Turnips and Teaching
She sipped her tea and returned to staring out the stained glass window, ignoring the books of magic she was supposed to be reading. The wriggle-lettered words made the pages look thick and dark and dense, like strong coffee. Outside, the sky was as bright as thought, the air as light as wind, the trees trembling in the breeze as though they wanted to leap up and dance. It was no competition, really.
Cordelia Grey had been raised on the largest turnip farm in Meridell, and her small size and natural-born Xweetok agility had given her the advantage in the games of hide and seek she’d played with her siblings. Until the day her father happened to notice that she could never be found when she didn’t want to be. ‘A knack,’ was what he’d called it, and Cordelia’s knack had got her sent off to Brightvale Castle, an entirely new world with entirely new rules.
Now her small size just meant that she couldn’t reach the higher shelves in the library. And however much she wished she could disappear when the well-bred scholars stared and snickered at her, the cold grey cobbles and cold grey walls of the castle were so far distant from her familiar brown earth that she couldn’t seem to manage even the smallest magic, knack or no knack.
And she missed her siblings very much.
And her teacher was... odd. Antonio Dimmelian was said to be the greatest wizard in Brightvale. Brightvale certainly seemed proud of enough of him, even if Hagan never outright stated that Antonio was their reply to the likes of Lisha and Kayla, but he laughed too much and seemed fonder of magic tricks than of real magic.
He wasn’t even very good at magic tricks. A few weeks ago, when she’d first come here, he’d asked her to, ‘Pick a card, any card’. She had, and he’d tried to guess it, going through most of the deck before finally pointing behind her, yelling, ‘Look! A convenient distraction!’ and running away. He was irritating. This whole situation was irritating, and inconvenient, and she just wanted to go home.
And now her tea was cold.
Cordelia sighed, and set her cup down on the windowsill, very carefully. She was sitting on a small threadbare couch next to a stained glass window depicting the sun rising over unnaturally green hills, and the pile of magic books next to her was so haphazard and so heavy-looking that she couldn’t help but make all her movements slow and careful, for fear that she’d knock it over and be drowned in texts. Not that she wasn’t drowned in texts already, metaphorically speaking.
The voice was loud, and strident, and went through the quiet in the library like a knife through milk. There was only one person in the Castle with the audacity (or stupidity) to have a voice like that.
“Good day, sir,” Cordelia said. “I’m... erhm... studying. Like you asked me to.”
A grin of sheer exuberant delight spread across Antonio’s handsome features. He was a tall Shadow Acara, with crumpled black hair that fell over his bright lilac-coloured eyes. He always wore a dull brown tunic and a dull brown shirt and a dull brown cloak, which was strange; out of all the numerous words to describe him, ‘dull’ was not one that Cordelia would have picked. Perhaps the dull brown clothes were meant as some sort of disguise. Or perhaps the King had taken him aside for a quiet talk after he’d shown up at the Castle wearing a duck or something.
He leaned forward and scrutinized the topmost book, which was lying forlornly open. Then he straightened, and raised his eyebrows at her. “I seem to recall asking you to study magic, Corona. This, I’m afraid, is a book about turnips.”
He always got her name wrong. He seemed to make a point of it, in fact. It was infuriating and –
Cordelia stared at the book, which was, indeed, about turnips. “Sir!” she protested. “Sir, I swear, it was about magic just a minute ago! It was! I don’t know... how...”
He was grinning. She trailed off and eyed him suspiciously. “That was very funny, sir.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” he said loftily, examining his fingernails.
“A brilliant example of sleight of hand.”
“Wasn’t it just?”
“This is sarcasm, by the way,” she said, just in case he wasn’t getting it.
“Wow, really? How original!” said Antonio sarcastically, though without any particular malice. He paused, and ran over that in his head. Then he coughed and went hastily on. “King Hagan wants to see you, Commodore. He says that you’re something of a drain in resources, and he wants to make sure that my work with you is paying off. He also says that you’re a silly meany-head and that your fur’s too green and that it makes you look like a bad-tempered avocado.”
She gave him an annoyed kind of look. “Hagan didn’t say that.”
“Well. Maybe not in those exact words. But that was the gist of it.”
Cordelia snorted. Then she chewed on her lip. “Sir...”
“Call me Antonio,” he said genially.
“Only if you call me Cordelia,” she said, somewhat less genially. “Sir, I’ve been thinking, and I’m not sure this is what I want to be doing. This isn’t what I want to be doing with my life; it really isn’t. I haven’t... I haven’t learned anything here, not really.”
Antonio’s face had gone blank. Cordelia soldiered on.
