Hi, everyone …
First, I would like to wish you all a happy new year.
And, to start off the new year, I’ve decided to try to write a YA story (sort of the same age group as Harry Potter and The Rithmathist) called The Zero Blessing. As you will see, when you read it, it really started as a planned SIM spin-off, but as I had the great idea four books into SIM it was too late to shoehorn it in. <rolls eyes>. So TZB is really a stand-alone novel.
As always, comments, spelling corrections, etc are warmly welcomed.
As this is primarily meant for younger readers, please could you also keep an eye out for things that might not be appropriate for them.
I suppose I should start at the beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start.
My sisters and I are triplets, fraternal triplets. We don’t really look that much alike, although we all have dad’s dark eyes and mum’s silky smooth hair. Alana is so pretty you’d think she’d been glamoured; Belladonna would be pretty if she took more exercise and bothered to put some work into her appearance; I, always in the middle, look more like a tomboy than anything else. You probably wouldn’t think we were twins if you passed us on the street, that we were born on the same day. But we were.
Our parents – Joaquin and Sofia Aguirre – are two of the most powerful magicians in Shallot, if not the kingdom. Dad’s a skilled enchanter with a whole string of apprentices working under him; mum’s the best potions brewer in the world. Having three children – three triplets – is a big thing for them. The magic grows stronger, we are told, when children are born and raised together. My sisters and I should have safeguarded the family’s inheritance for the next generation. Instead …
We were seven years old when it happened.
We’d had a birthday party, of course. Lots of presents, lots of sweet foods and a big cake dedicated to the three of us. Our friends came round and we had a great time, but our excitement was dulled by the knowledge of what would come afterwards. Dad had been talking about teaching us magic for some time – we’d already learnt some of the background knowledge taught to every magical child in the kingdom – and today we were going to start. I was excited. We all were. We’d seen Dad work wonders, ever since we were old enough to understand. We couldn’t wait to work wonders ourselves.
And so, when the party was over and the guests had gone, we walked into Dad’s study and sat down at the table. The tools were already waiting for us.
Magic is common, very common, in our world. It’s a rare person indeed who cannot master a basic firestarter, a water-cleaner or the other housekeeping spells listed in 1001 Spells For Practical Work. Fishwives use them to clean the air; broadsheet writers use them to send messages right across the kingdom. But magic, like music, requires talent. Anyone can learn to tap out a tune on the piano, but playing properly is hard. So it is with magic. The sooner you start learning, the better you’ll be.
I was so excited that I could barely contain myself as I picked up the tool. It didn’t look like very much – it was really nothing more than a silver pen – but it was the key to a whole new world. If I could learn how to use it, I could cast spells. And then I could use magic. Our parents had forbidden us from using magic in the past, when we were too young to know the dangers, but they would have to change their minds once we knew what we were doing. I couldn’t wait.
Alana went first, as always. She waved the tool in the air, as Dad ordered, and produced a stream of silver light. She giggled, then twisted the tool, changing the colour from silver to red and then gold. Her dark face crinkled into a genuine smile. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so utterly delighted than the moment she used magic for the first time. And I couldn’t wait to try it myself.
“It tickles,” Alana said.
“That’s your gift responding to the magic in the tool,” Dad said.
Belladonna went next, waving the tool casually in the air. Her eyes crinkled as nothing happened, just for a moment. Dad spoke to her gently, then told her to try again. This time, the light appeared, flickering in and out of existence as the magic weakened. Bella grimaced, then waved the tool a third time. The light grew stronger, floating in the air. Alana picked up her tool and wrote a word in the air, giggling. Dad shot her a quelling look before she could write something that would upset our mother.
“Your turn, Caitlyn,” Dad said.
I picked up the tool, feeling nothing but cool metal. An cold shiver ran down my spine. Alana had said the tool tickled, hadn’t she? Maybe she’d meant after she cast the spell. I held the tool in the air, silently promising myself that I was going to devote the rest of my life to magic studies, then waved it around.
Dad’s eyes narrowed. “Let the magic flow,” he ordered. In hindsight, it was clear that he’d realised that something was wrong. “Your instincts should guide you.”
“It’s easy,” Alana put in. “You can feel the magic.”
I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel anything. The tool still felt cold.
I took a deep breath, then tried again. Perhaps I’d been too excited to work the spell. We’d been taught basic breathing exercises, so I ran through them before lifting the tool and waving it in the air again. There should have been a line of light, hanging in the air. But there was nothing. I couldn’t even feel the magic.
“Hah,” Alana said. “She can’t do it.”
“Be silent,” Dad said.
Alana’s mouth closed with a snap. Our father is very even-tempered, most of the time, but when he gets mad … watch out. Normally, I would have enjoyed Alana’s discomfort; now, panic was bubbling at the back of my mind. What if I couldn’t work magic? Bella – lazy pudgy Bella – was drawing line after line in the air, giggling to herself as she sketched out faces. She couldn’t be doing better than me …
But she was.
