“Where there is cause for wonder, there is cause for fear. Only through faith and rectitude can the Talent be mastered instead of master.”
– Jaquinus the Elder, Proceran monk and scholar
Olivier hadn’t meant to end up the family disappointment, but then he supposed no one did.
His parents were not unkind about it, as they were not unkind people, but by age eleven Olivier’s eyes and ears could no longer deny what his heart had been whispering for years. The irony of it was, of course, that in most places being the sole member of his family born without the Talent would have been seen as blessing instead of a failing. Not out here, though. Beaumarais was one of those hundreds of border villages that the rulers of the Principality of Bayeux, the House of Chavarel, only ever remembered existed around tax season and then promptly forgot again. The people hardly minded, as the town had been raised in lands that had been claimed by both the Principate and the Kingdom of Callow for as long as either had existed, nestled in a swamp long gone dry. The people of Beaumarais were loyal House Chavarel and the high throne in Salia, of course, though that loyalty’s ebb and flow tended to be somewhat related to the latest tax rates and whether Callowan raiders had been sighted that spring.
Out here the people were a practical lot, even the priests from the House of Light who’d managed to cross someone influential enough to be assigned here to languish in obscurity, so having a few wizards around was counted as a boon instead of courting disaster. You never knew when you might need a few fireballs tossed at bandits or a brew concocted that’d see to whatever was sickening the sheep. Olivier’s parents were both practitioners, his grandfather having been one as well and his mother having served as the man’s apprentice along his father. The continued exercise of magic had seen their family grow into one of the prominent ones of Beaumarais, allowed a seat in the town council and earning enough coin that they’d been able to afford a small alchemy laboratory and their pick of what few books travelling peddlers brought for the family library. Olivier, as the eldest, had naturally been expected to continue the family trade.
Until they’d learned he did not have the Talent.
Were these older days, the boy could have redeemed this lack by taking up a spear and becoming one of the town’s militia officers. Olivier’s ability to read and write likely ensured he’d rise in rank after a few years, should he not prove an utter craven. But these days it was the Dread Empire that held the Vermilion Valleys – what easterners called the Red Flower Vales – and the people of Beaumarais had found the Praesi to be more peaceful neighbours than their predecessors. The Legions of Terror did not sally out from the old mountain fortresses to raid, the way the riders of the Counts of Ankou had under Fairfax rule, which meant people had begun grumbling about paying for a militia that spent most its time drinking in taverns and chasing skirts instead of guarding anything. The mayoress had dismissed near half their number, and those that remained were all real veterans or from better families than Olivier’s own. There was no future for him in the militia as an officer, and hardly even as living decoration holding a spear.
That had only been the beginning of his troubles.
It had been one thing for the eleven-year-old boy to know he did not have the Talent, but a harder one altogether to realize he did not have any talents. His parents had sent him out a few weeks with Old Alphonse, the perpetually short-handed shepherd outside town, and he’d somehow lost both the sheepdog and half the flock. A fortnight under Mistress Caroline, the town blacksmith, had taught him that while he deeply enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked, left alone with a hammer and anvil he was more likely to break a finger than straighten a kitchen knife. The Codenault brewers, one of the few families in Beaumarais with a last name and allegedly noble kin as well, had only agreed to teach him the trade if he was betrothed to their three year old daughter, took their name and his family began providing some herbs at a rate that was Callowan robbery. They’d been turned down by his parents more for the last condition than the rest, Olivier had come to suspect. For two summers in a row he was thrown at anyone that might deign to teach him, only to be spat out like a sour apple seed within a few days every single time.
Olivier the Jinx, some people had taken to calling him behind his back. Those who kept more closely to the House of Light muttered about it being the just comeuppance for the public impiety – to be understood as meaning magic – of his parents, which had been harder still to swallow.
Most days it seemed like the only thing Olivier was any good at was reading. He’d taken to both letters and numbers swiftly, and in those days where his parents had still believed he might have the Talent they’d always praised his ability to understand and recall whatever it was he read perfectly. You’ll make a fine wizard someday, with a mind like that, Mother had been fond of saying. The boy had been methodically going through every book in the family library ever since he could recall. He’d read through it all, whether they bestiaries, histories, alchemical primers or even his favourite, the precious first tome of the ten making up the Louvroy Encyclopediae. There was not a thing under the sun between beginning with a letter between A and C he did not have some knowledge of. And the truth was that, even after it was known he was without magic, his parents had encouraged his erudition. It was only proper, given his family’s trade, and once a week he was even allowed to light a candle to keep reading after dark.
