Wynn arrives at home with a large pizza and salad. I mentally remind myself that I owe her dinner. Multiple dinners, actually. We sit across from each other at the small kitchen table, eating in comfortable silence. Occasionally, when she thinks I’m not paying attention, she stares at my right eye or wrists with her brows furrowed.
“I’m okay, Wynn. Honestly.”
“I know, I know,” she says, forcing her attention from me to the plate in front of her. The silence returns, less comfortable this time. I know I should fill it, but my mind is elsewhere – golden fields, mysterious men disappearing behind barns that shouldn’t exist, glowing eyes, bloody hands. Magic. Life. Death. I wish that I could tell Wynn everything.
I could do it, I realize, just tell her what really happened at the party, where I was yesterday. I could introduce her to our clandestine neighbour.
I open my mouth to speak, but close it again a moment later. She might not believe me. Maybe it would be worse if she did. If she started seeing hidden things like Mr. Harris’ apartment, if someone noticed… what if Mirena came for her? Or Johannes’ father, Victor? I barely even know anything about magic, what advice could I give to keep her safe?
“Were you going to say something?” she asks.
“It’s nothing,” I shake my head, wracking my brain for a likely topic, “I was just wondering if you finished that insanely huge book you were reading the other day.”
She smiles a little and gestures to the bookshelf across from us. The thick volume lays on the middle shelf in front of other, more neatly filed books, “Just a couple chapters left.”
“Wow that was fa…” I pause, making out the words on the spine: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, “I thought you didn’t like fairy tales?”
She shrugs nonchalantly, “Someone leant to me. Figured I’d try branching out.”
“Pretty sure I tried to get you to read that book like fifty times.” I’ve spent most of my friendship with Wynn trying to get her to read anything fantastic; it’s pretty much the one thing we don’t agree on.
“Well, you were right,” she says, looking towards the shelf, “It’s actually pretty good.”
“Told you,” I snap, ending the conversation.
After dinner we play card games and creatively swear at each other. We haven’t relaxed like this in weeks, but there’s something artificial in how quickly we laugh. Something forced between us that drains me, leaving me exhausted and empty. I’m keenly aware of the borrowed book on the shelf; its presence is like a stray hair tickling my arm. One that disappears every time I try to swat it away. Why didn’t she mention it before? Tease me about it? Brag? It’s so unlike her.
I go to bed that night and start wondering if I’m the only one who has been keeping secrets.
I begin visiting Mr. Harris in between shifts at Hanson’s and MacNall’s. Sometimes for lunch, or tea, but always for conversation. We talk about magic, about politics, about books, about everything. Well, almost. I avoid mentioning my unique connection to Harvey Yagher, or to Hunter Elliot, still uncertain of the amiable hermit’s ultimate allegiances and intentions.
One more taboo manifests itself as the strange figure that sporadically appears in Mariposa’s dream. Whenever I see or hear him in the distance, Mr. Harris politely asks to be alone. It feels personal, private, and I don’t ask questions. I figure that it’s something he will choose to share in his own time, or maybe not at all. I remind myself that I feel the same about much of my past.
We spend many early mornings walking amongst the crumbling headstones and winding paths of the cemetery across the street. It’s there that he tells me of his love of science fiction, a passion I share, and that it inspired his initial research into combining magic with technology. Frustrated with the slow pace of technological innovation caused by money and limited research, he began tinkering on his own, trying to bridge the gaps between fantasy and reality with his powers.
It isn’t uncommon for him to say things like: “Imagine how much we could understand about our planet if more mages were to use their power this way. Hell, how much more we could learn about our own damn minds. And space exploration…”
Only to unceremoniously wave the idea away, “Ahh well… no point dwelling on it.”
When I ask him why he doesn’t teach other mages what he’s learned, he always gives the same half-hearted excuse – that no one ever listens to him, and what would it matter anyway when they couldn’t even share it with the rest of the world?
He patiently answers my questions about the magical world, and gladly fills in the gaps in my knowledge. I find out there are ten “houses” derived from ten original founders; each founder having chosen the name of a legendary mage so that their houses would always evoke respect. Merlin, Le Fay, Circe, Freyja, Hecate, Archimedes, Flamel, Solomon, d’Arc, Seimei.
