It was the opposite of a life of glamour. Today, like yesterday, the smog drifted high before sinking into the muggy streets, and through the flimsy fabric of the cloth across his face the young man choked on the fumes of societal progress, feeling dimly miserable and wondering if he had the right to be.
What was certain was that he had not seen the sun in two weeks, now, and there was no sign that the pattern would soon be breaking. In the embrace of the city, his skin had turned first pale, then sallow and tinged with gray. He was seventeen years old, and when he coughed his lungs tasted of rusted smoke.
Still, there were blessings. As his duties as an errand-boy began to mount in frequency, his master had seen fit to provide him with a very good set of laborer's boots, which stamped easily through the slick mud of the roads. In short order he had passed the peanut gallery of beggars and cripples and abandoned heroes of war, relatively warm and mutely unfeeling, to stand before a sight which was considerably out of the way of his intended destination.
Not that it mattered. He'd visited the ArchRengal every day since his arrival in Sterl, and every day he had been content to stand in awe of the vast marble stairs and the curling adornments of the pillars which pierced the clouds. Quite literally, too -- the meteorologists claimed that the coal weighed down the very air, bringing down those great boulders of the sky so that they walked along the same paths and laws of men. On the steps, proud with their power and their fame, walked the various members of the Fifth Order of the Flame, and their robes caught lights from unknown places and flapped in strange patterns along the still air. As Aiden's master had soon taught him, the world had distinctions hidden even in those places well averted by conscientious men.
To be more precise, there was magic, and then there was Magic. As a practitioner of the former, his master's household had little patience for the latter. "Frivolous," it was called. Even here, so far away, Aiden could envision the old man's scowl.
"All bells and whistles," he'd said one night, waving a spoon ruminatively over his bowl of cooling stew. "Let me tell you, boy, we must instill in you a respect for proper magic, do you hear? It's all well and good to shoot . . . fire and thunder from one's fingers, but at some point one must also ask what such nonsense accomplishes, in the wider picture of the world. Do you know what it accomplishes, boy?"
"No, sir." He'd already finished his stew, and was sitting politely on his hands, peering cautiously at the fizzling runes around the old man's cuffs, lest they go off again unheeded.
His master didn't notice. His grin was a shark's: brittle edges and the acumen of a rapier in the sun. "Absolutely nothing," he said, then turned back to his stew, taking it down with large and noisy slurps. Save that, the rest of the meal was silent.
Such lessons, haphazard as they were, were actually quite common, and occasionally even constructive. The problem was that Aiden's master, whose name was Wollencroft and whose six idioms of household cleaning had seen bright, if brief, international acclaim, suffered from the same mundane shortcomings as all the others of his age. Namely, it had never quite registered with him that what a young man takes interest in has absolutely nothing to do with the direction that common sense wants to lead him. So every day before the ArchRengal, Aiden watched the wizards. And he felt no shame at all.
Some twenty minutes had passed. Aiden watched Altacrar, Green Sage and Warlock Premier of the Nesting Dawn, disappear under the cavernous eave of the doorway, before finally turning away from the building. He walked down the street unnoticed. Nothing in his face betrayed the longing in his chest, but it was there all the same. He noted, not for the first time, that there were no other spectators to the building. No one else pointed out with glee these great scholars of their age, and though the stairs were watched very keenly by the two Erudite Guards patrolling the sidewalk, no one tried to bolt past them to shake a hand or clutch a robe -- no one even tried.
Aiden felt a surge. Not of anger, precisely, but rather a dull confusion of rage. What was it all for, he wondered, if at the end of all these years and the height of all power, life rejected your importance all the same? Back home, he'd received more looks as a grocer's assistant than did these great men with their flowing robes and gilded hats that sparked with stray spells. Perhaps, he thought, the reason a wizard dresses so distinctly, is so that people will remember they are there.
The store was as it usually was: empty and dim. Despite himself, he knocked, taking the time to rearrange the canvas sack over his shoulder. It was still rather early, and when the door swung open he blinked blearily into the face of Lily Snane.
"Good morning," she said brightly. She had hair which, in the right light, would pass as a fine gold. As Sterl was a place antithetical to such conditions, though, Aiden appreciated it as a slightly less grimy shade of ammonia.
"Morning," he grumbled, and eased past her into the store. "Is your mother in?" he asked, peering into the gloom behind the cabinets. His first time at the store, he'd gawked at the jars against the walls, the arrays of wandwood and bulging eyes and disembodied organs that hung from the walls. Now, he made straightaway for the desk, swinging the bag from his shoulder onto the dusted counter.
