Shadowed by Death – Jane Beckstead

The loose sole of my shoe made a thwippity-thwap noise as it slapped against dirt and stone. A dozen steps ahead of me, Master Wendyn called, “This way, Mullins!” before veering down an alley, wizard robes billowing behind. I hiked my robes to my knees and jogged faster. “Are you sure this is right?” I didn’t remember a garbage-filled alley leading to the Conclave. I kicked at some refuse in my path which turned out to be an old tomato; it split and exploded pulp all over my shoe and the hem of my robes. I didn’t have time to stop and clean it off as I jogged to keep up with the master. “You doubt my sense of direction?” He huffed for air and skidded to a halt as the alley let out onto a road. “If it’s anything like your taste in shirts, yes.” I came to a stop beside him and spun around, taking in my surroundings. A confectionery stood to my right and a bakery to my left. It smelled better here— more bread-y and maple-y—than in the alley. “What’s wrong with my shirt?” He looked down at himself, but the wizard robes covered everything he wore. The frilly, lacy thing lay out of sight. “Nothing,” I said. “If you go in for that sort of thing.

” “And what sort of thing is that?” “I’m pretty sure it’s a shirt that a swashbuckling pirate would wear.” “Perhaps if he were an extraordinarily stylish pirate,” he scoffed, then turned his glance to the skyline. “We must be close by now. I could tell you for sure if the castle were in view.” I shook out the hem of my robes, trying to flick pulp from the fabric. “Figure it out quick, before I miss my trial.” Nine months ago when I had first been apprenticed to Master Wendyn, we never would have been able to joke about his shirts. But we’d come a long way since then. Master Wendyn had accidentally discovered I was a girl, for one thing, and then I’d somehow managed to save his entire family from annihilation. I would have felt better about that fact if their impending deaths hadn’t been at least partially my fault to begin with, though. Still, I enjoyed this new camaraderie that had blossomed between us, something more like a partnership with a good dose of friendship thrown in than like a teacher and pupil. A lot depended on my doing well today. If I passed the tenth trial, I’d become an Adept Underwizard, but beyond that, the master had promised to take me to see the Waldrin capital of Farcastle. I’d never been outside of Faronna before. I shivered with excitement at the mere thought of a trip to a place that seemed like the other side of the world.

He shook his head and turned in a circle, scanning the surrounding buildings. “I might remind you that this is your fault. If you hadn’t taken three hours to try on every shoe in that shop, we might have been on time. And then you didn’t even end up liking any of them.” I flushed and ignored the statement. “We’re not late yet.” I pointed through the buildings. “Is that the castle there?” His eyes followed my finger, and he shook his head. “No. You should have just chosen the first pair. They were the sturdiest.” “I didn’t like the color. And you said I could have any pair I wanted. I only turn eighteen once. That’s what you said.

” Strange to think that if I hadn’t decided to become a master wizard I could be married right now. T After all, girls were considered of age at fifteen in Faronna. A single woman of eighteen was definitely verging into spinster territory. I’d much rather be disguised as a boy and studying to become a master wizard. “Yes,” the master said, “but I didn’t know you would be so picky.” “And it wasn’t three hours. Thirty minutes at the most.” Master Wendyn made a noise of impatience. “I hope I’m never so particular over a simple pair of shoes.” I scoffed. “You’re joking, right? You’re this picky over everything you wear.” He ran a hand over his chin as if surprised at the lack of shadow-beard there. But this was a trial day, and he always shaved for those. “Are you comparing your shoes to my wardrobe? Aha!” he shouted without warning, pointing through the buildings. “It’s this way!” He took off running through the streets, dodging carts and horses and people going about their regular day.

