Ember hadn’t said anything about involving other wizards.
Al leaned against the doorway to Milxner’s as he watched Aggie from across the room. He had been given the next day to finish his first task, which on the grand scale of things wasn’t that bad. It was doable, even though Al understood he was about to make one or two people mad at him. The physical pain was also a consideration, perhaps the greater reason why he hadn’t done it yet.
Aggie and Cascade were flirting near the entrance to Milxner’s, though neither seemed to be putting their full interest into it. Aggie rarely juggled two mistresses at the same time and Cascade could make a great deal of money doing what Aggie hoped to be getting for free. Perhaps they wouldn’t be terribly upset, then. He had run out of time and stalling would only make him want to delay it further.
Al used his nerves to tap into the Unease as he forced himself to walk the distance to his two co-workers. It wasn’t for the strength or speed, though. He was using it to dull the oncoming pain.
Aggie was an imposing man, tall, broad, and muscular, which suited his string of jobs lifting, moving, and generally disturbing things. If he hadn’t been lucky to be in that quarter of the population that could use magic, he would have worked somewhere that required he did the same thing with less pay. He was charismatic enough for a career in politics, but he wasn’t tactful enough to keep his extra-martial affairs quiet. He wasn’t stupid, but wasn’t mentally gifted for any other job that required he focus on a field of study.
He could flirt well enough, which is what he was doing with Cascade, Milxner’s newest acquisition. She was also a touch wizard, but her particular style involved more skin-to-skin contact than what Al did. Much, much more.
It reminded Al of yesterday, when Aggie had been daydreaming about his latest conquest instead of listening to him. Al wasn’t upset about it any more, but it did give him a flimsy excuse to start something with Aggie. And he didn’t have to win, just engage and exchange a few blows.
“Hey!” he yelled when he had closed the gap to just a few feet.
“Oh, hey, Al,” he said, turning to face him. “I was just telling Cascade about that time…”
Al didn’t let him finish the sentence. He shoved him as hard as he could in the chest. Aggie stumbled backwards a few steps before righting himself.
“What the hell?’ he yelled.
Al swung for his face and missed. He tried twice more, connecting on the third swing with Aggie’s jaw. It only tilted his face to one side slightly. Al stepped back and hoped Aggie hadn’t slipped into the Unease, or else he was going to enjoy the same food Marnie ate for the next few weeks .
Aggie was still puzzled and not engaging his friend. “Al! What’s gotten into you?”
“You never listen to me! I’m sick of it, Aggie, sick of it!”
Al threw a few more punches, landing a pathetically weak haymaker on Aggie’s throat that did nothing more than bounce off his skin. Aggie finally decided enough was enough and swung back, punching Al hard enough in the nose that he saw stars before he inhaled blood and coughed.
Aggie braced Al’s elbows, pinning his arms to his side. Al kept trying to walk forward for a few more moments, then stopped, realizing there was no more momentum for the fight. Cascade had moved aside a few feet, watching the spectacle with amusement. “You must be crazy, Al. I’ve never seen Stalagmite lose a fight.”
“He knows that, too,” his friend said before focusing on Al. “If I let you go, are you going start punching me again?” Al shook his head miserably. Aggie released his arms and Al sunk back on his heels before regaining his balance. Cascade kindly handed him her kerchief, which Al used to staunch the flow of blood from his nose. “Now, are you going to answer me? What’s gotten into you?”
Nudding. It’s nudding,” Al said, waving his hand as he walked away and into Ember’s office, flopping into her chair.
She looked up from her ledger, then back down with a smirk on her face. “I see you finished your first task.”
“I should have hid a bick wall. I’d have had a bedder chance ad winning.”
“Based on yesterday, you might have. How do you feel?”
“I feel like I god punched in deh nose, Ember.”
“Well, I figured that. What I mean is, how are you feeling after the fact? Exhilarated? Drained?”
He felt jittery from the fight and took a few deep breaths through his mouth to calm down. Maybe there was a stirring inside, the same part that had hoped the building had burned down, but Al quashed it down. He was in pain, his nose throbbing with each heartbeat. Some blood had trickled into his mouth and he tasted blood. Overall, it was something different and maybe exhilarating, but he wasn’t going to tell Ember that. “I don know. I don care. I jus wan do go home, so you may as well give me my nex dask.”
