It starts, really, with the cat. Skinny thing, tufted, feral: it poses regally enough, but swipes at him like a desperate vagrant whenever he gets too close. He apologises to it, a simple ‘I’m sorry’ to start with, building into a rambling explanation of the whys and wherefores when he takes note of the way its big, pointed ears swivel about at the sound of his voice.
‘Really it’s nothing personal, and I’d sooner learn from a textbook than go poking at you, but you know how tutors are – do you know how tutors are? Stuffy mostly, and much too set on things being done their own way every time, if you ask me.’
This isn’t exactly a task set by a tutor, but the prefects whose ranks he hopes to join. He’s young for it at twenty-seven, a full three exams away from the average magical aptitude level of the others, but his father’s stern assertions have made Baelmyrr Alvantaris well aware that he’s not doing the family proud just yet, and this seems as sound a way as any to claw his way back into Haelmyrr’s good books, a task he has become familiar with over the years.
For this attempt, he must familiarise himself with the cat. The prefects weren’t entirely exhaustive with the details; rather, he knows only that he must spend the weekend with the creature, studying it and making sure it doesn’t starve in the process. Baelmyrr suspects starvation would be more the culmination of prior months of malnourishment than his own failure as a provider in the case of his particular stray, but has no intention of raising this point. Instead, he practices his conjuring. He summons up fish, minced steak and milk in silver bowls, and resolves that his subject will leave his care in far better health than it came – if he parts with it at all.
As the weekend wears on and the cat becomes more tolerant of his presence, allowing him to stay close as it feeds, and finally permitting him to lay a hand on its fragile skull and stroke its coarse fur, Baelmyrr finds himself formulating reasons why his parents should tolerate a new addition to the household. When even his wildest dreams eventually submit to the simple fact that they never will, he goes so far as to pencil out his finances in the margin of his workbook, and scratch his head over the practicality of moving out. Then he remembers that life decisions probably shouldn’t be made on behalf of a stray.
He names it Sunny, and spends four hours engraving a collar with the name.
And then the weekend is over, and he is summoned to the prefects’ tower after his classes. They set Sunny in his cage in the middle of the room, and question Baelmyrr on feline physiology. They want to see evidence that he observes well and can articulate those observations, that he can hypothesise on those functions he cannot presently be sure of. Finally, they want to see how he processes information into effectual spells.
‘Use your magic. Kill the cat.’
Yes, it starts with Sunny: it starts with the first real choice, the first brush with power and the wielders of power. It starts when one of the prefects, with dark hair and fine robes, his head inclined regally, stares down his nose at Baelmyrr and arches one brow.
‘Alvantaris, was it? You will soon learn that compromise and sacrifice are necessary.’
The words ignite a fury within him beyond anything he has felt before: he rejects the notion violently. He rejects the idea that he should have to kill to prove himself as a thinker, as a caster; he rejects the idea that someone as self-important, as self-promoted as this patronising student should be allowed to put him into such a situation, holding the prefect post to such immoral ransom.
Though he rallies against them all, though he debates the point with fervour, they kill Sunny anyway: a disassembling spell that pulls him apart so they might sketch the layout of his innards. Baelmyrr could have given them the same result by magicking the cat’s skin and muscle temporarily translucent. But where would be the bloody violence in that?
He feels trapped in the school from there on after. His old study routine, putting in adequate effort for the most part, working exceptionally hard for brief stints after a rebuke from mother or father, had been on track to earn him an excellent qualification, but he abandons it now, spends his time socialising with a new circle of friends and practising the illusion spells everyone ranks as simple and superficial, worthless for the exams. He doesn’t want to succeed in the manner laid out for him by those teachers and lecturers who, faced with a report on the death of a hapless stray, waved it off as an acceptable experiment.
He doesn’t want to deceive his parents, either, but learns by chance that cockiness and a well-placed grin ease through a white lie about the state of his education, and soon finds himself putting the method into practice over and over. Rebellion through apathy in terms of his schoolwork is not a wholly effective release, but each dark mood that grips him maintains its hold for hours at the most, and there is always some little trigger to blame it on. A snide remark from a teacher. An altercation with a friend. Bad weather. A conjured lunch that’s slightly off.
He gets a part-time job working at a jewellers across town where nobody knows him, and he doesn’t really wonder why to start with. The urge simply takes him, and he runs with it. It is reportedly impossible to hold down a job while studying arcanistry, but it proves perfectly doable when merely coasting on bloodline talent.
The profession occupies a strange place in the social strata: though it involves frowned upon manual work in the cutting and polishing of stones and the creation of metal settings, there is an artistic element in design, and the people of Silvermoon have a great appreciation for beauty. In conversation with his new mentor, Baelmyrr learns that people will dwell on whichever aspect of the profession suits their purpose. A beloved jeweller will be praised for their artistic vision, their less popular contemporaries derided for their manual medium. He cannot quite place the irritation this plants within him.
But it is growing. It grows as he finds himself stalking the affordable parts of the city, peering up into the windows of the flats and the shared houses; as he tallies his earnings at the end of each day and falls asleep with calculations of living cost and income running together in his head; as his friends make blithe criticisms of passersby based on class and race and standardised beauty; as he puts quill to page at the start of his last exam and writes out neatly at the start of his essay, ‘For the benefit of my oppressors, I have chosen the clearest of topics, so as to least tax your brains.’
And he finds himself faintly aware that his righteous anger has got the better of him not when he reads through his final results, fourteen years after Sunny’s death, and finds he’s scraped the lowest pass, but when his parents discover the same, and stare at him as though he’s torn out their hearts and thrown them in the dust.
Haelmyrr ceases to speak to him, and Ollyria asks him to stop whenever he tries to broach a meaningful subject. All she can stomach from him now is idle talk of the weather and what they might be having for dinner – a meal he eats alone in his room, now that his father has banished him from the table. This makes it impossible to tell them of his full employment at the jewellers. As far as they are aware, he could simply be roving the city aimlessly for eight hours a day. He would be more forceful in setting them straight, if he felt the truth would treat them any better.
Because perceptions matter to him again, now that they belong to his parents. Now that he’s hurt them and he can’t seem to make it right. He finds himself out on his balcony with whiskey in hand with increasing frequency, his fingertips throbbing from hours’ work at his newest pieces, his head heavy with the thought of his mother’s open grief and his father’s growing aggression. But the urge to fix things is not enough without inspiration as to how to go about it, and as the months go by and the crack down the middle of the household begins to exude a certain sense of permanence, he finds himself surveying the figures once again. He has enough money to move out, and spare them the torment of his presence.
But first, after months of avoiding them both, and of being avoided, he makes his mother a necklace, the family crest, set with her favourite stones, and leaves it where she will find it, along with a note.
An inadequate apology, for all I have done, and all I have failed to do.
His father comes to him. He falls into step with Baelmyrr as he is walking home from work, and Baelmyrr has to wonder if his profession was ever a secret after all. He does not inquire. He waits instead for Haelmyrr to speak, and tries to control his imagination as it conjures up words of forgiveness and affection. The walk passes in silence. On the doorstep, his father stops and looks at him. He speaks only as he steps inside, words thrown back over his shoulder.
‘Your mother’s pregnant.’