One day, Mrs Sharp stuck her pointy nose where it did not belong. This was not so particularly unusual, as Mrs Sharp was the sort of woman who thought her nose belonged wherever she put it. In her defense, she was trying to be friendly.
“Have you been to see your parents lately?” She asked Andreas, her tenant. She was bringing in the mail; Andreas had a letter from his mother.
“Of course,” Andreas answered distractedly. He hadn’t; he’d been avoiding his mother for a long time. She had different ideas about what he ought to do with his life than he did. “Thank you.” Not looking up from his book, Andreas placed the letter on his desk amidst a small but rapidly growing pile of papers.
Mrs Sharp shook her head. Andreas was so absentminded! “You’ll want to open that and read it,” she told him, leaving the workroom and closing the door.
Still not looking up from the book, Andreas reached for his quill and felt for something to take notes on. He had to bend practically double for this, as he liked to read with his chair tipped back and his stocking-feet up on his desk. His hand met the envelope; he started taking notes on its back. He was trying to invent a new spell, but since he was horrible at cataloguing his ingredients, he had to do a significant amount of research to figure out what the strange substances filling the vials all over his workroom were. Further research was required to figure out what they did. Andreas kept all his research on various papers stuffed inside the covers of his books. It was a system that looked chaotic, but Andreas knew where everything was.
You do not. That was the cat, Napoleon, whom Andreas called Nibbles. Andreas started at hearing him speak. He hadn’t seen Nibbles all morning.
“Nibbles? Where are you?”
See? You don’t know where everything is.
“Well, I used to!” Andreas protested, raking a hand through his slightly-too-long hair. Mrs Sharp had recently made him clean up, though one could barely tell it to look at the workroom. “Just tell me where you are, Nibbles.”
“He’s in that supply cupboard behind you.” That was Sylvester, the dragon carved into Andreas’s ornate ink blotter. Andreas couldn’t remember when Sylvester had first started being able to speak, but he was glad it had happened.
Andreas wiped off the tip of his quill with a rag, then laid it, the envelope, and the book aside. “How’d he get in there?” The cupboard was one of two, both of which Andreas had been obliged to use containment spells on to prevent spillage of odds and ends all over the little room. Andreas could see the containment spell if he looked at it slantwise. It shimmered a little, straining to keep various paper parcels, cloaks, and boots inside it. It looked intact.
I’m a cat, Nibbles said in a tone which indicated it should be obvious. Things like that only stop me if I want them to.
“In that case, you can let yourself out.” Andreas held up a vial half full of a translucent purple liquid. “I think this one has something to do with cleaning…”
“Since you’ve stopped for now anyway,” Sylvester said before Andreas could get too absorbed in his research, “you should probably read that letter.”
“Huh? What letter?” Andreas edged around his desk so he could reach the small camp-stove against the far wall. He poured a small amount of the purple liquid into the pot on the stove’s single burner. Nothing happened. Andreas frowned. He’d been expecting it to turn white. Perhaps if he got the pot dirty first…
“The letter from your mother,” Sylvester reminded him. Andreas still didn’t know what he was talking about. “That envelope you were taking notes on.”
Oh! Now Andreas remembered. He retrieved the envelope, rummaged in a drawer for his letter opener, and slit the envelope open. “Mother wants me to come and visit,” Andreas told Sylvester, scanning the contents. “She says it’s important, but not why.”
“You’re going, right?” Sylvester asked. “You can’t keep avoiding her forever.”
Andreas toyed with the purple-filled vial. He pulled the stopper out and replaced it several times before he answered. “I suppose I’ll have to, but it’s far away, and I’ll lose valuable research time. I really want to invent this new spell before the end of term so I can present it at the College.”
Don’t go away! Nibbles cried. Who will give me dinner if you leave?
“Mrs Sharp will, just like she does when I’m here. What are you doing in that cupboard, anyway?”
Just… exploring. There’s lots of cool stuff in here. Hey, what’s that? The containment spell bulged a little, and the cupboard shook. Andreas eyed it nervously.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come out of there?”
Uh… No, I’ll just come out later…
Andreas shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Maybe he’d start by scrying. He could ask his mother how important it was, see if he had to be there in person. He rummaged through his double-shelved books, trying to find the right one. “Sylvester, do you remember where I put that book on scrying? I want to go over the procedure one more time before I try to focus a two-way scrying spell on my mother.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You know how your mother feels about being the focus of a spell.”
“How do you know that?” Andreas didn’t think Sylvester had ever met his mother.
“You’ve certainly complained about it enough.” Sylvester would have said more, but at that moment the cupboard containing Nibbles started rocking back and forth so violently that Andreas wouldn’t have heard it even if he had.
Instinctively, Andreas dipped a finger into a vial of something blue, flicked it at the cupboard, and spread his hands wide, mumbling a spell. The cupboard shook side to side once more, as if in protest, then settled in place, its contents bulging more heavily against the containment spell. A small thumping ensued from inside.
