His mouth went dry. “Fire? What fire?”
Ember rolled her eyes and fanned herself harder. “Are you saying you’re not cognizant of what transpired yesterday?”
“No,” he said, sighing. “I’m sorry. I should have done something.”
“You should have.” She snapped her fan shut and stood. “May we walk? Your room is stifling and Milxner’s is more habitable.”
Al grabbed his satchel and locked the door behind them. Prudently, she said nothing until they had passed through the break room shared by both sides and into her domain. She stopped near the doorway and touched a section of the wall. “Here’s where you landed that punch.”
“I’m sorry. How much do I owe you for repairs?”
She swatted the air. “I don’t want you to pay for that. It’s just a few indentations and I doubt our mutual bosses will care much about a cosmetic issue.”
Due to the cement floors and open layout, the temperature dropped quite a bit as they entered Milxner’s. Dust motes fell from the ceiling, floating in what little light from the high windows reached the floor. It was mostly used to store long-term commodities like cotton and wool, the boxes stacked three high in some areas. There were a few offices, including a few that were in fact just well-decorated rooms with bed.
They moved over to the box that once held a kerosene lamp, Ember’s boots clacking against the cement. When Al turned to look around, he saw a barrel nearby. “The roof leaks, Alpine. We leave receptacles out to catch the rainwater. Roan was nearby and helped me tip it over before it lit anything else on fire. I don’t expect you to know that, but why didn’t you yell for help?”
He said nothing until they reached her office. It was a small, windowed cubicle next to the back doorway that oversaw most of the floor. He hadn’t realized how visible he must have been until he was standing inside, looking out.
He cleared his throat. “I panicked. I didn’t know what to do and I was afraid…”
“Afraid of what, precisely? It was unlikely the fire was going to spread farther than a few crates. We store them that way.”
She was right. He had been unnecessarily worried about the entire building going up in flames, though he could only see that now that he was able to look at things without the screen of fear.
“My job. I was afraid of getting terminated for negligence or destruction of property. I owe you a new lamp and oil as it is. What if it had spread and destroyed more than a crate of cotton? What if there were expensive clothes or jewelry that caught fire? I couldn’t afford to pay hundreds of gold to replace it. And no one’s going to keep around someone so clumsy. That’s all it would have taken for our bosses to fire me. I lose my job, I lose what I’ve worked at for so long. I can’t pay my bills, I can’t pay…”
“All right, Alpine,” Ember interrupted. “I understand. They are all valid points. I’m just curious, though. What sets off a man to make him want to risk all that he was later worried about losing?”
“I had a bad day.”
“Well, yes, I gathered that. Good days usually don’t cause a man to take on buildings in a fight. I have to wonder who won, though. You definitely gave it a run for its money.” She smirked and folded her hands above the desk. “Please indulge me.”
“It was nothing, Ember. It’s silly thinking about it.”
“Even still, proceed.”
He sighed and was about to refuse and leave, but he felt trapped. Ember hadn’t said he must stay there, but she had implied enough. “I woke up late. On my walk in, someone had overturned a cart. There was fruit everywhere. Instead of helping the poor man to pick it up, everyone was grabbing the fruit. And those thieves were being watched by a crowd, who clogged the streets. I tried to move out of the way, but there were too many people. I accidentally touched a woman and she was quite cross with me, though I apologized.
“When I finally made it in to work and found that the secretaries hadn’t booked anything because they had thought it was my day off, I was already boiling. I put myself on, in case there was a walk-in, but I wound up getting no one. When I went to complain to Aggie, he just sat there with that stupid look on his face.”
“The one where he’s thinking about the new woman he’s bedding or the normal one?” Ember asked.
“The former. He’s dating some tailor’s daughter, I think. He only tells me their names if I happen to bump into them. Anyway, so I want to vent to him, but he’s being useless, which makes me madder. So, I come over here and I start pacing to calm down. But that doesn’t work; it only makes me angrier. And the next thing I know, I punched the wall and the lamp fell and the fire…”
“And we’re up to speed. Are you usually one to let things bother you this much and make aggressively physical proclamations to inanimate objects?”
“No,” he said, looking her dead in the eye. “I will never let this happen again. I promise you and our bosses that.”
“Well, it’s not all terrible. It made me think twice about keeping our lamps so close to combustible products. It was an oversight on my part; one small earthquake could have done more damage than I realized.”