A few days after he turned eleven, though, for the first time in his life Olivier found himself denied a book.
“There’d no need for that, lad,” Father said, clapping his shoulder. “Best you spend your time helping your mother around the house, the sooner she finishes the sooner she can start brewing.”
“I’ll read only after chores are done, then,” Olivier promised. “I wanted to borrow the Herbal Compendium now so that I wouldn’t have to disturb you later.”
His father sighed, withdrawing the hand.
“Roland’s apprenticeship begins today,” he said. “I won’t be lending you books anymore, Olivier, save those that are for entertainment. A wizard must have a broad mind and that means reading as much as one can, especially when still young. I won’t indulge you to his detriment.”
Olivier’s little brother was nine years old. He was quick and clever and charming, so all who knew him said, and good with his hands. Three days ago, he’d also set accidentally set fire to a bush after being stung by a bee. He had the Talent, and it ran powerfully in him: it’d taken years for Mother to be able to form a ball of flame while Roland had done it by accident.
In that moment, Olivier saw the years spreading out before him: his brother always in the light, him ever in the shadow.
In that moment Olivier grasped a heartbreaking truth: his own parents saw him doing the only thing he was good at as an inconvenience.
Olivier the Jinx had struck again.
He ran out of the house, and though Father called out the man did not follow.
The townsfolk called the small valley the Knightsgrave.
Legend had it that, on those very grounds, hundreds of years ago a band of militiamen had stood their ground against a charge of Callowan knights with only spears and pitchforks. They would have lost to the mighty riders, though, had the small river at the heart of the valley not suddenly swelled up and swept over the knights. Unhorsed, the knights been slaughtered to a man while they stumbled around in the mud in their heavy armour. The continuing swell of the river had forced back the militiamen, though, and they’d had to abandon the corpses in the valley as they fled the water. The story went that deep in the riverbed the armoured knights were buried in graves of mud, awaiting only the day they were dug up. Whatever the truth of it, it had become tradition for the daring among the town’s children to sneak out during summer nights and plant seeds of red anemones by the river banks to honour the ancient victory – and prove neither wolves nor ancient ghosts were enough to scare you.
Decades and decades of that practice had seen the Knightsgrave turning into a stirringly beautiful sight by night: a small valley split by a quiet mountain spring, bordered on the slopes by tall grass touched by droplets shimmering under the moonlight, the green turning red as anemones and marigolds grew thick closer to the waters. It was considered bad luck to let cattle graze where dead had been buried, so the people of Beaumarais had left the valley largely untouched. Olivier had gone there, after he’d run out, as he simply did not know where else to go. He had a few friends in town, but none so close that their family would host him should his parents ask for his return. Gods, if they even asked for his return. Perhaps he was going to stay here forever, he thought as he lay down on a bed of red flowers, eating wild berries and drinking from mountain springs. It was cold out, but it need not be: from his failed apprenticeship under Old Alphonse he’d learned how to make a fire with little but sticks and stones.
The stars twinkled above him, and Olivier wondered what it was he was meant to do. He was drowning, in Beaumarais. In his own family. He was drowning and he saw no way out.
The sound of the tall grass being passed through woke him from his glum reverie, Olivier rising to his feet and closing his fingers around a sharp stone. If wolves were out hunting around here there would have been howling, which he’d not heard, but wolves were not the only dangerous thing to lurk in the Vermillion Valleys after sundown. Except that it was not a beast lurking out there but something entirely worse: his little brother. Roland emerged from the greens looking a little harried but otherwise fine, gaze sweeping the valley and finding Olivier within moments. He cursed, but it would have been petulant to run when his own blood had come out to find him. The older brother tossed his rock into the river, helplessly, and sat back down amongst the flowers. Nine years old, and Roland had made it to the Knightsgrave. Olivier had been ten when he’d done it. Was there even a single thing his brother was not better at? Gods, it must be some sort of sin to be so furiously envious of your own blood. Roland stepped up carefully, and eventually sat down at his side.
“I’m sorry,” the other boy said.
Olivier breathed out.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “I’m not even sure it’s theirs.”
Yet it is not mine, either, he wanted to scream up at the moon, so why am I suffering for it?
“If I lend you the book in secret, they can’t stop us,” Roland offered.
“It’s not about the book,” Olivier tiredly replied. “It’s about what it means that they refused.”
