Monday, 26 December 2016

Of exams and otters

"David Suture."  The name was called by a thin man with a long neck and a reedy voice.  He was wearing a dark suit and white shirt with no tie, possibly because it would have emphasized the length of his neck even more.  He stood in the doorway of the Practicum holding the door open with his arm and looked out into the hallway where three students were standing.  David put a book back into his bag, took a deep breath, and stepped forward.
"Come along," said the thin man.  "Lady Arabella is unforgiving when it comes to timekeeping."
All three students reacted with dismay: until this moment they had known that Lady Arabella was a possibility for an examiner but not that she was actually here today.  David let his breath out, and then took another deep one, trying to control the shakes.  His nerves were never good at exam time, and this had just made everything ten times worse.
"Come on," said the thin man.  He extended his hand, which stretched out unnaturally far until it grasped David's arm, and pulled him to the doorway.  "When you get inside place your bag on the table to your left.  You may take out your wand and any foci that you want to have available to you during the test.  Books, notes and prepared items must remain in your bag, and there will be a watch on it and you to ensure you are not cheating.  And remember your manners."
The Practicum was a medium-sized room that was almost oval: at one end it squared off and doors led out to storage areas and a preparation room.  Usually the room would have twenty desks laid out in it and a long demonstration bench at the front, but for the exams the desks had all been moved into the storage rooms and the long bench pushed back against the wall.  Lady Arabella was sitting on a laboratory stool in front of the bench with an otter curled up on her lap.  Its nose twitched as David came in, and it opened bright blue eyes and watched him.  He set his bag down on a small table and hesitated for a moment.  Then he left the bag behind, his hand checking that his wand was in his jacket pocket, and walked out into the cleared space in the Practicum.  As he walked he noticed that the floor was covered with a fine white sand and that the walls were shimmering faintly, as though there were a heat haze in front of them.  He guessed that they were wards around the room in case anything went wrong in the exam; it made perfect sense that the school wouldn't want to risk a nervous student setting it all on fire or summoning Ilkelb-ilkbir ta'qamar.  He stopped in the middle of the room, turned to face Lady Arabella, and bowed.
Lady Arabella was old but still beautiful: she had the timeless looks of a film-actress and eyes that were so deep men were said to have drowned their souls in them.  Her skin was like the finest vellum, pale and soft, with a radiance like sunlight trapped in diamonds.  One hand rested on the otter's back, her fingers lightly stroking it, and the other was resting on the bench.  Just behind her was a sheet of paper and David wondered if it was the exam questions or just for her to make notes on regarding his performance.
"Suture," she said, her words curt and precise.  "Your father is an Alchemist, isn't he?"
"Yes ma'am," said David, a little startled by the familiarity of the conversation.
"I visited him yesterday. I asked him what his expectations were of you."
"I... believe they're high, ma'am."
"Do you."  It wasn't a question, just a dismissal.  David felt his face flush and he sought for the right and polite words for a reply, but before anything came into his mind Lady Arabella had picked the sheet of paper up off the bench and was staring at him with a directness that made him start shaking again.
"Start with a demonstration of the five elements, please," she said.
The first four questions were little more than canonical exercises, things David had practiced almost every day since entering the school, and as he ran through familiar motions and extended his will in ways that were nearly engrained in him he found himself losing his nervousness.  His mind relaxed a little and his muscles stopped tensing everytime Lady Arabella spoke and he found a central point, a sense of timelessness than in athletes would be called 'flow'.
"Thank-you," said Lady Arabella as he released his will and a pretty illusion of flowers broke apart into a whirl of colours and evaporated.  "The basic technique is acceptable.  For the first demonstration of power, please demonstrate how the Laws of Contagion and Symmetry may be combined."
He stared, his mind struggling to understand what was being asked for.  Instead of telling him what to do, she'd left the task undefined, asking only that he put together two of the Laws of Magic and demonstrate that he'd used them.  He considered the Law of Symmetry, wondering how on earth it could be combined with the Law of Contagion, and felt his stomach turn.  He felt just a little dizzy.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Suture?"  He was sure that she was glaring at him now, angry that he wasn't reacting.
"No," he said reflexively.  He tried to make himself believe it.  "No."
"Then proceed," she said.  Her hand caressed the otter, and a mad idea crossed his mind.
"Might I have a hair from your pet, please?" he said.  His feet were taking steps towards her without him willing them to.  She raised an eyebrow, but turned her hand over.  There were two silvery-grey hairs adhering to her fingers.
"It would seem so," she said.  There was a sensation of a strong will around him and he stopped.  One of the hairs from her hand lifted up and drifted over to him as though carried by an invisible servant, and he held his own hand out to accept it.  It drifted down and settled in his palm.
He concentrated, applying his will to the hair and then invoking the law of Contagion.  The hair, being from an otter, remembered what it was to be an otter, and in a bright coruscation an otter made from starlight formed.  Instinctively he reached out his other hand: an otter was too big to hold in just one.  As the shape firmed up he reached again, shaping his will like a potter shapes clay on a wheel, holding the Law of Contagion firmly in place and now reaching for the Law of Symmetry.