“Sir, I’m the daughter of a turnip-farmer! I obviously don’t have any sort of gift for magic. And frankly, sir, I’m not sure there’s all that much you can teach me...”
She’d added that last bit just for spite. She wished she hadn’t. The glimmer in her teacher’s pale eyes began to tell her, just a little, the reason that he was Brightvale’s Court Magician.
“Come with me,” was all he said.
Cordelia followed behind him without further complaint. She would have liked to say that her tea was cold, or that she missed her siblings, or that it was much nicer outside. She didn’t.
In this area of Brightvale Castle the walls were hung with tapestries and paintings. Overall, the effect was far from pleasant. Everything looked jumbled, a mess of luxurious colours and fine fabrics and fine paints, an excess of things which would have been delightful on their own but taken all together overwhelmed the senses.
Cordelia wondered if Antonio had had a hand in the decorating in this area.
They entered into a courtyard. In Meridell courtyards were overgrown and tangled, a wild and glorious mess of interwoven grasses buzzing with insects and life, with fruit trees shedding their burdens on the cracked stones below and weathered wood making the whole area smell like sunlight.
But this was a Brightvale courtyard, and it was a study in silence and solitude. The cobblestones were neat and well spaced, all very orderly and symmetrical, and the only sound that could be heard was the bubbling of a fountain in the precise centre of the square. Carefully trimmed flowers surrounded it, a splash of colour that only served to emphasize the dull greys surrounding it.
Antonio stopped suddenly. He turned and gave her that piercing look again. Then he spread out his arms in a gesture that seemed to encompass everything – the dull ground, the dull buildings all around, the struggling plants, the small, sad fountain...
The faint drift of birdsong that came from somewhere and was almost too quiet to be heard, a whisper on the breeze. The sky, so blue, so bright.
“This is life,” he said. “This is magic. Magic is life. Do you understand?”
Cordelia nodded automatically. Then she shook her head. “That... doesn’t make sense.”
“That’s the whole point! Life doesn’t make sense! Don’t you see?” He was talking more quickly now, word following word, an excited, jumbled stream of words. “It’s different for everyone, everyone has their own take on it, magic is beautiful and ugly and dark and light and monstrous and graceful!”
He stopped talking, and let his hands fall to his sides. Breathing raggedly he stared at her, expectant, waiting to see how she’d react to his outburst.
Cordelia said, “I suspect you’re being over-dramatic on purpose, sir.”
His look of dreamy serenity was replaced with a grin. “Yes indeed, Coelacanth! But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Look, I know the books on magic are boring, but you need to work on it, 'kay? It might save your life one day.”
In the field outside, a young Draik was practicing his archery. He drew back the string, squinting short-sightedly at the brightly coloured target, then let loose. The arrow sailed far over the target, over the Castle wall, into the courtyard and straight at Cordelia.
Automatically she closed her eyes, and willed herself invisible.
I am stone. I am air. I am wind and I am leaves. I am earth, I am fire, I am the stones and the ground underneath them and the worms underneath that, I am wind I am air I am grey I am invisible.
Cordelia cautiously opened one eye, then another. She glanced behind her, very cautiously. The arrow was embedded in the stone, precisely where she’d been standing. Precisely where she was still standing, in fact, invisible and untouchable. She edged sideways so hastily she almost fell over.
She then directed an accusatory glare at Antonio. “You arranged that!”
“I did not!” he protested, raising his sooty-black paws in surrender. Then his expression turned thoughtful. “Though I rather wish I could take credit for it. ‘S the kind of thing that looks good to prospective employers, you know? And I could brag about it at garden parties... anyway, there was something else. What was it?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and narrowed his eyes at the brilliant blue sky.
Cordelia waited. To pass the time, she inspected the arrow. Its flights were cheerfully dyed, and its barb was very sharp indeed.
“Oh yes, that was it.” Antonio clicked his fingers and declared, “I told you so!”
Cordelia snorted. “Immature child.”
“Don’t speak like that to your elders, missy!”
“Oh come now, sir. You can’t be more than a few years older than me. Am I correct?”
He was suddenly intensely interested in the fountain. He coughed. “... Anyway, Concorde, don’t we have an interview to get to?”
“My name is Cordelia!”
“Then get a better name!”
They started walking again, entering the castle. The corridors in this area were a lot more tastefully decorated, the carpet rich and red and vibrant. Even Cordelia, with her forest-green hair and mahogany-brown fur and muted dress, fit in a lot better than Antonio with his untidy fur and bright eyes and carelessly baggy robes. But somehow they both belonged, and the banter they exchanged was almost companionable.
“Like ‘Antonio’ is any better? It sounds like something you’d associate with spaghetti.”
“It is not.”