The Last Mage Guardian – Chapter 1

Chapter 1


“It’s a bookshop. It’s been there for years. Why are you staring at it?”

Dominic blinked, suddenly aware of the wind biting through the holes in his threadbare coat. Phillipe looked at him with exasperation, stomping his feet to warm them. A bitterly cold wind blew through the streets of Dinan, stirring up yesterday’s snow and bringing the promise of more.

Why had he stopped? He couldn’t remember. “Why don’t we go in and warm up? Perhaps they have the Solstice displays.”

Phillipe shook his head. “Bodin’s never has them up this early. Magic like that is expensive to maintain, you know. Why are you so fascinated by them?” He made no objection to Dominic’s suggestion, though, and they began to cross the street towards the bookshop.

“I don’t know. When I was young my parents would take me every year.” His mother would complain about how long they took, for while his father pretended they went only for Dominic’s entertainment, he loved the displays as much as Dominic did. Now that his parents were both gone, it remained a bittersweet memory.

A strong hand on his coat collar jerked him back, out of the way of a large coach pulled by two steaming horses.

“I swear you should not be allowed out of doors without a minder,” Phillipe complained, giving Dominic’s collar a shake for emphasis before letting go.

Dominic smiled up at his lanky friend. “Where could I find a minder that would meet my exacting requirements? Strong, capable, and willing to discuss literature and philosophy at any hour of the day…rare indeed.”

They crossed the icy street without further incident. Dominic opened the heavy door with inset leaves of leaded glass and sighed with pleasure. Warm air, laced with the dry scent of leather and paper, and books as far as the eye could see. Unconsciously he began to read the spines, pulling out one book after another that caught his fancy.

“You’re in the Mechanical Arts section,” Phillipe muttered in his ear as he went by. “Literature is over by the far wall.”

“Oh. Yes.” Dominic blinked and turned to leave, but his glance snagged on an intriguing title and he stopped again. Constructing the Tannen Firth Bridge: Being a practical Treatise on the Difficulties encountered and the Means by which they were overcome. He’d always wondered how they had built the supports in the middle of the ocean—well, in the middle of the Alban Strait, which was essentially the same thing. He turned the pages, fascinated. As he had hoped, there were illustrations.

At length, he realized what he was doing and resolutely put the book back on the shelf. How long had he been distracted? He searched for Phillipe. They both had work to do.

A man passed by, deeply engrossed in an illustrated journal. Dominic frowned. It looked like The Family Museum, but he didn’t recognize the cover. Had they come out with another issue? He struggled with himself for a moment, and decided to just take a look.

The snow fell softly outside the diamond-paned windows, and Dominic wandered by the neat piles of journals and papers, stopping when he saw The Family Museum. It was an issue he had not seen before, a special Solstice edition, which would account for why it had appeared two weeks earlier than usual. Joy surged through him as he read the list of articles inside: astronomy, magical theory, etheric harmonics, and an account of an expedition to an ancient observatory recently discovered deep in the Atlantean mountains. A sinking sensation immediately followed. He didn’t have the money for luxuries like this.

A deep sigh told him his friend had found him. “What now?” Phillipe wanted to know, then saw what he was looking at. “Don’t you have enough of those? You don’t even let me burn them when you are finished.”

“I like to read them more than once. They’re interesting. Bové has an account of another expedition,” Dominic said.

“Oh, he’s the one that traveled to the Asean desert, right?” Dominic looked at his friend in surprise. “I read some of them. You had them all over the place.”

Dominic fingered the few coins in his pocket. They were all he had to provide his supper, and he was hungry. Then again, if he had something fascinating to read, he could eat the remaining end of his stale loaf dipped in tea and he wouldn’t notice. He picked up a copy of the new journal and walked resolutely away before he saw anything else.

As they walked towards the counter, Phillipe stiffened beside him and muttered an oath that earned a reproving glance from an old woman with a sable stole and muff. “You knew, didn’t you?”

“What?” Dominic glanced around the front of the bookshop, seeing what had made Philippe exclaim. The Solstice displays were, at that very moment, being set up. A small horde of gape-mouthed children surrounded a man setting in motion a floating model of the sun and planets. The magician considered his work for a moment, then made a gesture that added a swift, feathery comet to the display.

