Sniff is determined to graduate as a wizard. He concocts a cunning plan. Will it work?
“You did what?” Titchkin Bolt shouts, over the screech and roar of five very unhappy Snippers.
I wave an impatient hand. The ‘what’ is obvious: I’ve just hauled a very reluctant and elderly brown dragon down the overgrown path into the store. Its lashing tail bangs and rattles dusty shelves and out-of-date herbs.
It’s quite a big dragon, but dragons are lightly built. They’re also surly and stubborn. This one had braced itself against every ridge, bump and edge as I hauled its mangy hide down the street.
Master Bolt clutches his chest and sinks onto the armrest of a cluttered chair, feigning catastrophic shock to his age and health.
“You... you... how?”
“I saved what little money you gave me for a full year and brought a dragon.”
“Off the meat-blocks?” Mindy sneers. Mindy is Bolt’s second, younger apprentice. Mindy and I do not get along, partly because I’m miffed Bolt brought in a second apprentice but mostly because Mindy’s an absolute brat. She’s ten years old. Twenty year old men who are a few short months off graduation should not be bothered so much by snarky little children, Bolt likes to huff. That’s another reason for me to dislike her.
“Its old master’s dead,” I correct, waving the papers. “This dragon belonged to an esteemed and prestigious mage.”
The dragon has stopped fighting me. It likes the feel of the magic in the old man and the store – dumb beast. Mindy snorts again. I swear, those snorts come from a very special part of Hell. They make my whole body tense, my temper surge and my hands ball into fists.
“You can’t buy a dragon!” Bolt wheezes, doing his usual ‘on death’s door’ impersonation.
“I did,” I point out.
“You live with Snippers!” Bolt looked fit to... well, have a fit really. A few years ago I would have felt bad. Six months post-Mindy, I don’t feel bad at all.
I look vague, pretending I can’t hear the raucous on the ceiling. No one needs five Snippers. Bolt should have listened to me when I told him I thought the one he brought was a female in disguise. We’ve been giving Snippers away for free for the past year. Since people are reluctant to take on even a free Snipper, you can guess the fun we’ve had. We’re down to five, but these are the loudest, stupid, most annoying five in the brood.
“I’m near-graduated,” I point out patiently. “I need a dragon.”
“Why do you need a dragon?” Bolt roars, skipping straight to fury. “The noise...”
“That noise is your Snippers,” I point out. “And I’ll be graduated soon. In a month, wasn’t it?”
“A year!” he wails.
“What?” I feign deafness, which is only half an act since I’m the tall and the Snippers are screaming in my ear.
“A year!” Bolt wails. “You’re not ready yet!”
That’s a bald-faced lie. Bolt’s not ready to lose my help. As an apprentice, I’m free labour. Bolt relies on my younger, keener eyes and steadier hand.
“Who’s dragon?” Mindy shouts.
“Sallman the Slow,” I shout back, over the noise. “I’m going to keep it in my room.”
“You are not!” Bolt bangs his fist on his leg like a child. “No. No, I simply won’t allow it.”
“It’s brought, Master.”
“You did not consult with me.”
“Nor did you, in signing up Mindy.” My voice wobbles with anger. Mages value an older apprentice – they do most of your work and teach themselves. No one wants a child like Mindy, which is why she was so cheap.
“This changes everything,” Mindy shouts. She likes to pretend she’s a seer.
I roll my eyes.
“You’ll be stuck in a tiny room with that thing for three years,” Mindy announces, over the noise. Her face has taken on that silly look she pulls when she pretends to be in seer-mode.
“You’ll spend three years ruing this day!”
Bolt snaps his attention to the child.
“Him, or us?”
“Him,” Mindy grins.
I roll my eyes again and haul the dragon down the hall to my room. Its claws gouge filthy floorboards. The Snippers keep screaming, each one sounding like a furious baby. By the time I get the dragon into my room I’m exhausted. I also have a dreadful headache. I slam my door closed and head out of the store.
Titchkin Bolt is standing in the back yard of his cottage, amongst the overgrown mess of his herbs. He’s not wearing his boots, his hair is unkempt and his robes are hitched up at the back. The man is an embarrassment to mages everywhere.
“Don’t do this,” he whines.
“It’s done, Master.”
