Cara Michaels’ Picture Choice: Both
Title: Casting Doubts
With one word, smoke filled the room to choking. I stumbled across to the tower windows, throwing the stained glass panes wide and half hauling myself out for a breath of fresh air. Coughing, I waved the black fumes away.
“That could have gone better.” I leaned over the window ledge, eyes stinging from the acrid smoke.
I looked back to see Master Leelin Falstrom cast a mild look over the rims of his reading glasses. He hadn’t moved from his desk. With a twirl of his fingers and a muttering of words, he drew the smoke into a contained funnel and pushed it out the window where it dissipated.
“Try again, Janna. Just one more time.”
I focused on the ground some three stories below me. One breath. Two. That’s it, Janna-girl. Any inclination toward a temper tantrum subdued, I faced the disaster behind me.
“It’s no use, Master.” I crossed back to my table and slammed the dusty spell tome closed. Not entirely satisfied, I added a small shove. Maybe I didn’t have my temper as under control as I would like. “Every spell I’ve attempted in the last week has gone all wrong.”
The plant I’d meant to gently water—and much of the table around it—looked more like I’d thrown a full-fledged fireball, and I didn’t do fire. Black scorch marks burst from the center of the table like a jagged star.
“My magic is broken. And my poor lotus, too. Do you know how hard they are to grow away from water?”
“Impossible for someone without your talents, I’d wager.” He scratched his scalp with the nub of his quill, speckling his short white hair with black ink. “You’ve the impatience of a small child. A wizard spends a lifetime buried in books to learn their arts. Your gifts are as much a part of you as your hair, Janna Redmayne. Yet they still take work to master.”
I sucked on the hoop ring piercing my bottom lip and brushed self consciously at my wine-red curls. It’s happening everywhere, and you know it. Something isn’t right. I bit down on the words.
“Will try one more time.” He smiled and sat back, giving me his full attention. “You are the most talented water elementalist I’ve seen in decades.”
“Well, I know, I mean—yes, but—” Could I sound more conceited? “With my family history, it isn’t much of a surprise. And I’m not the first sorcerer of my family.”
A knock at the chamber door offered me a moment’s reprieve. Master Leelin’s knees creaked as he stood. He opened the door, his blue eyes lighting as our maid, Serra, brought in a tray of refreshments. The old devil took one look at the mug of ale and pouted.
“No mead today?”
Serra, dipped into a quick curtsey. “Begging your pardon, Master. Cook says to tell you she’s sent a lad off to market to fetch some, but he’s not yet returned. She had me bring this up until he returns.”
“Ah, very well then. Thank you, Serra.”
She left and he picked up the mug of ale, a slight grimace twisting his mouth as he sipped.
“Now, where were we? Ah, yes. Nothing about sorcery is a given, my dear.”
“I know.” My shoulders slumped. Another lecture. Wonderful.
“Your family knows the water like none other, to be sure. The Peel-Harvey shipping dynasty practically owns it all from the Serpentine down to Wandalup Bay. But you command it.” He drained his glass and set it aside with a shudder. “And the sooner you master control, the sooner waters will be running clear and fresh again.”
He handed me my usual glass of water and I downed it with a wince of my own over the fetid aroma and musty taste. I held onto the awful flavor as motivation to perfect my skills.
“Very well. I will try.”
He clapped his hands together and the world exploded.
The blast propelled me backward. I scrambled to grab hold of anything, my hands catching the shattered remnants of the tower walls. Pulverized stone and glass rained down to the street below. Tinny screams reached my ears as I struggled to pull myself back inside.
“Master Leelin?” I shouted his name, choking on dust. “Help me, please!”
He didn’t answer me, but frantic hands gripped my forearms.
“Hold on, Mistress! I’ve got you!”
Serra pulled me over the edge, where we collapsed in a huddle. I stared in shock at my bruised and bloodied self, not feeling the pain. The air cleared quickly with no walls or ceiling to trap left to trap anything.
“Where’s the Master?” Frantic to find him, I crawled through the rubble on my knees. Dear gods, was he buried or trapped? “Master, where are you?”
“Making quite the mess on the street, I’m afraid.”
The new voice had me turning. The sight greeting me had me wishing I’d thought better of the motion.
So tall she seemed to scrape the doorway, at least from my vantage on the floor, the mix of buttercup blonde hair, faintly green skin, misshapen nose, and tusk-like lower cuspids marked her as half-orc. Her uniform marked her as a member of the City Guard. Her missing left arm—well, I didn’t know how that fit in with the rest of her, but she clearly didn’t let it slow her down.
“No, no, no,” I said. “He can’t be dead. He can’t be.”
“I’m Constable-Inspector Havers. This is Apprentice-Constable Lafferty.” She gestured to a young man just behind her and offered a slight bow, before crouching next to me. “We heard the commotion and came to assist. I’m sorry for your loss, Mistress—?”
The young man whistled low, earning a severe glare from the woman.
“Of the Redmaynes who own Peel-Harvey?”
“Perhaps you can assist our investigation.” With a gentle hand, she helped me to my feet. “The blast may not have killed Master Leelin, but the fall certainly did. An autopsy will tell us more, but until then can you give us some idea what happened?”
“I don’t know. One moment we were talking, and then—” The sweep of my arm encompassed the remains of the room. “And then, this.”
Inspector Havers nodded to Lafferty, who began taking notes in a miniature binding of parchment. How clever, I thought, to have such a thing. And he didn’t use ink and quill, but a more modern wood holder with a sharpened graphite stick.
“Nothing unusual about the Master’s behavior?” Havers’ sharp eyes surveyed the room. “No excitement? Temper? Irrational actions?”
“Nothing, I swear.” I shook my head, trying to understand. “What happened? How did it happen?” I know my eyes begged her for answers.
“We will do our best to find out, Mistress.” Havers turned to Lafferty. “Escort the ladies to the watch station.”
“What?” Panic widened Serra’s eyes. “The watch station? But we didn’t do anything.”
“For an interview, lass,” Havers said. “You’ll be more comfortable there.” She leaned closer to Lafferty and I just made out her next words. “Keep a watchful eye on the mage. We’re no closer to understanding what’s causing this, and it’s only getting worse.”
With my own magic unpredictable at best, I didn’t dare take off on my own. I hated being watched as though I was dangerous, but I’d almost died only moments ago. And without a single spell cast. As I’d thought earlier, something was very wrong.
Inspector Havers meant to find out what. So I followed Lafferty, determined to help solve this mystery.
“Be at peace, Master Leelin,” I whispered. “I will get to the bottom of this.”
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Cara Michaels is the author of the Gaea’s Chosen sci-fi romance series and host of the #MenageMonday flash fiction challenge.