Three automata, made to look like pixies, already flew about the bookshelves and the customers gathered in the aisles. Unlike the usual display automata, these had moveable limbs and eyes and were made and animated with such skill they seemed alive. Bodin’s always had the best displays, as befitted a bookshop renowned for its specialty in magical texts.

“Something must have caught my attention in the street,” Dominic said, apologetically. “Truly, I didn’t know.”

Phillipe snorted. “Were you ever tested for magic?”

“Twice,” Dominic said, making a face. “My father had great hopes, but I can’t even light lamps.”

“We should leave now,” said Phillipe. “This is pleasant, but we ought to be reading the dry, dusty tomes we spent our last guilders on so we have a faint chance of passing the graduation exam.”

“What’s the point?” Dominic asked, watching one of the pixies as it sat briefly on a book, wings fanning gently to and fro, before it flitted off again. “If I fail, at least I will have an excuse for not finding work.” He regretted saying the words as soon as they left his mouth. Phillipe looked crestfallen.

“I asked if there were any literature positions, even assistants, but….”

“No matter. I make no doubt the weather in Nantes would aggravate my gout.”

“You don’t have gout,” Phillipe snapped. “We’re too poor for such genteel ailments.”

“If I were an assistant at Université Nantes I’d soon develop it, or something worse. I don’t want to teach, anyway.” Phillipe turned to look at him, curious, and Dominic cursed himself. When would he learn to keep some things to himself? Once roused, his friend’s curiosity would not rest until satisfied. “I, ah, want to write. Literature, you know. Look, there’s a lighting storm!”

An illusionary storm enlivened the section of the store devoted to the natural sciences. He found it amusing they had used magic for a display of something completely non-magical.

They had to wait some time for their turn at the counter. The store was thronged with customers and the clerks looked harassed beneath their professional demeanors.

With my luck, I may be joining them, thought Dominic, feeling depressed. He was barely managing to get through the university. Even if he did graduate, which was looking more and more unlikely, what employment could he find? Phillipe complained, but he had wealthy family connections that could be relied on in times of financial crisis and a position waiting for him. Dominic had no family except for some cousins in even worse straits than he, and the meager inheritance that had supplemented his scholarship had vanished long ago.

Money was not the only problem. What he really wanted was adventure—an expedition to some uncharted corner of the globe, searching for a lost city or ancient treasure. How could he do that stuck behind a counter selling books?

No, the only adventures he would have would be the ones he made up for himself, fantastic voyages that would never be. He would never find anything out of the ordinary at a bookshop in the middle of Dinan.

Then again…his imagination took up the challenge, and as they waited to be served, he began weaving a tale based on Bodin’s famous specialty.

The customer at the counter finished his business, and the tall lady ahead of them took his place. She wore a shabby traveling cloak over skirts barely half as full as fashion currently dictated and a hat with the merest trifle of a bow by way of decoration. Something about the whole appeared vaguely foreign. Soft folds of veiling draped the hat, concealing her face, and she carried a faded carpetbag as if about to depart on a journey.

He idly wondered how he might fit her into his story. A spy, he thought happily, looking for a secret document hidden in an old book during the Mage War.

The clerk looked up at her, then sharply aside. “Madame wishes?”

The lady had been tightly clutching a folded paper, which she handed to him. “I can’t seem to find them on the shelves,” she said, and Dominic abruptly lost the thread of his tale. What a fascinating voice! It was rich, resonant, and wholly unsuited to the shabby cloak and unfashionable hat.

Taking the paper, the clerk looked at it and then at her, startled, before looking away again. “Madame, these are books of power. I regret, but you cannot have any use for such things.”

Dominic saw her fingers tighten on the handles of the carpetbag. “They are for my elderly relative. He was an ars magica instructor and still takes interest in research, although he is no longer able to travel.”

“I see. I, ah, must consult.” The clerk gave her a nervous bow and vanished into the inner offices of the store. Even though the lighting was more than adequate, Dominic could see nothing of the lady’s face other than her profile behind the veiling. Shadows fell where there should have been none. The lady moved restlessly, glancing at the store entrance as though she were thinking of leaving.

The clerk returned with a senior Bodin’s employee in a frock coat.

“Madame, you must understand these are not books one can leave in one’s drawing room. They can interfere with other magic, with potentially disastrous results, so we cannot sell them in good conscience to someone who might not have the requisite ability to guard against this.”

