“Mrs. Falenghast,” Al said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“And you as well. I always enjoy our Friday meetings.”
He offered her his arm and she placed her gloved hand on it lightly. She gave him an amused nod of her head and he smiled at their inside joke on over-formality. Al had repeated the same motions biweekly several hundred times.
“Did you have a nice Ap Jorsen Day?” he asked as he lead her inside his office.
“Enston took me to see the Courmet Opera.” She removed and placed her hat, gloves, parasol, and purse on the bench next to the door and her laced boots below. “How was your holiday?”
“Lovely,” he said, giving her a smile that didn’t touch his eyes.
She sat in the chair and waited while he rotated the levers to put it in a reclined position. When she was comfortable, she handed Al the shawl she wore to cover her bare upper arms. The dress she wore was one of two he’d seen her in over the years. It had puffed sleeves and piping that created the illusion of a corset when there was none. It was apparel for a much younger woman. In fact, Mrs. Falenghast had remarked a few times that she felt like a “floozy” wearing it, but knew it was a comfortable and appropriate outfit for a touch wizard service.
She wiggled her shoulders and breathed out slowly. “I’m ready,” she said.
Al sat behind her and prepared himself. If he had been well-rested and in a good mood, he would have tapped into the Calm. It was the way wizards reached the softer side of magic, the type good for for creativity, perception, and healing. He would have breathed deeply and thought of calming thoughts, like walking through an old bookstore or of what a trip to Arvonne would be like. After a few moments, he would feel that cold, yet pleasing pressure on his neck and shiver, followed by being not quite himself until he closed himself off from magic.
The first time he had reached the Calm, he had likened it to falling into a pond of feathers, warm and comfortable and pleasant. It was wonderful and he had wished to remain steeped in that magic forever.
Not like the Unease, the hard magic that was fear and pain and anger. A wizard used that for speed, strength, and better senses, typically jobs that required superhuman feats. Al had always pitied those wizards who could only tap into the Unease, knowing that they would burn brightly and briefly in their lives.
The lessons against magical repercussions had scared him so badly that he rarely used it and had only told a few professors that he was a switcher, someone who could use both sides of magic. He had told no one, not even his wife, that he was also a cross-switcher.
So, instead of deep breaths and nice thoughts, Al dug his nails into his forearm to push himself into the heart-pounding agony of the Unease. Once there, the connection sputtered and pulsed, then filtered tranquility instead of hostility through his touch. He placed his fingertips on Mrs. Falenghast’s shoulder and she sighed in contentment, the spicy-tart scent of the kiic candy she was sucking on filling the area.
Al’s heartbeat raced, but the magic he gave was serene. He gave surcease in little sips, a few seconds here or half a minute there over the course of the hour. It equated to ten minutes out of fifty-five that was actual magic. The rest of it was a series of acts that were best called filler. Al dipped fine paintbrushes into water and wrote symbols on Mrs. Falenghast’s arms. He applied scented oils to her skin in loops and circles. He whispered words into her ears, the meaning nonsensical and fabricated. Three quarters of an hour spent on gibberish and chicanery.
When he finished, Mrs. Falenghast sighed. “Thank you,” she said, gripping the armrests as he cranked up the seat. “I tell all my friends about you.”
He wiped the sweat from his neck and brow with a cloth. “That means a lot to me. I hope some of them will visit some day.”
They said their pleasantries before they said goodbye. Mrs. Falenghast stopped by the front desk to book her next appointment. Al locked up his room before heading over to Milxner’s.
The glass in the door to Ember’s office rattled as he knocked. She looked up quickly, then beckoned him inside before returning to her paperwork.
Al used the time to take off his pinned stole and light blue robe and to fold both neatly before putting them in his bag. After a few minutes, Ember finally put down her cartridged pen and took off her pince-nez. The string holding them retracted into an attractive broach with a sun and moon emblem embossed in gold and silver.
“I’m curious why you never went into something more admirable with your abilities. As a switcher you could have been a doctor or an architect, something very respectable. Why did you settle for being a touch wizard?”
“Money,” he said. “My mother didn’t want me to be a wizard. She would have preferred to have a lawyer in the family She agreed to pay for the first five years of Amandorlam in hopes I would change my mind and apply to a law school afterwards.” He smirked. “They didn’t specify what courses I would be taking during the first five years. I wound up using some of the allotted funds towards wizarding courses.
“Still, I was only able to cover up to my graduation with loans, and it was close. I definitely couldn’t get any more money from my mother. I graduated and always hoped to save some money to pursue something better.”
“But, you got married and you had a child,” she offered. “And starting a business meant a lot of hungry days before you got to eat. Perhaps it took longer than you thought to pay back your loans?”
“My wife wound up taking a job as a secretary,” he said. “We paid our bills, but only barely.”
“You didn’t once think to see if there was anything you could do over here? I understand that you wanted to keep your extra ability to yourself, but maybe I could have offered you a job with the Calm that would work for the both of us? I’m beginning to think you are either really are too strait-laced or too cowardly.”
When Al said nothing, she continued. “After what I saw yesterday, cowardly fits better. You’re a smart man. You knew you could have gotten help. Instead, you ran away. You ran away from that overturned cart yesterday, too. That man needed help, to save his livelihood, but you left. You could have turned the cart right-side up and set an example for the crowd by picking up the spilled fruit. Others would have joined you! And what a wonderful opportunity to advertise who you are and what you do. But, you were too worried about being late for work and potentially losing your job. And then, instead of confronting Stalagmite about his selfishness, you left and stewed.”
“Coward isn’t the worst thing I’ve been called.”
Ember made a disgusted noise in her throat and slapped her hands on the desk. “Alpine! I was trying to incite you to prove me wrong! Why aren’t you defending yourself?”
“Because it’s true?”
“Do you want it to be true?”
“No. Who wants to be a coward?”
She sat back in her chair. “Well, at least you do want to change. There’s room to work.”
Ember pressed her steepled fingers against her mouth. “I’d like to propose an agreement between us. If you do three tasks, I will forgive any debts you have from the incident yesterday. I also promise not to tell anyone about the fire nor of your switcher abilities.”
“What tasks?” Al asked.
“Only one came to mind so far. I’ll need more time to think of the other ones.”
“No,” he said. “You could ask me to do anything.”
“These tasks will be designed to help make you a better wizard. I won’t have you do anything that reflects poorly on us, so don’t worry about anything embarrassing. And I won’t touch your resources, either. I don’t think I need to impoverish you, since you’re not far off.”
Al rubbed his eyes with his thumb and finger. “What are my options here?”
“You can do these tasks. You could leave the city. Or, I can let our employers know you’re a switcher. Then, you have the choice of working at Milxner’s or being stripped of your license and fired.”
“Or, we could forget about this?” he said, giving what he thought was a very charming smile.
“I am already taking a sizable risk,” she said after taking a deep breath. “If you’d rather I didn’t and just told our employers…”
“No,” he said quickly. “What’s my first task?”