Excerpt: An Admirer

Why did it only ever rain when the day needed no further assistance in being rotten? Couldn’t even the weather take pity on him?

He lingered as he reached the awning of the pottery shop, hoping the rain would shortly ease off into a drizzle. Days like this, he really hated that he lived on the opposite side of the city from the university. Halfway there, and he still had a mile to go.

At least his stuff was dry. It had cost him most of the meager coin with which he had arrived, three years ago, but it had been worth the expenditure to purchase a waterproofed satchel.

He winced as his newly set jewels throbbed, setting off the ache in his wrists all over again. They were covered in soft gauze that had been spell-treated to keep the jewels from all harm until they had properly fused and healed.

As with everything else in his life, the jewels had proven problematic. One mage in a hundred has a nasty reaction to the embedding process—and of course he had been that one. Recuperating in the healing ward had cost him three hours of study time.

Oh, well. It would hardly be the first time he had gone without a night of sleep.

Which reminded him that rent was due, though he’d scarcely forgotten. If he didn’t have it, the landlady would be mysteriously out of tea and soup for his supper. Luckily, he did have it, though only barely.

The sound of laughter drew him from his thoughts, and he watched as a group of students wandered by the intersection not too far off. A couple of their faces looked familiar, and nearly all of them had gauze at their wrists and forehead.

Out celebrating their embedments, of course. It was, short of graduation and appointment as real mages, the moment all mages most anticipated. Stone embedding meant they could actually start doing the magic they had been learning for the past three years.

Tomorrow, nearly all the third years would wander in hung over or still drunk. Why shouldn’t they? It was a true occasion for celebration. They were almost real mages.

Kaeck sighed as the students vanished, settled his satchel, and dove back out into the rain that showed no sign of ever slowing. His boots splashed in puddle, the water leaking in through holes in the soles to further drench his already soaked socks.

He trudged on, reassured only by the five coppers in his small purse. He’d been half afraid that Professor Wenton would not remember to show up today with his money, but he had, and so he had five coppers for the next week’s rent, and three more for necessities and savings.

His steps slowed as he passed another tavern and glimpsed more students inside, bright and cheery in the warm orange light of the tavern lanterns. They passed platters of food back and forth, knocking together tankards of ale or glasses of wine.

Ducking his head, he sternly reminded himself that even if he had been invited out anywhere, he would have had to refuse for lack of coin.

He breathed a sigh of relief as the inn finally came into view. It wasn’t much, the Merry Hearth, but it was his home here in the city. A simple little inn that catered mostly to wanders, tinkers, farmers, and others of that ilk.

Slipping around back, he slid beneath the roof covering the back stoop and shucked all his outer clothing, hanging it over the railing. Then he retrieved his satchel and went inside, dashing quickly up the back steps, all the way up to the attic where his little room was located. Once there, he fumbled around in his trunk for fresh clothes.

Removing his wet drawers, he hung them on a line strung from one end of the room to the other, and set the chamber pot to catch the dripping water. Then he scrambled into his dry clothes—just in time, as a sharp knock came at the door.

Kaeck rolled his eyes, and opened the door.

“There you are,” Myla said with a smile that didn’t really reach her eyes. “I was beginning to fear the weather might have had it in for ya.”

“Not at all, just slowed me down a little,” Kaeck murmured, then went to his satchel and drew out his purse, counting out five of his precious coppers.

She beamed as he dropped them into her hand. “You’re a good lad. We’re a bit busy tonight, if you want to help…?”

“Of course,” he murmured obediently. Like he had a choice? Their arrangement was that in exchange for helping out around the inn, he got half off his rent. Why did she phrase it like a question or a request, when they both knew it was an order?

He followed her down the stairs, and after making certain the spelled gauze was still secure, bent to scrubbing and washing and sweeping and fetching, until she finally let him go three hours later.

She was obviously in a good mood, which was nice, because it meant she added a stale chunk of bread to the soup and tea on his supper tray. Bidding Myla a good night, he took his tray and fled before she thought of something else for him to do.