The senior employee seemed to be addressing the slip of paper in his hand instead of the lady.

“But my great-uncle purchased many such books here, when his health permitted.”

“What is his name?”

The lady hesitated. “Yves Morlais, of Peran. Please, I am in haste. He has asked me to bring these books to him, and my train leaves within the hour.”

The senior employee’s expression changed to a relieved smile. “I have had the pleasure of serving Magister Morlais here for many years. Of course we would be happy to assist you.” He gestured sharply to the clerk waiting nervously beside him, who took the paper and left with alacrity. “I regret to hear he is unwell.” He reached beneath the counter and took out a slim pamphlet. “Perhaps he would like a copy of our latest catalog? He can then write and order books for us to send, and you will not be put to the trouble.”

“Thank you, that is most kind.” Did she smile? She certainly sounded pleased.

The clerk returned, harried and out of breath, with several books wrapped in silver tissue.

“Madame should understand this is for the protection of the books and to prevent any interference with other magics,” the senior employee said, tapping the silver tissue. “It should not be removed save by a magician. Even to look at the binding.” He gave the lady an avuncular smile.

“Oh no, he has warned me very strictly about such things,” the lady said. Dominic frowned. Her words were demure, but carried an undertone of amusement.

The lady paid for her purchases and left, walking with a hurried step. Dominic watched her leave, troubled and unsure why. Something was missing….

“Dominic. Dominic! Wake up! You aren’t in class, you great idiot! Come on, they are waiting for you.” Phillipe looked at him more closely. “I hope you aren’t ill. What’s the matter with you?”

“Didn’t you notice the lady?” Dominic handed most of the coins in his pocket to the clerk. He hoped the loaf was not too stale, and that the mice hadn’t gotten it first.

“What lady?”

“The one before us.”

Phillipe glanced eagerly about. “And I missed her? What bad luck! Was she pretty?”

“I hardly know. I couldn’t see her face at all.” They left, and the cold was even worse after the comfortable warmth of the shop. Dominic shoved his hands into his pockets, wishing he could afford thicker gloves.

“Are you sure you didn’t just imagine her?” Phillipe asked, skeptical. “I’ve never seen you notice a real woman, even when they want you to. Grillot’s sister has tried every trick save fainting at your feet.”

Dominic started, and nearly slipped on the ice underfoot. “How strange you should say that. I saw her faint just three days ago.”


“I found another lady nearby to assist her, of course. What else could I do?”

Phillipe sighed. “Assist her yourself, which is undoubtedly what she wished.” They reached the entrance to their lodging and began climbing the creaky stairs with care.

“Are you sure? I only thought to spare her any embarrassment.”

Phillipe shrugged, his face bland. “There is no accounting for tastes.” Dominic knew Phillipe spoke from considerable experience of feminine wiles, but it still seemed incredible to him. He couldn’t even remember Mademoiselle Grillot’s face; all the ladies he knew seemed to strive to look identical to one another. And why would she notice him? He had no illusions about himself, especially compared to Phillipe, who was tall, handsome, and of good family. All the things he was not. Of course, he did not take as much care of his appearance as Phillipe did, either.

Dominic unlocked the door to their rooms. Nothing had changed, except that they had gotten colder.

“Hmm. Half a scuttle left,” Phillipe said, glancing at their supply of coal. “And the old man on the second floor will be leaving to visit his daughter soon.”

“Yes, but Madame Caisson will be baking for the holidays,” Dominic replied. The secret advantage to their quarters lay in the brick chimney that took up half of one wall. With heat from the other tenant’s fires, they were able to conserve their coal.

There were shadows in the corner of the room, but they matched the light. Dominic frowned. The other shadows had not….

“It’s my turn to put my bed against the bricks,” Phillipe announced in a cheerful voice. After a silence, Dominic felt Phillipe’s hand on his shoulder. “But perhaps you should stay there for a few more days.” His friend searched his face, a worried expression on his own. “When I leave Dinan, you will write to me regularly? I’ll think you’ve been run over by a cart, otherwise.”

With an effort, Dominic shrugged off his distraction. “Of course I’ll write to you.” He grinned. “I doubt I’ll have much else to do.”