In four centuries many of these families have grown extensively, though a few have dwindled in number. Apparently some members choose to marry into more powerful houses, their allegiances shifting to their spouse’s family. Infertility and death have also left whole branches of families withered and diminished. Hecate House, Mr. Harris’ family, is the only one of the ten to disappear completely. When his cousin passed away at the age of fourteen, Mr. Harris was the sole remaining heir to the family.
He tells me that, a long time ago, there were no familial allegiances, no gifted families. Magic permeated the world like oxygen. Every person had the capacity to harness it, but few learned enough to use it practically. At first I thought this was strange, but Mr. Harris reminded me that even wide-spread literacy is a fairly new accomplishment.
“It’s not as simple as waving a wand and saying the right words,” he explains, completely destroying most of my childhood fantasies, “It requires intense concentration and focus. It’s like any other talent,” he pauses on the paved path amongst the large and ornate stones, pulling his cardigan tight around his thick waist. He inspects the silver dog’s head at the end of his black cane, thinking for a while, before asking: “Do you have any experience with music?”
“I play guitar. A little piano too, when I was a child,” I deliberately omit my short-lived singing career.
“Before you can play a song, you have to know what it sounds like, what it feels like. Correct? Then you have to know what each key, each string, does and how to strike them in just the right way. Even then it’s only repetition. It takes even greater understanding to know how to create your own music. To understand the complex interactions between the notes and chords and timing. Some are born with an innate understanding of music, while others struggle to differentiate the unique sound of each note. But even these people can learn, provided they can access the knowledge. Education has often been a privilege of certain classes.”
“But why is magic so limited now? Why only the ten Houses?” In other words, why can’t I do it? Again with the childhood fantasies.
He snorts and then continues walking. I turn up the beige collar on my cotton jacket against the chilly morning air and walk beside him. He answers, “The Houses formed just before the Enlightenment. Education was becoming more accessible; knowledge was sought and gained with greater ease. The power would soon be in the hands of the many, instead of the few. Some mages saw this as dangerous. They imagined great wars and what were once harmless squabbles turning to bloodshed. Others saw their power and influence diminish as their commodities became common,” he shakes his head, clearly believing his progenitors foolish. He sighs and continues, “A small group of mages started planning, inviting in only the peers they believed worthy of possessing the power. Together, they prepared a spell that would block anyone not of their lineage from using magic. It is said that a great crystal was used to store a large amount of energy, gathered by the ten. It was then covered in the runes dictating the rules of the spell.”
His voice lowers, weighed down by a great sadness.
“Magical creatures – all of the fairies, ghouls and beasties of myth – were stripped of their powers as well. Magic was at the core of their being; when it disappeared, so did they. No one completely understands the extent of the spell’s influence. Some creatures, like familiars, interact with magic without possessing any of their own and were able to survive. As for hybrids like dryads, nyads, shapeshifters… it’s unclear whether they disappeared altogether or were simply forced to retreat into their plant, animal or water forms. It’s shameful.”
His words are scathing, and they ignite a strange longing in my chest. I mourn the loss – no the theft – of a world we would never know.
“Where is the crystal now?”
“Merlin House was charged with protecting it, which is why the others gather wherever they are. Why there are so many mages here in this city. Why there are always tensions between the families and why, from what I hear, we’re on the precipice of war,” he shakes his head, “Whoever holds the crystal controls the power and Merlin House has always been very strict. It’s why they were chosen in the first place. Their family code prevents them from using power for themselves. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop them from enforcing that code on the other families, punishing any who fall out of line. That’s the funny thing about punishment though, it always seems to breed more rebellion.”
He stops in front of a large tree and runs his hands over the rough grooves of the bark. I wonder vaguely what kind it is. I suddenly wish I knew more about nature, about the world I thought I was so familiar with. As he walks away, I swear I see a small black creature dart from behind the tree and into the bushes. Before it disappears completely, I’m certain I see a flash of white amidst the thick dark fur.