Nicholas Rasputin is a low-level history professor at Oxford University. He's also the son of Andre Rasputin, Britain's last great wizard/spy and one-time leader of MI-6's Special Section, and he's the great-grandson of Grigori Rasputin, perhaps the most powerful and infamous evil wizard in all history. However, none of that explains why two American Army officers have come to Nick's classroom to try to strong-arm him into giving them Durandel, the legendary Sword of Kings.
Now, having agreed to accompany the Americans back to their training camp, Nick is lost in memories of his father. Without thinking about it, his steps have led him to the flat of his ex-girlfriend, Amy.
I started to turn away but couldn’t quite make myself. The Hell with it. I didn’t think she’d like me to use my key, but maybe she wouldn’t mind seeing me, and in truth, I needed to talk to someone. Day like that, it was obvious enough. I didn’t want to be alone. And then, too, I’d been meaning to bring her key back for weeks, anyhow.
I closed my eyes and pressed the buzzer, hoping it wouldn’t be a fight. But if it was, well, I’d be going to America soon enough. The States’ new Extraordinary Defense Initiative (USEDI) had seen to that. The rest of that stuff--the part about the Russian ultranationalists, the Chechens, and the Sword of Kings--looked, in retrospect, like little more than details in comparison to the idea of America developing some kind of rogue program for Army War Wizards. In any event, even if Amy and I wound up fighting like old times, fact was she and I could both rest easy. One way or another, I wouldn’t be around to bother her for a while.
The building’s intercom sounded. “Hello?”
I gathered my courage. “It’s me, Amy. Can I come up?”
A beat passed before she answered, her voice tinny over the tiny apartment loudspeaker. “What do you want, Nick?”
“I’ve got your key.” I shrugged as though she could see it. “I just want to talk.”
I could almost hear her thinking about it. At last she said, “Fine.” The intercom went off with a pop, and then her door buzzer sounded.
I passed through her vestibule and onto the stairs before it occurred to me that I oughtn’t show up empty handed. I looked around in a panic and began to gather power to myself, almost on instinct, but I didn’t immediately see anything promising. The stairwell had been swept clean, and each landing I passed was empty save for a set of closed doors and a single window through which the pale light of evening streamed. I began to fear that I’d have to Conjure something—a truly gratuitous use of magic for the task of returning one’s ex-girlfriend’s house key—until at last I spotted an old newspaper page on Amy’s neighbor’s stoop. I snatched it and realized my heart was racing. A few twists around the bottom turned it into a sort of paper funnel. I then pulled on the upper edges, spreading them out into the nearest facsimile of beauty that I could manage. By the time I had my wand out, the air around me fairly crackled with power. Despite myself, I smiled. I’d not realized how nervous I was, but somehow knowing it helped—as did doing something about it.
I held the newspaper flower at arm’s length with my left hand and pointed my wand with my right, forcing the energy around me to focus at the tip of my wand. The newspaper melted. I gathered the matter with my mind and pushed, infusing it with as much youth and beauty and joy as I dared. The object in my hand surged and grew, becoming first one rose and then two. I stopped when I had a half-dozen and then pulled back just a touch. Roses that had been red faded to the color of pale pink champagne.
I let myself fall against Amy’s doorframe, tired but triumphant, and waited a moment to catch my breath. It hadn’t been a difficult piece of magic, but it was one that not many could do using an old plastic chopstick for a wand, and the roses themselves looked pretty good. But then, I’d always been good with Transmogrifications, and using a weak locus meant that the back blast--the effect of the Law of Unintended Consequences--would be localized and almost certainly harmless. My old chopstick-wand wasn’t capable of doing more; that was why I used it.
I raised my fist to knock, but Amy’s door opened before I got the chance. She smiled when she saw the flowers.
“I felt you making these,” she said, reaching for them. Her smile brightened. “Hello Nick. It’s good to see you.”