Lighting a candle, he set his supper tray on the rickety table that served as his desk, then fetched his satchel. Opening it, he pulled out all his books and notes, as well as the bundle of mail he’d remembered to pick up just before leaving campus for the night.

Not that fetching it had really been worth the trouble, but one could always hope his mail might contain something interesting. He flipped through it, but as expected, saw nothing worth note.

The two envelopes on top were from the university—one would be a perfunctory congratulations on receiving his jewels, and the other would be a reminder of how much tuition he still owed and how little time he had left to pay it.

Setting those aside, he looked at the final three envelopes. All were made from cheap paper, with even cheaper ink already blurring and smearing, so the words were barely legible. He sighed, knowing what they said, but that damned niggling hope made him open them rather than simply ignore them.

Three months after receiving their jewels, students put on a demonstration of their new abilities. It was one of the most important exams they faced while in school, but it was also a grand event at which they could show off three years of hard work to friends, family, and whoever else wanted to see the student doing well. Even the city got into the fanfare of the third year magic displays.

He had sent letters to his family, formal invitations, asking them to come.

The first letter he opened was from his parents—they were too busy with the shop to take the two months it would require to journey to the city, see him for all of five days, and then journey back. As usual, they did not fail to weight the words with implied displeasure at his ‘gallivanting off to learn magic’.

He set it aside and opened the second, from his sister, who was five years older. She replied even more briefly than their parents, informing him that she had a husband, and children—real obligations and responsibilities, and she could not leave them for his nonsense.

The last letter was from his old mentor, the words written in his delicate, spidery hand. He hoped Kaeck was doing well, and wished his infirmities did not keep him from coming to see Kaeck’s accomplishments. He’d also included a few small pence, which made Kaeck smile. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to buy him some more candles, which he sorely needed.

Ah, well. It’s not like he had thought his family would come, and he had only written to his mentor to tell him that his schooling was going well. He left out he was failing wretchedly at the rest of life.

He set the pile of letters aside, and only then noticed that there was one more, all the way at the bottom of the pile. Frowning, he picked it up, turning it over and over.

This couldn’t belong to him. It was made of good, heavy paper, the kind that was more cloth than paper, really. Cream colored, soft and durable. Paper like this would cost him more than a year’s rent, and possibly even two.

It was sealed with black wax, and a generic abstract crest. Perhaps the post had stuck it in the wrong box. They were always giving him the mail of the person below him. He flipped the letter over, expecting to see 102835, but saw instead 102385.

That was definitely his box number. It was written in a sharp, crisp hand. Bold strokes, but neat.

Burning with curiosity, he broke the wax seal and pulled out a single sheet of folded paper. The same neat handwriting filled the page with a long letter. Whoever the writer may be, he had a fine, well-trained hand.

He started reading, then stopped, staring dumbfounded. Then he started reading again, bits and pieces of the whole searing into his mind.

Your smile brightens my day

Feel better simply by the sight of you.

Deepest congratulations on your jewels; you have certainly earned them thrice over.

Cannot wait to see how you do in the demonstration.

You outshine everyone in my eyes.

Yours truly,

An Admirer

An admirer?

Who would admire him? Why? The post must have gotten the box number wrong. Except, when he looked again, he saw it was still his number on the envelope. Setting the envelope down, he returned to the letter. It lacked a name, but every detail—such as they were—seemed to emphasize that he was the intended recipient.

Perhaps a jest, then? But why would someone play such a prank on him? He really only spoke to his teachers, unless ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you’ counted as speaking. He tended to keep to himself, and he didn’t think anyone even really knew his name. It could not be a joke, then, surely.

Which left…

His heart began to beat rapidly.

Surely not…someone…could it really be that someone…well…could it actually be that someone out there saw him, and admired him? Him?

He read the letter again, and again, looking for any indication of some mistake. Several read-through’s later, however, he could find no sign of one.

He touched the paper gently, as though half-afraid it might vanish, and smiled cautiously.

An admirer…who? Who could it be?