Marie poured the tea from the delicate gold-traced teapot, and Ardhuin got up to get her great-uncle’s cup—then remembered. She sat back down, fighting sudden tears, and tried to concentrate on the soothing warmth as she drank.

Finally, she had to say something. “I don’t understand. When he wrote to me…his last letter, he mentioned nothing of being ill.”

Marie dabbed at her eyes, her thin, gnarled hands shaking. “No more he was, my dear. A blessing, and a testament to his sober and regular ways that he did not suffer through long illness. Why, I doubt he truly realized how ill he was even at the end, it happened so quick. It was easy to forget, but he was nearly ninety-four, or would have been in April.”

There was no use in Ardhuin telling herself that she should have known, should have done something to answer his summons more quickly. What could she have done? She’d left the same day she had received his letter. A strange letter….

“There hadn’t been anything…troubling him, had there? Or anyone?”

“Oh no, nothing like that,” Marie said, patting her hand. “He overtaxed himself, that’s all. One of his special projects he was working on, and outside in the cold. You know what he is…was like. Never took note of how long he spent out there, and is it that surprising a putrid cough would be the result?” The old cook shook her head in sorrowful exasperation. “He never would listen to sense, never!” She dusted some nonexistent crumbs from the tablecloth severely and rearranged the teapot and creamer.

Ardhuin glanced up, her own pain momentarily forgotten. A special project would mean magic. And outdoors would mean—defensive magic. There would be no other reason to spend so much time outside the protective wards of his house, unless it was magic that could not be done within them.

“You mentioned that his mind seemed to wander a little,” Ardhuin said.

“He was all but dead!” Marie bristled. “And I only said I could not understand him. He kept saying your name,” she continued slowly, “and something that sounded like ‘they seek Oron.’ I don’t suppose that means anything to you?”

Ardhuin shook her head, feeling suddenly cold and hoping her reaction did not show on her face. Fortunately, it appeared Marie was not expecting any answer. His mind had been wandering, or he had been so delirious he had not realized who was present. While his few remaining servants were completely loyal and knew he was a magician of some repute, none knew that he had another name—Oron—or that Oron was one of the most powerful mages of Aerope.

He had written vaguely of threats, and now it seemed he thought the threat was connected to his secret. “I should have come sooner,” she whispered, and felt the hot tears falling down her cheeks again.

“What could you have done, child?” Marie patted her hand again. “It was his time. Indeed, I wondered at how quickly you were able to leave your school. Did the doctor send a telegram, then? But you have been in the custom of visiting here, so perhaps they made an exception for you. He did enjoy your visits, my dear.”

Ardhuin felt the smile tremble on her face. “I enjoyed them too.” Knowing that she could escape to Peran had helped to fend off the tedium and humiliation of school.

“That must be why he left the house to you in such a strange way,” Marie said, pouring another cup of tea with an austere expression. “He wanted you to always have it. It would have been much more practical, and kind, to allow you to sell it. Men must have some lure to even notice a girl, sad as it is, and if beauty is lacking, money will substitute. Although I have often thought your figure is quite charming, or could be if you would dress to show it to advantage. If you could afford to dress more fashionably, it would improve your chances.”

Ardhuin felt her face heat with a combination of shame and anger. “I would rather have Peran,” she said in a stifled voice. “I could live here. Alone.” She had never enjoyed being noticed, and she would not mind being plain if other people would stop mentioning it to her. She loathed fashion with the same intensity as her mother loved it. It was Ardhuin’s determined resistance, not a lack of funds, that kept her wardrobe out of style.

Marie uttered a shocked gasp. “At your age? Your parents would never allow it.” Her expression swiftly changed to one of puzzlement. “What is your age, now? I would have thought it time and past for you to be done with your education, and you won’t meet anyone with your nose in a book.” She sniffed. Marie had not approved of the encouragement her great-uncle had given to her studious interests. If she had known he had been teaching her magic, she would have been horrified.

“My mother and father wished me to remain at the seminary until their return from the Naipon Archipelago,” Ardhuin sighed. “My brothers are all off on their own business and no one is at home now. It was easier to have me stay there, since Maman intends to visit friends in Bretagne after their voyage. If I went to Atlantea, I would just have to come back again.”

