A Little Touch of Magic
Time moved oddly in the university, sluggish light dripping from tallow candles in innumerable sconces no substitute for either the wheeling light of stars or the clear sunshine that wouldn't touch the building until many more months had passed. Halfway through her second lecture, Hermione found herself mesmerized by the candles, watching wax in languid droplets sliding down to catch in their deep basins and then overflow, dripping in greasy puddles on the floor. Something about the way the viscous wax tried to cling to the edge before finally, inevitably, falling…
"—which concludes our discussion today," Professor Elgin finished with a flourish under his final word. A red-cheeked man, plump body sleek as an arctic seal, his lecture on gravitational physics had been far more pleasant than Professor Tellers, if a little less gripping. He smiled on them all before wishing them a good evening, a gesture of kindness the more welcome because of its rarity. Students surged to his desk, clamoring over each other with praise, none of which Hermione could understand until it became clear Professor Elgin was one of the chief arbiters of 'scope time.
For a moment, Hermione hesitated where she stood, skirting the edge of the lecture hall. Would it be wise to insert herself in that crowd, smiling and bashful, artlessly pleased at her opportunity to learn from such a font of wisdom? The professor had no ring on his forefinger; perhaps, like other middle-aged bachelors, he would be charmed by a pretty young woman's praise. Her father's business colleagues had often been.
But with a sharp shake of her head and a heave of her books, Hermione turned and headed into the shadowy corridors. First impressions. For the sake of her academic career, she would not allow herself to be perceived as a flattering bubble-head. If she did charm him—which was a tool in her arsenal she would not neglect, only consider carefully how it might be deployed—it would be well out of sight of the other students.
After this class, she had another gap of half an hour until her final lecture of the day and nothing to spend it on. Her purse was empty, even if she wanted yet another cup of the university's tragic Pu'er tea. Tomorrow, she would have to remember to bring her own; she had a thermos that would suit her purposes admirably.
But for that moment…she consulted her map. The library was a possibility, but in the short list of the university's attractions, there could really only be one draw.
Time observing through the 'scope was tightly managed, to be sure. But no one had told her she could not observe the 'scope itself. And after traveling so far, surely she deserved a peek?
Semantics, surely. But she hoped no one would argue with them.
The path up to the 'scope was well-worn. Long ago, ages before the skill even existed to cast mirrors large enough for the university's beautiful reflector, the observation deck had still been used by scholars with other tools, rudimentary and small. Those intrepid men, squinting through their handmade gadgets—many of which they had invented themselves—still managed to make discoveries that shook the world's very conception of itself. Now, Hermione followed in their footsteps—quite literally, for the passage of their feet had warped the ancient stone stairs, bowing them in the middle where cold snowmelt puddled.
Up and up she went, the sound of her boots splashing in the melt and her heavy, eager breathing the only sounds echoing coldly off the stone walls. The stairway narrowed and turned around on itself, spiraling up the final floor until she came to a pitted wooden trapdoor in the ceiling. A tentative push proved it unlocked, and Hermione raised it with both hands and wiggled gracelessly out onto the floor of the observatory.
At first, the round chamber, capped with the copper dome above, seemed empty. Like a church seen at midnight, Hermione felt a frisson of superstition and religious awe tingle her skin. Poor lighting turned the shadows into keepers of secrets, glints of iron, glass, and bronze became a king's jewel-horde, and logbooks transformed into ancient tomes of buried wisdom. She let go her breath in a shaky sigh, turning round in place, amazed to find herself standing there at last, where so many of her dreams had placed her. It didn't feel like a strange, new place. It felt like coming home.
As for the 'scope itself…
She had already seen its eye from the outside, unblinking, staring at the wonders of the aurora and the galaxy beyond it. That great oculus, crafted from a lens cast hundreds of leagues away, its gaze augmented by flawless silver-backed mirrors cast to the height of a fully-grown man, stood in towering glory in the center of the chamber. What she had not seen was the massive trunk that supported those delicate internal instruments, wide around as a blackwood tree and just as imposing. The 'scope rested on a stand cast in wrought iron, filigreed like the exterior of the dome, its shape sinuous and intricate, a work of art rather than science. This stand could be moved, through a series of levers and gears, to orient the 'scope any way a researcher wished, from directly on the horizon to perfectly overhead. The observer's lens could also be moved, allowing one to watch the heavens and follow their ephemeral motions in comfort.
Hermione jumped. Someone was doing just that. And not only someone…she recognized that unruly frazzle of brown hair.
