The Price of Admission
Ella’s sheep-sheering world is turned upside when her hero, the archmage of the academy himself, knocks on her door.
Edited by Rene Tyree
Reading Time: 15 minutes
Photo Credit: Flickr / Emilie Barbier
The first time I saw Mortimer Falkin he was riding an enormous horse next to some king or other. He rode right by me and caught my eye as he passed. He smiled down at me and took out his wand. With a playful wave, he conjured a daisy and held it out for me. I was only six, but I knew he was important. The force of his attention pushed the air from my lungs. My mother accepted the gift on my behalf and thanked the wizard while I tried to remember who I was.
From that day forward magic became my life. I wore nothing but wizard robes and carried spell books with me at all times. I couldn’t read the spell books yet, but I carried them anyway. I pretended to be Falkin himself, granting my little sister magical boons when she agreed to play and turning her into various inanimate objects when she refused.
My parents loved to remind me that they had grown up in a world without magic. They would tease that it was a passing fancy. It drove me crazy. I could more easily imagine a world without bread, without dresses and carriages than I could a world without magic. But it had been scarcely twenty years since Cynthia Strang, “the Arcanist”, had reversed the Gorge river. The magic had been latent within her until her home was threatened. Longships filled with raiders from across the ocean had descended on the docks. The Arcanist had famously flung out her hands in desperate entreaty for the water to carry the ships away. And it had!
I wanted nothing more than to join her Academy in Scora. I wanted to join the throngs of mages newly awakened of their power. I wanted to join Mortimer Falkin, the newly appointed archmage with The Arcanist withdrawing from public life.
Once I learned to read, every second of free time was devoted to magic. I read every book I could find in the Duke’s library. My parents even got me my own copy of Falkin’s treatise Magical Musings. I filled the margins with notes and underlined my favorite passages. I tracked the exploits and discoveries of notable wizards, transcribing their speeches when I could attend.
By the time I was 16 I’d spent countless nights willing flame to jump to an unburning log without success. I’d commanded the water of my bath to heat itself, (a trivial spell performed by many without even noticing), but the water had remained infuriatingly frigid. Despite long nights, sweat, and occasional tears, I had found not so much as a whisper of power. I was completely, utterly, irrevocably, magic-less.
I had accepted my fate. I had resigned myself to a life of shearing sheep and spinning greasy wool into yarn. I had tucked the magically conjured daisy into my beloved copy of Magical Musings and moved it from my bedside to the bookshelf. And then on a perfectly normal spring evening, Mortimer Falkin, the greatest wizard who has ever lived, knocked on my door.
“Come in, come in.” My mother said from the other room. “Such an honor, Such an honor to have you, your…” She paused and I frowned, trying to imagine who she could be talking to.
“Um…What should one … call you?”
“Lord August Archmage or some such nonsense is the proper title I believe, but please, call me Mortimer. I am your humble servant madam. I thank you for your kind invitation.”
I fell out of my chair. The spinning wheel fell over with me. It spun threadless while my mind raced.
“Well, Mortimer, thank you for coming. Won’t you come in? Please, please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Yes, thank you.” I heard the rustling of something distinctly wizard-robe-like and the creaking of the legs of an old wooden chair as someone distinctly wizard-sized sat down upon it.
“Can I offer you some refreshment? We have water and tea and-“
“Water would be lovely. My thanks.”
“Of course.” My mother said.
I imagined my mother pulling down the pitcher among the dirty clutter of our kitchen. We were not nearly so poor as many in Covington. My mother’s wool and yarn fetched a good price, and my father’s work as secretary to the Duke paid well. But still – the thought of the Archmage sitting at my table and drinking water from a rough-hewn tumbler – it was indescribable, inescapable humiliation.
“Much appreciated.” The man’s voice spoke from my kitchen. I heard gulping. I peeked around the corner.
It was him! I had known it, but the seeing was still a shock. He glanced over my way and I dove out of sight.
“Very nice of you to save the city and all those few months back.” My mother was so embarrassing. How could she do this to me?
“Ah. Yes, think nothign of it. I am but a servant of magic, an acolyte of peace, if you will. It was the least I could do.”
“Still … nice of you.” My mother drawled.
Not two months ago, barbarians had lain siege to Covington. With preternatural timing, Falkin had arrived with a team from the academy. He had stood atop the eastern wall and conjured a sandstorm. When the sand cleared the barbarians were gone, swallowed by the earth itself. Falkin had turned to the crowd below and spoken of a new age, of peace and friendship, but above all else, possibility. His voice had resounded through my brain since, not just the stirring of words, but the sheer elegance of sound.
