I was challenged to write a DVD Commentary – a set of notes expanding on what I’d written – for one of my works. After some thought, I decided to try The Zero Blessing (out soon!) and see how things went. Comments welcome, of course.
When our father wishes to punish us, he sends us to school.
It probably won’t surprise most of my readers to know I hated school. ‘The schoolboy trudging unwillingly to school’ was me. Caitlyn/Cat’s sisters definitely agree.
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.
Of course she does. It’s the one place she can actually shine.
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.
Cat is actually the most studious of the three sisters – and, in many ways, she’s the smartest. She spent a lot of her life just soaking up information she might be able to use … or she would be able to use, if she had magic.
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 them, 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.
A point which I hope is clear – within the first chapters or so – is that Cat is effectively disabled, by the standards of her society. As far as they are concerned, she isn’t just blind, she’s deaf and dumb as well. Many people raised in high-magic environments actually think there’s something creepy about her, something wrong. Her peers are often repelled, often without realising why they are repelled.
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.
Madame Rosebud is pretty much the picture of a teacher I disliked at school. I still don’t recall her with any fondness.
“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 the class to yawning. “They simply do not fail.”
Having to listen – and pretend to pay attention – as my fellow pupils tried and failed to come up with new ways to say the same thing isn’t something I remember with much fondness either.
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.
Cat doesn’t say it, but Oz isn’t quite as helpless as her. He could sense a spell coming at him or lurking on his chair, waiting for him to sit down. For that matter, he could master a few protective charms if he worked at it. Yes, Alana and Bella have an advantage, but it’s not insurmountable.
It may not be clear here, but – in most places – this world is actually gender-neutral. A woman can be just as powerful, in magic, as a man.
“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.
Cat’s relationship with her sisters is best described as unpleasant. Alana, the ambitious one, sees Cat as both a target (and test subject) and a major embarrassment. Bella is less unpleasant, but willing to go along with Alana more than she should.
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 …”
This is, in many ways, the illustration of precisely why Cat is in such a dangerous situation. She’s vulnerable in ways few of her peers share. This may be a little joke, by Alana’s standards, but the implications are horrific.
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.
Someone who read the first draft commented that they didn’t find the above scene realistic, that Madam Rosebud should have known that Cat had been enspelled. To which I replied there were at least four explanations: she honestly didn’t know that Cat had been enspelled (particularly as she knows this is Cat’s last day at school even if Cat herself doesn’t know it); she knew that Alana cast the spell, but took the coward’s way out by blaming Cat (because Alana would be very important one day); she thought that Cat was to blame by not resisting the (very simple) spell; or, finally, Alana had made promises of future favours. Pick the one you like <grin>.
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.
Magic is pretty much the same as music in this universe. Anyone can learn to tap out notes on a piano or sing a song, but you need real talent to compose new tunes or sing for your supper. Alana and Bella have an advantage because they started very young (akin to children of musicians picking up music from a very early age.) Cat is odd because she literally cannot cast a single spell.
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.
Sir Griffons is someone who may be important later on, so I tossed in the mention here.
It felt like hours before the door opened and I heard my father’s measured 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.
When I was designing the characters, I rather pegged Samuel L. Jackson as Cat’s father.
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.
This is, of course, Cat’s attempt to overcome her disability. She’s cunning and uses a LOT of trickery to try to keep ahead of her siblings (and everyone else). Unfortunately, there are limits to what she can do.
“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.”
When I was designing the universe, I decided that ‘zero’ would be the common term for someone who couldn’t cast many (or any) spells. It isn’t exactly the same as ‘muggle’ or ‘squib’ because of the prevalence of magic, but it does have a certain sting. I was rather annoyed, afterwards, to be told about ‘The Familiar of Zero.’ Thankfully, save for the name, TZB has little in common with the manga.
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, an 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.
This is actually the first clue to Cat’s true nature. But her father and mother saw it as proof that she actually did have magic, even if she didn’t know how to access it.
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.”
Cat spends a lot of her time battling despair.
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.
This is, really, another illustration of Cat’s problem. Magic is as common in this society as technology is in ours. Cat cannot do anything with magic, which makes it hard for her to hold down a meaningful job.
Outside the city, as will be explored later, there are other options. But Cat doesn’t know about them.
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.”
Magus Court is responsible for ordering magic within the city limits. Holding a post on the council is not something to be surrendered lightly. Cat’s father may not be the mayor, but he’s definitely one of the powers behind the throne.
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 had some pretty conflicting responses to Cat’s father. Some people thought he was borderline abusive, others thought they understood his point. I prefer to see him as a grey figure – he loves all three of his daughters and wants them to be happy, but – because of his position – he has to use them to promote his family’s interests. He genuinely thinks Cat does have magic, because – at least in part – because that’s what he wants to believe.
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.