“May I ask, then, why we’re having this conversation?” Al and Ember had spoken maybe half a dozen times since he started working at Jindahl and Stohr. All of those conversations had involved messages passed between their bosses that were a little more sensitive than what they would trust to the secretaries. Nothing more interesting than pricing changes; definitely not interesting enough to warrant more conversation.
“Alpine, I’ve been eyeing you for some time.” She stood and leaned across the desk, picking the end of his stole up with two fingers. “Valedictorian. Several awards for subject mastery. Three records broken.” She dropped the stole and sat. “I heard you missed ‘youngest to graduate’ by only three months. That, to me, is pure potential. You could be the type of man to shape the world around him. Instead, you are just…”
“…just a touch wizard,” he said bitterly. He had enjoyed what she was saying before the last sentence.
“Yes. Just a touch wizard. It’s something that has always confused me.”
“What’s there not to understand? In order to be a good soft wizard, you need talent. I can’t paint, sculpt, sing, dance, draw, or write. I can’t even make a quilt. And don’t,” he said when she began to interrupt him, “say that I just need to work harder at finding my hidden ability that’s deep down inside. I tried. I tried thousands of pieces of paper and dozens of pounds of clay. I got all the extra help I could get. Still, nothing.”
“It’s a good thing that Amandorlam favors rote learning and doesn’t grade art pieces.” And he had started to enjoy the conversation again before that piece of snark. “But there’s an obvious solution to that problem. You’re not just a soft wizard, Alpine. You’re a switcher.”
If Al had learned nothing from reading his alley novels, it was that, when accused, you don’t react. Even though he kept his face brilliantly stoic, Ember still read what she wanted.
“Yes, you see the issue. I’m willing to pretend that you developed your ability to tap into your second side yesterday in a fit of rage. I’ve seen it before and there’s no reason to say otherwise. But, you need to register as a switcher in the city office. And I need to inform our employers that they have a switcher employee that might make them more money. You can start doing work over here.”
She arched an eyebrow. “So firm on that position? Alpine, I know. They will know. And then we need to start thinking about your future here in Milxner’s.”
“I said ‘no’, Ember. I am not going to be a hard wizard.”
Ember pursed her lips. “Alpine, I can’t imagine why you would say ‘no’ to more money. Is it an ethical issue? I can find work for you that’s not so…objectionable. There are plenty of people looking for a discreet courier or an innocuous-looking guard.”
“It’s not the ethics,” he said, then sighed. “Okay, it is partially the ethics. I hate seeing magic used for unsavory things, but it’s none of my business. I’m more concerned about the damage hard magic does to a man.”
“I think that all depends on what and how often you use the Unease, Alpine. I’m a decade older than you, but do I look it?”
Ember’s hair was streaked with gray, which she seemed to think she had hidden under the curls piled on top of her head. She wore powder and rouge, like many lighter skinned woman did, but it only accentuated the wrinkles around her eyes and forehead. Perhaps a lady approaching forty should look that way, but Al knew enough not to comment negatively on a woman’s features. “No, you look well. But you’ve been a manager here for some time and I don’t believe you work as a wizard anymore.”
“Actually, I do a few jobs here and there. My employees always work before I do, but as I said, I am having to turn down opportunities because we don’t have the help. That’s besides the point, though. The effects of hard wizardry are always exaggerated.”
Al shook his head. “I distinctly remember several classes where they went over the ramifications of using the Unease frequently over one’s life. I think we covered nothing but that in Raffin’s class on ‘Bodily Science of Magic’ where he…”
“Yes, yes, I took that same class,” she said. She took in a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I think it would be best if I took some time to think about how to proceed. You’ve given me some things to think about and I’d rather not continue unless I’ve mulled it over.”
Al stood. “So, you won’t say anything about the switching to our bosses?”
“Mmm, I won’t say anything to anyone about anything we discussed until our next meeting, which will be when you’ve finished with your shift.”
“I need to pick my daughter up from my sister-in-law’s house after work.”
“It won’t be long. We’ll just go over our options and how we’re going to proceed from this point.”
He nodded absently, then left Milxner’s for the break room. He would have to eat his lunch quickly, but at least there was some time before his next appointment.
All the while he ate, Al wondered what exactly was going on with Ember. He would have to plan some sort of counter to her demands. There was one thing Al did not want to do, and that was be a hard wizard for the rest of his life. He knew it wouldn’t last very long.