"You shouldn't be here," Professor Tellers didn't look around, "I know you are new to the university, but intruding on another's time is generally poor form wherever you might be from. And I know you were well-brought-up, Miss Bascombe."
"Forgive me, Professor," she swallowed, caught between her desire to remain and the overpowering shriek of her mother's voice in her head, asking how she dared, "How did you know it was me?"
"There are only four female students and a handful of women on staff. Every one of them knows better than to disturb another student, and they all know better than to bother me. And now you know better," he jabbed with his fingers, and the trapdoor flipped open, slamming against the stone floor, blown open by some silent influence. Hermione flinched but did not cry out, even as the same influence ruffled the heavy hem of her skirt. "I am generous to first offenders, so I will take only half-credit from your test this week. Next time you will fail my course."
Swallowing again on the sick rush of bile in her throat, Hermione's whole body burned with shame. Shame, and anger. Caught between the impulse to argue with his unfair treatment and the instinct to retreat and preserve, if she could, a shred of respectability, her tongue reacted with confusion and instead blurted:
"You have the Touch?"
"A touch of the Touch," he grumbled, fingers flexing before returning to the dials of the 'scope. "The university is aware, if you were hoping by revealing my dark secret you would improve your standing here. I am properly registered, my gifts measured and weighed by the appropriate authorities. Now get out, as you were told."
Sidestepping entirely his allusion to blackmail—as if she could, when her sister had been a prodigy with his powers!—she swung back from confusion to rage.
"This is how you treat your students?" she asked, wishing she had the courage to step forward and wring his pencil neck for him, "I have left everything to be here. I have drained my accounts for a chance—not a guarantee, a chance—to be in this room! I do not expect you to sympathize, or pity, but I should have thought that, as a teacher, you would understand."
Professor Tellers' back stiffened, and his pencil neck flushed red. Slowly, so slowly Hermione had a chance to imagine every way she might be expelled, he stood upright and set his pen down.
When he turned, it was to regard her with a sardonic smile, the lines on his face heavy with irony. He spoke evenly, with a cut-glass edge on each of his words that threatened to disembowel her where she stood.
"For all you lay claim on my understanding, you have little yourself. I may be a professor at this esteemed university, but that does not entitle me to much more respect here than it does you. I know how it feels to not have what you want the instant you want it. I also know how it feels to swallow that fury and do what you must in order to get what you desire. You want understanding from me, Miss Bascombe? Do me the favor of believing when I say that if you are still here when I resume my work you will never have the opportunity of understanding more about the cosmos than you do this very moment."
Hermione rocked on her feet, face flaming as though he had hurt her. Did he think of her as a spoilt child, whining and crying when not instantly given a treat? Everything was going wrong, everything! How had this day ventured so far from all her carefully-laid plans?
She stepped towards the trapdoor, self-conscious and awkward under the professor's glare. Words worked in her throat and crouched on her tongue, but she had the restraint to hold them in. What good was speech when it was willfully misconstrued?
However, there was one accusation she could not let stand. "I would never threaten anyone with the Touch. My sister had it, and could do a lot more with her gifts than a bit of telekinesis. If the authorities had ever come for her, I would have told them to arrest me before laying a finger on her. I know what happens to people in those horrible prisons."
Did he look ashamed, even a little? Perhaps not, but his manic smile did dissipate into heavy solemnity. "The name Althea Bascombe isn't unknown to me. Your sister, then? She was remarkable, from what I heard."
Tears gathered in her nose and burned hot behind her eyes. So sudden was the emotion that Hermione's voice was rough when she said, "She was. So very remarkable."
"I never heard that Althea Bascombe had a sister."
Hermione smiled, soft and sad. "No, I am sure you would not have. I have none of her talents, you see." Althea had moved in her own world, with her own friends, a solar system into which Hermione had rarely been invited. She had always anticipated her sister's brief visits of her orbit as she would look forward to a bright comet appearing suddenly in the night sky. Beautiful, welcome, but fleeting.
She lowered herself through the door and fumbled with the heavy iron handle that would pull it closed afterwards.
"No need, Miss Bascombe," Professor Tellers said, waggling his fingers, "Mind your step on the way down."
Her walk back to the Capstan was solitary and frigid. The tears startled up by her brief mention of Althea's name had not yet dried, and now, in the icy air, they threatened to freeze into a solid chunk of ice. Hermione pulled up her scarf and swallowed, throat swollen and painful.