I tried, again and again. Dad talked me through it, bit by bit. He even held my hand as I waved the tool, despite the risk of using his magic to power the spell. Mum came in and marched my sisters off, leaving us alone … nothing worked. I just couldn’t cast even a basic spell.
“I don’t know,” Dad said, finally. I could hear the disappointment in his voice, clawing at my heart. I loved my father and I had failed him. “We’ll keep trying …”
We did. We tried every day for a year, then once every week … nothing happened. I had no sensitivity to magic at all. My sisters learned to cast hundreds of spells; I sat in the back, reading books and trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Why was I different?
But I never found an answer until it was almost too late.
When our father wishes to punish us, he sends us to school.
Or so my sisters say, after spending four years of their lives in the classroom. They complain all the time, whining and moaning about having to walk to the school and learn about everything, but magic. Most magical children are homeschooled, but we had to go to school and learn. Alana hates it because she’s not learning about magic; Bella hates it because she’s not allowed to get away with not doing her work.
And me? I rather like it.
Not that I would have admitted it to them, of course. Alana blames me for us having to go, even though Dad was the one who sent us there. She thinks that my lack of magic is why we go to mundane school. Dad can’t teach us everything, can he? Mum taught us how to read and write, but they don’t have the time to teach us maths, history and all the other things normal children learn as they grow up. And while I could never work a single spell, I enjoyed studying magic and magical history. I wanted to be a historian before I grew up.
The school itself was a relatively small building, playing host to the children rich enough to afford an education, but lacking the magic or family connections they need to get an apprenticeship with a magician. Half of our classmates would leave at the end of the year, instead of going on to the upper school. My sisters would leave too, now we’d celebrated our twelfth birthday. This was their last day. They would be going to Jude’s Sorcerous Academy, where they’d learn how to turn their already-impressive magic into real sorcery. Dad had already booked their places. I envied then, even as I looked forward to being without them. Having two powerful sisters is a nightmare when you can’t even sense magic. I kept blundering into traps because I couldn’t see them.
The teacher, Madam Rosebud, was a middle-aged woman who eyed my sisters and I with dire suspicion, mingled with envy. I think she probably wanted to be a sorceress in her youth, but she lacked the talent to get some real education. She envied us for our easy magic – I don’t think she realised I didn’t have magic – and didn’t hesitate to point out our failings in front of the class. Dad had told us, in no uncertain terms, that we weren’t to use magic at school, but my sisters were good at intimidating their classmates. Hardly anyone dared to laugh.
“The difference between an Object of Power and a Device of Power is that Objects of Power last forever,” Oz droned. He was thirteen years old, kept back a year for failing the last set of exams. He was handsome enough, I suppose, but his voice was so boring that it put set the class to yawning. “They simply do not fail.”
I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes as Madam Rosebud’s baleful eyes moved from face to face. Oz was right, but really … I’d learnt about Objects of Power from Dad and Dad’s lessons were far more interesting. Dad’s apprentices are very skilled at making Devices of Power. And yet, nothing they make lasts longer than a year. I’d heard of swords, charmed to cut through anything in their path, that needed to be charmed again within months. Dad’s clients found it a constant frustration. Some of them even think Dad does it deliberately, even though everyone else has the same problem.
My sisters snorted rudely as Oz took a bow and returned to his seat. He flushed angrily, but he didn’t say anything. Strong as he was – he was the biggest boy in class – he was still helpless against magic. My sisters could have hexed him before he could even take a step towards them, if they wanted. There were some desultory claps from the front row – the sneaks and swots who were working desperately for a scholarship – but nothing else. Half the class was trying hard not to fall asleep.
“Caitlyn,” Madam Rosebud said. “If you will come to the front, please?”
I picked up my essay and headed to the front row, ignoring the quiet snickering from behind me. For once, I was actually looking forward to reading my work to the rest of the class. I’d been told to write about the history of the Thousand-Year Empire and the Sorcerous Wars, a subject I found fascinating. Hundreds of secrets were lost in the wars, including the technique used to make Objects of Power. My father had so many books on the period, including some that couldn’t be found anywhere else, that I’d been spoilt for choice. Boiling it down to a couple of pages had been a headache.
