Lao Tsung's body hit Daniel hard enough to tip the couch over on its back, and Marla went sprawling too – though Artie, somehow, got gracefully out of the way. Probably the same trick he used to stroll in out of nowhere. Marla used her momentum to turn her fall into an inelegant back roll, and regained her feet near the fireplace.
Lao squatted over Daniel's chest, pinning him down. "Preparedness," he said. "You have to always –"
Marla stepped forward and smacked Lao on the side of his head as hard as she could, boxing his ear. Her hand stung from the impact, but he barely seemed to notice.
Lao turned his head to her and grinned – his somber face was transformed by the goofy smile. "She gets the idea," Lao said. "But next time, Marla, don't hold your hand flat, it's more effective if you do this –"
In an instant he was off Daniel and standing in front of her, arms swinging around to slam his loosely-cupped hands against both her ears simultaneously. Marla staggered back, her sense of balance utterly undone. She turned, tried to catch herself, and tripped over the edge of the fireplace, falling onto her hands and knees. Marla looked up at Lao, who continued lecturing. "That's an ear slap. Requires hardly any training, hurts and disorients, very useful for beginners. Much better than punching someone in the head, because hitting a skull with your fist is a good way to break your hand. Now –"
Jenny jumped onto Lao from behind, wrapping her arms around his neck, and Lao paused for a moment, then shook his head. "There are blood chokes, where you squeeze the artery and cut off the blood supply to the brain and knock someone unconscious. Fairly safe if done right. There are air chokes – much more dangerous – where you cut off the air supply, but sometimes you might accidentally crush the windpipe if you don't know what you're doing. But you, Jenny, are just getting in your own way, you aren't using your leverage at all. It's okay. I'll show you the right way later."
He reached back and grabbed Jenny by the – head? shoulders? Marla couldn't tell from her angle, down here on the floor. Lao bent at the waist, as if doing a little bow, and flipped Jenny over his shoulder like she weighed no more than a pillow, slamming her supine on the carpet.
"Ow," Jenny said, staring up at the ceiling. Marla struggled upright. One hit – okay, technically two – and her head was still spinning and her breakfast was threatening to come back out through the in door. Artie was leaning back against a wall, just watching – impossible to tell if he was pleased or disappointed or what.
"Screw punching," Daniel said, appearing behind Lao Tsung and laying a hand on his shoulder. A greenish glow surrounded Daniel, and Lao Tsung sagged slightly as the light spread to envelop him. Then Lao grinned again, and the green turned first yellowish and then white, and Daniel gasped and stepped back, shaking his head in confusion, or dibelief, or both. Though he'd broken physical contact with Lao, the light still connected them, stretching like sticky strands of egg yolk between their bodies, like threads of saliva connecting two sets of lips after a messy kiss. It was one of the weirdest things Marla had ever seen – and she'd seen Artie with his pants down.
Lao turned, the light shifting around him. He looked at Daniel for a moment, then kicked him almost casually in the inner thigh, halfway up from the knee. Daniel screamed and fell to the ground, clutching at his leg, and the white light vanished. "There's a nerve cluster in the thigh, really sensitive. Even a pinch there hurts pretty had. A kick like that... don't try to stand up too soon." Lao squatted beside Daniel and pushed down on his shoulder, making him lay flat on his back. He spoke softly. "Trying to pull the life out of me back there was rude. You didn't see Jenny trying to set me on fire – she understood what we were doing, what the point was. You were not only rude, but kind of stupid. Or did you think you're the only person who knows how to manipulate qi?
"We've been calling it prana," Artie said. "I dunno if Daniel knows qi from a hole in his head."
Lao Tsung shrugged. "They're basically the same concept. Life force. Energy flow. The universal breath. Learn to manipulate that, and you can take life, give life, heal sickness, cause disease." He slapped Daniel's cheeks lightly, as if to keep his attention. "I wasn't born with that power, like you. I spent decades studying to learn to manipulate qi. But because I've studied, I'm better than you are." He sat on his heels. "I am not, probably, better than you'll ever be – not if you practice. If you behave, and try to learn the practical, physical things I'm teaching you about self defense, I'll show you some of what I know about qi. Can we agree?"