“Hi Amy.” I followed her into her apartment. “I brought your key.”
Inside, her apartment was as neat as ever. A bottle of bourbon was out along with two glasses, both filled with ice. “You want a drink?” She poured a finger of bourbon into one of the glasses and topped it with a like amount of water. “It’s Very Old Barton—aged one thousand years.”
I took the glass. “It’s... what?”
Her smile turned impish. “Like I said, I felt you coming. And, well, it wasn’t hard to guess what you were going to do with all that power.” She raised her own wand and twirled it. It was a slender thing made of sterling silver, and it flashed in the apartment’s electric lights. “I used your back blast to mellow the bourbon. We don’t want holes in the carpets, you know.”
I took a pull off the bourbon to hide my surprise. Of course Amy knew me very well, but no magician likes to have his tricks guessed before he even does them. Fortunately, my chagrin was fleeting. The bourbon was good—it was very mellow—and it felt good to be back in Amy’s apartment. It felt natural. It was good to know how well she knew me.
Amy poured a drink for herself and raised it. Our glasses clinked. She smiled again.
“You look good," I said.
It was true. Blue eyes, broad smile, white teeth, all framed by a great heaping pile of brown hair that was all pulled back, with only a few strands free to frame her face. She hadn’t known I was coming, so she hadn’t made herself up, but that was almost better. I could tell that she was honestly happy to see me. She bopped around her apartment looking for a vase for the flowers I’d brought, an athletic girl at home on a weeknight in an old sweater and jeans. I was seized by a strong sense of déjà vu. We hadn’t been a couple for more than a fortnight, and yet it was as if nothing had changed. We were still the same happy, semi-domestic mated pairing that we’d been not three weeks before.
She stood at her sink for a moment cutting the ends from the roses. Then she turned her head and looked at me. “I don’t think I trust you,” she said. But her voice held a hint of mischief in it. “What do you want?”
“I told you. I just want to talk. Honestly.”
“Uh huh. A likely story.” She turned around. The flowers were cut to one length and standing safely in a tall glass vase. She held them up for inspection. “What do you think?”
I shook my head, stared down at my glass. “Beautiful.”
Suddenly I felt like I was there under false pretenses.
“Are you all right?” I think she’d just then really looked at me for the first time. “What’s going on?”
“You know, I go up and down. Today was...” I shook my head, unable to meet her eyes. “Eh. Let’s skip it, okay?”
Her arms came around me, pulling me to her. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
I let her hold me, let my head sink down to her shoulder, even though I knew that I shouldn’t. But her body was soft, and her hair smelled like honey. I felt her heart beating against my chest, and I looked at her. I tried to read her face, hesitated a minute, decided I didn’t care what happened later.
Our lips met.
She kissed me back hard, holding tight. My hands ran across her shoulders and into her hair. We staggered together, tripped on her couch, and tumbled in a heap onto the floor. It might have been funny, but it wasn’t. I was on my back, Amy on top, feeling things that were at once old and new, routine and joyously unexpected. I held her, kissed her, and was afraid to open my eyes. My fingers found the tail of her shirt, pulled it free from her jeans, raised sweater and shirt over her head. That left just Amy—pale skin and a bit of lacy bra—laying on my chest. I kissed her again, and she smiled. I started to undo the buttons on my shirt.
She laid a hand on mine. “Nick, wait. I...
“Can we take this just a little slower?” She laid her head on my chest and ran a finger through my hair. “I love you, but I’m scared. You understand that, right? I can’t go through this again.”
I sighed but held her and let the moment pass. Sanity returned. I said, “Yeah. I understand.” I was aware of the fact that Amy was my ex-girlfriend. We lay holding each other, and despite everything, I was glad of her. Glad to not have to be by myself. I kissed the top of her head. “Thanks for letting me in.”
“You really don’t want to tell me about it?”
“Not really.” I shook my head. A beat passed. “I have to go to America. You know, it’s always the same old shit.”