“I’m not going to throw you out just because you don’t have the Talent, Ollie,” Roland softly said. “When the house is mine, it’ll be yours too. Family keeps.”
I don’t want to just be your family, Olivier thought. I want to be someone. But that was a lie, wasn’t it? He looked up at the round eye of the moon in the sky above, the sea of stars spreading as far as he could see, and Olivier felt small. More than anything, he wanted to have magic. Not for what it would bring him but for what it would bring to the eye of Mother and Father when they looked at him. So here he was now, tears in his eyes sitting by the side of the brother he was so ashamed to resent, and he wondered if that was to be the sum whole of him. A bitter husk of a person, forever envious of what others held that he did not. And Gods forgive him, but was there not so much to envy? The Talent most of all, but also all the other things where he always seemed to fail where others succeeded.
It would swallow him whole, Olivier realized. It would twist him into something ugly, if he let it.
Moonlight bearing down on the both of them, he cast a look at his younger brother and found that Roland was shivering from the cold. His short-sleeved woolen shirt was not meant for the cool nights of the valleys. He felt a surge of affection for his little brother, then, who’d braved darkness, cold and treacherous mountain paths to seek him out when their own parents could not be bothered. He could choose, Olivier knew, to resent Father and Mother for this. For the callous indifference of assuming he would return, cowed and knowing not to act out like this again. Or he could choose to love Roland, instead, for having come. It was such a small thing, such a small choice. And yet it felt like the whole world, right now. What is it you want to rule you, Olivier of Beaumarais? he asked himself.
He took his brother’s hand.
“Let’s find our way back,” Olivier decided. “Together.”
Under the silent gaze of the sea of stars they went home, hands clutched tight like they were the only people left in the world.
It had lit a fire in him, the crossroads he had glimpsed that night.
There was no other way for Olivier to describe the vigor that’d grown in him from that evening onwards, the way he woke up rested and eager to seize the day where before mornings had been a slog. His parents caned him four times for having run away, but he stepped forward when Father mulled disciplining Roland the same way – they’d gotten caught coming back in, though consequences had waited for morning. He took those two canes for his brother, and part of him felt only disgust at the approving look in his father’s eye as he dealt the blows. I do not do this for you, he thought, but kept his mouth shut. That same afternoon, Roland smuggled him the Herbal Compendium and they sat together in the sun as his bruised back ached: turning pages when they were both finished reading, and not a moment sooner. It would not be enough, Olivier, knew, to simply read. If his parents had no future to offer him, he would have to make his own.
“I won’t forget,” Roland whispered when Father came looking and they had to part.
His little brother’s eyes had gone flinty, even as he spoke.
“I won’t forget that you took the blows,” Roland whispered, then his eyes turned to the house. “Or who dealt them out.”
They were children, the two of them, but in these parts children grew swiftly. Those were not idle words.
Yet for all that, the path ahead suddenly seemed brighter. Roland took to his studies with exceptional ability, though Father said his true calling lay in elemental magics and not subtler branches like alchemy or healing. He did, however, display a burgeoning talent for enchantment that had their parents utterly delighted: neither of them had good skill in it, but it was known to be the single most lucrative way to practice sorcery. Their joys in teaching their younger son had them keeping only the lightest of eyes on the older, which was the way Olivier preferred it. It allowed him the right to spend his hours as he wished, so long as chores were seen to in the morning. He began by knocking at Master Laurent’s door, the man who was the mayoress’ brother and the town scribe. Master Laurent had no interest in training a boy of another family in his skills when he had two daughters of his own to pass down the trade to, naturally, but Olivier already knew how to write.
What he offered, instead, was to serve as the man’s copier.
Books were rare this far out – the closest city, Apenun, was two weeks away on horse – and what the peddlers brought was fought over by the two literate families in Beaumarais. Transcribing a book would be difficult work, requiring a good writing hand and attention to detail as well as many hours to sink into the work. It’d also be somewhat expensive to even try, given the sparsity of parchment, but if anyone in the town had any to spare it was Master Laurent. The older man was intrigued by the offer, as Olivier had thought he might be. His eldest daughter would be the one taught the written courtesies and forms necessary to see to the town’s sparse formal correspondence with the taxman and the few dignitaries who might claim to have some right or responsibility over the town, but the scribe had another child. Finding her a good trade that would not conflict with her older sister’s must have been a tempting prospect.
“Clever,” Master Laurent said, dark eyes sharp. “Yet risky and costly to attempt. And you are not needed for it, strictly speaking.”
The man had books of his own, after all.