Marla waited to see what Daniel would say. He was proud, she knew that, but surely he'd have the sense to see this more as an opportunity than an embarrassment? If he didn't, she'd lose all respect –
"Agreed," Daniel said, sitting up. "Sorry about all that. It's just... habit. Instinct, even. I've been trained to use my power to fight. Artie taught me that."
"Sure." Lao nodded. "But when you tried, and it failed, you didn't have anything to fall back on." He stood and offered Daniel his hand, pulling the boy to his feet. "I'm here to fix that. We'll –"
Marla hit Lao in the back of the head with a poker from the fireplace. Daniel, who'd seen her coming, hadn't let a flicker of expression appear on his face while she approached, but once she struck, he smiled.
"I really like this girl, Artie," Lao said, and fell forward onto his face.
Over the next weeks, Marla settled into a routine. She would wake roughly at dawn, eat breakfast, and then train with Lao Tsung until lunch. Daniel was there about three-quarters of the time, Jenny maybe half – they did other jobs for Artie, the details of which Marla only heard about vaguely. She vibrated with jealousy, but tried to make sure no one noticed. Her time, she hoped, would come.
Lao's lessons had become a bit more formal – no more jumping on them unawares in the living room; they used Artie's surprisingly-well equipped subterranean gym – but they were no less grueling. Because Marla was there more often, and because she had a knack for physicality, she learned more about fighting than the other apprentices.
She was glad to have any edge she could get, because after lunch, she studied with Artie, or took lessons from Ernesto, or – humiliatingly – Daniel and Jenny. Magic was not coming to her easily. She was, she learned, not even really an apprentice yet – she was a trainee, on probation, or a frosh, depending on which of her teachers was teasing her. If she proved completely hopeless at magic, she understood, it wouldn't matter how well she kicked people or swung a sword – Artie would have to cut her loose. Until she mastered the basic magical competencies, her place was a lot more uncertain than she liked.
After valiant effort she learned to light a candle with a word – Artie said the incantation was an insult to the air, particles gyrating in anger fast enough to spark flame, and she wasn't sure if he was kidding. She learned other tricks, which Ernesto dismissively classed as cantrips – opening doors from across a room, rotting wood, rusting metal, things like that.
"This is bullshit," she said after four months, when she'd failed, for the tenth time that morning, to make a flower wilt by staring at it. "I've got no feel for the qi or prana or whatever, it's just words to me." She shoved back from the dining room table in frustration.
"Keep trying." Artie patted her shoulder. "You'll get it."
"So what if I do? I can kill a flower. Big whoop."
"I know these seem like small steps, but the thing to remember is, you're getting into the habit of imposing your will on the world. That's important. Do you think you could move a mountain with your will alone?"
She snorted. "I can barely shove a coffee mug across the table."
"Yeah, but when you started, you couldn't shift a thumbtack, or roll a pencil, and you've got that down now, right?"
"Only because you made me practice it a million times!"
"Don't make me get pedagogical on your ass, Marla." Artie pulled out a chair and sat beside here. "I'm a believer in what's called 'overlearning.' You practice something again and again and again, dozens and scores and hundreds and thousands of times, until it's totally ingrained, until you can do it without even thinking about it. That's how your magic should be. Casting a spell should be like shifting a muscle, no distance between thought and action."
"Just like fighting, huh?"
"Same idea. Drill, and drill, and drill, until you just know it, no question. The point is, every little step builds your confidence. First you move a thumbtack with your mind, and then it doesn't seem impossible to move a pencil, so you move that. Then a comb seems possible, then a toy car, then a coffee mug, and eventually a shoe, a bowling ball, a toaster oven, a chair, a refrigerator, a car, a house, an office building... a mountain." He shrugged. "You'll get there. You've got the will, and the tenacity."
She nodded. "I get it. But even that's just telekinesis. There are so many other things I want to learn, so many other disciplines, how do I even know what I should be focusing on?"
"It's a question," Artie allowed. "What kind of martial art is Lao teaching you?"
