Authors: Caryl Cude Mullin
Tags: #ebook, #JUV037000
A Tempest Tale
CARYL CUDE MULLIN
Second Story Press
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Mullin, Caryl Cude
Rough magic / by Caryl Cude Mullin.
ISBN 978-1-897187-63-0 I.
PS8576.U433R68 2009 jC813'.6 C2009-903081-0
Copyright Â© 2009 by Caryl Cude Mullin
Edited by Kathy Stinson
Copyedited by Kathryn White
Cover and text design by Melissa Kaita
Cover photo by istockphoto
Printed and bound in Canada
Second Story Press gratefully acknowledges the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program.
20 Maud Street, Suite 401
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
For Camryn, my own dragon girl, and for Riley, who works her gentle magic on me every day.
She stared into the brazier. A powdery mold of dead gray ashes lay in its base, but nothing else. It was a cold morning, and the servant was slow to arrive with the coals for her fire. Hunkering lower under her blanket didn't help much. It was thin. She was thin. Even when she bundled it around herself, it didn't make her very warm. She chewed her lip and frowned. “I'll have the servant beaten for being so slow,” she said. She didn't really mean it. It was something she would do, if she was a grown-up princess. She was only five. No one listened to her. “What's the use of being a princess anyway,” she muttered. One day they'd obey her. Not like now. “They always come to me last,” she grumbled.
She was right about that. If she'd been born a boy, things would be different. But she was next to useless as an heir. “The spare,” she'd heard them call her. They didn't mind that she heard them say it, either. They'd smile, and sometimes ruffle her hair. She was a pretty child, so they indulged her. She could have made a favored plaything of herself, but she hated them. Stupid them.
She grew colder and crosser with each passing minute. The shuffling sounds of the servants moving down the hall annoyed her. They were bringing coals and warm water to other rooms. It was deep winter. The world was old and flat and empty, and they'd left her here alone. Where was her nurse? Probably off giggling with that guard. They thought she didn't notice, but she did. She noticed everything. “Stupid, stupid,” she repeated, this time aloud. “I'll show them all.” And she glared at the charred dust of past fires lying in the brazier, making them her enemy, making them the servant to be beaten. Then, in the midst of her anger, she found a quiet place inside her that said,
I know what to do.
Everything she needed was inside her. The thought of fire joined the word, and her will brought them into being. In a breath of spoken air, the power blossomed out from her and became what she wanted.
She stared into the dancing flames. They seemed watery, somehow. Pale. She willed them to be stronger, warmer. It was not enough. There was something she was missing. She frowned, her tongue poking past her lips in concentration. Of course. It was because of the ashes. The fire needed better meat to feed upon. She sifted the remnants in the brazier with her mind. The ashes held distant memories of the trees they once were. These coals had been olive branches, pruned to hold the vigor of the tree in its core.
For an instant, she was within its wood. She felt squeezed, trapped. A dark shadow passed over her thoughts. There was a warning in this, something she did not understand. But she was not a fearful child. With a twist, she wrenched her mind free and pulled the memory forward into being once again.
The brazier was filled with plump burning coals. The fire snapped and ate greedily, rich now in warmth. She smiled, pleased with herself, and basked in her new comfort. “That's better,” she said. Her voice unraveled itself in her room. She remembered that she was still alone. What an idiotic nurse she had. Someone should have seen how clever she was. Then she yawned and let sleep itself cradle her. The flames dwindled down and the coals glowed quietly in their common, tame fashion.
It was not much later when a servant hurried in, apologies and gossip bubbling from her lips. The queen had had a baby in the night. A boy, but it was sickly and the whole house was in an uproar. The servant was amazed to discover the princess sleeping contentedly by a warm brazier, her head resting in her arms and a smile on her lips. The servant was puzzled, but shrugged. The princess must have called out to someone else to make her fire after waiting so long. Oh well. She dumped her load of coals onto the pile already there. No one else needed them, not at this late hour. She pursed her lips and made a small snap of displeasure. It was shameful that the child had been left alone like this. She left to find the girl's nurse.
Every day for a week after that Sycorax lit her own fire in the morning. She looked forward to waking up and making the flames dance. It always took a handful of courage, because each day she had to face the grinding panic of calling forth the wood for the coals. But the rest of it was easy, glorious. Now she could change the colors of the flames, too. The fire was a toy.
