This is the first part of an ongoing serial. Here is Part Two. Updates every two days.
“Well, you have to understand,” said the young pale man with the long white fringe and the morose red eyes. “I paid for a hundred years at Skalathos, see, and once you have a Bachelor’s in World-Rending and Reality-Sculpting with Honors, there isn’t much more you can do except try and work it off. And that gets dull.”
Anne stared up at him, hands ensconced comfortably in her squeaky-clean shackles, vaguely aware that she should be more worried than she was. Unfortunately, there was nothing sinister in the room save a worn-out, moth-eaten beige shawl, lying limply on top of the torture table with the air of a pious martyr. Even the table was beaming.
“You aren’t going to… ravish me or anything, are you?” she scowled, raising her fiery eyebrow in the expression she usually gave to unsolicited admirers. Father usually ranked it between ‘piping hot’ and ‘ouch.’
The white-red man sagged even more. He was wearing a crumpled linen shirt, ratty pants, and a sad felt waistcoat with one button missing, the last two of which were varying shades of black. His chair creaked in a comforting way.
“Unfortunately,” he said with a melancholy sigh, “I can devise any form of pleasure in the world. It was one of the reasons I went to Skalathos, you see. And then by the first two centuries, well…”
“You ran out of ideas,” said Anne, unimpressed. “I’ll be.”
“Yes,” admitted the sorcerer.
“Don’t look at me like that,” said Anne. “I’m a Gentilberry. We don’t do that sort of thing. A respectable family is what we are, even if we can’t string two beans together half the time. Or even one bean together most of the time. Don’t laugh.”
“I wasn’t,” said the sorcerer, “and I know. It’s why I kidnapped you.”
“You could have done a better job of it, you know,” said Anne. “Why, just thirty years ago, one of your ilk spirited my Aunt Mattie away. She was up there in that thunderstorm, kicking and screaming… Mother nearly lost her hair, she was so shook up.”
“And did she?” asked the sorcerer. “Lose her hair, I mean.”
“Not precisely, no,” said Anne, trying to raise her finger and failing, “but she said it sure felt like it. My Uncle Matthias now, he went out with his dog and trusty pitchfork to find her, and then five years later…”
“He came back and told you that your Aunt Mattie didn’t want to leave,” said the sorcerer.
“Why, yes,” blinked Anne. “How did you know?”
The sorcerer pointed a long sad finger towards the shawl on the torture-table. The sunlight sent dust dancing around it, through it, like mites on the surface of a puddle.
“My word,” said Anne. “Did Aunt Mattie die?”
“No,” said the sorcerer with a sigh. “Matilda got bored, and then she left. I offered her everything she could possibly want, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to make her stay. I sent her off to another plane, where she’ll be happy. It has plenty of cows.”
Anne stared down at her blue flannel dress. She hated it, but it felt like her cheeks were coloring.
“So,” she managed at last, “does this mean that you’re my… uncle?”
The sorcerer winced. It looked like a spider had scuttled down his left tear-duct.
“Despite my every effort, and a great deal of cajoling… I’m afraid not.”
“Well, isn’t that just the worm on the hook?” said Anne, eyebrows positively preening. “It’s good to know that even sorcerers like you have some respect for ladies.”
“I didn’t ask to be a sorcerer, you know,” said the sorcerer. “Or, well, I did, but it wasn’t for money or women or anything that you mortals say we’re all after.”
Anne peered closely at him. The ropes in her head were stretching, the pulleys pulling in their usual way, only slightly slower than usual. Was this really the man who had stolen her Aunt away?
“What is it you want, then?” she asked carefully. “And how do I know, Mr. Sorcerer, that you’re not pulling me along?”
They were strange things, his eyes, red as fresh birth-slime but dull as thick glass. His nose and cheeks were sharp as the edge of an adze, and the strands of his snow-white hair hung down over his snow-white face like the boughs of a burdened willow.
The wet red orbs closed for a moment in thought, and in that moment Anne decided that she didn’t like his face at all. It was entirely too foppish, for a start.