Ow! Ow! Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow!
“You’d better come out of there now if you can,” Andreas told Nibbles. Nibbles didn’t answer, so Andreas began the process of taking down his containment spell. He had to do it slowly to avoid everything tumbling out at once, lowering the top bit by bit, but when the first set of pewter scales fell out and Andreas grabbed them to prevent them from getting mangled, the rest of the spell fell away at once and Andreas was almost born aloft by the tide of parcels and boots, amulets and cloaks, buckets and boxes.
Nibbles was nowhere to be seen.
And Mrs Sharp would be sure to have a fit when she saw this. If she saw this. Andreas waded back to the cupboard and began shoving things haphazardly back into it. One of the bigger boots wiggled as he tried to stuff it back in, and Andreas pulled it back out to look at it again.
Nibbles was curled up inside it. Andreas peered worriedly at him. “Are you alright?”
I haven’t had so much fun for ages! Nibbles was beaming. I just climbed in and nudged it a little bit, and it started rattling like crazy! It was bouncing everywhere! I want to do it again!
“Let me get a better look at that.” Sylvester wobbled a little closer. “Andreas, do you know what that is?”
“It’s a boot.”
“That’s not just any boot. That’s a seven-league-boot.”
Andreas thumped his forehead with the heel of his hand. “So it is! Now we know what was causing that racket, at any rate. Good. I was worried about that.”
He hunted through the mess and came up with the other boot.
“Now you can go see your mother without wasting too much time travelling,” Sylvester told him, and Andreas frowned again.
“I suppose there’s no way out of it now.”
I know why you don’t want to go, Nibbles told Andreas sympathetically. Families expect things from you, and that means responsibility. Yuck!
Once Nibbles put it like that, there was no way Andreas was going to try to get out of it anymore. Sylvester was right; he couldn’t keep putting it off forever. He shoved his feet into the boots and laced them up. He was about to take a step when he caught himself. Andreas unlaced the boots and stepped out of them. “I’d better wait until I’m outside for that.”
“I’ll be back,” Andreas said, leaving and pulling the door shut behind him. Nibbles, jumping out of the pile of supplies, just made it through the door in time.
Not without me! I’m coming with you.
“I thought you hated families,” Andreas teased. “Responsibility, remember?”
It’s not my family, so it’s not my responsibility. I’m just coming to make sure you don’t get too serious.
Andreas tiptoed down the stairs, boots in hand. He didn’t want Mrs Sharp to hear him from the first floor. Nibbles padded behind him. Once outside, Andreas put the boots back on, pointed himself in the right direction, and scooped Nibbles into his arms.
A standard pair of seven-league-boots would travel three-and-a-half leagues a step, seven a stride. They would go straight in whatever direction they were pointing, bashing into walls and whatever else was in their way with little to no regard for the wearer and were thus considered rather dangerous. Only an experienced user could use them without bodily harm. And since nobody could get any experience without using the boots, there were very few pairs still in circulation.
This pair was not a standard pair. For one thing, Andreas had bought it at a discount from a colleague of his at the College. The man had said that the boots had an “attitude problem”, which was why they came so cheap. For another thing, they had been sitting in Andreas’s supply cabinet for a long time, amidst spell ingredients that were not always properly wrapped.
These boots were an improved version. Andreas remembered that his colleague had given him a phrase to say before he took his first step if he wanted “extra protection”. So, before he began, he cleared his throat and said clearly, “Excitare caligās.”
One of the boots nudged the other. “Hey, wake up!”
“I’m up, I’m up!” That was the left boot. It had a voice like a chainsaw.
“It’s time to move! It’s time to dance, to run, to fly!” The right boot was much more excitable. It had a voice like a song thrush.
“Alright, alright, I’m ready. Don’t get your laces in a twist.”
“You’re already left. You don’t want to be left behind, too!”
“Why do you have to be right all the time?”
“Er- I’d rather not dance, or jump, or fly,” Andreas told his boots, feeling a little foolish for talking to them. “I just want to get to my parents’ house in one piece.”
“Yes, sir!” the right boot yelled cheerfully, hopping a bit in excitement. This threw Andreas off balance, and he took a step to compensate.
“Fine, we’ll go,” muttered the left boot, and they went thundering away. It was only about a minute before they came to a stop, but it felt like much longer. The right boot hummed loudly, off-key, the whole way. Andreas wouldn’t have minded that, but the other boot complained just as loudly. “Do you know what that closet of yours smells like? You left us in there way too long. There were things that dripped. My leather will never be the same.” And on and on. At one point Andreas interrupted, trying both to distract the boot and to distract himself from worrying what would happen when he got there.
“How can you tell if it smells?” Andreas asked. “You’ve got a tongue, not a nose.”
“And much good that does me!” The boot grumped. “Do you have any idea what your foot tastes like?”
