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Swordfish and Sorcery

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Michael was still half-asleep when the knocking started at the door, a polite series of understated raps. Michael groaned and burrowed deeper into his blanket. It was early spring, and the Sorcerer’s house was cold.

The cordial raps came again. Michael cracked open an eye. The plaster underside of the stairs was barely visible in the predawn light, and there was Calcifer crackling, just out of sight.

Rat-tat-tat-tat. It was no more hurried than before, but clearly the person at the door intended to keep knocking until they died of starvation — or until someone answered.

Shivering, Michael rolled off the scavenged straw mattress that had been his bed for the last half-year and hurriedly pulled on trousers and a sweater. Out of habit he stumbled sleepily to the hearth to feed Calcifer first, but Calcifer was already heartily ablaze over fresh logs.

“Did the Sorcerer do that?” Michael asked. “The firewood, I mean.”

“Just before he went out,” Calcifer fizzed back. ”About an hour ago. Said he had something urgent.”

“Something magic?” Michael asked, impressed.

“He didn’t say.”

Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

There was nothing for it. Michael went over to pull the heavy door open by its plain wooden knob. A wave of chill, damp air rushed in.

The grandest person Michael had ever seen was standing outside on the cobbled way. He was tall with a black bristle-brush mustache, and his deep blue uniform was covered with gold buckles and buttons that caught the long rays of the rising sun. There was a sword hanging from his hip and his boots were so shiny they might have been sheathed in glass.

“The Sorcerer isn’t here right now,” Michael said, awed and trying not to gawk. “He opens later in the morning.”

“Are you his apprentice?” the grand person asked, frowning at Michael.

No one had ever made that mistake before. “No, sir.”

The person’s eyes widened in astonishment. “His son? But I was told Sorcerer Jenkin was a very young man.”

“He’s not my father!” Michael said quickly, inwardly reeling over the description of the Sorcerer as very young. “I just… help.”

It was as close to the truth as possible. Michael answered the door when the Sorcerer was away on his mysterious trips, put away the coins he took in, and went down to the market to haggle for food when the pantry was low. He stayed out of the Sorcerer’s way when they were both at home, and for his part the dread wizard hadn’t seemed to notice Michael was there at all.

Michael told himself that was all right. He had Calcifer to talk to, and a warm place to sleep.

“I can take a message,” he offered the tall man.

“Tell him the King’s agent came, as agreed in correspondence,” the man said, emphasizing the words in a short, annoyed kind of way. “Pursuant to recent movements abroad, his Royal Majesty believes that it is prudent to fortify the army and navy at this time, and he would like to invite all wizards, sorcerers, witches, and other users of magic to apply their skills. Do you have all that?”

Michael had taken a slate from behind the door and was writing it all down. He was reasonably certain the Sorcerer read the notes he left, though he’d never caught him at it, and the Sorcerer never asked who wrote them. Michael had gotten rather good at writing messages. He read the King’s agent’s words back to him.

“That’s correct,” the man said, raising his brows. He paused, and said, “You know, the royal army is also taking in boys and girls your age to run messages, care for equipment, the like. Enlistees get room and board, as well as the chance to see foreign lands. Not to mention that when you come of age to join properly, you’ll be promoted to officer immediately.”

“Oh,” said Michael in surprise. The Sorcerer’s visitors never had messages for him. He looked at the slate. He wondered if he should be writing this down.

“Well,” said the King’s agent disgruntledly, “I leave Porthaven at noon, but will be back within the week. Inform Sorcerer Jenkin I will see him then. Good day.”

After he was gone and the door shut against the chill, Calcifer cackled, sizzling. “No wonder that good-for-nothing escaped today!”

*

The Sorcerer wasn’t back until sundown, by which time Michael had crammed the slate with orders for a fast sailing spell, a cure for sleeplessness, a ward against bedbugs, and a charm for good cooking.

The wizard floated in on a cloud of perfume and a velvet cape with great protruding shoulders. Michael hesitated. If he left the morning’s message on the slate, the Sorcerer might think it was another customer. Or the complicated words might get muddled. But… did that mean Michael had to relay the message himself? For all that they were more or less living together, Michael hardly ever scraped up the nerve to talk to the wizard.