Marla laughed. "You might as well call it Lao fu. I asked once, and he said, 'Oh, kung-fu, with some judo, and aikido. And a little savate. And jeet kune do, but that's mostly just wing chun and fencing and boxing anyway. Oh, and obnu bilate for the stick fighting, and defendu, which is really just modified jujutsu...' He went on like that for about twenty minutes. I was sorry I asked."
"The foul rag and bone shop method," Artie said.
Marla frowned. "What?"
"It's from a Yeats poem. 'The foul rag and bone shop of the heart.' Yeats was talking about all the stuff writers draw on to create their art, the messy disordered junk in their psyches that they sort through and turn into poetry, but the same idea can apply to magic, or martial arts, or whatever. You take a bunch of disparate elements and turn them into something elegant and beautiful. That's the kind of sorcerer you're going to be, Marla – a foul rag and bone shop sorcerer, using
whatever comes to hand, but making it beautiful." He brushed her bangs out of her face – she'd been meaning to get it cut short, but hadn't gotten around to it yet. "I can't wait to see what you become, kid. I've been thinking, though, and I know what you should learn next. Where you should really focus your attention."
"Well, you're stubborn as hell, and you don't mind putting in long hours, and you like punching people, so let's combine the two. I'm going to teach you 'chanting. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of precision, and doing a whole lot of steps exactly right, but when it works, you can make some pretty awesome stuff."
"Awesome would be a nice change," Marla said.
Marla had been with Artie for nearly nine months – it was summer in Felport, not that she'd been out in the weather much – when she dropped the pair of brass knuckles on Artie's desk in his study. "There," she said. "I got it, finally."
Artie took off his reading glasses and put aside a sheaf of papers. She wondered if the glasses were an affectation; couldn't he just magically fix his own vision? Her mind was wandering. She'd been up all night, and not for the first time. She tried to focus. Today could be the day.
Artie picked up the brass knuckles and slid them onto the fingers of his right hand. "Let's see." He rose and left the room, and Marla followed him down to the gym, where Lao Tsung was holding what amounted to a remedial martial arts class for Jenny and Daniel, who'd been out in the field more and more lately, doing who knows what kind of exciting and violent things.
"Gather 'round," Artie said. "Marla's got her apprentice piece done." He held up his fist, brass knuckles gleaming. "Lao, set up the test?"
"Sure thing." Lao piled up several concrete paving stones until he had a stack a few feet high. Marla had practiced breaking on those stones, though not often, because Lao considered brick breaking silly stuff mostly good for showing off at demonstrations. She'd never tried to hit a stack that thick, piled all together directly on the floor with no space beneath, either. She didn't think it would be possible... unless she'd done her job right.
"Okay," Artie said, as the others gathered around to watch "Here goes." He lifted his arm high, elbow cocked, back, then drove his fist down onto the concrete, dropping to one knee as he went.
The blocks more or less exploded on impact, Jenny puffing out a temporary shield of heat to vaporize the shrapnel. When the dust settled, Artie was unmoving, his fist pressed flat against the floor, the paving stones two tottering piles on either side of his hand.
"Power's there," Artie said. He held up his hand, considering it carefully, turning it in the light. After entirely too long a moment – during which Marla held her breath – he said, "The impact didn't hurt, and there's not a scratch on my hand. Good combination of power and defense." He pulled off the brass knuckles and tossed them to Marla, who caught them, allowing herself to breathe again. "You've just done your first successful piece of enchanting."
Suddenly Jenny was hugging her, and Daniel and Lao were slapping her on her back, and Artie was grinning. "Welcome to the family, kid," he said. "You're a real apprentice now." He cleared his throat. "Or you will be, once we do the loyalty oath."
Marla looked up from her enchanted weapon, frowning. "What?"
"It's okay, Marla," Jenny said. "Daniel and I both did it. And Ernesto before us."
"Think of it as a combination non-compete clause and insurance policy." Artie spoke while squatting to chalk a red symbol on the floor. "Basically, it's a promise – but a magical, unbreakable promise – that we'll look out for each other. Think of it like... we're NATO. An act of aggression against one of us is an act against all."
"Don't bullshit her, Artie," Lao said. "It's a geas. She should know it's serious."