As within, so without, he said.  Language wasn't important for magic, only intent.  The otter made of starlight turned its head and looked at him, and with an instant of shock he recognised its eyes as his own: he had intended to create an exact duplicate of Lady Arabella's otter, but instead the Law of Symmetry had taken the nearest living creature for its model and he had created a simulacrum of himself in an otter.
The starlight otter leaped gracefully from his hands to the floor, and the real otter sat up on Lady Arabella's lap, eyes bright and nose twitching, considering the newcomer.
"You are the only student today to pass that test, Mr. Suture," said Lady Arabella.  Her otter cocked its head, and then decided to jump down from her lap and go and greet the starlight otter.  "And you have made a most interesting choice."
"Thank-you," said David.  As Lady Arabella's otter touched noses with his own there was a wrenching sensation as though a much greater will was imposed and he struggled to hold his spell together.  For a few moments he succeeded, and then something unravelled too fast for him to catch and the otter disappeared in a scintillating helix that writhed its way to the ceiling.
"You will need to know yourself better, Mr. Suture," said Lady Arabella, but for the first time since he'd entered the room she was smiling.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Home for Christmas

The car took the corner far too fast for the ice-spotted road and the brake-lights glowed cherry-red in the deepening twilight as the driver stamped on the brakes and hauled on the steering wheel.  The wheels skidded sideways across the slick tarmac and the car's nose spun round until it was pointing back the way it was facing.  At the edge of the road the tarmac became frozen earth and crispy, frosted grass and the tyres grabbed a little traction at last.  The driver felt the change and switched pedals from the brake to the accelerator.  There was a screech of rubber, the car fish-tailed back and forth a little as it regained the road, and then it was off once more.  It carried on still too fast for the wintery conditions and nearly missed the turning half-way along the road, the brake-lights flaring again and the car riding up on the pavement and bouncing back down on to the road.  The turning led onto a long, wide road with large houses, and cars parked on both sides of the road.  The car barrelled down the white line in the middle of the road and executed a bootlegger's turn to pass between a black Bentley and a silver BMW and hurtle onto the gravel driveway that led to one of the houses.  The car decelerated smoothly, so much so that its gentle collision with the sea-green Ford Fiesta parked on one side of the drive was suspicious.  The Fiesta's alarm went off and the new car backed up a few centimetres: enough that the cars weren't touching, but not far enough for anyone driving the Fiesta to be able to extricate their car.  The driver killed the engine, and for a moment there was the crisp winter air, the start of a snowfall, and the insistent, repetitive blare of the Fiesta's alarm.  Then curtains twitched, lights went on, and people came out of the house.  Inspector Playfair sighed and opened his car door.  He was home for Christmas.
"You hit my car!"  Denise was Playfair's sister, a broad-shouldered woman with a classical beauty.  Dark, softly curling hair framed her face and her eyes smouldered with a mediterranean passion normally, but right now the fires had been stoked and they were blazing.  "You always hit my bloody car!  Why don't you look where you're going?"
"I didn't hit your car," said Playfair looking over the small group that had come outside.  There were more people clustered at the doorway.  "You say I hit your car every year, Denise.  It's like a tradition."
"It's not a bloody tradition!"  She was quivering with rage, full lips curled back in snarl, and her hand was jerking as though she wanted to slap Playfair but was restraining herself.  "Every year there's a new ding after I come here.  Every year!"
"You should drive more carefully," said Playfair with a broad smile.  He ignored Denise as she balled her hand up and punched her other palm forcefully and looked at the man stood next to her.  He came up to shoulder-height on Denise and had the wiry build of a long-distance runner.  His face wasn't quite handsome: it was too thin for that, and the bones jutted a little too angularly.  "Who are you?"
The man stuck his hand out and Playfair looked at it until the man retracted it.  "Steve," he said.  "I married Denise in June.  You were invited to the wedding, I think?"
"And you never came," said Denise nastily.  She punched her palm again.  "I had a special place set for you, and a parking space nowhere near my car.  I did everything."
"I was busy," said Playfair.  "I sent flowers didn't I?"
"A flower.  One flower!  You sent one bloody flower to your own sister's wedding!"
"Was it a nice one?"  Playfair opened the back door of his car, and picked up a leather animal carry case from the back seat.
"Shouldn't you know?" asked Steve, stepping in before Denise could start swinging.  "You sent it, after all."
"I asked around the office for someone who knew about weddings and got them to send something," said Playfair closing the car-door.  "I think it was one of the SOCOs.  Been married six times, so I figured he'd know what was right."  He set the carry-case down on the ground and looked for the zips that allowed it to open.  "He said he'd written a card to go with it."
"Best of luck next time! That's what it said!" Denise's scream turned into a howl.  "Steve's parents spent the next three weeks asking about it.  We played scrabble one evening and all the words they played were accusations!"
"I think you were reading too much into that."  Steve laid a hand on Denise's arm and she shrugged him off viciously.  He took a step back.  On the ground Playfair opened the carry-case door and a small dog, a Chihuahua the colour of a Doberman Pinscher, stepped out and yawned.
"Oh, you have a dog!"