Ember bristled, her tone irritated. “’I don’t know. I don’t care.’ Don’t speak like the chattel do, Alpine. You’re better than them.” She drummed her fingernails on her desk for a moment. “As for your next task, I haven’t divined anything yet. Sit tight for a moment.”
Al did so in a huff, leaning forward so that the blood didn’t drip on his robes. After a few moments, he opened his hands in an impatient gesture.
Ember held up a hand to placate him. “Why don’t you tell me more about yourself?”
“Dere’s naw much do me. I work here, I have a daughder and a wife.”
“Anything you do in your spare time? Anything you like?”
He thought about this for a moment. “I read a lod. If I have a liddle money lefdover ad de end of deh month, I buy books and newspapers. I like reading aboud Arvonne mosly, especially de polidics.”
“Polidics. Govermen and resources and laws, dings like dat.”
“Oh! I thought you were saying…never mind. Politics. Well, that doesn’t sound exciting, Alpine.”
“No, no id is, achually…”
Ember interrupted. “Alpine, you’re a Calm wizard. Is there a particular reason why you’re not fixing your nose and irritating me with your babble?”
“Fine. Give me a few minids.”
It took him longer than that. He was still fidgety from the fight and it took some concentration to soothe his tensions. It would have been faster if he could use the Unease he was close to tapping into, but he didn’t want Ember to know he was a switcher. And while he could convert the Unease to the Calm and gift others with it, it didn’t work the same internally. Besides, keeping her waiting was a nice way to get the upper hand for once. As the minutes passed, he felt the blood flow stanch and the swelling reduce enough that he no longer felt the throb. He sniffed, breathed in and out of his nose for a few times, then continued.
“Fifteen years ago there was a coup and the Arvonne royal line was killed. The king and queen, the extended family, the two princes and the princesses, and anyone that could rally enough people to fight back, all of them butchered. They instated a new form of government called Kalronism. It hasn’t been going too well for two reasons. One, Kalronism was only written about and, now that it’s in place, is showing all the problems. And two, the Arvonnese royal family, while not adored, was well-liked. Many people in Arvonne are beginning to sour against the new system and wish for the monarchy to return. Some of the distant cousins who managed to remove themselves from the regency enough to survive seem primed to take back power. It’s absolutely fascinating to read about what will happen.” He leaned forward. “Personally, I want the regency back. I want them to win. I wish I had been there and could have fought for the Alscaine family, to save them or die trying.”
Ember had been writing while Al had spoken. She paused, putting her cartridged pen down. “You’re saying a man who couldn’t even put out a tiny fire in a warehouse would have made a difference in a deposition?”
Al deflated a little. “It would have been different.”
“I see. Do you have any other hobbies, then, other than casting yourself as a hero in a putsch you were safely never going to fight in?”
“Sometimes I garden. I like early Berothian and Teidan Kan High Age philosophy. I read a lot of books with the mythology of Noh Amair, like Fraulix the Great and the Norskim.”
“You’re kidding me. Do you go out drinking? Gambling? Spear fishing off the Genale coast? Anythinginteresting?”
“Sometimes I go out for drinks with Aggie, but I get the feeling he might not want to do that anymore.” Aggie was Al’s only friend. The thought of losing him did fill him with a lot of regret. Maybe they could patch things up sometime in the future.
“Drinking! There we go! So you’re open to a night of debauchery, then? I’ll have a chat with .Rd White and see if we can reconcile things with him. Be at ease. I’ll speak with you tomorrow.”
Al left her office, ignoring the clearly pissed off Aggie standing nearby. He walked home in the rain, tapping into the Calm again to help speed up the healing process so his nose was back down to a normal size when he picked up Marnie at his sister-in-law’s.
After they arrived at home, Al made dinner, fed Marnie, and waited for Burdet. Long after the food had turned cold did he finally eat his meal and put his wife’s in the chill chest, noting the block of ice was almost gone. He’d have to speak with the deliverer as soon as he could.
He played with Marnie, reading her some of the books from when he was in school for wizardry. He made up stories and grabbed items from around their house to amuse her, but Marnie started to grow restless. He walked around with her, holding her even when she began to cry.
“Mama!” she yelled.
“Shh. I don’t know where Mama is, darling.”
She cried for her mother over and over, tears running down her face. Al finally laid her down on his chest and she calmed down, sucking on her thumb.
“I don’t know where he is, either, love” he said.
She looked up at him and sighed, placing her head against his chest. “Dada.”
“Close enough,” he answered, stroking her fine hair until she fell asleep.