The Sorcerer had hung up his cape and was heading toward the bathroom. Michael steeled himself.

“Um, Mister Sorcerer Jenkin sir.”

Sorcerer Jenkin looked around once, as if not sure where the words were coming from, then his eyes settled on Michael. Michael had always found the Sorcerer’s gaze unnerving. They made you feel like he wasn’t really seeing you even when he was looking directly at you.

In the background, Calcifer chinked interestedly.

“There was a visitor for you this morning,” he stuttered. “An hour after you left.”

“Was there?” said the Sorcerer, in great surprise. “Well, it can’t have been that important if they came at such an ungodly hour.”

“It was someone from the King, sir. He wants you to join the army and use your magic. He said he’d written to you before, and he’s coming around again next week.”

“Well then, we shall see about that when the time comes,” the Sorcerer replied serenely. “Calcifer, did you find the hot springs?”

“They were where you said they’d be,” Calcifer said, flickering somewhat agitatedly.

Michael tiptoed to the hearth as the bathroom door banged shut. “Do you think he heard what I said?”

“He must have gone courting again,” Calcifer hissed back. “Bother! He’s never sensible when he does.”

“Courting?” Michael repeated. He’d heard of it, from the older boys and girls, but had never seen it done. “Can sorcerers court?”

Calcifer laughed, an ashy-sounding noise. “They can if they’re Howl.”

*

They were almost out of bread, and the money in the chest was running worryingly low, so Michael put half the coins in his pocket the next day and went down to the market.

Porthaven’s market was by the sea, stands packed full of fish lined up next to vegetable sellers and dried-goods stalls, shoppers drifting among the lanes or haggling with vendors. It was the first warm day of spring, and many people were out. Michael wove through bodies and ducked around shopping bags, going to the baker’s stall first, then the poultry farmer’s, and finally the dairy farmer’s for milk and cheese. He got good prices on everything.

As the dairy farmer wrapped up the cheese, Michael watched the woman at the neighboring fish stall expertly gutting three perch for a waiting customer.

Mum would do that, Michael thought. She and Dad would lug the bones of the stall here to the seaside and heap it with cod and marlin and herring. Then Mum would stand here calling to customers, weighing their fish, counting out their change.

It didn’t hurt like it used to, Michael realized with a start. He no longer wanted to scream and kick, or bawl his eyes out anymore, when he thought of his parents. He didn’t even feel heavy and gloomy, like he had those months when he would avoid looking at anything in the market and scurry back as soon as the shopping was done.

“Here’s your wares, lad,” the farmer said, handing Michael his packet.

Michael thanked him, turned to go — and found himself face-to-face with a boy he knew from school. Artie Hornblower, stout and red-cheeked.

“Michael Fisher!” exclaimed Artie, his chubby cheeks working in excitement. “It’s you!”

“Artie!” Michael exclaimed, in equal surprise.

“You’re doing okay!” Artie said in relief. “We all wondered. Some parents said you must’ve… But we knew it couldn’t be true.”

“I’m fine,” said Michael. “I’m living up the hill.”

“That’s close to Sorcerer Jenkin’s place,” Artie said, eyes round. “Is it haunted like my da says?”

“No!” said Michael, before he remembered Calcifer, who was after all a demon. “Nooo… mostly.”

Damn,” said Artie, drawing out the swearword.

“Is everyone still there?” Michael asked, because suddenly he was dying to know. Flora Townsend whipping her long braids around; Jack Fuller tripping over his shoelaces; the teacher who got pink in the face when she yelled.

But Artie only blinked at him. “Michael,” he said slowly, “sixth grade is over.”

For a second Michael didn’t understand, then he realized — everyone had finished while he’d been away. Porthaven’s little schoolhouse only taught pupils up to the sixth grade, upon which most children started helping full-time with the family trade. A lucky few would get proper apprenticeships; fewer still would continue on to the secondary school, those with brains and money.

