As usual, it was gray out.

Alastair Stone, ten, fidgeted nervously with the buttons on the sleeve of his uniform jacket and checked the wall clock for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. Only two o’clock; another half-hour of sitting here listening to Mr. Burris drone on about biology or some such thing. What was worse, the drab gray clouds provided little respite from the boredom; they were a good metaphor for it, in fact.

Around Alastair, the other boys were exhibiting varying degrees of attention to the lecture. Most of them, like him, were biding their time with their feigned interest and their electronic margin-scribblings until the tall, stoop-shouldered teacher finally put his pointer down and dismissed them. One or two, like teacher’s pet Jeffrey Lydecker, were actually aware of what Mr. Burris was talking about. Alastair perked up his ears every once in awhile just for show, catching something about metahuman physiology here, bone structure there, and dutifully noting it down in his pocket secretary. He hoped it would be enough to ensure him a good grade on the next test, but he didn’t really care.

The classroom, part of one of the most prestigious boarding schools in England, was showing its age. The school administrators, in their approximately-monthly speeches at Assembly, called it “a fine veneer of tradition and heritage.” Alastair privately thought of it as “peeling paint and shabby furniture,” but he knew better than to say anything. Nobody would listen to him anyway. They never did.

Abandoning all pretense of listening to Mr. Burris’ lecture, Alastair withdrew the message flimsy from his bookbag and read it over again. The words hadn’t changed:

Hope you’re doing well in school. I’m sorry, I know I promised this year that you could come home for the holidays, but your mother and I must attend an important meeting in Germany that came up at the last minute, so I’m afraid you’ll have to stay there again this year. We’ll make it up to you next year, I promise. I’m sending you some money to help with buying “extras” for the holidays.

The fifty pounds his father had sent with the note hadn’t changed the boy’s feelings about the whole thing, though he supposed in retrospect that he should have expected it: it had happened last year too, and during the spring holidays the year before. He was just beginning to think his parents didn’t really want him around--he had always rationalized it before by remembering that his father was an important politician of some sort, and his mother was a high-ranking executive of Eurotrans Systems, a corporation that made computer equipment, but slowly the realization had come that the other boys in his class also had rich, powerful parents, or they wouldn’t be here. This place didn’t take just anyone, Alastair knew.

He wished it hadn’t taken him.

He sighed. He was looking forward to getting out of class, but he wondered if the other boys would try to coerce him into playing some sport with them again. He couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that they did it just because they enjoyed watching him fail, but there couldn’t have been any altruistic motives behind it, either. They never let him forget the fact that he was a year younger than they were (due in equal parts to his intelligence and his hyper-competitive parents), and on top of that he was slightly built and not terribly athletic. His last attempt to play rugby, two weeks ago, had been a fiasco that had landed him in the infirmary for a day and not endeared him any further to his classmates.

“Mr. Stone!”

Alastair’s head snapped up at the sound of the teacher’s sharp tone. Mr. Burris was glaring at him with his hands planted on his hips. A couple of the boys snickered. “Yes, sir?”

“Would you care to grace us with your presence, Mr. Stone?” Burris’ voice dripped with sarcasm, but Alastair didn’t hold that against him; he was like that with everybody.

“Yes, sir.”

“All right then--the answer to question four, please.”

Alastair took a deep breath, knowing that there was no way he was going to find the question and figure out the answer in time to satisfy the teacher. “I--I don’t know it, sir.”

“As I thought, the way you were woolgathering. Now pay attention, Mr. Stone. Clear?” Mr. Burris slapped his palm with his pointer for emphasis.

“Yes, sir.” He heard Kevin behind him snickering again, but he ignored it.

The rest of the class went uneventfully, which was good because Alastair wasn’t paying any more attention than he had been previously. All he could think about was the message from his father, and the prospect of spending another dreary holiday season all but alone in this musty old school. Last year there had only been one other boy there, and he had been sick most of the time. If it hadn’t been for the library, Alastair would have been even more miserable than he had been.

When Burris finally dismissed the class, the boys hurried out of the room, Alastair among them. Ian Rogers shoved him half-playfully. “Old Burris really got you this time, Stone.” Ian was one of the few boys who actually treated him decently.

Alastair shrugged. “I don’t care.”

“How come?” Ian fell into step next to Alastair, as they both had the same next class.

“Got a note from my Dad. Don’t get to go home for holiday this year.”

Ian whistled sympathetically. “Hey, that’s rough. What’re you gonna do?”

