girl whose most common interaction with her age-mates came in the form of taunts about her poverty.
Polly Blackwood studied the pieces on the chessboard between herself and her father. Once he had been New Liberty's only hope of defeating the Crethrons, but now that the war was over and the last parade in his honor had long since marched down Independence Avenue, Congress had conveniently forgotten his pension. Only her mother's ties with the Collegia Magica, which had found a position for its former student, kept them from total destitution.
Polly's gaze drifted to the time lamp on the mantelpiece just above her father's head. The lamp's flame burned the deep yellow that indicated mid-morning. She looked to the sandglass at her elbow, the last grains of her turn fast running out.
Her father watched, scarred face impassive above the elaborate collar of the magical cloak which gave him the strength to continue surviving his terrible wounds. However hard times might have befallen them, no one could seize it to sell, for doing so would be murder -- as if anyone else could ever use it, after the secret modifications her mother had made on the binding-spell.
No further time to dither. As the last grains of sand passed through the waist of the sandglass, Polly moved her one remaining knight, capturing a pawn. She turned the sandclock and its magic changed the black sand to white.
After a moment's consideration, Commodore Blackwood captured her knight with his queen. A yelp escaped Polly's lips before she could stifle it.
Her father tsk'ed. "Polly, you must learn to think ahead if you want to be any good at chess. Certainly if you hope to become a mage."
Polly bit her lip and searched her father's face. She saw no cruelty there, only the pain of the magic weapon which had nearly sucked out his life during the surprise attack with which the Crethrons had initiated the recent war.
"Father, I'll have no hope of becoming a mage if you won't let me become a student."
Commodore Blackwood's lips became a thin line, neither smile nor frown. "Polly, your mother and I don't want you to be subjected to the sorts of condescension charity students receive. If you can earn a merit scholarship, you won't have the stigma of being taught only because someone felt sorry for you."
Except how was she supposed to obtain one of those precious scholarships, when her every effort to demonstrate magical talent was stymied? She'd tried to learn some simple spells from the magic books she was forever reshelving, only to be warned that such unguided study was far too dangerous. Her mother had been ordered not to take time from the work that helped defray the family's keep in order to teach her.
Polly regretted that she'd even brought up the matter. She hadn't meant to overhear her parents' hushed argument about her education the previous night, but it was hard to avoid in the tiny room the Collegia Magica allotted her family.
"In the meantime, letŐs finish our game." The commodore pointed to the sandclock. "Your sand is fast running out."
Polly returned her attention to the chessboard. Her father always insisted on playing each game to the end, even when she could only delay the inevitable. He believed it taught persistence and the ability to come back from defeat.
With a sigh she moved a bishop, knowing it would make no real difference in the game's outcome. What I wouldn't give for an interruption right now. Even having that snob Millicent show up right now would be better than suffering my way through getting beaten again.
Move after move the game continued, Polly's pieces falling before the commodore's onslaught. From behind the reference desk came her mother's voice, talking with one of the magisters of the Collegia Magica.
Polly didn't even notice Millicent's entrance until the other girl spoke, almost directly behind her. "So the little ragabird's sitting around playing chess again."
Millicent held her nose high with the scorn of one assured of her place by right of birth. Although she had negligible magical talent, her father had used his connections to secure her a supervisory position. Her new responsibilities had only slightly reduced her opportunities to make life difficult for Polly.
Cheeks burning with the memory of past taunts, Polly jumped from her chair to confront Millicent. "What's it to you? I got all my reshelving done, so why shouldn't I play chess with my father?"
Millicent curled her lips and looked down her nose at the commodore, still sitting by the fire and watching the confrontation. "If you insist on frittering away your days with an old cripple who lost the only real battle he ever fought..."
"Don't you talk about my father like that!" Before anyone could stop her, she let her fingers draw the runes for one of the few spells she'd managed to learn. "Nalphi anyok par-en-dahyar..."
Eyes going wide, Millicent shrieked and leaped, crashing into the table and sending chess pieces tumbling in all directions to clatter on the flagstones. She tore the shoe from her right foot and slapped her sole repeatedly, all the time hopping about on her left.
The commodore grabbed his cane and pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the pain of his crippled leg. "Polly, what did you do to her?"
"Just gave her a hotfoot." Polly watched the other girl grab her discarded shoe and flee the library. "It's only a tactile illusion spell, and it'll wear off in a minute or two." She shot a significant glance at the time-lamp's flame, which dipped and turned to lime-green.
"Polly, magic is not for taking petty revenge." His facial muscles twitched against the scar tissue left by the Crethrons' mage-fire.
"Father, I couldn't just stand there and let her insult you--"
"Harsh words break no bones, Polly, and lies are soon revealed for what they are. My military record speaks for itself."
Polly hung her head. "I'm sorry, Father. I only wanted to defend you."
He looked at the door through which Millicent had fled. "I fear you may end up a great deal sorrier, considering that her father is one of the senior magisters." He shook his head. "Let's retrieve the chess pieces and set up for a new game."
By suppertime, the memory of the morning's confrontation with Millicent had receded to a dull ache in the back of Polly's mind. With her parents she took her place at the small table in the back corner of the dining hall and waited while everyone else was served. It wasn't easy to keep from casting an envious gaze upon the apprentices' table a dozen feet away, at which platters of meat and bowls of vegetables were passing from hand to hand.
Finally the two apprentices on table-service duty came to them. Polly cast a furtive glance at the serving dishes, noting how many were empty. No chops for us tonight. She knew better than to permit even the slightest hint of her disappointment to show on her face. As a small child she'd once wailed in frustration at a similar discovery, only to have her mother send her to bed with no supper, only a stern lecture. They were almsguests of the Collegia Magica and she must be very grateful for what she got, not demand more.