If only there were some way she could stay in Atlantea. Her mother’s ‘visits to friends’ would involve far too much socializing. Parties. Dancing. Ardhuin shuddered. Even the thought of it made her feel ill. Uncomfortable clothes, her mother fussing and worrying to no purpose, and then being forced to endure the discreet stares of those present. Taller than many of the men, topped with a head of flaming red hair, and clumsy in the bargain, and her mother still could not understand why she was hardly ever asked to dance. It was pure torment.

Marie made a tsking sound. “Well, I suppose it can’t be helped now.” She glanced at the big kitchen clock and rose stiffly from her chair. “The coach will be here any minute now. Are you ready?”

The funeral was sparsely attended, only partly due to the cold, raw weather. The doctor was present, as was the lawyer who had drawn up his will, but Ardhuin was the only member of the family. That was not considered worthy of comment. Her great-uncle had treated Ardhuin like his daughter, and everyone else was either already dead or too far away.

Besides, she was his heir. Everyone knew he had left Peran to her—that was the easy part. If she had any questions, the lawyer could answer them for her. They did not know she had also inherited his magical possessions and obligations, and there was no one she could confide in to even know if they were real.

He’d only mentioned it once. “I have an old obligation to the Mage Guardians. Since you are my heir-magical, they may call on you when I am gone.” He had said little more in response to her questions, only that they were mages from every country of the Allies and sworn to the defense of Aerope. They had been instrumental in the victory of the terrible Mage War. He rarely spoke of his part in the War, so she knew it was important when he did. Ardhuin had never heard of the Mage Guardians before, but if what he had told her was true they would naturally be a secretive group.

Marie’s description of her great-uncle’s fevered words worried her. If someone was seeking Oron, they might be one of these Mage Guardians. She had promised him…but how would she convince them she was the heir of Oron?

Then again, perhaps he had been imagining things. Delirious, frail, had he become confused? Remembering some earlier time? She had no way of knowing. No one from this mysterious group had contacted her. It was entirely possible they had ceased to exist, if they had ever existed at all.

A cart drawn by an old, shaggy horse was waiting outside the house when they returned from the funeral.

“The cart is here already? I had not thought we were so late,” Marie fretted.

“You are packed, are you not?” asked Ardhuin.

“Well, yes, but I had not finished putting the covers on the furniture, or emptying the larder, or….” Marie took her duties very seriously.

“But the arrangements—and your granddaughter is expecting you! I can finish here, and leave tomorrow.” One more blessed day of freedom.

Marie shook her head resolutely. “I cannot leave you here by yourself. The driver will just have to come back, that’s all.”

“But I won’t be alone,” Ardhuin said, suddenly remembering. “Rinaud and his wife are still here, and won’t be leaving for at least a week.”

Marie glanced at the cart, and then at Ardhuin, wavering. “That’s true. I did not remember. Oh, but I still don’t like it. The cottage is outside the walls, after all.”

It took a great deal of persuasion and repeated promises to ask the Rinauds to stay in the house with her and to lock all the doors before retiring, but she finally managed to convince Marie to leave.

Ardhuin spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the chores Marie had not completed. The house was wonderfully quiet. If only she could stay like this—alone and undisturbed. She could spend hours in the library and no one would complain or say too much reading would make her squint. She could practice her magic. But no, they would not let her do it.

She went down to the kitchen to finish the last of the cleaning. In the fading light of the setting sun she saw an envelope propped against the butter crock. Frowning, she picked it up, wondering at the weight of it. Only she and the servants could have gone through the wards without assistance. When had it been left?

She took out the letter. In shaky handwriting, Rinaud explained they would be leaving early, as a friend of Madame Rinaud had offered to take them in her carriage all the way to Dinan, and would they be so kind as to arrange with the carter to take their luggage? In the envelope were two faded guilder notes and a key.

Panic spurred her to sudden action. Ardhuin ran out the kitchen door into the bitter cold, following the deep footprints in the snow left by Rinaud. She could barely see the cottage in the darkness once she left the walled garden. Slipping and stumbling, her teeth chattering, she hurried down the road and with stiff hands unlocked the door. The tiny cottage was empty except for a few pieces of old furniture and a pile of carefully marked luggage.

They were, as she had feared, gone. Shivering, Ardhuin relocked the door and went back to the house. What was she going to do? Rinaud must have left the letter when they were at the funeral, or he would have spoken to them himself. Not only was it dark, she didn’t have a horse and it was too cold and too far to walk to town. Nobody knew she was all alone, or would even look for her.

