Excerpt: Niel

Niel stood blissfully immersed in the squawks of gulls overhead and the rumble of the surf below. Before him stretched a shimmering prairie of sapphire whose sharp, salty fragrance delighted his senses every bit as its enormity confounded them.

At last, he thought. The Nilfranian.

He’d never seen the ocean before, if one didn’t count picture books. The tiny house he’d shared with Biddleby, his teacher, had been tucked deep in golden folds of the rural Lyrrian midlands, isolated by thick woods and rolling pastures.

After so many weeks of travel, Niel found it hard to believe the time away from his studies neared an end, that in a matter of days he’d be trudging right back the way he’d come, back toward Lyrria to take his long-overdue place at the College.

He sighed—and not for the first time—at how long it had taken to earn his leave. In strict fairness to Biddleby, no age requirement dictated when an apprentice should attend the College of Magic and Conjuring Arts. As in most things affecting a pupil’s life, one’s sponsor had sole discretion. Still, the typical age for a freshman was fifteen. As best as he could tell, that had passed four long summers ago.

Niel shrugged, dismissing his umbrage as best he could. He had lived with Biddleby his entire life and knew that while the old fellow rarely gave reasons for his decisions, he did always have them. So he bore Biddleby no real ill will. If anything, it underscored for Niel the irony of his presence at the coast: When it came right down to it, he had no real reason for being there.

At one time Niel had nurtured an honest, simple yearning to see the ocean from the deck of a ship. Experiencing something so much larger than himself had held a fascination since childhood. Yet despite the grand view before him, he couldn’t deny the disappointment creeping in, tainting the triumph of having made it so far on his own.

That was not to say the journey had been anything of a waste—far from it. He’d seen more of the countryside than he’d ever thought possible. Given the time and effort invested in training a student, teachers rarely allowed them out of their sight. Then again, conservative leanings aside, Biddleby often prided himself on his eccentricities. Indeed, the old fellow had shown surprising enthusiasm for postponing Niel’s enrollment until winter, confessing an understanding of the wanderlust intrinsic to youth. Maybe boots with thinner soles, Biddleby had said, will let you focus on your work instead of brushing from your ear the pests of things left undone.

From the bluff Niel spied several ships rocking gently in the cradle of the sea. Sailors swarmed over each like ants on an apple. The weeks that had passed since speaking to anyone other than himself had been no hardship; for an apprentice magician, solitude was a rare and precious commodity. The idea of being among people again made Niel uneasy, especially since Southerners had no real love for magicians. But the tiny community huddled against the cliffs looked harmless enough, and the novelty of sleeping on the ground had dissipated so long ago that a good night’s rest enticed him far more than the idea of company and conversation troubled him—not that commonfolk could be relied upon for either. He would head into town, inquire about passage for the morning, find an inn, have supper, then crawl into bed—a bed all to himself, if he could afford it. Not even sitting down for a few hands of Stash held any appeal.

He smiled at the thought of a real bed. No, keeping to himself would definitely be no burden.

A fat, grey gull flopped down near his feet, waddled over, then gazed up at him questioningly. Taking it as a hint, Niel gathered his things and started down.

• • •

An hour later Niel emerged from the foothills to find himself within a stone’s throw of the shore. The new vantage let him appreciate the enormity and grace of the nearby ships all the better—the rich colors and craftsmanship of their elaborate prows, the geometric intricacies of riggings running from mast to deck then off again in a dozen directions, and the stark brilliance of the sails as they flapped and swelled in the breeze. He’d read of the devotion ship captains often had for the condition of their crafts, of how the whiteness of a sail spoke to the caliber of the person commanding her. While likely nothing more than vanity among seamen, the result was indeed spectacular.

Sounds of civilization grew as Niel neared town. Faint snippets of conversation mingled with the continuous screech of sea gulls and the pleasant crunch of the pebbly beach beneath his boots. Goosebumps crept up his arms from a sudden, chilly gust. The warmer southern weather made it easy to forget that winter fast drew near.

He found the dockmaster’s booth on the side of the docks nearest to him. More shack than booth, the tiny structure looked cobbled together from the same worn, weather-greyed planks as the pier. Niel approached and stepped into line behind several scruffy men he presumed were sailors wanting work. Above the booth’s counter a rough, chiseled sign stated all business was to be concluded by sundown.

As the sun slipped closer to the horizon, pulling long shadows from the hilly coastline and smearing once-concealed purples across the evening sky, Niel hoped it wouldn’t be too long a wait.

• • •

“I said, Next!

Niel’s eyes snapped open to reveal the angry dockmaster leaning half-way out of his booth. He must have drifted off while standing in line; the six or seven men ahead of Niel a few moments ago were nowhere to be seen.

Embarrassed, Niel stepped to the counter.

The dockmaster—a muscular man with a shaved head and a bushy black mustache drooping to either side of his chin—withdrew into his hovel with a reproachful snort. The gold hoop in his left earlobe identified him as a veteran seaman. Calluses scabbed thick fingers clearly better suited for hoisting and rowing. Niel wondered how the man had ended up a clerk.

“State yer business,” the dockmaster croaked.

“Yes, please,” Niel replied. “I’d like to know if any vessels in port are headed for Aithiq.”

The man shook his head and looked down at the papers scattered on the uneven shelf that served as his desk. “Another fool gonna have a peep at the savages, eh? What’s yer name?”

Reluctantly, Niel told him. Apprentices never gave their names happily. Such knowledge, when used properly, could yield great power over an individual. Once confirmed by the College, tradition granted magicians the right to change their names; apprentices and novices were expected to do without such protection. The practice had always seemed backward to Niel, but it supposedly helped weed out those not clever or resourceful enough to avoid such perils.

To chase back the encroaching darkness, the dockmaster picked up a candle flickering near a pile of wooden stamps and with it lit a dented oil lamp hanging overhead. He then searched the manifests occupying his desktop and finally held up to the light a greasy-looking sheet of vellum. Despite the obvious necessity given the man’s job, actually seeing someone like the dockmaster being able to read took Niel aback.

The man grumbled. “Only one I got leavin’ any time soon is the Alodis. Jorgan’s ship.”

“Would you not normally recommend Captain Jorgan?”

The dockmaster crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Well, the Alodis herself is a fine craft. Good crew. Jorgan’s kinda peculiar, is all.” He held out his slab of a hand. “A copper.”

Niel dug two fingers into his belt pouch and produced the coin. “I suppose he’ll have to do. When does he get underway?”

The dockmaster accepted the coin and plunked it through the slot of a small metal box behind him. “Right now.”

Niel’s eyes widened. “Now? At night?”

The big man gave a shrug and jotted Niel’s name down on the sheet in a clumsy script. “Like I said—peculiar.” He pointed his quill toward the ships. “Best hurry.”

Stories abounded about the infamous crags and reefs of Lyrria’s southern coast. In the black of night a less-than-master pilot could easily gut his vessel on the rocks lurking just below the water and destroy his ship only a short distance from shore. Anyone finding themselves overboard would likely be pulled down by the merciless undertow and shredded.

Not seeing any choice if he hoped to keep his schedule, Niel slung his pack over his shoulder and ran.