But there is no sale to be made here. Even if she insisted, I can’t bring myself to take what little she has.
“I’ll need to be going.” I tap an ochre box, tastelessly adorned with faux-sliver trim, onto her table. “As a thank-you for choosing Hope Springs Eternal, may I present you with this set of enchanted carving knives? Guaranteed not to dull so long as the Gift flows in your family.”
“Simply marvelous!” she squeals. “I’ll pass those down to, well…” The light in her eyes fades. “Thank you all the same. It was nice talking with someone for a while.”
I stuff my wares into my case. Outside, in the summer heat, I adjust my suit jacket.
My career has sputtered to a start.
I drive out of town for the next presentation. In a gas vehicle, a clunky, reeking old thing. But since the Collapse it’s become too expensive to get magical transportation.
This house is smaller than the last. Unkempt yard, overgrown gravel driveway. Car older than mine. But I’m here to sell wands.
A man with a dark beard and a collared shirt as unkempt as the yard answers.
“Hope Springs Eternal,” I say. “Leonard Boxwell, at your service.”
He nods. I step inside. Two scrawny kids play on a threadbare rug with more holes than the road out of town. They smile at me, in the curious way children do.
But there is an absence. It tickles the hairs on the back of my neck. “I believe a Mrs. Cooper booked the presentation?”
“She gone,” he whispers. “Um, when your world…”
“My world?” The pieces fall into place. “None of you are Gifted.”
“I used my wife’s name to book,” he says, staring at his kids. Neither could be older than six. Did they even remember their mother?
Mr. Cooper rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry, I know it’s against your laws. The last guy didn’t mind. Can we still have the…giveaway?”
“Carving knives? Their enchantment is worth less than my car. And you couldn’t use them, without the Gift.”
“Oh.” He sounds way more disappointed than anyone should about cheap knives. “Last time it was a sack of onions.”
I squeeze the handle of my case to keep from dropping it. Onions? Had we brought ourselves so low? The Directorate had ensured our survival. But for this?
“Sorry,” the man says again. “I was just, well, hoping…”
Hope Springs Eternal. It’s embossed on the front of my case. It’s built into their entire marketing campaign. Buy a used wand, use your magic again! Remember what we used to be! Hope could move a mountain of magic. Or convince a man to break laws for onions. I couldn’t leave this as it was.
I trundle out the display racks on their living room floor. “Let’s get started.”
Both children stop playing. “Ooh!”
“But, wait!” Their father waves his hands. “We can’t…”
I lift a charcoal grey wand, gnarled and scarred. “One of our most powerful models is the Darcalex, crafted with the bone of a dragon, infused with the magic of creation. Once owned by the great Bodhi of Constantinople.”
Only a few spells. A world of difference to one family. But what difference to our world?
The wand wouldn’t be drained, powerful as it was. But the spells were powerful. More than my license allowed. Strong enough to show up like a Luminosus spell on a moonless night, if anyone from the Directorate of Magical Enforcement was scrying.
Even if someone hadn’t noticed, I had broken our laws. Laws meant to keep magic under control. Laws meant to prevent another Collapse.
I could lose my magic. Everything that defined me.
Hand-me-down car, hand-me-down suit, hand-me-down wands. This wasn’t what my father promised me when he sent me to school. Not what my six older brothers had achieved before me, the well-trodden paths they’d expected me to follow.
I miss them.
Our world had broken. Was I merely grasping at spell dust? Just a kid, in trouble on my first day at work. But if I was already in trouble, then it wasn’t a question of what I could do, but what I could do until I got caught.
I couldn’t make a difference to our world. But I could make a world of difference to a few.
Back at the office, I sign up for every presentation I can.
My supervisor pats my shoulder. “Getting right into it, eh?” She smiles, like we all used to.
The aging man who trained me, Atticus, or Titus, or something, smiles ruefully. “I guess it’s worth a go,” he says, well out of earshot of our supervisor.
My little message cubby flashes green. Inside lays an unsigned white card with a simple message in black script: Congrats on your first day!