“I don’t know what I want,” said the sorcerer. “I was hoping that your Aunt would, ah, help me find it. But then she left. It would mean the world to me if you could…”
“Last time I checked, didn’t you already have a world?”
“It’s not a very good world,” admitted the sorcerer with a half-hearted shrug. “I tried my best. Two worlds, then.”
“Oh, so you can’t make another one?”
“I’m… working my way up to it.”
“Astil’s sainted ass.” Anne shook her head, shackles rattling behind her. “See? This is exactly why you don’t feel happy. You can live forever, and you can take anyone you please from anywhere…”
“Not all of them,” the sorcerer corrected, raising a finger. “And forever is a very long time.”
“…And you can cast more magic than a hundred wizards, and you probably never even have to trim that hair. With everything you can do, you shouldn’t be the useless sack of wet flour that you are.”
“But I am,” said the sorcerer, looking even smaller.
“And that’s exactly why Aunt Mattie up and left! I mean, would it be too much for you to grow a spine? My Da’s sixty-two years old, see, and I have four brothers and five sisters, see, and even then he still finds the time to whack us upside the head, when he’s not wrangling the cows or boxing the stallions. He works. He’s a man. You’re not.”
The sorcerer looked so small, it seemed like his head would be in his britches at any moment. It only made Anne even angrier.
“Get these irons off me. I’m no bull, and I sure as Sartar can’t be gelded.”
The chains clinked to the ground.
“They weren’t locked,” said the sorcerer, in a weak attempt at mollification.
But Anne was not in a mollifiable mood.
“Now, listen here,” she said, jabbing a finger at his chest. “I’ll help you, but only because I’ll probably never get out of here if I don’t. I still don’t believe a bit of what you said about my Aunt.”
“But it’s true,” the sorcerer protested. “All of it.”
“And I’m a goat,” retorted Anne. “Now, you can probably kill me good and proper, but I’m not afraid of that - I’ve made my peace with the gods, and we send twenty sheep and five cows up to the All-Shrine every year, so it’d better count for something. ‘Sides, I have folks on the other side, and I want to see them.”
“Ah, would you believe me if I said that I, well, haven’t killed a single person ever since I graduated?”
“No,” snapped Anne.
“Sorry,” mumbled the sorcerer.
Anne turned as red as her hair, hissed like a kettle, then threw her hands to the shoddy ceiling.
“You can’t kidnap someone and then apologize to them!” she cried. “That’s not how this works! That’s not how anything works!”
“Well, then what should I do?”
Anne strode over to the door and gave it a sharp tug. It came straight off the wall, gurgled, then melted into a pile of rainbow-colored sludge. She held it at arm’s length, glared back, and waited.
“Soulstuff,” said the sorcerer. “It’s what we use to make our worlds. I’ll get a proper door up right away.”
“Before you do that,” said Anne, fingers slick with glowing sludge, “I’m going to set some rules.”
“Yes,” said the sorcerer. “Of course.”
“First off, no names. I’m not going to ask yours, and if you already know mine, well, you’re not going to use it. It’s immodest. I’m Miss Gentilberry to you.”
“Yes, Miss Gentilberry.”
“Secondly, stop apologizing,” said Anne, feeling exasperatingly similar to her mother. “Worse than gadflies, it is.”
“Sorr - I mean, yes, Miss Gentilberry.”
“Thirdly, give me a room. I don’t need anything fancy, like a sink or anything like that, but what I do need is a door with a lock on it. Oh, and you’ll knock before coming in.”
The sorcerer held his pasty hand up and squinted slightly into the webs of his fingers. The soulstuff slid up off the ground, as if it were falling backwards, then reformed into the door. The hinges materialized with a click, connecting to something hitherto unseen.
“Of course, Miss Gentilberry. Can I… can I invite you to dinner?”
Anne looked at him. He cringed slightly.
“No,” she said. “Bread and butter will do, up in my room. Now you’ll show me there, if you please.”
“Yes, Miss Genti-”