“I am, if you want to able to copy any of the books in my family’s library,” Olivier replied.
“I am not a fool, boy,” the scribe sharply said. “They do not let those out of the house, it is well-known.”
Olivier, in lieu of a retort, recited the first two pages of the first tome of the Louvroy Encyclopediae by rote without once hesitating, stumbling or missing a single detail. The three hours he’d spent with Roland practicing his pronunciation had paid off, he saw on the older man’s face.
“I’ll want to see a page’s worth of your hand first,” Master Laurent finally said, “and my younger daughter Elise will share in the work.”
So this was what it felt like, Olivier thought, to win.
When peddlers came that spring, after the snows melted, for the first time since Beaumarais’ founding they were books waiting to be sold to them.
Two copies of the same alchemical primer – it was both short and rare – as well as single manuscript of the lengthier Annals of Bayeux by the famous monk-historian Brother Lucien. The primers went for ten silvers each and the Annals for sixteen. As per their arrangement, as both a source of books and a copier the now twelve-year-old Olivier made a copper on every silver, leaving him with twenty-six copper coins filling his pocket. Master Laurent, even after the costs of ink and parchment were considered, had made a profit almost equivalent to half a year’s worth of scribing. Olivier began to be invited at the town scribe’s house for meals, Mayoress Suzanne referred to him as a promising young man the sole time she visited her brother for supper. Careful inquiries were made as to whether he got along well with Elise and as to what his marriage prospects were.
Elise was a sharp girl, and though not as lovely as her older sister she was quite lovely enough for anyone, but Olivier did not intend to spend the rest of his life copying manuscripts. Though he made it known that his winter hours were theirs for the taking at the same arranged rate as before, a few days after he received his coppers he parted with two for the right to hitch on peddler’s wagon all the way to Ploncheau, the nearest town to the east. One meal a day included, if he kept watch and fetched firewood for the peddler, which he agreed to without hesitation. He’d sought the permission of his parents before leaving, and they’d granted it almost eagerly. Suggestions were several times made that he seek a position in Ploncheau’s militia while he was there. Roland clutched him tight, and unlike their parents actually asked why he needed to go.
“Last autumn,” Olivier whispered back, “remember when the mayor of Ploncheau visited?”
“To warn about the werewolf and trade some goods,” Roland agreed.
“And to get two dozen documents written by our town scribe,” Olivier said. “Testaments, a request for the seneschal to repair a road, all things we have Master Laurent handle for us.”
“They don’t have a scribe,” Roland caught on, but his face fell. “Are you leaving?”
“I’ll be back before summer’s end,” Olivier reassured him. “I’m just selling them something.”
“Selling them what?” Roland asked, frowning in confusion. “You don’t own anything.”
“Literacy,” the older brother smiled.
The journey was to Ploncheau short and pleasant, two days and nights spent in the company of the most well-travelled man Olivier had ever met. The peddler was free with stories, and pleasant in demeanour. They parted on good terms, and with Olivier having put to memory the way to Ploncheau. Between that, the meals and the stories the coppers felt well spent. Knowing better than to bite the hand that fed him, when Olivier went to the mayor and offered to teach one of the townsfolk how to read and write he offered nothing that Master Laurent might have earned coppers for. Most of the rules of formal correspondence and legal documents were unknown to him, besides. Mayor Guy of Ploncheau was quick to recognize the advantages in being able to read received letters and for the town to keep its own records, though, so after that all that was left was the haggling. Five months later, having been offered free room and board by the Mayor as he taught his oldest son to read and write, Olivier hitched a ride back to Beaumarais with ten silvers in his pocket and a sickly young goat in his arms.
The goat he traded to another peddler for a faded hand-drawn map of the villages and roads of the region as well as a pot of ink and a nice roll of scraped vellum. The vellum went some way in thawing the rather cool reception he received from Master Laurent at his return, and a precise description of what exactly he’d taught the mayor’s son further warmed relations. Olivier returned to his little brother with a map and more than a few stories, the two of them laughing at tales of their months apart swapped back and forth in a quiet corner.
Mother and Father were disappointed to hear he’d been unable to find a position in the Ploncheau militia.
Olivier copied manuscripts during the day, and when he dreamt at night the fire in his belly only burned brighter.
By the age of fifteen, Olivier was surprised to find himself moderately wealthy.