“Work with me, Sniff, please.”
I cringe. Sniff is his pet name for me. I’ll pick a better name when he graduates me. Bolt claims it’s my attitude that needs further work, but that’s a pile of dragon dung. I work hard and all apprentices drink.
“Stop calling me that.” No one takes a grown man called ‘Sniff’ seriously. No wonder all the witches laugh at me when they come into the store.
“I know you don’t like Mindy...”
“You take on a brat like that without consulting me, giving her my room and books...”
“Mindy’s a seer.”
“She’s a cheeky child!” I explode.
“Mindy says this store...”
“I don’t care!” I shout, so loud my voice breaks. I’m so angry I’m shaking.
Bolt points a trembling finger:
“The vacant block. She says...”
“I don’t care!” I shout, lifting a hand like I can flap him out of my life. I stalk off, furious. I’ve heard the nonsense Mindy spins a dozen times in the six months she’s smirked across our table.
“Sniff!” Master wails.
I keep walking. I’ve become very good at ignoring him. Most apprentices graduate before their twentieth birthday. Bolt was holding me back because his health is failing and his eyesight is shot and his new apprentice can’t read or write. Buying the dragon will force Bolt to graduate me. He’s too old to put up with a racket like that and too soft-hearted to drown the Snippers out back in a barrel, like I’d offered to do.
Dragons eat meat. I made a point of buying half-rotting meat with a particularly foul odour as well as various mats and pet toys to make it very clear the dragon was staying. This took a few hours, pausing by the pub on the way back. I need to show my mates my new boots, brought to impress the ladies at the debt sale. We toast my bold and cunning strategy, all of us sneering and mocking our stuffy, confounding Masters.
I’m happily drunk as I head home. This will make the Snippers less obnoxious and Mindy easier to endure. To my shock, silence greets my ear as I stagger up the path. Had Bolt finally tossed the Snippers?
I stagger in the door with my purchases on a wave of rotting stench, then stop short in astonishment. The Snippers are on the roof, huddled and mumbling. A fragrant wood glows in a burner directly beneath them, gouting smoke upwards. They looked to be drowsing. On the floor sits a blonde girl, my dragon’s head in her lap. She’s dressed in one of my old robes.
It takes me a few moments to place her. It’s only as she looks up and I see her swollen, red-rimmed eyes that I recall who she is: she’s the raggedly-dressed slave tending the dragons at the debt-sale this morning. She’d been snotting and blubbering everywhere, weeping about her dead master and her dragons.
“That’s my dragon!” I growl.
The dragon lifts its head, sniffing my meat. The girl sets a hand on its head and it settles back in her lap.
“She has quite a spell about her,” Master Bolt said, from close by. The room is so still and peaceful his voice makes me jump violently. Bolt’s seated in his old armchair, which until this morning had been piled with books and clutter. To my absolute shock, Mindy is putting books away. You normally have to slap her about the head a bit to make her do anything.
“This is Trish...”
“I know who she is,” I growl, dropping my bucket. “Sallman’s slave.”
“His servant,” Bolt corrects. “Sallman was quite old fashion. Had no use for a female apprentice. But Trish was exceptional.”
Trish is also very pretty. She has a thick rope of blonde hair plaited over her shoulder, which I hadn’t noticed in the fuss this morning. Her eyes are very blue and very kind as she smiles up at me.
“You’re keeping her?”
“I didn’t know Sallman was dead. He was a very old friend of mine.”
“Good,” I decide. It was hard to tell under the sack Trish had been wearing this morning or my robe but the girl looks around fourteen. Old enough to catch my eye. “Slave, help me carry this junk to my room.”
“It stinks,” Mindy whines.
“Her, not you.”
“Sniff,” Bolt winces. “Trish is not a slave. Not any more.”
“She can read and write,” I warn. “I saw her crying over the papers, snooping at who was buying what.”
“She was Sallman’s apprentice in all but name,” Bolt sighs. “Some older mages have so much silliness around women.”
“Not you,” Mindy sparks up, bold as brass.
“She has an attitude about her too,” I warn. “Snooping at things and arguing with people and speaking back. Girl, are you deaf? On your feet and carry my junk!” Once we get into my room I’ll check what she’s like under those robes. The last thing I want is another child in the house.