He realized Artie was awkwardly waiting for him to say something. “Oh,” he said at last. “What will you be doing, Artie?”

Artie’s face fell. “Blacksmithing,” he said morosely. “Starting in the winter. Mum arranged it.” Michael grimaced in sympathy. The blacksmith was known to be hard on apprentices.

“But,” continued Artie, hushed in dismay as he came to the same realization Michael was, “what are you going to do, Michael? Are you going to work or apprentice?”

“I — I don’t know,” Michael said, the words surprised out of him.

If his parents had lived, he would have helped them with the fishing, eventually becoming a fisherman himself. He’d never given it much thought. Did one have to learn a trade? He knew you needed money, and you got that by working. But the jugglers down by the jetty seemed to do fine. So did the baker’s shop-boys, who weren’t apprentices.

“It can’t be that important,” he said, convincing himself that it was true. “I have to get back, Artie. I’ll be seeing you.”

*

As he carried his baskets up the hill, Michael remembered the man who’d come with the King’s message. What was it he had said? Room and board, as well as the chance to see foreign lands.

It meant becoming a soldier when he got older. Michael didn’t know what he thought of that, but seeing foreign lands didn’t sound so bad. Maybe he’d get to board a ship, and sail farther out into the ocean than Mum and Dad ever had.

He missed the sea. He’d been helping out around the boat as soon as he could walk. And once he was old enough, Mum and Dad started taking him on short trips in their little dory. Michael knew how to set and pull in trawl lines, lash tubs full of fish to the boat, and could do a fair job of rowing.

The mild weather reminded him that he had never meant to stay at the Sorcerer’s house. But it had been winter, and there had been nowhere else to sleep. But it was spring now… and he could leave. Maybe he could work on a fishing boat, and earn enough to stay in Porthaven.

He crested the hill, puffing a little, and opened the door to find the Sorcerer at his worktable, stirring something in a pot. Michael hung back to watch, clutching the groceries. Magic interested him as much as it mystified him. It wasn’t wicked rites and demonic chanting at all; the wizard spent as much time collecting individual flower petals as mixing brightly colored powders. The stuff in the pot looked like white slime.

“Are you making a love potion?” Calcifer asked curiously as Michael tiptoed to the pantry to put away the food.

Behind Michael, the wizard heaved a sigh. “You misunderstand me, Calcifer,” he said mournfully. “Sweet devotion must be earned all on its own; spells can’t hasten the wonder of true love. Besides,” he added, as Michael went on his tiptoes to reach the top shelf, “potions wear off, and then where would I be with charming Emma Baker?”

The baker’s daughter? Michael wondered. But her aunt is a terror! Everyone was careful of tussling with that family, on account of their Aunt Nanette. But Michael supposed sorcerers had their ways. He finished filling the pantry.

Perhaps he should ask the Sorcerer what he should do. Although, what would he say? Sir, can I live with you forever? I can help with the haggling, it doesn’t seem like something sorcerers do very well.

The Sorcerer was now dipping a tube with a bubble at the end into a small jar.

“Um…” Michael said, but the Sorcerer didn’t seem to hear him. “Um, I was thinking of finding a job on a fishing boat. So — so I would have somewhere to go…”

“Howl,” said Calcifer, as the Sorcerer held the tube over the pot and squeezed out three shimmering drops. “He’s talking to you.”

The Sorcerer’s glance startled up to Michael, but just then the concoction in the pot hissed like pouring sand, writhing before burgeoning upward into a bulbous white spike. The white began to darken to gray, until it was the color the sky before a storm. Then the lamplight started to gleam on its surface, first weakly, then brightly, and slivers of it deepened to yellow.

Michael gasped. The thing in the pot had become a flowerbud of gold, wrapped in silver leaves.

“If you want to find a boat,” the Sorcerer said, sounding satisfied, “I suppose you should try the docks.” He turned the pot around, admiring his own handiwork.

“Huh!” sizzled Calcifer.