Thoughts of her sister came rarely, but when they arrived, they were impossible to shift. Althea, beautiful, skilled, Touched with glamor and grace. Her little sister, whose secrets aged her beyond her years, so that Hermione always felt she was racing to catch up, to mature, to have secrets of her own to hoard. But it was impossible to outdo Althea, mostly because she was beyond competition. Neither Hermione nor her parents could touch her; she would only turn her fathomless, leaden-gray eyes on them and smile, an enigmatic, amused quirk of her lips, before she would turn away.
Althea never explained herself, never condescended to the grounded rules the rest of the Bascombe family abided by. She was governed by her own rules, laid down by some ancient unspoken law, a law of power they had no claim to.
What need had she to be on time, to smile on those she loathed, to waste time she did not wish to spend on those unworthy of it? Punishments, lost privileges, harsh words from their parents…they glanced off, immaterial. A locked door meant nothing to one who could melt through walls; a high wall no obstacle to one who could fly.
It had been years, but Hermione still could not stop herself from wondering. Had Althea, that pleasant spring day with the high cirrus clouds brushing the heavens like feathers of some primeval bird, just felt their last ties dissolve into warm, sunny air? Had her body at last become too buoyant for gravity to restrain? At times, she had seemed to shimmer as her skin glowed with internal light. As if her shape itself hazed, its atoms losing their elemental bond.
It was her Touch, she said, glowing out of her like the illumination of an eternal soul.
Hermione sniffled, tears prickling cold at the corner of her eyes. When she disappeared, there had been no body. No proof of what the investigators claimed about her death. She was just…gone.
Pulled by her own inexorable gravity, Hermione glanced at the sky above, mesmerized anew by its ever-changing palette, something like the beautiful, celestial light that once shone from Althea's face, writ large across the unbroken canvas of the night sky. So long had she wondered, so often had she suspected…records were spotty and inconsistent, scrawled in a variety of languages and often preserved only in oral traditions, but everything she had read seemed to reach the same conclusion: there had been no Touched before the aurora appeared. Mere coincidence?
No. Bending her head, Hermione forced herself to walk briskly along the canal, forcing blood to flow back into her frozen toes. She would not have come all this way, defied her parents and all their expectations, for a suspicion. Of all her weaknesses, it was this tendency towards self-doubt she now had to grapple with the most. She had good reasons to draw a line between the aurora and the strange magic that had infected their world from the time it had appeared. It had been her subject of private study for years, and she had been meticulous in assembling her evidence. There was a connection there, and she could—and would—prove it.
Moreover, the presence of Professor Tellers, Touched himself, gave her hope. A man with gifts, even minor ones as he seemed to have, could surely do better for himself than a professorship at a minor university. He did not seem to love teaching; this was no passion for him. What else could he be doing but studying the link between his magic and the aurora?
Many things, she scoffed internally. Surely there were many like him, only possessed with a hint of power, who chose to make their living without the unnecessary attraction that attended the Touched. Attraction and scrutiny. Hermione would never have considered blackmail, but an unregistered Touched would have good cause to fear it.
What did it matter why Professor Tellers was there, lecturing to students he cared nothing for? All that mattered was that he might, with cautious effort, be made to care for Hermione's research. Would an academic have no interest in a subject so personal to him, if he were not already studying it? She could hardly believe so.
Of course, she would have to be circumspect. Men like the professor did not want to be reminded that others had lives and goals and interests that might conflict with his. So when she mentioned it to him, it must be just a whisper, only a hint. Something to arouse his own curiosity, get him thinking of the subject on his own before she could address it more directly.
Hermione had no gifts; she was not Touched. She could not blast a man across the room or lift herself into the air. She could make nothing grow or wilt, except with careful attention and time. Her body would never evaporate into the air or become transparent as a shadow.
Yet she was not untalented, whatever she had said. A life lived between her father, who charted his course complicated business-minded men, her mother, sailing the social seas of Veruca Bay, and her sister, whose personality was the most abstract and complex, deep as the ocean itself, Hermione had learned hard lessons. The lessons of reading others, of gauging her reactions and behaviors to theirs. Of tying her boat to theirs and using their momentum to glide along in their wake on a heading she desired.
Her first day might not have gone as she intended, but it was only one day. She had only just begun.
Raising her head with a sharp jerk, Hermione smiled as the Capstan came into view, its windows welcoming yellow eyes in winter's impenetrable darkness.
Author's note: I see this story has a few pairs of eyes on it! Welcome, and I hope you're having as much fun as I am. If you are, please do me a favor and leave a review. Writing original stories is a lonely job, and if you're out there I'd really love to hear from you.