Buildings passed: the stained glass windows of a church, a clerk’s office, the storefront of a weaver. It was a few minutes before we skidded to a halt, the Conclave looming above us. “Make yourself—presentable.” The master leaned over for a moment, hands on his knees, gasping for breath. “No time. I’ve got to get in there.” I started up the steps, my loose sole still thwipping and thwapping with every step. It was a long climb—106 steps. I had counted once when trying to distract myself from trial nerves. Counting items was a useful distraction, I’d found. Underwizards and masters littered the steps, some sitting, some standing, some walking up or down. I dodged bodies and climbed. “Your hair is poking out.” The master’s voice came from behind me. “Do something about it.

” I ran my hands over my head as I climbed, legs aching. “Is that better?” I tossed over my shoulder. “No.” I smoothed my hair back, tucking strands behind my ears, and glanced back again. “Now?” “No! You have—oh, devil’s dawn, stop for a minute, will you?” He grabbed me by the arm and spun me about, there in the middle of the 106 steps, and tugged and patted at my hair until it reached an amount of neatness he seemed to find acceptable. “I guess that’ll have to do. But there’s no hope for your robes.” He eyed them. They remained as wrinkled as they had been last night when I asked Mrs. Pitts, the housekeeper of Ryker Hall, to see that they were pressed for my trial today. “It isn’t my fault—” I began. “Yes, yes.” He dismissed my words with a wave of his hand. “We can talk later about why you and Mrs. Pitts can’t endeavor to get along.

” He moved past me to take the steps two at a time. I followed close on his heels. “We do endeavor,” I called after him. “We just fail.” The only sign he heard me was a shake of the head. The entrance and arched corridors overflowed with more underwizards and masters. We passed the library, and I glanced in to see that it, too, was packed. I glimpsed Orly, the librarian’s daughter and one of the few people who knew the secret of my gender, carrying a stack of books and assisting an underwizard. Then we moved on, passing a corridor of offices and the passageway to the cellars and vault. And then, up ahead, the check-in table for trial candidates. “You go ahead.” The master pushed me toward the testing room. “I’ll tell them you’re here.” I left him at the table and pushed my way into the room. People usually crowded the dais during the trials, but today the crowd had expanded to fill the entire room.

This was more people than I had ever seen at a testing day before. Most faced the dais, watching the trial in progress. The room vibrated with the dull buzz of whispers and muttered conversation. The boy on the dais was in the middle of transforming himself into a stooped, wrinkled, gray man. This must be the seventeenth trial, illusion magic. I positioned myself near the back to have a view of the testing dais but still see my master when he came in. Had I missed my trial? Master Wendyn was right. It had been stupid to try on so many shoes when all I needed was something with a sole attached. When had I become so particular, anyway? The master must be rubbing off on me. Or maybe I’d just gotten carried away. After all, my natalis, my natal day, had fallen on the day of my tenth trial. Ivan had met me at my bedroom door this morning with a gift of a sketch he had made of me standing in the meadow, arms outstretched before me as I brought a spell to life, a subtle glow of magic surrounding me. Then Mrs. Pitts had refrained from criticizing me for once, and Cat, the new cook, had served my favorite pudding—for breakfast, which had never happened before. I’d let it all go to my head.

Still, there had been few opportunities to pick out my own items of clothing in my life. Mostly Mama had remade old charity dresses, or I’d stolen things from the closets of nobility, back in my thieving days. As an underwizard clothing appeared in my closet, magicked or sewn at the behest of my master. But this—this had been a chance to pick something out just for me. I had felt special when the master announced this morning that we were going shopping before my trial. So special that I’d wanted it to last as long as possible. I looked down at myself. The creased and crumpled black fabric of my robes crawled toward the floor, where it met with tomato goo and seeds. The loose sole of my shoe made a flapping noise as I shifted from foot to foot. A sigh escaped me. To think that just last night I had imagined how competent and polished I’d look as I stood on the dais today. I fidgeted with my sleeves and wished I could adjust the binding over my chest. The tight fabric chafed and made me short of breath at times, but better that than the Punishment. I had no desire to undergo a public execution, which was the price for any girl who dared disguise herself as a boy in order to become a master wizard. Focus, Avery.