Michael didn’t feel like looking at the glittering sculpture anymore, and he didn’t feel like being alone. He went to sit by Calcifer, who was muttering to himself with snapping pops. Michael pulled up his knees. Gradually, Calcifer subsided into chinks and whispers, lulling Michael into daydreams of the sea.

*

Michael went down to the docks the next day. But nobody wanted him. They said he was too small, that he was a storm orphan and it was unlucky. Even the dockhands wouldn’t let him help. The sailors would complain, they said.

There was nothing he could do. As the sun started to drop, he stayed at a distance watching the boats coming in, unwilling to start back up the hill. It seemed like all he could do was hang around, ignored and tongue-tied.

Someone was thundering toward him, someone imposing in a blue uniform and buckles, muttering furiously to themself.

“… has the nerve to speak to me like that, me, a representative of the king himself…”

It was the King’s agent from a few mornings ago. His mustache was fairly bristling as he strode past Michael.

“… only a backwater magician…”

Room and board, as well as the chance to see foreign lands.

Here was his chance.

“Sir!” shouted Michael, running after him. “Sir!”

The man turned, still red in the face. His eyes narrowed in disdain. “If you’ve come to tell me your master’s changed his mind — no need! The King has no use for presumptuous charlatans, recommendation from the Royal Wizard or no!”

“I came to tell you I want to go with you,” Michael panted. “Can I?”

The King’s agent was momentarily lost for words, mouth opening like a fish’s. Then he recovered. “Is that so? Well! I’m happy to hear it. A bright boy like you could do better than working for a quack! My entourage starts back for Kingsbury in two hours. Can you be ready at the tavern by then?”

“Y-yes,” Michael stammered. The significance of his choice seized at him, and he almost swallowed his words.

Instead, he ran back to the Sorcerer’s house to collect his meager possessions and say goodbye to Calcifer. He supposed he should thank the Sorcerer for his generosity, too.

“What are you doing?” Calcifer crackled in surprise, as Michael folded up the blankets under the stairs and dragged the straw mattress into the broom cupboard.

“I’m going to Kingsbury,” Michael said breathlessly. “To be a squire in the King’s army.”

In the fireplace, Calcifer flared up. “Don’t be a fool!” he snapped. “Talk to Howl! He’ll listen properly soon.”

“I can’t wait,” Michael said miserably, coming to stand in front of the hearth. It felt like the last time he would be warmed by a fire. “I have to leave tonight.”

“Tcha!” With a series of spitting pops Calcifer dove down into the logs and wouldn’t come out again, no matter how Michael coaxed.

With a heavy heart, Michael left the Sorcerer’s house for the last time, clutching his small box of things. Before he pulled the door shut, he stopped and peered into the distance. There was some kind of disturbance.

Two people were running up the cobbled way that led past the house. The one in front was Sorcerer Jenkin. The other was a tall, solidly-built woman, her skirts flying as she chased Jenkin — Nanette Baker, the terrifying aunt. Aunt Baker held her skirts up with one hand while the other wielded a black pot. It was the same pot the Sorcerer had grown the gold-and-silver flower in.

“Foul — ratty — crook —” Michael heard as they barreled closer. Aunt Baker swung the pot, and it connected with the Sorcerer’s rump, but he didn’t stop. He was frantically saying something Michael couldn’t hear, but Aunt Baker didn’t seem mollified. She went on swinging the pot at Sorcerer Jenkin, who went on running for his life.

They were very close now.

As Michael watched, fascinated, the two of them thundered up to the house; Jenkin dove through the open doorway, yelling, “Lock it, Calcifer!”; the door slammed; and Aunt Baker skidded to a halt in front of it.

She pounded on the door with one fist, pot lurching from the other. “Open up, you gutless barnacle slime!”

No answer from the impassive wooden surface.

“Jenkin! I’ll have your gizzard, see if I don’t!”

Michael approached cautiously. “Um… Ms. Baker?”

She didn’t hear him. “Wait ‘till I get my hands around your scrawny neck—”

“Ms. Baker!” Michael tried more loudly.

She and the pot both whirled around, and Michael flinched as it came close to his face. Aunt Baker was breathing hard, and her graying hair disheveled. “What do you want?”