But no one saw her new game. No one paid her any attention at all, anymore. They were all in a lather over her new brother. She couldn't see why. “He's going to die anyway,” she said to her nurse.
“Hush now, don't say such evil,” her nurse gasped, horror all over her face like the grease from her supper. Nurse always smelled like roast lamb. It made Sycorax's nose twitch. She supposed that the silly guard must like the sheepy stink. He certainly grinned a great deal whenever he saw them.
“It isn't evil, it's the truth,” she retorted. “I see it in the fire every morning. He doesn't belong here. He was made for the next world. Only strong people can live here. Like me,” she added proudly.
Nurse stopped brushing her hair and grasped her by the shoulders. “What is this that you are saying, child? Be true now, no tales here. Do you see what is to come in the fire's light?”
Sycorax tried to shift away from her nurse's hold, but the woman gripped her forcefully. “Only the morning fire,” she said sulkily. “Only in the fire that I make, when the flames come and dance. They show me.” Sycorax grinned tightly over her small sharp teeth. “They show me lots of things,” she added.
Her nurse stepped away from her, staring. Sycorax still smiled, tasting the woman's fear.
Now she knows I'm a princess
, she thought. But it wasn't so much fun, really, to be looked at like that. As though she was something horrible. And then her nurse turned and ran from the room.
Sycorax was afraid, then. Would she get in trouble, real trouble, for saying the baby would die? It was true. She shouldn't be punished for saying the truth. But she remembered the time she called her aunt a swine, and her nurse had hit her with the hairbrush many times for saying so. That was true, too. Her aunt was always eating and grunted softly whenever she had to sit or rise. “Piggy, piggy,” she said now, to make herself brave.
There were voices in the corridor. Above them she heard the shrilling of her nurse, but there were men's voices too. Sycorax twisted her skirt in her hands, but otherwise did not move. She was a princess. They could not hurt her.
The room filled with people. She recognized some of them. They were her father's wizards. One of them, a great wide dark-bearded man, crouched down before her and stared into her eyes. “Your nurse has been telling us odd tales,” he said, calmly, with a smile on his lips. He was curious, but she could see his doubting thoughts.
The others had encircled them, and together they poked at her with their minds. She didn't like it and pushed them away. The high wizard before her fell back on his heels. The rest began to babble and gasp. One of the women cried. Her white doughy face crumpled up and got all blotchy. Sycorax stared at the red spots on the woman's face, at the tears flowing over her wobbly cheeks. She'd never seen a grown-up person cry before. It made her look like a child. “Stop that,” she said. And the woman stopped crying. She had no choice.
The youngest wizard, a man who had just stopped being a boy, ran out of the room. She knew that he was running to her father. Sycorax thought that she had never seen anything so funny as the sight of his bare feet slapping on the floor. He was so flustered that he didn't even notice his shoes had fallen off. Not by accident, though. She'd made it happen. She wondered what else she could do.
Her life was utterly changed. Everyone noticed her now. The wizards came each morning to watch her make the fire, to hear what she saw in the flame. Her father, the king, sent for her every day. She would stand in the throne room and people would bow to her. Her nurse's guard friend never grinned at her anymore. He stared straight ahead, like a statue. He was afraid of her.
The whole castle was in such a state about her power that they hardly noticed when the small brother died, slipping quietly away from the ties of life. His mother keened, but she was mostly alone in her grief. She was only a second wife, anyway. They didn't need her anymore. King Aedes had married her so that he could have a son. But he didn't need a son anymore, either. It was too bad that the boy had died, but he'd been ill from birth. Not like the princess. Most powerful magic user ever, they whispered, and thanked the gods for such a protector.
That's what she was now. A protector. She liked it. She liked being important. The other wizards tried to teach her, but she already knew everything. They soon had to learn from her. They had to work and sweat in their spellcasting. Not her. “She breathes magic,” she heard one of them say. “We are truly blessed.”
She never told them everything that she saw in the fire, though. She didn't understand most of it. She kept seeing her father. He was old, unkempt, crazed. She only told them the good things she saw. The rich harvests. The city they would build. They would smile, and praise her.
But her nurse suspected something. “Tell me what else you see,” she asked, one night when they were alone.
“I don't know what you mean,” Sycorax replied, and turned away in her bed.
The nurse didn't ask again. She pulled the blanket, the new, thicker blanket, up over the girl. “Sleep well,” she said.
The next day the nurse died. It was a funny accident. She slipped and fell down some stairs.