“Such people will soon learn that there is no future in such misdeeds. That the way of violence can only reflect back upon one’s self,” that same voice sounded not ten feet away from me. I ducked back behind the wall, trying to cool my flushed face with clammy hands.
“True, true.” My mother cackled like a hen.
“So, is the child here?” Falkin asked. My heart stopped – completely, stopped.
“Yes, she’s here somewhere, let me just- ELLA”. My mother called my name and my heart started beating again as loud as a drummer before an army.
“ELL- There you are. Come here child.” My mother came around the corner and spotted me crouching like a cat in the corner. “There is someone here to see you.” She hurried me to my feet and guided me by the shoulders around the wall.
“I know who this is mother.” I was calm and casual, and by that I mean terrified and nauseated. I shrugged off her hand from my shoulder and approached the table.
I had no idea what to say. He was here. My hero, my idol – drinking water at my table. What could I possibly say?
“Hello.” I managed and the mage raised an eyebrow in amusement.
“Hello.” He responded. His voice was like the sound of a sunset, of a thousand stags stampeding across a misty vale, a bird calling her song at dusk.
I fidgeted with my hands. I wanted to ask why he was here. He was the busiest, most powerful person in all of the hundred kingdoms. What business could he possibly have in my kitchen?
“Your mother tells me you are quite the student of magic,” he prompted me.
My eyes lit up. “Oh, yes! I’ve read all of the books, most of the scrolls too.” I stopped and flushed. He had written half of those books.
“Have you read, The shape of the world?” He raised his magnificent eyebrows.
“Of course!” I stammered. “Only about a hundred times!” The shape of the world was a book by Parsifal Pragis about his journey of self-discovery while finding his own power.
“Tell me, what did you think of his idea, ‘Power from within, magic from without?’ ”
I paused. This was the central theme of the book and I’d spent many evenings pondering it.
I took a deep breath. “It’s naive. It is pandering to the masses, that anyone can find magic. But it is too simple. There has to be more to magic than simply identifying a source of power within one’s self. Otherwise-” I stopped.
“Go on,” he prompted.
“…I would have found my own,” I finished.
“If a mage were granted unlimited power, what do you think her greatest feat could be?” he asked me with a raised eyebrow.
I considered his question. This was not from any book nor any speech I knew of. This was a true question. He wanted to know my heart.
“Restraint,” I told him after a pause.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“With unlimited power, a wizard could take what they wanted, could perhaps enslave the world. The greatest feat in such a circumstance would be for them to show restraint, to resist the Sarli temptation.”
Cata Sarli had been the first wizard to use his power for extortion and subjugation. He had declared himself king of Cortia and vowed to destroy any who opposed him. A group of wizards (including Falkin) had confronted Sarli and defeated him in a legendary clash of destructive magic. In the aftermath, the elder wizards had pledged to root out any who would abuse their power.
“A wise answer.” Falkin nodded his approval and looked over to my mother. Something unspoken passed between them and my mother took a few steps toward us.
Falkin turned back to me, “Would you join me for a walk? Stillness does not suit me I’ve found. With your leave, of course.” He directed that last to my mother, who nodded. Not that it mattered. I definitely did not need her permission. Most of my friends were already married.
I nodded and walked to the door. My eyes fell on my tattered robe and I turned away in embarrassment.
“A fine robe,” Falkin mused. “Emerald is a fine choice, and the little pockets must come in handy.”
I looked back at my robe. The threadbare bolt of cloth was gone. In its place hung resplendent green velvet. The archmage took it off the peg and draped it around my shoulders.
“Thank you,” I stammered. It was by far the finest garment I had ever seen, let alone owned. It was fit for a princess! Real magic, right before my eyes!
As I opened the door, my mother walked up and pulled me into an embrace.
“Goodbye, my sweet one.” She clutched my shoulders and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. I rolled my eyes and glanced sidelong at Falkin, but he didn’t seem to have seen.
My mother met my eyes. “Things are exactly as they have to be. Remember that. My mother said it to me once.” She wiped her eyes. “And don’t worry your chores. Sonya and your father can help until you get back.”
We walked into the morning.
“I am, probably, your biggest fan,” I confessed. I immediately regretted it but the words had clawed their way out.
He smirked. “I remember you, by the way. The girl at the parade with the bright eyes. The daisy…” He mused.
“That was ten years ago!”
“Has it been so long?” he looked up. “Time is not my specialty.”
It was a pleasant morning. There was a lightness in the air. People passed us going about their business. A few eyes lingered.
“Lord Archmage, why are you here?”
“Your mother wrote me a rather … insistent recommendation for your admittance into the Academy,” he said.
“My mother? But she hates magic. Well, maybe not magic, but the combination of me and magic anyway.”