Nobody knew. She stumbled on something hidden in the snow, and fell into a snow-covered pile of leaves. With difficulty, she regained her feet, wishing the garden had not been so neglected. The paths were overgrown, and the snow just made it worse. Brushing snow and dead leaves from her skirt, she carefully locked the kitchen door behind her.

A daring thought; a frightening thought, that had made her lose her balance. If no one knew she was alone in the house, they wouldn’t make her leave. She lit the kitchen fire and considered. What would she do for food? There was a little left, but not much. Plenty of coal and firewood in the cellars, fortunately. And what tale would she tell the carter when he returned as Marie had instructed him? Ah, a misunderstanding! He was not to come for her, but for the luggage. And hadn’t Marie mentioned sending him to fetch orders from the butcher and the baker when Rinaud was ill and couldn’t go himself?

She would have to talk to the carter. Perhaps even write it out and practice it, so she wouldn’t get flustered. He would know she was staying at the house, and might—no, would tell others. This was a small town after all, and gossip a prized commodity. She had overheard some of that gossip, about her. The kindest versions described her as plain and odd, and the superstitious considered red hair unlucky or worse. Would it really seem so strange if she decided to stay here by herself? They would probably think she was just eccentric, like her great-uncle.

The seminary…she would write to the headmistress. Something vague about the difficulties caused by her great-uncle’s sudden illness, and that she needed to stay a while longer. And to send any letters to her here; that would give her enough warning when her mother returned. There was always the risk that the headmistress might learn of her great-uncle’s death from other sources and wonder what was keeping her. Perhaps, then, she could say there were difficulties with her inheritance?

A heady wave of delight washed over her worries and fears. There would be trouble later, unless she was very lucky. But for now…she had freedom.

Dominic made his way up the stone stairs with reluctance, dreading his destination. He knocked on the heavy wood door.

“Come in, come in!” said a testy voice, and Dominic hastened to open the door. He did not want Professor Botrel to become impatient with him. Botrel was his last hope.

“Ah. Kermarec. Now, why did I want to see you?” Botrel’s shaggy white eyebrows piled like thunderclouds on his forehead.

“You mentioned you had something to give me.” Dominic couldn’t help glancing at the impressive piles of books and papers that were stacked everywhere, even the floor. He hoped the good professor would not have to search for whatever it was.

“Oh yes. By the way, I have seen the results of the final examinations.” The white eyebrows lifted, and Botrel looked at him over the rims of his eyeglasses. “It should not be a surprise to you, or anyone else, that you do not have the necessary qualifications to be a scholar.”

He had failed. No degree, no money, no prospects.

Botrel made an exasperated noise, searching through his pockets and then the drawers of his desk. “Don’t stand there looking like you’ve been stabbed. Now where did I put it? You passed. Barely. Aha!” He pulled out a folded letter from his tobacco pouch, shaking a few flakes free. “I hope you do not object to the odor. I wanted to be sure I remembered it, you see, and I have not yet reached the point of forgetting my pipe.” He gave his gentle, elfin smile.

Dominic took the letter and readjusted his ideas. He had not failed. Was this perhaps an offer of employment, then?

“I took the liberty of showing that imaginary expedition you wrote to Monsieur Sambin,” Professor Botrel continued, waving the pipe he was filling and scattering more flakes of tobacco over his desk. “He was quite impressed. Asked me to pass on those comments to you. How did you know about camelard hair, eh?”

Dominic shifted his attention from the letter, which seemed to be a literary critique, to attempt to deal with this new inquiry. Botrel was famous for his apparent non sequiturs and random questions, but more observant students had noticed his chaotic discourse usually had a hidden thread connecting the whole in a subtle way. It made conversation with him fascinating but exhausting.

“A friend of mine is acquainted with the biologist who accompanied the latest expedition to the Atlantean highlands, and introduced me. He told me they had great difficulty packing the more delicate specimens until their trail guide suggested using the hair shed by their pack animals.”

“Ah.” Botrel puffed happily at his pipe. “Why, pray, were you desirous of an introduction to a biologist? And that one in particular? I don’t recall you at any of the literary gatherings, or even expressing an interest in meeting an author.”