The remaining soup, parceled out among the three of them, only half-filled their bowls. Polly spooned up her share, trying hard not to care that it was little more than bare broth. At least they could eat their fill of the vegetables the prenties had spurned.
Polly was almost finished when she became aware of someone standing by her elbow. She looked up to face Millicent, who wore a triumphant smile.
"The Rector was very angry about your little stunt this afternoon. Unauthorized use of magic is a very serious offense." She pronounced the formal words of the Rector's judgment with ostentatious care. "Because it's obvious where you learned it, he's banning you from the library from now on."
Polly recalled her father's earlier concern. "Even to play chess..."
"Especially to play chess with the commodore. Idle hands are the devil's tools. From now on you will make yourself useful sewing robes for the new apprentices. Starting tomorrow morning."
Having delivered her message, Millicent executed a skirt-twirling about-face and walked away. Polly watched in helpless despair. It probably wouldn't do any good to point out how Millicent had started it. She looked toward her father, whose scarred face revealed only sadness. At least he's too kind to say, "I told you so."
"Can't you even sew a straight seam?" Millicent's voice, tight and nasal, rose above the chatter of the girls who gathered in the room overlooking the Grand Staircase to sew.
Polly bit back her urge to snap something nasty at the older girl. If this seam isn't straight, I honestly don't know what is. I think she's enjoying bossing me around.
"Don't just sit there like an idiot." Millicent wagged a long finger at Polly. "Pull that out and do it over."
Polly considered refusing, but a look at Millicent's expression told Polly that she was already marked down as a troublemaker and defiance would only make matters worse. Not to mention the dim view her father would take of such a mutinous act. Polly retrieved her seam ripper and tore at the objectionable thread. Never mind that it was straighter than any of the other girls' seams.
Millicent turned her attention to another girl. Polly retrieved her needle and set to jamming it through the thick cloth of the half-finished prentie robe.
Rector Simonton couldn't have picked a worse punishment -- just handling these robes makes me long to wear one. After this mess they'll sure never consider me for a merit scholarship.
A sharp pain in her hand made her yip and she looked down at blood welling from her punctured fingertip. Before it could drip and stain the robe, she stuffed her injured finger in her mouth and licked the blood away. Millicent would just love another excuse to bawl me out. Who knows what effect my blood might have on the spells any prentie cast while wearing it?
She thought of her father's cloak, and how her mother's secret modification to the spells woven into it had produced far-reaching consequences, not all of which she had anticipated.
Might there be some way to put such magic to good? Polly eyed Millicent, who was now hovering over another girl, scolding her. I wonder if she'd even recognize that kind of magic if she saw it.
The atmosphere in the rector's office crackled with tense anticipation. Rector Simonton sat behind his desk, arms crossed and expression hard. Polly stood before him, hands at her sides and eyes downcast, while Millicent glowered over her.
"This girl has been the laziest, most useless brat of the whole bunch you've given me to make apprentice robes. She can't sew a straight seam, and every time I tell her to tear one out, she sulks." Millicent grabbed one of the tunics from the rector's desk and shook it in his face. "Just look at this mess."
Rector Simonton gave the proffered tunic a narrow-eyed once-over. "Then you do indeed recognize this as Miss Blackwood's work."
"Do I ever!" Millicent wadded it up and flung it on the floor at Polly's feet. "How could I not recognize her wretched fumblings? Throw her out of the sewing room and put her to something more suitable to her abilities, like scrubbing floors."
Rector Simonton raised his eyebrows. "That is most interesting, Miss Hartpence. I had called you and Miss Blackwood in because I wanted to commend the skill and cleverness of whoever sewed good luck runes into the seams of these tunics."
Millicent's face flushed scarlet. At a loss for words, she could only sputter in frustration.
The rector just watched until she wound down. "I've had my eye on you for some time, Miss Hartpence. Until now, you've skated on the edge, but this I cannot overlook. Consider yourself transferred to the housekeeping staff. A few months washing dishes should work wonders."
Millicent's face went white. "You can't. My father--"
"Was a fool to insist upon securing you a position here when your talents so clearly point elsewhere." The rector's voice remained icily level. "You are dismissed."
Millicent hurried out, stiff-legged and shaking.
Rector Simonton rose and extended his hand to Polly. "Miss Blackwood, in view of your obvious ability and dedication, it is my privilege to offer you a merit scholarship."
For a moment Polly could only stare in disbelief. "Sir? I thought I was being punished for using magic."
"You were, since we cannot tolerate the malicious use of magic, even to combat a known bully. However, we were also testing you, to see if you have the necessary fortitude to surmount the rigors of magical studies. We couldn't let you know that because we had to have your genuine reaction, not a false front to please us."
Polly struggled against her urge to finger her new apprentice robe. They had even given her one that she'd sewed, one with good-luck runes hidden in the seams.
As she walked into the dining hall with the other apprentices, she hesitated. At the corner table her parents were taking their places, carefully avoiding the eyes of the others. Nobody had bothered to remove the third chair.
How miserable my parents look, almost ashamed. Polly bit her lip, and stepped out of line.
Before she could cross the floor, another apprentice restrained her. "You're one of us now. You don't have to sit at the charity table."
"But I can't leave my parents there while I eat good food with all of you." Polly pulled free.
Suddenly several of the other apprentices came with her. Before her parents could protest, the apprentices helped them from their seats, gathered up chairs and tableware.
"Commodore, Mrs. Blackwood, come join us tonight."
Together all three of them walked over to the apprentice table, to good food and a place of honor instead of shame.
- END -