“Sniff, she is not a slave. Trish is my new apprentice.”
I drop my bucket with a clang, shocked.
“She’s a few years from graduation, but she’ll stay on, Mindy says. Tend the store and the garden.”
The girl offers another dreamy smile.
“Graduate!” I splutter. “She’s too young. She has ten years ahead of her. More, because she wasn’t trained right, and she’s a woman!”
“Sniff, your papers are on the table there, signed. I don’t think you’re ready, but we simply cannot have a dragon in the house...”
I leap for the table, nearly upending the bucket. My breath catches and my hands shake and fumble as I check the papers. Gods, its true. The lazy, greedy old fool finally graduated me! I slump in relief, clutching the papers to my chest as my head spins. My bright future, finally laid out before me, cut loose from this failing store and this silly old man!
“Shhh, Bolt,” I growl. “Let me have this moment. Do you know what this means to me?” I shake my head, irritated. “Two apprentices? Two females? You’re a fool, Master.”
“You no longer need to call me that.”
“Fool?” I laugh.
Trish frowns. Mindy glowers.
“Was this Mindy’s idea?” I shove the papers into my robes. “Without me, this store will fail in a week, Bolt. You’ll be begging me to partner with you. Maybe I will? For the right price.”
I stalk to my room and start packing, banging things loudly so Bolt knows I’m serious. It’s mostly an act - I packed last night.
Mindy drifts in to watch.
“You shouldn’t leave,” she says. “You’ll be unhappy.”
She ducks as I hurl a book at her face. It misses her by inches. Something behind her smashes and breaks. So much for being a seer!
“Out of my room, rat.”
“It’ll be Trish’s room tomorrow.”
“You don’t need to be a seer to figure that out.” I grab my bags. “Bolt,” I bellow. “I’m taking my books as payment for wages owed.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
Bolt sounds peaceful and sedated. He has a cup of tea in his hands, rather then his usual whisky. Something is cooking in the kitchen. I shake my head in disgust – Master has scored a cook and a cleaner as well as a pretty new bed-warmer.
“It’s disgusting.” I storm my way out. “Bringing a girl like that into your house. The neighbours will talk.”
“No, it’s done.” I wave a hand. “You insult me for years, pretending I wasn’t ready to graduate just to force me to be your unpaid slave.”
“You were paid...”
“Barely enough for robes and drink!” I shout back. “No, Master, it’s done. You have lost me. This gutter rat here was bad enough, but now this!” I wave a hand at the girl angrily. From his angle I can see the curves under her robes.
“You randy old fool!”
I storm out the door, almost forgetting my dragon. Mindy grabs a leash and coaxes it off the girl’s lap, following me into the front yard. Its late afternoon, but it feels like dawn to me. I’m grinning like a fool. It’s all I can do not to do a dance on the lawn. I struggle to look dignified and regal as Mindy approaches, leash in hand.
“You’re really leaving?”
“Idiot child,” I say, keeping my tone gentle. I’m a Master now.
“Where will you go?”
“None of your business.”
“Gutterview Hostel has a vacant room.”
I snort. I’ve money enough for accommodation better suiting my status as a graduated mage. I’ve been saving up for this moment for years. Bolt has never noticed me skimming the tills.
“This is a mistake,” Mindy calls.
“His mistake!” I shout.
I head down the street, dragon in tow. It’s not fighting me any more. Trish does have a way with beasts. Once I have a house of my own I will invite her into my kitchen and bed – see how Bolt likes that!
I squint at the vacant lot. A sign announces it ‘sold’. Mindy insists they’ll teleport a school onto the foundations. How ridiculous. As if they would put a school in a slum like this. Wistful thinking from an old man with a failing herb store!
“It all begins here,” I advise the dragon.
Later that night I lie on a hard, narrow bed, staring at the roof. The dragon lies on the floor on its expensive mat. Its litter tray, scratching posts, beds and toys take up most of the floor space. The better accommodation options would not accept a dragon or had no vacancies. I’d been on my way to the meat-market when I spotted a vacancy at Gutterview Hostel. It will do for now.
I scratch a flea bite.
On the floor, the dragon snores and farts. I lie awake, a grin slipping into place as I plan the bright new future finally unlocked to me, now my ridiculous Master has released me from servitude.