Dominic started to sweat. This discussion was taking a disquieting turn, and nothing made sense. Why should this M. Sambin have any interest in him or his scribbled tale? Why was that name familiar?

Then he remembered. Remembered where he had read about the Atlantean expedition, and where he had seen the name Sambin before.

“You showed my imaginary expedition to the editor of The Family Museum?” he asked, stunned. And Sambin had been impressed!

“Oh yes. I think you may have discovered a new field, my boy. Don’t listen to those crotchety academics!” Botrel swirled the cloud of smoke about his head with wild gestures. “Universities are little more than sedimentary layers, rich with fossils. Couldn’t think of a new idea if their very lives depended on it—or recognize one, either. Look at all the trouble I’ve had! Just because I am interested in literature that isn’t fifty years old! It doesn’t have to age to be of value, like wine. Take The Little Chef, for example. Everybody can quote from it, recognize the songs, and it’s still being performed today. It’s a part of our culture and the fools refuse to see it! Bah!” He stabbed his pipe stem at Dominic, scowling. “They call it ‘popular’ in the same manner a doctor would say ‘diseased.’ It was popular because it spoke to all of us!”

“Pastry competitions, sir?” Dominic asked.

Botrel sat back in his chair, his eyes hooded. “Food. Good food, not the kind that just keeps you alive for a few hours. It was written during the Mage War, you see. It was a part of it. I was still living in Fougéres when the Fire Rain destroyed the city. We only got out by following a sewerman through the tunnels. We couldn’t see him or each other, it was so dark. He sang the ‘Cherry Tart with Almonds’ song, and we followed the sound of his voice. Never did find out what happened to him….” Botrel stared into the distance for a moment, then shook himself. “But that’s all over with now. The letter…oh, you have it there. Have you read it?”

Dominic skimmed the letter’s contents as quickly as he could. The account was interesting, but a trifle dry for fiction, said M. Sambin. More attention paid to the personalities and less to the technical details would make the piece of greater interest to The Family Museum’s readers.

“He does not appear to like it,” Dominic faltered, to the glowering face of Professor Botrel.

“I assure you if he did not like it he would not have taken the trouble to write to you,” the professor growled. “Blockhead! He is giving you advice! Now here is my advice to you, and at least pretend to pay attention to it. Follow what makes you forget.” Botrel shook his head, chuckling. “Perhaps I should phrase that in a more felicitous manner. There are things that will not let you rest, and when you follow them you forget all else. You sought out a biologist. Why? You do not, I believe, have an interest in the study of biology. Or in geology, but you paid a visit to Professor Sharmkov. My wife and his are great friends,” Botrel explained, seeing Dominic’s look of shock, “and they love to gossip.”

“I was merely curious—” Dominic began.

Botrel nodded so vigorously his pipe fell out. “Exactly! And according to Sharmkov, you asked intelligent questions. I will venture to guess that you made use of his answers in your tale there, eh? The exploration of the caves? Fascinating, my boy. Now. You, and the examining committee, are agreed that a scholar’s life is not in your future. That,” he said, tapping the letter Dominic still held, “is your future.”

“I am afraid my need of employment is more urgent than Monsieur Sambin can meet,” Dominic said. “I value your advice, but I will need time to act upon it.” Phillipe was leaving in less than a week, and he could not afford their lodgings on his own. If he ruthlessly cut back on any luxuries, he could eat for a month, but no more.

He stared. Botrel was making slow, dancing motions with his arms, his eyes closed and his face screwed up in an effort of thought. “This morning, eggs for breakfast, toast burnt, Pierre, my friend writes…time to leave, AH!” He leaped from his chair, startling Dominic into nearly knocking over the coat rack. Dominic regained his balance and stared at his professor. Botrel gave another subtle smile. “My wife has a way of poaching eggs with butter. Absolutely delicious, and I tend not to notice much else when they are in front of me. I don’t recall the details, mind, but it seems her friend is in desperate need of a tutor. Which is something you can do and,” he dropped back into his seat and beamed at Dominic, “it would give you time to write.”

Going back into the house through the kitchen, Ardhuin rummaged through the larder and settled on a slice of dried-apple pie and some cheese, which she took with her in a napkin. She ate as she went back upstairs, smiling when she saw a fallen crumb gently drift away on the floor in obedience to the cleaning spell. Her great-uncle had had a curiously practical streak at times.