My sisters were smiling as I turned to face the class. In hindsight, that should have been a warning. My sisters spent as little time with me as they could. I rustled the paper for attention, then opened my mouth. Words came tumbling out …
They weren’t the right words. “Madam Rosebud is fat, fat, fat,” I said. My hands, moving against my will, started to clap. “Madam Rosebud is fat …”
The class stared at me in stark disbelief, their faces torn between an insane urge to giggle and an overpowering urge to flee. No one, absolutely no one, mocked Madam Rosebud. Fat she might be, ugly and smelly she might be, but no one dared mock her. I tried to clamp my lips shut as word after word spewed forth … the spell collapsed, far too late. Alana was covering her mouth to keep from laughing out loud, her eyes sparkling with malice. She must have hexed me on the way up, I realised …
A hand caught my arm and swung me around. “I have never experienced such disrespect,” Madam Rosebud thundered. Her face was so close to mine that I could smell the onions she’d had for lunch. I cowered back, despite myself. “You …”
She marched me into the naughty corner, muttered a cantrip and then left me there, staring at the wall. My feet were firmly fixed to the ground, held in place by magic. I struggled, but I couldn’t lift my shoe. Madam Rosebud’s voice boomed in my ear as she silenced the class, ordering my sisters to take a note to my father. I hated Alana in that moment, Alana and Bella too. Not content with going to Jude’s, not content with being able to escape their hated zero of a sister, they’d ruined my prospects of entering the upper school. Madam Rosebud wouldn’t let me stay in her class, not after everything I’d called her.
And dad wouldn’t let me tell her the truth, I thought, numbly.
I’d never been able to cast a single spell, not one. Even the basic cantrips are beyond me. It isn’t uncommon for children to be unable to cast spells until they reach a certain age, but most authorities agree that magical talent shows itself by eleven. If it doesn’t show itself by then, it isn’t there. And I was twelve … a zero. No magic, no sensitivity to magic …my father had forbidden me to tell anyone, but rumours were already getting out. Alana and Bella, showing off their spells whenever they wanted, didn’t help. People were asking why I wasn’t such a show-off.
I stood there, helplessly, as the class filed out for the day. Madam Rosebud was making me wait, then. I crossed my arms and waited, hoping that Dad would be in a good mood. But I knew he was probably going to be unhappy. Sir Griffons was visiting and that always annoyed my father. I don’t know why he didn’t simply tell the knight to go to another enchanter. It wasn’t as if Sir Griffons was more important than my father. Knight or not, he was no sorcerer.
It felt like hours before the door opened and I heard my father’s measure’s tread crossing the room. I could feel his gaze on my back as he spoke briefly to Madam Rosebud, cutting off a bleat from the harpy before she could work herself into a frenzy. I tensed, despite myself. I was going to pay for that, next term. Very few people would pick a fight with my father – and no one would do it twice – but Madam Rosebud could mark me down for anything …
“Caitlyn,” Dad said. He heard him walking up behind me. “Free yourself. We have to go.”
I twisted my head to scowl at him. The cantrip was simple. My sisters wouldn’t have had any trouble escaping when Madam Rosebud’s back was turned. But for me … it was utterly unbreakable. My feet were firmly fixed to the ground.
My father scowled back at me. “Now.”
He was a tall dark man, dressed in black and gold robes that denoted his status as the High Magus of Magus Court. His dark eyes normally sparkled with light, particularly when his daughters were around, but now they were grim. I knew I was in trouble, even though it was Alana’s fault. Dad … had told her off, more than once, for casting spells on me, but he also expected me to learn to counter the spells. And yet, without magic, it was pointless. I could say the words and make the gestures, yet I always ended up looking stupid. Sure, I know the words to turn you into a frog, but without magic the spell is useless.
I knelt down and undid my shoes, then stepped out of them. The shoes themselves remained firmly stuck to the floor. Dad eyed me for a long moment before sighing and cancelling the cantrip. I picked up my shoes, pulled them back on and followed him towards the door, not daring to look at Madam Rosebud. My sisters wouldn’t be back, next term, but they’d ruined my life anyway. Any hopes I might have had of a life without them were gone.
“You have to work harder,” Dad said, as soon as we were outside. The summer air was warm, but I felt cold. “Your magic needs to be developed.”
I didn’t look at him. “Dad … I don’t have magic,” I said. “I’m a zero.”
“No daughter of mine is a zero,” Dad said, sternly. “You have magic. You just have to learn how to access it.”
I felt a wave of despair, mingled with bitter guilt. My father had expended more money than I cared to think about, just trying to undo the lock on my magic. I’d used tools designed to bring out even a tiny spark of magic, brewed endless potions in the hopes of instinctively using magic to trigger them, undergone rituals designed to put me in touch with my magic … the only thing we hadn’t tried was left-hand magic. Dad had been so furious, the moment it had been suggested, that no one had dared mention it again. And nothing had worked. I was as powerless now as I’d been on the day I first picked up a focusing tool and tried to use it.
“I can’t,” I moaned. If I hadn’t found magic by now, I didn’t have it. “I don’t have any power.”
Dad gave me a sardonic look. “And what about Great Aunt Stregheria? You broke her spell.”