All that mattered right now was passing the tenth trial, becoming an Adept wizard, and earning that trip to Waldrin. The tenth trial would test psychokinesis, the ability to move things with my mind. I fiddled with my sleeves and wondered if psychokinesis could smooth these wrinkles out. The underwizard and his master came down the dais steps. The murmur of the crowd had gotten louder, as always. People around me commented to each other about the performance and gave various opinions. More than likely those nearest the pair were voicing their congratulations on a job well done, for it had looked like a more than adequate transformation. An arm jostled me, and I glanced up to meet Master Wendyn’s gaze. “Good news. You haven’t missed your trial. You might even be next.” He gave the room a sweeping glance. “Try moving those drapes at the window.” I glanced at him in profile. “What for?” “Practice.

You need to warm up.” This might have been the first time I’d ever noticed there were drapes at the window. They were just background to what made this room the testing room. But when I shifted my gaze to the sunlight filtering through the glass along the west wall, I discovered that long swatches of mauve fabric hung from a rod above the high window. Velvet, perhaps. “I don’t want to. They might call my name any minute.” “You’ll perform better if you warm up,” he whispered back. He made a good point. I pointed a finger at the curtains, whispered a spell, and moments later the curtains twitched and sighed back and forth. “You’re going to do just fine.” Up on the testing dais, the proctor nodded and the judges appeared pleased. After a moment, the test proctor came to the front of the dais. With a wave of his hand, the privacy spell fell. The murmur of noise throughout the room paused long enough for him to announce the boy had passed, and then the whispers and discussion leaped back to their former volume.

I gave an uneasy look around. “Why are there so many people here today?” I whispered. “And why are they all so loud?” Master Wendyn shook his head. “Maybe the underwizard is some person of importance. Nobility, perhaps?” “I don’t think it’s the underwizard.” I craned my head, eyeing the room, and the master followed suit. “Maybe—” “Tenth trial. Candidate Avery Mullins,” the proctor announced. Both of us whipped back around. “That’s us. Remember, Mullins—pass this trial and we’re off to Farcastle.” He clapped me on the shoulder, then pushed his way through the crowd. I followed, letting him carve his way through the press of bodies as we made our way to the dais. The murmur of noise rippled through the room like waves crashing at high tide. “No point trying too hard,” a white-haired master wizard muttered as I passed.

“These tests are a farce.” I glanced back at him, wondering what he meant. “Does Underwizard Mullins wish to sit for the first trial?” the proctor asked, when the master and I presented ourselves at the bottom of the stairs leading to the dais. “He does,” Master Wendyn said. “Let him enter the testing arena.”The proctor reset the privacy spell, and the master and I ascended the steps, passing through its threshold. Master Wendyn moved to the edge of the platform nearest the crowd, opposite the table where three wrinkled judges sat. I took my position in the middle of the dais. The opening formalities took a few minutes. I answered the proctor’s questions, telling such things as my name and age—eighteen as of today—as well as my place of origin, which I gave as Howchister. We spoke of the length of my training—almost four years—my master’s name, and what trials I had sat for in the past. That last question always required explanation. Four times taking the first trial, and three times for trials two through five. That was the point in my training when I met Orly and discovered that females must perform magic differently than males. I had improved by leaps and bounds since then.

“We will begin with justice and impartiality.” The proctor folded his hands in front of him, scrying glass clutched in one hand to determine the truth or falseness of my words. “If a starving man stole food to feed his family, what would a just punishment be? The underwizard will explain his decision and why.” Stealing. Here was something I knew about. I bit the inside of my cheek and thought of Papa and me, climbing in and out of windows and stealing from the rich to keep Mama healthy and the rest of us fed. “Give him a job?” I suggested, thinking of my thieving days with Papa. We stole, but usually for a purpose—for want of food, clothing, or doctoring. “That’s not exactly fair to the man whose food was stolen, is it?” Unwillingly, my eyes flicked to Master Wendyn and then away. I’d broken his trust when I lied to him about my gender. He’d been furious, but after time passed, he’d been able to look past it. What’s more, he had let me remain his apprentice. “It isn’t fair,” I agreed. “It isn’t something one could require of anyone. But if a person found it in themselves to be so generous, I think it would say a lot about what sort of person they were.