No one had expected me to make a sale. Why would they? How could they not know how broken we had become? But people still had dreams, even if they didn’t have money, so they lined up to drool over used wands.
I would fulfill their dreams.
At every home, I take greater and greater risks.
Sure, some of the spells are simple. A dilapidated yard cleaned up, a leaky pipe fixed, a flat tire mended. Unnoticeable things, barely exceeding my license, more like bending rules.
Not like healing the puppy, too young to have lost an eye.
Or extracting all the rot from a collapsing farmhouse.
Or reversing time across the roofs of an entire row-housing complex.
That last drained half the power from a hickory Chronosil, one of our most powerful wands. I might as well have launched a Signalis spell from the roof and waited for the Directorate to take me away.
I’m avoiding people at the office. Get in, sign up, get out. Every time someone calls my name, I assume they’re reporting me. Every time I open my message cubby, I sweat a rainstorm while my heart sprints a marathon.
If I’m not at work, I hide in my apartment, blinds drawn. I see Directorate spies everywhere, like some Ungifted conspiracy junkie, while my rage blossoms at their blindness to our plight.
Just a door.
Word has gotten out. At every house I expect a trap, expect to find the Directorate waiting for me on the other side. But I can’t stop.
“Hope Springs Eternal,” I say to the man answering. “Leonard Boxwell at…your…”
Tears streak down his cheeks. Red rings his eyes. His hair and beard are a mess, poking out in patches of red and grey.
“Sorry,” I say. “Is this a bad time?”
“There isn’t much time left,” he says. “Come in.”
He leads me through the scattered chaos of months of activity no one has bothered to clean, but stacked away, as if to say they’d get to it later. To a bedroom, with cheerful pink walls. In a traditional four-post bed with a puffy bedspread lays a young girl, pale enough to be death’s shadow. Her eyes are closed. She has no hair.
Have I walked into a funeral?
A woman slumps on the bed, holding the hand of the girl. She sits up as I enter. “Cassandra,” she whispers.
The girl opens her eyes. Blue eyes, nearly drained of colour. She stares, not with resignation, not with fear, but with acceptance.
I freeze. “She’s—”
“My daughter is dying,” the man says. “Leukemia. The Vorselt syndrome.”
From the Collapse. How had she survived this long, using brutal, Ungifted treatments, pumping her body full of death instead of life? What had her family given up to hold on? How could the Directorate let this happen?
Her father wipes his eyes. “We can’t afford a magical cure, but maybe something to ease her pain?”
In all of this, a smile? Hope, how had we perverted it? What had we done to ourselves?
From my case I extract a single wand, a Novacel. Once owned by the legendary witch Roxanne of Limoges. Crafted from ancient amber moulded over the white tentacle of a Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish. For healing. For renewal.
“Thank you so much,” the mother says.
The father raises his hands. “No, but that’s…”
So, he was Gifted, and she was not. But their daughter, it was inside of her, waiting to come out. She could not have manifested, not with her body under so much stress. I would give her the chance.
I adjust my faded suit jacket and begin weaving the spell. “There will be no cost,” I say. But there would be. Such simple magic, the art of healing, but with this wand, with the power renewing a life would take, there’s no way I’ll avoid detection. I couldn’t be more obvious if I rode a comet over town.
The magic fills Cassandra’s skin with radiance, fills her eyes with vibrant blue, and fills her head with beautiful, amber hair. Life flows through her in a dazzling display of colour. When it fades, before me is no longer a skeleton but a child. Full of hope. Full of future.
Inside the wand, the white tentacle crumbles to dust.
Cassandra’s mother collapses onto the bed, sobbing, laughing, grasping at her daughter. Her father stares, tears dripping from his chin.
I replace the dead wand and stand with an ochre box, tastelessly adorned with faux-sliver trim. “As a thank-you for choosing Hope Springs Eternal, may I present you with this set of enchanted carving knives?” I nod toward their daughter. “Guaranteed not to dull so long as the Gift flows in your family.”