“I don’t know. Stay here, I guess. Again.” Alastair pushed ahead of Ian, and hurried away, hoping that the other boy hadn’t seen the tears forming in his eyes. He shouldered into the classroom and took his seat, staring straight ahead and seeing nothing.

Mr. McCarthy, the history teacher, walked in followed by someone Alastair had never seen before: a tall, thin man in a Corp-issue suit. The new man sat down behind Mr. McCarthy’s desk, and the history teacher got up to address the class.

“Students, we have a guest here today, so we’ll be foregoing our normal history lesson.” He waited for the cheering to die down, then continued, “This is Mr. Marcus. As you well know, every year we have a testing session to see if any of you children show any signs of magical activity. Very few magicians exist, so it’s important to identify them early so they can begin their training. Mr. Marcus and his associate, Ms. Darnell, are going to be conducting the testing today. Each of you will be called individually to go into the next room, where Ms. Darnell will conduct the test. The rest of you will work on your homework assignments. Any questions?”

Ian raised his hand. “Will it hurt?”

Mr. Marcus stood up with a small, thin-lipped smile. “No, it won’t hurt. In fact, you won’t even know that anything’s being done. It will only take a few minutes.”

Alastair slumped in his seat, losing interest in any remaining questions. He knew there was nothing magical about him; the odds were so low that he’d have a better chance that his father would change his mind about his coming home. Mages, especially the ones that worked for the corporations, were exceedingly rare and exceedingly powerful. They got pretty much what they wanted, in exchange for using their strange powers to aid the companies. Every kid fantasized about being one, but Alastair knew the school was lucky if it found one or two every year. Last year they’d gotten all excited because they’d turned up a couple of physical adepts, not even full mages. No, that kind of thing wasn’t for him; pulling out his homework assignment, he prepared for a boring hour.

The period continued the same way: Mr. Marcus would appear in the doorway, call a student’s name, and walk out of the room with him. In a few minutes, he’d return with the boy, who would go sit down. When Ian returned, Alastair’s curiosity got the better of him. “So, are you?”

Ian shrugged.”Dunno. They don’t tell you anything. Said they’d have the results later.”

Alastair made a face and returned to his work. Waste of time, as far as he was concerned.

“Alastair Stone?” Marcus stood in the doorway, waiting somewhat impatiently. Alastair got up and resolutely went with him, into the next room as promised.

There was a woman in there; Alastair figured it must be Ms. Darnell. His eyes widened as he got a good look at her: he didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but this short, kind of plump black woman wasn’t it. His image of female mages from the simsenses had steered him toward expecting someone tall, blond, and possessed of a figure that should have had her posing for clothing adverts, not casting spells. Still, though, this woman had her own kind of beauty: her eyes were green and lively, and her smile, unlike Marcus’, looked genuine. Her voluminous skirts were covered with strange patterns, and around her neck she wore a pendant with four green stones. “Alastair?” she said, her voice rich and pleasant. She smiled at him encouragingly.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come, sit down.” She indicated the chair next to hers. “How old are you, child?”

“Ten, ma’am. Almost eleven.”

Marcus stiffened. “He’s too young, Linnett.” He looked at his chrono. “Come on, let’s get the next one. We’re running late.”

Ms. Darnell’s expression softened as she nodded, seeing the disappointment on the boy’s face. “Yes, I’m afraid he’s right, Alastair. The talents don’t usually show up in one so young. We’ll have to test you next year, all right?”

Alastair sighed and closed his eyes briefly, then stood. With all the other things that had gone wrong for him lately, this was just another in the series. “All right. Next year, then. But there’s really no point in it. I’m no magician.” Nodding a farewell to her, he allowed the hurried Marcus to steer him toward the door.

“Wait, Elliot.” Ms. Darnell’s voice stopped them where they stood. Alastair and Marcus both turned back, the boy expectantly, the man impatiently.

The mage’s eyes were unfocused for a moment, but as Alastair watched, her face regained its peaceful composure. “Come here a minute, Alastair. Let me check something.”

Marcus tapped his foot and pointedly looked at his chrono as the boy came back over and resumed his seat.

“Close your eyes for a moment, would you please?”

“Is something wrong?” Alastair asked, but he complied nonetheless. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to disobey a mage.

“” her voice was distracted, but she did not touch him. Since his eyes were closed, he did not see her own eyes widen, nor did he see the look that passed between her and Marcus. She double-checked to make sure, then put a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “All right, child. You can open your eyes now. Elliot, you can take him back and bring the next one in.”