He’d ventured out four more times to trade literacy for silver and goods, seeing his savings grow and his reputation with them. On the second of those trips the town scribe whose monopoly he threatened by teaching another family’s daughter how to do rival records sent a few ruffians to beat him halfway to death and steal the payment. The fools chased him into a mountain pixie nest without knowing they would get riled up by the noise, though, and more importantly that rubbing bilberry juice against one’s skin would keep them away. Bilberries, according to Sister Ostace’s ponderous Common Bestiary of the Parish, was poisonous to the little creatures and so they fled the smell. The toughs fled back to town with swollen faces, and after hesitating Olivier returned to lay accusations. The roughs were threatened with a beating by the mayor and swiftly began pointing fingers, which gave Olivier right to make demands of reparation.
Sensing an opening, he passed the right over to the leading brother of the House of Light, to the visible approbation of many townsfolk: the scribe was forced to apologize and match the silver reward he’d tried to have stolen. More importantly, a charmed Brother Albert from the House wrote him a letter of commendation worth more than everything else he’d gotten that trip. The piece of parchment singing his praises marked him as a friend of the House of Light, who should be received as a guest in any temple. It would open so many doors it really ought to be called a key.
The fourth venture saw the first time he ran into bandits, though they called themselves a company of fantassins in the employ of the Prince of Bayeux, simply collecting tolls on his behalf. They took what few copper coins he had on him as well as his writing implements, but Olivier bargained for the latter back when he offered to write for them an official contract of employment with the prince that they might show… doubters. Just so that unthinking violence might be avoided, he told them. They agreed eagerly, though much was taken on trust as none of them could read. Two months later, a troop of horsemen from Apenun caught them on flat grounds and killed them to a man, having been out looking for them. Olivier had, after all, noted on the piece of parchment that the bandits were not fantassins, had boasted of taking coin from the Dread Empire and that anyone reading this ought to see it as their patriotic duty to report these facts to the authorities in Apenun. Eventually a peddler must have seen the ‘contract’, he assumed, and brought word back to the city in hope of a reward.
Olivier’s own reward came when the horsemen rode into Beaumarais a week later and their highborn commander asked for him by name. The man revealed his trick to the befuddled townsfolk and added that the last line of the ‘contract’ was in fact Olivier noting exactly how much copper had been taken from him by robbery, then politely requesting that the sum be returned to him should the bandits be brought to justice. The nobleman returned him the coin, amused and impressed, then threw in a silver for his ‘laudable honesty’. Ironic, considering that when writing Olivier had added a copper to the sum actually stolen to account for the way he felt personally inconvenienced. The soldiers stayed for a few days more, and though most people these days were buying him drinks and calling him Witty Ollie – a pleasant change, he mused, from Olivier the Jinx – the sudden fame was not enough to blind him to the way that the highborn officer, Captain Alain, was regularly visiting the Beaumarais House of Light.
The soldier did not seem all that pious, which only added to the mystery. Still, Olivier found little occasion to pursue the affair and had other preoccupations besides: he would have to venture much further out if he was to keep his teaching scheme, and the returns would be diminishing. Best to move on to something else, but what?
“You’ve some coin, now,” Roland said. “And I can enchant passably. We could open a shop together.”
His little brother, now thirteen, had grown by leaps and bounds. They were near of a height with each other, though Roland’s cocksure grin and quick laughter had seen him grow popular with the town girls – and even some boys – in a way that Olivier’s plainer looks had never quite managed. Kissing games and fumbling under clothes were the least of what Roland had been up to, though. As he’d said, he was now capable of enchanting appropriately prepared granite stones to glow like lamps for up to three weeks, and the enchantment could be rejuvenated repeatedly afterwards for perhaps up to a year before the stone crumbled. About half the time he could make a blade immune to rust for six turns of the moon, and he was beginning to work on enchanting iron rings to put vermin like rats and insects to flight.
“Not as long as you live under their roof,” Olivier said.
“Buy a shop and we can live in it together,” Roland insisted.
“There’s still much you can learn from them,” he told his younger brother. “Finish your learning first, Roland. I’ll still be there when you’re finished.”
They argued over it several times after, but Olivier did not budge. The notion of a shop, though, remained with him. The question was of what he had to offer. Already he’d learned that one could make their own trade, their own way if the old ways failed them – but what manner of a shop would he able to make and man? Before he could settle the matter in his mind, however, his peaceful life was troubled by something rather more urgent. On a sunny autumn morning, Sister Maude of the town’s House of Light came knocking at their door with three armed men in livery.
She bore with her an ultimatum: Olivier’s family was to cease practicing sorcery for coin, or it would be expelled from town.