"Geese?" Marla looked from Artie to Lao.
"Geas." Artie spelled it, still drawing. "A... magical compulsion. If, say, somebody kills me, you'll have a powerful urge to avenge me. Same thing happens to me if somebody kills you. It's insurance. Other sorcerers know if they mess with you, I'm on their ass, and vice-versa."
"Tell her what happens if she doesn't avenge you," Lao said.
"You go crazy and die, okay?" Artie said. "But that's only if you don't even try. And the same thing happens to me if you go down and I don't do anything about it. Okay? And if for some reason we decide to part ways, that we don't wanna go to mattresses for each other anymore, we can mutually agree to remove the geas, do another ritual like this one, and take it away. If you want an escape hatch, that is."
"You all did this?" Marla said. "Jenny, Daniel, Lao?"
"Not me." Lao shook his head. "I'm an old friend and a well-paid employee, but this..."
"This is like... family." Marla nodded to herself. "Like family is supposed to be. Taking care of each other, no matter what. Making promises and keeping them." Her own family was nothing like that. Absent unknown father, drunken mother, and even her closest relation, her brother, was... complicated. "Sure. I'll do it. You three are my family now."
"That's what I want to hear," Artie said. "Let's step into this circle and say the words, kid."
"Here you go." After dinner, Artie pushed a wrapped box across the table to her. "Graduation gift."
"Only took you nine months," Daniel said, grinning over his ice cream. "That's as long as it takes to grow a baby."
"Open it, Marla!" Jenny said, clapping her hands.
Marla tore the bright paper off the box, opened it up, and beheld...
A pair of black, beautiful, supple leather boots. Not girly boots like the ones in the wardrobe closet, but solid, heavy, stompy boots. She loved them, and tears very nearly welled up in her eyes, though not quite. She placed them on the table and said, "These are great, guys."
"Top of the line. Those things will last you forever." Artie reached over and thumped one of them. "Steel toes, too. Once you enchant them and put some inertial magic on the toes? You'll be able
to kick your way through reinforced concrete."
"This is the nicest thing anyone's ever given me," she said, and it was true.
"You'll need them. Starting tomorrow, you're going to be out in the field with Daniel and Jenny, and kicking stuff will probably enter into it. All this stuff before, it's just been practice. Now you're going to work."
"There's nothing I want more," she said, and that was true, too. Or mostly.
Late that night, after laying in bed for a while and considering the wisdom of acting on impulse, Marla slipped into the hallway and went to the room three doors down. She touched the knob, and it was
unlocked; pushed it inward, and saw Daniel's sleeping form in the bed, his back to her, the room faintly illuminated by streaks of moonlight through the windowblinds.
She engaged the lock behind her.
Marla wore only a long t-shirt, and as she approached the bed she slipped it over her head and let it fall to the floor. She climbed into bed, under the covers, and when Daniel woke up and turned over – already glowing green and marshaling his powers, alert as they all were to possible danger – she covered his mouth with hers and kissed him the way she'd wanted to for months.
The green glow vanished. "You're... naked," he said, when their kiss broke.
"You're perceptive as always. And why aren't you naked?"
"Give me five seconds," he said, but didn't move. "Marla... not that I'm not happy to see you – and feel you – but you said you weren't interested. What changed?"
"I didn't say I wasn't interested, exactly." She ran her hands down his back, felt the muscles there – he was less scrawny than he'd been before Lao Tsung started making him work out. "Before, when I was just a trainee, on probation, whatever, it wouldn't have been right to do this. You were teaching me, there was this power imbalance..." She shook her head in the dark. "I wouldn't have been able to relax."
"But since we're equals now, you passed your test – you can relax?"
"I can. But maybe you should focus on getting me excited instead? You don't want me to get so relaxed I fall asleep."
He had the good sense to stop talking then, and they moved together, and sometimes at cross-purposes, and fumbled, and gasped, and – as most everyone does – they figured it out. Marla wondered if this was his first time. It was hers, and it was neither as wonderful as she'd hoped, nor as bad as she'd feared.
There was definitely something there, and like everything else in her life, she was confident this, too, would improve greatly with practice.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 7.