That was an uncomfortable thought. Andreas wiggled his foot a little, and the right boot giggled. “That tickles!”
The left boot wasn’t done yet. “Snakes can smell with their tongues. And feet don’t have noses, and they smell. So don’t go asking me how I do it, Mister high-and-mighty.”
By that time the boots had taken Andreas straight to his parents’ doorstep, even though the distance wasn’t divisible by three-and-a-half leagues.
Nibbles jumped down from Andreas’s arms. Ooh, a butterfly!
Andreas bent and began to unlace his boots, realising belatedly that he had neglected to find another pair of shoes for this part.
“No, don’t take me off!” The right boot protested, wrapping its laces around Andreas’s leg.
“Ahh, at last,” the left boot sighed, sliding easily off Andreas’s foot. It immediately began to snore.
Andreas considered the remaining boot. He tickled it a bit under the laces and it squirmed, giggling. He slipped it off his foot and put it next to the other one. “I’ll be back for you,” he promised it. He padded over to the front door and paused, squaring his shoulders.
He had to talk himself into knocking before he could do it.
“Knock on the door, Andreas,” he told himself, pretending it was Sylvester speaking. “Otherwise you came all this way for nothing.”
He raised his hand and knocked, then pulled his hand back abruptly and took two steps backwards. Was it too late to leave? Stop it, he told himself.
Ten minutes later, Andreas was inside, sitting on the prim, stiff-backed sofa in the parlour. It was one of the sort that’s impossible to sit on improperly. Andreas had tried many times as a child but always found himself sitting straight-backed within a few minutes.
To Andreas’s relief, his mother hadn’t even mentioned his lack of shoes. She was sitting across from him, on another uncomfortable sofa. “It was so nice of you to come, sweetheart,” she told him. “I’ve had the maids make up your room for you. How long can you stay?”
“Not long,” Andreas admitted, a little embarrassed. “I’ve got to get back. My research…” He paused, unsure how much to say about it. “Is Father home?” Andreas’s father practically ran the shipping industry. He was often away at the docks or at sea, overseeing one ship or another of his fleet.
“He’ll be home for dinner.” Mother smiled. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about, darling. Your father’s not as young as he used to be.”
Sylvester would have laughed at that if he’d been there. Nobody is, he’d have pointed out. Andreas had something else to say. “Mother, I’m not taking over Father’s business. I have... other things. Other talents.”
To Andreas’s surprise, Mother laughed. “Honey, that’s not what I was going to say at all.”
Before Andreas could inquire what she had been going to say, there was a loud shriek from outside. He and Mother both leapt up and hurried to find out what it was.
“Get this monster off of me!” It was the left boot, shrieking and furiously hopping about. Nibbles had grown bored with the bushes and started to play with the laces.
“It’s a lady!” The right boot nudged the left one. “Howdy do, ma’am.”
“Er- hullo,” the left boot grumbled, still hopping. “Gerroff, you awful beast!”
I’m no beast, Nibbles asserted. And I won’t!
“If you would tie your laces properly, the cat wouldn’t play with them,” the right boot told the other.
“I hate it when you’re right,” the boot grumbled in reply.
“You didn’t tell me you brought company, dear.” Mother bent down and picked Nibbles up, gently detangling him from the boot. “So this is how you got here, and why you weren’t wearing shoes.” She turned to the boots. “Very pleased to meet you. I can tell you’re not the standard kind of boots. Take good care of my boy when you’re travelling, hear?”
Both boots answered together. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Would you two like to come in?”
“Not if that monster does,” grumbled the left boot.
“Out here is fine, ma’am, thank you,” chirped the right boot.
I’m no monster! Hey! If I am one, can I have fangs?
“Of course you’re not, dear,” Mother told Nibbles soothingly. “You must be hungry. Let’s go inside and find you something to eat.”
I like her, Nibbles told Andreas, purring. Can we stay?
Andreas followed his mother back inside. “You’re not upset? About the…” He still hesitated to say the word “magic” around his mother.
“Of course not, darling. Why would I be?”
“It’s just… I always thought you’d expect me to take over Father’s business. It’s been in the family for generations…”
“Sweetheart, you were the one who always thought you should take over the family business. I’ve always known you were more suited to be a magician. Who do you think asked your uncle to buy you that first magic set all those years ago?” It had grown dark in the parlour; Mother lit a lamp with a wave of one hand.
Andreas was shocked. “Did you just…?”
“As I was telling you earlier, I’ve never been averse to magic. I just think you need to be safe about it.”
“So you weren’t going to tell me you want me to enter the shipping industry?”
“Of course not. Just that it would be nice if you’d visit more often. If you’re using those lovely boots, you won’t even have to spend all day travelling to do it.”
Andreas smiled. “In that case, maybe I can stay a little longer…” Maybe his mother could even help him invent that new spell he was working on.