“Parents are often surprising.” The wizard said. “Whatever her reasons, she did write the letter. She told me of your reading and theorizing. She made quite the case, and as it happens, I am in need of a new apprentice.” He rubbed his chin.
We approached the outer market. Several vendors were busy setting up their wares for the day. The city gate stood open beside a small guardhouse. Beyond it, a road wound away through gentle hills. I expected him to veer to a side road, but he kept walking toward the open gate.
“Is that…?” someone muttered.
Apprentice to Mortimer Falkin… I saw people bowing and beautiful dresses. I tasted the finest dinners and danced with the noblest princes. I saw books with my name on the binding. I saw storytellers gathering a crowd to hear of my exploits.
“I can see the prospect pleases you,” Falkin smiled.
“Pleases me?” I stammered. “A nice cake would please me. This… this…I can’t even….” I tried to shake my thoughts loose.
“Then just to make it clear, I am offering you admittance into the academy, wherein you would learn magic from myself and the other instructors. You will help with the day-to-day running of the academy, paperwork, message delivery, that sort of thing. When need be, you may also travel with me and assist as the situation requires.”
I saw fire erupting from my fingers and bouquets of flowers blooming from my wand. The blackened embers of my childhood hopes resurrected to a roaring bonfire.
And then the entire dream shattered around me. I stopped and turned to the most famous wizard in the world.
“Nothing would please me more, but ….” I stopped., “I…have no magic.” I let out a half sob. “I’ve tried and tried, all the techniques, all the exercises. Once I thought that I had made my sister disappear but it turned out she had just gotten bored and wandered off.”
Falkin knit his eyebrows and nodded. “While some have been able to err… discover their gifts, most have required instruction. Have no fear on that front. I’ve not met the man or woman I could not coax magic out of in time. With your obvious enthusiasm, I have no doubt that you will make a fine wizard indeed.”
My eyes widened. A grin spread across my face.
“There is, naturally, a price to be paid. The secrets of magic are… delicate. You must swear that you will reveal nothing of what is revealed to you. Ever. To Anyone.”
I forced my smile into serious consideration. “I accept.” I couldn’t keep the giggle out of my voice.
“Your eagerness does you credit, but I must urge you to consider carefully. Once your oath is given, you can never go back to your old life.”
“I can’t see my mother? My sister?”
“Well, of course you can see them but your world will … change. You will grow apart. You will lose contact. A life of magic can be lonely.”
My thoughts raced to my family, to my friends, to my spinning wheel. Could I leave this life? Yes. I. Could. This life totally sucked.
“I accept your terms.” I nodded to him.
We passed through the gate and he stopped walking just beyond. A small crowd had gathered behind us. They pointed at the mage and whispered. Falkin noticed them and muttered something. He waved his hand and the gate fell closed beside us. We were again alone.
“Then repeat after me,” he said. “I, Ella of Covington, do hereby swear.”
“I, Ella of Covington, do hereby swear,” I repeated, and continued to do so as he paused.
“On this occasion of my admittance into the academy of magic…to keep entirely secret any and all proprietary knowledge…of the inner workings of magic and the Academy…either by paper, spoken word or by any other means…to any person other than a designated agent of the academy…whom is bound by this or any subsequent derivations of this oath.”
I had to take a breath in the middle of the last clause but got through it.
He nodded and tucked away a slip of paper.
“Very well then.” He smiled at me. I beamed back.
“I can’t believe it,” I said, shaking my head. Who knew that the world could change on such a morning as this.
“Now, we begin your training.” He began walking again, away from the city.
“Now?” I said. “As in … right now?” I hurried to catch up.
“A coach will be here for us shortly but we can walk to meet it. Mara knows I need the exercise.” His voice had changed somehow. He had … relaxed?
“Wait, we are leaving?” I asked.
“We are due in Terell by sundown. They are having some trouble with a coal mine.” He glanced at me. “Is that a problem?”
I looked back at the city. I thought of my mother tending the sheep alone. I pictured my little sister growing older without my guidance.
“Can I at least say goodbye?” I asked.
The mage frowned to the horizon. “I’m afraid we are on a rather tight schedule. We will be back this way before long.”
I remembered my mother’s embrace. Things are exactly as they have to be.
“And there are other matters we must discuss … about magic,” Mortimer said.
“Yes!” I turned to him, my angst melting in a fury of excitement.
“It isn’t real,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t catch that.”
“Magic. It’s all fake.”
I stopped walking. He went on a few steps before stopping. He turned and sighed.
“Sorry, I’m bad at this part.” He shook his head. “Martin is always going on about breaking the news more tactfully but I think it better to just rip off the bandage.” His voice had definitely changed. Was that an Agoran accent?
