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A New Apprentice

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As I had expected, the door opened for me, and I walked in. Renatus was at his desk, a pile of letters, forms and documents either side of him.

“You’re here. Fate is an interesting thing.”

“I had to. We have stuff to talk about, I think.”

“I think you’re right.” He held my gaze as he lifted a typed letter from the top of a very tall pile of the same. “About a few things.” He broke eye contact to look down at the letter as he signed it. “You can tell Sterling Adams that it isn’t going to happen.”

I sighed, relieved that I’d been spared having to ask that, and sat down in my chair.

“Thankyou,” I said, “I will.”

Renatus slipped the now-folded letter into an envelope and handed it to me, along with the White Elm’s stamp and a stapled document with very fine print – a list of names and addresses. I fell easily into the routine of sealing envelopes, stamping the back, copying name and address onto the front, and ruling a line through the words on the list.

“There’s a gate in your orchard,” I said a few envelopes later, trying to sound casual. Renatus paused, the nib of his fountain pen still resting on the letter, and quickly scrawled the rest of his signature before ink could blot the page. “What does it open to?”

“A graveyard,” he answered, his tone careful. He didn’t go on, and I didn’t want to be pushy, but it was gnawing at me, bugging me.

“It feels different from other graveyards I’ve visited,” I went on, trying to keep a conversational tone, “like where my parents and brother were buried.”

“So you visit them?” Renatus asked, sounding strangely curious. I nodded.

“Not so much at first – I was scared,” I admitted. “But now that we live further away we feel less connected to what happened, so Angela drives up to the cemetery every few months and we visit.”

“You are braver than I am,” Renatus said, putting his pen down and sitting back, his expression and aura carefully calm but his eyes admitting to his distress. He turned to look out his window, and rather than going back to what I’d been doing, like I usually did, I waited, sensing that there was more to be said. Minutes passed, and I began to doubt my instinct – maybe that was all he was going to say, after all. But finally, without looking back at me, he began to speak again, his voice very strained and controlled. “What do you… feel… when you visit your family? If you don’t mind my asking,” he added very quickly.

I shook my head and said, “No, I don’t mind. I feel sad, I guess. I feel empty and sad and I feel like it’s not fair.”

“It’s not fair,” Renatus agreed, still staring out the window. He breathed deeply through his nose, and when he continued, he was talking to me as a confidant, not a student. “I have never visited my family’s graves. I cannot bring myself to do it – I am weak – I can only imagine the energy I will feel if I get too close – the Nothing where they should be.”

“You feel the Nothing because there is Nothing,” I said, forgetting that Renatus was my headmaster, that I was in detention, that he was the White Elm’s super weapon and I was just a seventeen-year-old girl. “They are gone. Life will never be the same again, and nothing can make up for what we’ve lost. But I visit anyway, because Nothing in a grave and their names on stone is the closest I can get to Something.”

Renatus raised a hand to his neck and rubbed at the muscles lining his spine, thinking.

“You give good advice, Aristea,” he said slowly. He finally dragged his gaze from the window and searched his desktop, eventually finding a once-scrunched slip of paper, now flat but still flimsy from creases. “You’re much smarter, wiser and braver than I am. I knew I’d made a good choice.”

He handed me the paper. I took it without looking at it – I knew it was his list of my scrying class. I didn’t know what he meant by his ‘choice’, but I was more interested in the question he’d dodged earlier.

“What happened in the orchard? Was it just the storm? Is that why it feels… like it does?”

He never answered. His eyes slipped out of focus and a frown of concern formed. My interest in the topic of conversation gave way to my interest in his behaviour. He was scrying. I remembered the night he’d postponed my first detention and completely forgot about the orchard. Was something terrible happening again? Without pausing to think about it, I reached across the desk and touched the back of his wrist.

A small, homely cottage in Italy with neat little gardens… Nine men, lead by a tall sorcerer with rich, dark skin, use glowing knives to carefully carve at the air around the property… The resistance against one’s knife gives, and a spark in the air indicates the destruction of the spell…