” The proctor nodded and wrote more. At last he put down his pen and shuffled through the papers on his desk. Then with a wave of his hands, a stack of bricks appeared on the floor between us. “Psychokinesis. The underwizard will move the bricks to the end of the dais.” I had seen the tenth trial a handful of times and watched underwizards move everything from a bookshelf to a small boulder. A knee-high stack of bricks struck me as challenging, but I was glad it wasn’t any worse. I’d been practicing back at the Hall by moving everything from tables, dishes, books, Ivan, a half-grown calf in the meadow, and once, Mrs. Pitts when she wasn’t paying attention. Mrs. Pitts had appreciated it the least. Moving the bricks was quick work. I whispered the spell and the entire load lifted from the ground. I held the bricks steady across the entire length of the dais and then set them gingerly down. The stack remained as neat as when I’d picked it up.

I turned back to the proctor, trying to hide my triumph. Visiting Waldrin had just changed from an if to a when. He scribbled more notes on the paper before him, then looked up at me. “An impressive performance,” he said, and I felt myself glow a little more. “Before the judges confer, I will administer one final test.” I felt my brow pushing downward, and I glanced at the master in confusion. His puzzlement mirrored my own. There were no more tests to administer. “What test?” I asked. “The gender spell.” My heart skipped a beat. “Gender spell?” “The Council would like to confirm all underwizards are male,” the proctor said. “You needn’t do anything but stand still.” “But I—” I swallowed and forced myself not to turn to Master Wendyn for help. “What does this have to do with the trial?” “What do justice and fairness have to do with executing magic?” the proctor countered.

“They all contribute to one’s competence. The Council has voted to make the gender spell a requirement for every trial from today on. PMW Robenhurst developed the spell himself.” “But you have my gender affidavits.” I tried hard not to sound desperate, and felt like I was failing. “The truth is I have no control over what the Council does and doesn’t want done, underwizard,” the proctor said. “I do what I’m told. Hold still.” I met Master Wendyn’s gaze. He shook his head at me. He was right. There was nothing I could do now that wouldn’t create even more suspicion. My hands gripped one another, and I forced myself to hold still. The proctor uttered words of a spell, and I felt magic settle over me and pass through me, flickering along my skin. Its glimmer and gleam lit the air above me, and then all at once turned to green ash, falling to the dais in a perfect ring around me.

What did that mean? I looked to Master Wendyn with wide eyes, and then at the proctor, who heaved a sigh and ran a hand over his face. He waved a hand, and Council guards, four of them, slipped from the crowd and ascended the dais steps. Guards. I had failed the test. They knew I was a girl. I took a step backward, wondering if I should run. My eyes caught the master’s, and he made a subtle gesture with his hand. Calm, he gestured, using the hand-speak Ivan and I had invented in order to communicate. If I wasn’t so terrified, I’d be impressed that he remembered the gesture. Ivan and I had been trying to teach him the language for months. Two of the guards flanked me, and when I glanced at Master Wendyn, I saw that he, too, had a guard on either side. I didn’t know how he remained so calm. Every part of me felt alive, lit by terror. But if the master could remain calm, I certainly wasn’t about to disgrace him by falling apart. Especially not with so many people watching.

“This way,” the guard to my left said, and tugged at my arm. I followed his pull. Down the dais steps, past the privacy spell, into the loud chatter. Behind me the proctor announced, “Underwizard Mullins has failed the gender test and will be escorted from the room for further questioning.” My head dropped, and I stared at my feet as I shuffled toward my fate.


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Updated: 11 October 2021 — 04:17

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