I laughed. He was teasing me, of course. It didn’t really fit his profile, making jokes, but my notes didn’t have everything. Everyone likes a good joke.
“Well,” he said, “that might be over simplifying. Magic is real in that it accomplishes things.”
He was entirely. Gut-wrenchingly. Not. Teasing.
“But,” I stammered.
“You see, once people believe in magic, everything you do is assumed to be magical in nature. Our real work is nurturing such belief.”
“But,” I gasped.
“Ah yes, but you have seen magic done yourself? Nothing but carefully cultivated illusion. Your new cloak, for example. The old was simply on top and was whisked away in a distracted moment.” He pulled out the threadbare garment and held it out for me to examine.
I shook my head. I had seen the cloak transform. Hadn’t I?
“Most members of the academy serve as informants. A woman named Silvia Thomas has been watching you for several years now. She told me of your cloak. Ah but I see you recognize the name. Yes, she is one of us. As it happens, she was hiding in the gatehouse to lower the gate at my signal. All carefully planned and worked out beforehand.”
“But!” Magic flashed in my memory. This could not be!
“What of the barbarian horde swallowed by the sand? We work together often. Never underestimate the power of a good barbarian siege. And sandstorms are easy to conjure once you have the proper machinery.”
My stomach churned. I was going to be sick.
“You are upset, I see that. Let me try to provide some context.” He was all greasy smiles and tacky velvet.
“The non-existence of magic doesn’t matter. The reasons why you yearn for it remain. You can change the world. Does it matter that you do so with theatrics and oration rather than manipulation of the elements or some such foolishness?”
A single sob escaped my mouth. I fell to the dusty ground. I wrapped my arms around my knees and hid my head under them.
“It was Cynthia’s idea originally. She is a remarkable woman, a true visionary.” He put his hand on my shoulder and I jumped. He removed his hand quickly, holding it up in apology.
“Do you know how many of Covington’s poor starved to death last year?” he asked.
“None,” he said.
“Do you know how many were dying each year five years ago?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Hundreds. Every year. And I ask you, what has changed? Is there more food? No. Is the duke any less selfish? No! But I saved his city from barbarians and the payment I required was for him to share his grain. Don’t you see? We can manipulate the rulers of the world into doing the right thing. It is, in a word, Magic!”
Despite myself, I found a strange logic in his words.
“But,” I pictured the duke handing out bread with the archmage looking on.
“What gives us the right? Nothing. We have claimed it because the ruling class has been such a disaster. We carefully select our agents, never admitting any who may be corrupted by their power. We occasionally disagree but we have procedures to fall back on when we do. Our illusions have to be painstakingly planned. We cannot afford even one mistake or it will all crumble and humanity will again descend into lawless chaos. But we are getting quite good, I must say. We are careful. We are ferocious. We have never lost.”
“But Sarli?” I insisted.
“The rebel mage? Ha! A crowning achievement, if you will forgive the immodesty! Cata is alive and well. He can’t leave the academy walls anymore, having played his part so well. He’s a good friend, baritone in the academy choir. Makes really good eggs.” Falkin scratched his chin.
My world was melting like cheese left in the sun.
I would just go home. My mother would make soup and play with my hair and everything would go back to the way it had always been. I would spin my wool and be happy.
“You cannot go home, Ella.” Mortimer shook his head. “You have given your oath.”
The walls seemed to grow more distant as I stared at them. A tear slid down my cheek. Who knew that the world could change on such a morning as this.
Clattering hooves broke the silence. They were growing louder.
“Ella, You are taking this badly. I can see that. But, just trust me. The daydreams I saw behind your eyes – they are still possible. You know more about the history and the so-called theory of magic than… probably anyone.” He laughed. “With your bright eyes and force of personality, you are a strong candidate for a mage role. You will meet princes. You will wear the finest silks. Most importantly, you will make the world better.”
The carriage pulled up and the door opened. A man in a black shirt and pants appeared.
“Mornin’ Screever,” he said, leaning against the door frame.
“He means me, just..it’s a long story,” Mortimer said under his breath. And then he nodded in reply, “Callum, this is our new recruit, Ella.”
“Is ‘at right? Taking it kind of rough by the looks o’ things.” He frowned at me sitting in the dust.
I sighed and stood, dusting off my beautiful new robe.
“No.” I shrugged, wiping the last remnant tears from my eyes. “Just examining the dust a little closer. It seems a particularly fine grain. Perhaps we should take some with us? Never know when you’ll need a good dust cloud.”
“Atta girl.” Callum laughed.
Mortimer’s eyes shone and he extended his hand to help me up.
I smiled and took it.