“See?” Alastair said as he got up. “I told you I’m no mage.”

As he left, Ms. Darnell wrote a quick series of notes in her pocket secretary, then prepared herself for the next student.

Ian was waiting when Alastair returned. “So, did they tell you anything?”

“Nope. I’m too young. I think they have to wait for next year to test me.”

“You were gone awhile, you know. They didn’t tell you anything?”

Alastair shook his head testily. “No, I said. She just made me close my eyes for a couple minutes, then said I could go. I have to do my homework.” Turning back around, he resumed his homework and promptly put the matter out of his mind.

It was two weeks later, as the rest of the boys were getting ready to go home for the holidays and Alastair was preparing to be bored out of his mind, that he got the call. One of the younger boys came to his room and told him that the headmaster wanted to see him, then ran off before Alastair could question him.

The headmaster? But no one got called to the office of the headmaster unless he was in big trouble. Dr. Arthur Carrowby was someone Alastair had only heard whispers about, and seen pictures of: stern, bristle-browed, older than God. His office was off limits to students, period. If you had a problem, you took it up with Mr. Biddle, the assistant headmaster. In all the time Alastair had been attending school here, only three kids had been called to see Dr. Carrowby, and one of them had been expelled. What could he possibly want with him?

Apprehensively, he straightened his jacket, combed his unruly hair and made the lonely pilgrimage across campus to the ancient, ivy-covered building that housed the administrative offices. Despite the fact that nobody ever went to Dr. Carrowby’s office, everyone knew where it was. It was just a fact of life that you learned during your first week: That’s Dr. Carrowby’s office. Don’t go there.

The secretary must have known he was coming, because she expressionlessly pressed the intercom button as he came in. ”Alastair Stone is here, sir.” She looked up at him. “Go on in.”

A number of surprises greeted Alastair as he opened the heavy wooden door to the headmaster’s inner sanctum, but two of them were the largest by far: Dr. Carrowby was smiling, and his father was there. His father was smiling too.

He stood, confused, holding onto the door as his anchor on reality, and stared dumbly at the two men by the desk.

“Hello, Alastair,” his father said. “Come on in--Dr. Carrowby doesn’t bite. And close your mouth before something flies in.” He was a tall, slim man with an imperious manner and hawklike features, softened at the moment by the smile.

“Uh--yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I just--why are you here?” Alastair realized it sounded wrong as soon as it came out, but he let it stand anyway; stammering wouldn’t make it any better.

“Dr. Carrowby called me. Why don’t you let him tell you? Sit down.”

Slowly, as if afraid that they would change their minds if he moved too fast, Alastair crept forward and perched on the edge of one of the ancient leather chairs in front of the headmaster’s desk. Carrowby leaned forward and regarded him from beneath brows that resembled white caterpillars clinging to his forehead. “Mr. Stone, do you remember being tested for magical ability?”

Huh? Alastair’s mind tried to make sense of that non sequitur. What did magical ability have to do with his father being here? “Uh...yes, sir. A couple of weeks ago.”

Carrowby nodded. “The results of your test have come back.” He smiled. “Congratulations, my boy. The tests determined that you have the potential to become a mage.”

The boy’s eyes widened, and he felt the urge to pinch himself to make sure this wasn’t some sort of sick dream. “Sir? A...mage, sir?”

“Yes, Mr. Stone. A full mage. Not just an adept. It’s been a couple of years since this has happened. I called your father when we found out, and he insisted on coming.”

Alastair looked at his father, who was still smiling at him. The part about being a mage still hadn’t sunk in, but it was beginning to. He couldn’t believe it. Mages were special people--they got special training and were treated like they were important, like they mattered. Even kids. They were just too valuable to risk losing them, or boring them with mundane studies. But he--he wasn’t special. He was just skinny little Alastair, the brain who couldn’t play a decent game of rugby. He was--

A mage.

Alastair smiled. Sure, he knew the smile on his father’s face wasn’t so much because of pride in his son, as it was because of the prestige he and his mother would get for having a mage for a son. He knew that once the novelty wore off, his parents would go back to treating him like a pampered inconvenience. He knew all of that, and he didn’t care.

He, Alastair Stone, was a mage. His parents didn’t matter. His background didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he had the power within him to forge his own way in the world. No one was going to take advantage of him again. He drew himself up, and somehow old Carrowby wasn’t so frightening anymore.

“Well sir,” he said briskly to the headmaster, not looking at his father. “Where do we go from here?”

Story (c)1997, Rat
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