She opened the carved double doors of the library, first wandering to the great window that looked down on the rose garden and admiring the view. So far her plan was working quite well. She had arranged for weekly delivery of food via the carter, and with the quarterly payment from the small fund her great-uncle had set up for her she could live, not lavishly, but well enough.

She sighed happily. No one to criticize her taste in reading, or informal eating habits, or pester her to keep her hair up. It always came down anyway, so what was the point? The only thing that kept her from complete enjoyment was her great-uncle’s absence.

Selecting an old, loosely bound volume from the shelves, Ardhuin sat down at the great desk. She read for some time, nibbling cheese, with her feet propped up on the desk, happily imagining her teachers’ shock if they could see her in such an improper pose. Her great-uncle had never been shocked. That, and his great height, caused her to adore him at an early age. When he called her ‘petite,’ it was true. Most men had to look up at her, and it was very tiresome.

It had been nearly two months now and she still had not discovered his final project, the one Marie claimed had kept him “outside in the cold.” Perhaps she should go through his notes. The wards on his workroom, fortunately, were keyed to allow her to enter or she would have had to wait until they faded—and for wards set by a mage like Oron, that could take nearly a year. Her parents would have returned by then, certainly.

Ardhuin hesitated, then swung her feet down. They could return at any time. If she were going to figure it out, it would be best not to wait. Opening the big, heavy double library doors, she conjured a ball of magefire to light her way in the dark hallway. So much easier than fussing with a lamp, and she was always afraid she would trip and drop it and set something on fire.

She stepped through the wards of the workroom, feeling the strong resistance before they parted and allowed her to enter. As always, the careless disorder made her eyes well up. She could almost imagine her great-uncle still there, giving her a thoughtful sidelong look before setting her another test of skill. Since the servants could not enter, any cleaning was done by him, and rarely—and the cleaning spell would have been a dangerous distraction. Dust covered everything.

Almost everything. The big worktable with the racks of tuned thaumaturgical devices was relatively clear, as was an ornately carved cabinet with four panel doors. That would be the best place to start looking, since he would have disturbed them most recently.

The worktable had nothing. Ardhuin opened the cabinet and found a sheet of paper with her great-uncle’s spidery handwriting. Retention of control and precision in great workings using disparate elements, it said, with a description below. It appeared to simply be a practice magic, to develop skill, the kind of thing he had had her do so many times.

“I can do this,” Ardhuin said to herself. “A central element of light, then surrounded by a stasis, which is itself surrounded by a shielding….” It was trickier than she had thought. Keeping the separate magical elements active and not touching was crucial, or the whole thing collapsed. It took her three tries, but she finally assembled the entire structure. It looked like a filigree globe, lit from within, spinning gently in the air before her.

She smiled, feeling triumphant, then remembered what she was searching for and let the magic dissipate. Just as she turned back to the cabinet, Ardhuin felt her ears pop. She looked around, startled. Now she could hear a high-pitched creak. She went to the door and reached for the latch, encountering the wards in between. They were shuddering.

Ardhuin snatched her hand away. Had she done something wrong? No, the amount of power she had just used was nothing compared to the strength of the wards, and none of the components were active. She darted a glance at the worktable. Sparks and runnels of light, changing in color from green to purple to red, danced over the equipment.

Power. A fearsome amount of power. It wasn’t coming from her, and her great-uncle was dead, so it had to be someone else. Someone outside.

They seek Oron. “He’s not here!” she whispered, sinking to the floor and clutching the heavy leg of the worktable. It would offer no protection if the wards failed, but the instinct to seek shelter could not be overcome. Why were they attacking?

After what seemed like an eternity the multicolored sparks faded and disappeared, and when she worked up the courage to test the wards they were normal. Outside the workroom there was no sign that anything had happened, until she ventured into the library. Outside the main window, shimmers of light, like an aurora, flickered in a shell around the house.

Well. Now she knew what his last “project” was. The main house wards followed the shape of the building itself, but this formed a giant dome. Since outsiders had come and gone from that area unhindered, it must be purely for protection against magical attack. Her great-uncle had anticipated this.

Ardhuin started to shake. The attack was intended to destroy Oron—or was it? Had this mysterious enemy detected the magic she had done and thought her great-uncle was still alive, or did they know about her?

Could she leave the house and live?