“You never said you were the Governor's wizard,” he said as they walked down the hall to the staircase. At least some things made sense, now that he knew this.
Xander smiled. “You never asked. But of course you couldn't have known to ask. I don't make a habit of announcing it, unless it serves some purpose.” He reached out, beating the guards to it, and opened the door to the stairwell. There was an answering growl. “Oh, hush,” he said to the waiting guard dogs, as he and Lester passed them. “You've seen both of us before.”
“She didn't seem surprised that you ran off,” Lester remarked. “You've done this before, haven't you?”
“Lots of times. She knows I'll always come back, even if they don't find me. Which they usually do, since I let them.”
“Do you always bring someone back with you?”
“Not always. Sometimes I leave for … different reasons,” the old man said vaguely.
They continued down the stairs in silence for a minute. Lester had an uneasy feeling in his gut that finally gave voice to a question. “Just how many apprentices do you have here?”
“Including you?” Xander smiled sadly. “One, at the moment.”
His stomach tightened. This did not sound good at all. “Where are the others?”
“Most of them are dead, actually. It's a dangerous occupation, being a wizard's apprentice. Not everybody likes them. One of the first things you'll have to learn is how to make yourself invisible. And how to defend yourself. We'll talk about that presently, among other things.”
“Most of them are dead? What about the others?”
“A few are gone to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Then there's poor Ludlow, of course.” Xander stopped four floors down from the one they had left, and opened the door for Les. “The less said about him the better.” He led the way past a door that read ARTIFACTS and another labeled ARCHIVES before he opened the third, simply titled Wizard.
From his storybooks back in Inverness Les had expected to see perhaps a room filled with such things as serpents, magic wands, a hanging stuffed alligator, and perhaps a couple of humans skulls topped with the bumpy pyramids of drizzled candles.
What he saw was books. Lots of books. The walls were covered in bookshelves, row upon row of them stretching down one wall and across another. More books than he had ever thought to see together at any place in his lifetime were revealed by the light pouring into the room from the hallway.
Suddenly he found himself not regretting being kidnapped here quite so much. “Are all these yours?” he asked, awed. He had exactly six books in his room back in the inn. At the thought of them a pang of homesickness passed through him, only to be snuffed out again by the presence of all those volumes waiting on the walls.
Xander did not appear to have heard his question. “Otto? Otto? Where are you, devil?”
The old man waved a hand, and light flooded the room from overhead. Les looked up, startled, and saw a glass tube in the ceiling. A blue-white line inside the glass made him blink at its brightness, and he looked away in time to see a peculiar-looking cat hop down from a chair in a corner, dart around a low wooden table, and run up to rub itself against the graying wizard's legs.
The cat looked even stranger now that it was closer. A solid black tail grew out from an all-white rump. Most of its fur, in fact, was bright white, save for an irregular black patch on one side, another on the top of its head, and some little black spots under its mouth as if it had been recently drinking black ink. “Did you miss me?” Xander asked.
“Rrrrrt,” said Otto. Les had been expecting a meow but none seemed forthcoming.
“I doubt it, you old rascal. You just say that for my benefit, don't you?”
“Rrrrrrt”,” Otto agreed, eying Les warily.
“Otto, this is Lester, my new apprentice. Les, meet Otto. Try not to step on him, will you? I've had him for a long time, and he sometimes forgets that humans can be more careless and less graceful than his own species.”
Les squatted down and extended his hand to let Otto inspect it. Only after the animal sniffed it cautiously and satisfied himself did he venture to scratch it gently behind an ear. This Otto tolerated, before returning his attention to Xander and finally meowing.
“Ah, I see you know about cats,” said Xander, reaching inside his cloak to produce a crumbly bit of cheese. Otto deigned to accept this offering.
“Of course. My Ma has a couple at the inn, Jules and Pixie. To keep down the mice.”
“Course she does. Course she does.” Without looking, Xander let his staff go and it fell into the corner by the front door with a muffled clink! as it struck the wall. Suddenly Les realized that the staff, which he had taken for wood, must be a thin length of pipe, painted brown. From the way Xander had handled it, the old man must be stronger than he appeared at first glance.
“The Governor sounded like she's known you for a long time,” he said, making conversation. “How did you end up here? Were you born in Denver?”
“Nowhere near. But I worked for her husband, the General.” Xander removed his cloak and threw it over a chair. “That was almost twenty years ago.”
“What was he like?”
Xander flopped into a chair and scratched his beard thoughtfully. “The General? I expect you've heard a lot about him already.”
“Yes, but not from anybody who knew him. Is is true that he used to lead charges against enemy armies, instead of directing them from the rear?”
“Not everything you hear about him is true,” the wizard replied, dragging a stool toward him to put his feet up. “But that one is. He claimed he got it from someone called Alexander. Or was it Caesar? Anyway, it wasn't just bravery. He always claimed it was to inspire the troops, but between you and me, I think he knew they were afraid to lose him.” He paused, gazing at nothing. “He'd charge right in, and they just had to charge after the rascal to save his bacon.”
“Rrrrrrt,” Otto agreed.
Les rubbed his eyes and yawned. It had been a long day. “Are you really a wizard?”
Xander shrugged. “That depends on who you ask,” he said. “If you're asking, do I have a pact with the Devil, or spirits who do my bidding, the answer is no. There are no 'magic words', no matter what you've read in storybooks, and as far as I know, no demons or angels either. If you're asking if I can do things most people can't, well then the answer is yes. I can.”
“Like make yourself disappear,” Les prompted.
“Like that,” the wizard agreed. “That's just an application of what I call pathspace. Fairly simple, but surprisingly handy in a pinch. You'll start on that tomorrow.”
Les looked down, then up again. “How do you know I won't just run away?”
Xander laughed. “Two reasons. For one thing, I know where to find you. Retrieving you would hardly be any trouble – your father's inn is a regular stop for the coach.”
He had to frown at that, because it was true. He couldn't just go home, when he made his escape. He'd be running away, not toward. “And the other reason?” he challenged.
Xander just smiled. “Oh that's even simpler, and the same reason I usually don't. We're on the thirtieth floor here, and the Governor always posts armed guards outside my rooms.” He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “But feel free to fly away, if you can.”
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