I shuddered. Great Aunt Stregheria was a witch with a capital B, a ugly old crone somehow related to my mother. She dressed like an evil witch from a fairy tale and talked like everyone else, including my parents existed to do her bidding. And she hated kids. My sisters and I had done something to offend her – I forget what, now – and she turned all three of us into frogs. We’d been ten at the time. It was the first time any of us had been transfigured against our wills.
Dad was utterly furious. He literally picked Great Aunt Stregheria up and threw her out of the grounds, then reset the wards to deny her admittance ever again. But, for all of his power, he couldn’t unravel the spell she’d placed on us. Neither he nor mum could undo it. We’d feared – even Alana, who’d got on best with the witch – that we would be stuck as frogs until the end of time, or at least until my father swallowed his pride and asked her to remove the spell.
But the spell on me had worn off in an hour, leaving me human again. My sisters had been stuck that way for a week when they returned to normal.
My father said, afterwards, that I must have used magic instinctively. He insisted that I had somehow broken her spell and freed myself. He even cast spells on me himself to encourage me to develop my talent. None of his spells lasted as long as he had intended either. But it was never something I could do consciously. If I had a talent – and he seemed to think I had something – it wasn’t one I could develop. My sisters sneered that magic was allergic to me.
“Dad, I don’t have magic,” I said, finally. It had taken me long enough to come to terms with it. “I’m just a zero.”
Dad sighed as he walked on. I trotted beside him, looking around. Normally, I would have enjoyed the chance to spend some time alone with him, but now … now I just felt tired and bitter. I’d never backed down in front of my sisters, I’d worked hard to find ways to extract revenge for their humiliations, yet there were limits. They would get better and better at magic, while I … the best I could hope for, I suspected, was theoretical magician. And even they tended to have magic. They needed it to prove their theories.
There were other options. I wasn’t a bad forger, even though I lacked magic; I was smart, capable … I could have found work easily, if I hadn’t been born to House Aguirre. The family name is a blessing, but it is also a curse. I was expected to be a powerful magician and I couldn’t even light a spark! There was no way I could work for anyone without magic, even the king. They’d all expect great things from me.
I sighed as we walked down the street, other pedestrians giving us plenty of room. It was just growing busy as more and more people finished their work and came out onto the streets to shop or merely to chat with their friends. A shopgirl was using magic to sweep dust out onto the streets, a blacksmith was chanting spells as he hammered metal into its shape … a street magician was showing off, but hardly anyone was paying attention. Shallot has a larger population of magicians than anywhere else in Tintagel, as well as Jude’s and a couple of magical universities. You had to do more than swallow fire and breathe water to impress this city.
But that clown has more magic than I do, I thought, feeling another flicker of bitter resentment. Illusionist or not, he was still a magician. And he can do something else with his life.
We crossed the bridge from Water Shallot to North Shallot, the guards on the gates saluting my father as we walked past. North Shallot is the richest part of the city, home to merchants and traders as well as sorcerers, alchemists and enchanters. I’d often wondered why Madam Rosebud and her superiors hadn’t opened their school in North Shallot, although the costs of buying land in the north are much higher. No doubt someone in Magus Court had objected, loudly. Magicians rule North Shallot. Everyone else lives on their sufferance.
“Things are changing, Cat,” my father said. I shivered. He only called me Cat when he was worried. “House Rubén has been making advances in Magus Court. My position may be under threat.”
I looked up at his dark face. He was worried. House Rubén was our family’s great rival, our only real equal in Shallot. I’d grown up listening to horror stories about how they treated their friends and so-called allies. It would be hard for them to unseat my father, I thought, but they could undermine him. Stepping down from his post was one thing; being unseated was quite another. The other Houses would back away from us.
“He can’t do that,” I said. “Surely …”
“He’s trying,” Dad told me. “House Rubén has wanted to win power for generations. Now … they might have a chance.”
“Because of me,” I said. “Because I don’t have any powers.”
Magic is stronger, I have been told time and time again, if children are twins or triplets … there’s even a legend of a witch who gave birth to five magical children. My parents, with three daughters, should have been powerful indeed, their bloodline secure for generations to come. But I had no powers …
… And the trinity my sisters and I should have formed had never come into existence.
House Rubén had only two children, as far as I knew. Twins rather than triplets. But both of them were powerful. There was no weak link.
“You have power,” my father said, sharply. He sounded as though he was trying to convince himself. “The spells I have cast on you … they should have stayed in place until I took them off. But you broke them.”
I looked down at the pavestones. “But I don’t know how!”
“Figure it out,” my father said, sternly. He squeezed my shoulder, gently. “Time is not on our side.”
I shook my head, helplessly. Maybe I did have a gift. But it was more likely that I was just a freak, a child born without any magic at all.