There were muffled screams from the doorway and the people there disappeared inside.  The door slammed, and the sounds of it locking were audible.
"That's not Calamity," said Denise, her voice suddenly calm.
"Calamity's on duty," said Playfair.  "This is Ray."
"You have a dog called Calamity?"  Steve bent down to pat Ray, who growled without looking at him.  Steve hesitated.
"Calamity Jane," said Playfair.  "She's named for my favourite Crimean nurse."
Steve looked puzzled.  "But she wasn–"
"What's Ray short for?" asked Denise.
"Razor," said Playfair.
The family – the extended family, Playfair thought – were gathered in the drawing room.  Ray was lying in front of the fireplace, his paws extended and his belly exposed to the heat of the flames.  His eyes were half-closed; anyone coming near him or the fire started him growling, warning them that he wasn't going to tolerate being disturbed.  Playfair's mother's cat, a white-and-brown cushion-sized bundle of fluff was sitting on the window-ledge with ill-concealed hatred for the interloper.  She (her name was Suzie) licked her paws now and then but her eyes never left the chihuahua in front of the fire.
Further back in the room a tall Christmas tree, neatly decorated on one side (Playfair's mother never decorated the back of the tree, reasoning that no-one was going to see it), stood guard over brightly wrapped presents, and in front of it the adults sat at the dining table.  The children had been dispatched to the living room to watch Disney cartoons and eat tinned peaches from plastic dishes.  A scrabble board was laid out on the table, and the Dungeons and Dragons books were neatly stacked nearby, waiting for the evening adventure.
"Divorcee," said Playfair's mother, setting down all her tiles.
"Not you too!" yelled Denise.  Colour rose in her cheeks and she stood up.  Steve stood up immediately too, putting his arm around her shoulders.
"It's just a game," he said.  He leaned into her, nuzzling her shoulder as he couldn't reach her neck.  "Have... have a mince pie."
"Had to arrest a couple of bakers for poisoning mince pies this year," said Playfair.  He was sat in an armchair contemplating the crossword.  "They were putting mercury in them."
Denise looked at the plate of mince pies and paled.  She sat back down.
"Not those dear," said Playfair's mother.  "Cook makes them herself from an old recipe.  I think it was your great-grandmother's.  I'm not sure how long we'll be able to keep making them though, some of the ingredients aren't really produced any more."
"Toyboy," said Playfair's father, setting his tiles down.  "And I think that's all the Y's used up now."
"There's still a blank out there, dear," said his wife.  Denise stayed silent, though her knuckles whitened as she clenched her fists.  Steve put his arm around her shoulders and the plate of mince pies in front of her.  They were lightly dusted with icing sugar and were still warm.  The aroma of brandy, dried fruit, and shortcrust pastry tickled her nose and coerced a smile from her.
"Are you finished with the paper yet, Playfair?" said Aunt Brenda.  "I want to see how Spurs have done in the run up to Christmas."
"He hasn't touched the crossword!"  Aunt Tabitha leaned over and poked the paper with a bony finger: she was wearing her TA uniform and looked cross because she had training on the 26th.  "I thought you said you were going to solve it."
"I solved it –" Playfair checked the clock on the mantlepiece – "eight minutes ago, Tabby.  I'll write the answers in tomorrow in case any of you want to give it a go."
"Pass it over then, there's a love," said Brenda holding her hand out.  "Tabby's just jealous because learning to read is on next year's syllabus."
"Innocent," said Denise laying tiles on the scrabble board.
"Proper noun," said her father.  "Name of a Pope."
There was laughter around the table.  "Cuckold," said Steve, putting his tiles down.  "I'm so sorry, Denise, it's the letters I had."  There was the soft crumpled sound of a mince pie hitting a man squarely between the eyes and Denise stood up again and stalked out of the room.
"New record," said Playfair, checking the clock.  "Normally she only starts sulking after the first dragon eats her character."
"We've got a new dragon this year," said Brenda looking up from the paper.  "It'll be a shame if she misses it."
"You children are always squabbling," said Playfair's mother.  "I'll go and talk to her. Sit down Steve, there's a good chap.  This is a woman thing."
"Right."  Steve looked bemused.  "Do we carry on without her?"
"No," said Playfair's father.  "Game's over: Lindsey won, I came second and Denise beat you by 133 points.  You want to practice, son."
"Oh," said Steve.
"Why does everyone call you Playfair?" asked Steve.  "That's your surname.  Surely you have a first name?"
Ray growled like a motorbike revving before doing a wheelie.
"Breakfast is served at 5:30," said Playfair's mother.  "Cook will have been up all night and probably drinking heavily, so make sure you're at the table on time.  We will open presents at 6:15 and then apologise to each other at 6:30."
Steve looked around at the others; the wreckage of the Dungeons and Dragons game spilled off the table and onto the carpet and there were far more empty winebottles than he could remember drinking from.  The clock on the mantlepiece said it was 2:30 already, and he was sure he was drunk.
"Ap..apo...apologise?" he managed.
"Oh god yes," said Denise.  She slipped off her chair and giggled into the carpet.  "Oh god yes."