Michael gulped. She didn’t seem to be in a mood to debate. “What, er — what seems to be the problem?” he said in his most polite manner.

“The disreputable villain seduced my poor niece with his wicked sorcery. You’ll see what I do to him!”

Muffled words came from the other side of the door.

“Come out and say it clearly, Jenkin!” Aunt Baker shouted.

There was a pause. Then the door said clearly, pleadingly, in the Sorcerer’s voice, “Enchanting Aunt Baker, no one in Ingary feels as much for your niece Emma as myself. I beg you consider the depth of my sentiment, and the anguish I endure every second she refuses to return my passions.” The Sorcerer’s voice was tragic, wrenching. Michael almost felt like weeping with him.

“Then why did she say she was in love with you?” Aunt Baker shouted. “She said she wanted to marry Mister Jenkin! As if an honest family like ours would ever have anything to do with sorcerers!”

There was a long pause from the door. Aunt Baker raised a fist at it, ready to start beating again.

Then the Sorcerer’s voice said, “She said that?”

“Those very words! To her father! And to me!” She pounded once on the door. “I’ll teach you to chase after respectable girls!”

The Sorcerer’s voice, when it next came, was smaller. “Ms. Baker, you may have a point,” it conceded.

“What was that?”

“It would never do for a girl as principled and upright as your niece to go about with a practitioner of the mystical such as me. Why, I have even communed with demons! What a fool I was, to not think of it before! Of course we must part ways forever.”

Aunt Baker’s fist stopped in front of the door and her mouth dropped open. “You — you’ll stay away from her?” she shot at the door.

“May my name be blackened if I break my word,” the wizard swore.

Aunt Baker shook the cauldron at the door. “I’ll see that you hold to it!” she threatened. She looked around and seemed surprised Michael was still there. “You’re the Fisher boy, aren’t you? You’d do better than mixing with his type!”

But he’s given me food and a place to sleep, thought Michael, as Aunt Baker stomped off, still holding the cauldron. Whether the Sorcerer noticed him or not, he was the only person who’d shown Michael charity since his parents died.

The lock clicked, and the Sorcerer opened the door. “Thought I was done for!” he sighed gustily. “Good work calming her down.”

“Oh,” said Michael awkwardly. “Thank you.”

The man inspected Michael with his strange distant eyes. “You said something about boats earlier?”

“Y-yes, but that’s not important anymore.”

“I see.” The Sorcerer went on looking at Michael. Being the focus of that glassy gaze was disquieting.

Michael took a deep breath and faced the Sorcerer, clutching his little box. “Sir, I wanted to thank you. For — for letting me stay. I’ll remember it.”

“Remember it where?” the Sorcerer asked, frowning.

“I’m going to Kingsbury, sir. To be a squire.”

“Why the devil would you do that?”

Michael looked down. He didn’t know how to explain it.

There was silence for a while, and Michael’s fingers grew whiter around his box. Then the Sorcerer said slowly, “Business has been picking up lately, and I could use an apprentice’s help. Would you be interested?”

“Me?” Michael squeaked. His brain felt like he’d been doing sums back and forth at the schoolhouse again. ”Apprentice with you, sir? To learn magic?”

“It’s not the most respectable of trades, according to some, but it is damn useful and interesting, if I say so myself.”

An apprenticeship. To learn magic.

“You’ll get wages, of course, though it might not be — er — as regular as some others,” the Sorcerer went on sheepishly, “but you’ll have room and board for certain.” He paused. “Well? How about it?”

“Yes, of course,” said Michael’s mouth, before his brain even had the chance to think. “I would love to, sir.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” the Sorcerer said, and he did actually sound satisfied. “You’re called Michael, right? What’s your surname?”

“Fisher.”

The man held out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Michael Fisher. I’m Howl, practitioner of magic and doctoral student. You don’t have to call me sir.”

So Michael shook the proffered hand and followed Howl back inside, where Calcifer was upright again, sending tongues of flame into the chimney. “You’re back,” he said, the purple of his mouth forming a fearsome grin. “Welcome home.”