"She's gone for the wagons," said Lily. "Won't be back until dusk, what with the crowds." She walked around the counter and, leaning against it, smiled prettily at Aiden's expression of annoyance. "What's old Wollencroft need now? Who knows, we may even have it in stock."
Aiden fumbled for a list, finally locating it in the front strap of his apron. Grimacing at the shoddy state of it, and the grease stain on one of the corners, he cleared his throat and read it aloud.
"Three pounds of -- and this bit here's got some lines under it -- Anticodean toadstools, Two strips of yew, and some gold wiring."
Lily leaned her chin on her hands, thinking. Then she swiveled neatly and marched into the back room, from whence came a prodigious clattering and banging of metal pots.
"How much wiring, did you say?" came her voice around the door.
"Just says 'lots.'" said Aiden, who had resigned himself to drumming his fingers along the counter.
"Right." The door opened, and out came Lily with her arms full of mushrooms and what looked like a pair of crossed logs. "No gold, I'm afraid, but we've got a good supply of zinc from his last order. Does he want that still?"
Aiden rubbed at his eyes with a sigh. "No. Doesn't work with the conduits, he said, and also he wants your mother to know that he's not interested in burning down the homestead, and for her to keep that in mind next time she . . ." he consulted the list, then finished, ". . . 'knocks up a damn shoddy pint of miners' gin.' Apparently the stuff shot an overcharge against the . . . I can't read that. Anyway, you're sure you don't have any gold?"
"We have maybe a quarter spool," admitted Lily, "but last time Wollencroft wanted 'lots' of wiring he made us take in a truckload. By the way, I should tell you, gold's not cheap these days. The Fomorean mines stopped last month, does he know?"
"Better question is, would he care. And no, he wouldn't."
Lily turned away again, this time to mind the register with a sympathetic smile.
"How was the Arch?" she asked, as she scribbled a short note on a loose sheet of parchment on the desk.
Aiden hesitated. "Fine, I suppose."
"Still thinking of the College, are you?"
"I don't think so."
Lily paused in her writing. "What's that supposed to mean? You can't honestly be thinking of finishing with Wollencroft." She gave a short laugh, too sweet for the dusty surroundings. "I mean, fixing streetlamps? You?"
Aiden scowled. "Doesn't really matter, does it? Don't shake your head, I don't -- look, no one cares about wizards, is the problem. I saw Altacrar, do you know?"
"What? You don't mean"--
"And no one cared. No one even looked twice."
"This is Sterl, Aiden. No one much cares about anything anymore. It doesn't mean they don't matter."
"But that's the point!" He sighed, poking at what he guessed was a spleen of some sort. When it poked back, he shoved it aside in haste. "I want to do something, Lily. But all the dragons are dead and the books are all written and they even say the magic is dying."
"People always say the magic is dying," Lily drawled, and made a lazy motion with her hand that shot purple sparks around the room. "Doesn't mean they're right. They're just getting old."
"It's the coal, is what it is."
"Always." She finished her note and tacked it to the counter. "There we go. Tell Wollencroft we'll have his wire in a week."
"He won't want it by then."
"Trust me," said Lily, with a roll of her eyes. "We know. But we're trying this thing called 'cumulative reliability.' Mother picked it up in Altimor, said it's what the silk merchants use."
Aiden hefted the pack off the counter, and made to leave. "Well, I suppose she must know what she is doing," he said, and gave a small laugh.
"Aiden," said Lily, and he stopped at the door, a hand on the knob. When he tilted his head, he could see her eyes, watching him.
"There are places, you know," she said slowly. "Far away. Magic's . . . brighter there."
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Well, you can't just give it all up, is my point. The ArchRengal, the College . . . you can't really just think it's all for nothing."
Aiden's eyes looked downwards, fixating on the greasy woodwork of the floor. "Who's to say it's not," he muttered. "Besides, the ending's the same to either story."
"You're the apprentice of a second-tier prac-mage, Aiden, and still you should know better." Her voice grew softer. "The wind blows strangely in Ans."
The door opened, then closed. For a moment, Lily stood quiet behind the counter. Then she grabbed a feather duster from beneath the table, and began halfheartedly swiping at the shelves still coated with gray. And as she worked she spoke, for the shop was humming with the tune of the day, and she said: "Toadstools. Ha! And the nerve!"