We called them “Scholars” – a pretty little euphemism for what they really were. Once you opened the watch and saw the odd shapes in place of numbers, you knew. It wouldn’t do to be impolite; after all, in what world was it a good idea to piss off someone who could set you on fire with a thought?
There were rules, you see, guidelines for what to call them. “Scholar” – acceptable. “Mage” was old-fashioned enough to raise an eyebrow, but not, ultimately, offensive. “Witch” or “warlock” would get you in a fight pretty damn quickly, and you’d have to pray to whatever you believed in that they were relying on their fists rather than their magic. (I saw it happen once: proper bar brawl – glasses being smashed over heads, lightning flying everywhere, everything. What’d the bloke been expecting, going round yelling slurs in a public drinking place? With the statistics, it’d been reasonably likely we’d have had a scholar in the room. One in every thirty, they said; it was genetic, unavoidable.) Oh, and it was always a bad idea to call a Scholar a “magician,” no matter how distinguished you thought it sounded – those were the people who performed shiny but pointless illusions , pulled rabbits out of hats, and any respectable mage would laugh at you.
It had been on my mind recently – magic, and the politics of it. I didn’t know any mages myself (well, I probably did; plenty of Scholars didn’t want to wear their watches publicly), but I was… interested. My flat had had another tenant before me, Marc. Nice bloke – freckly, shy but friendly enough if you spoke to him, rock climbing instructor. He had also been a mage. He’d been evicted after starting a small fire in his bedroom. Now, me, I’d have assumed a cigarette in bed or the like – but everyone else, their eyes had instantly gone to the watch in his pocket and they’d only seen one thing. Long story short, he’d admitted it: an uncontrolled instance of magic. He’d defended himself: said that he’d been having a nightmare, it’d been an unconscious response. The courts had had little pity to spare, and had said that all that should’ve been trained out of him years ago. He’d been charged with property damage and loss of magical control – minor, in the end, but the outcry had been less so. People had started asking if the eviction was discrimination against Scholars – it’d even made the news. Just like that, the average man on the street’s interest in Scholars, their place in society, had been ignited.
Temporary, of course. Most people had lost interest, but I was curious even after the media frenzy had died down – it was my flat, after all, and the scorch mark was still on the wall.
My landlady had recommended a bookshop somewhere down Champignon Street, and now here I was – turning the corner and walking over cobbles, picking my way over to Stretham Books.
The bell above the door tinkled as I walked in – I’d never liked the things; you couldn’t just wander quietly in and out of a shop after a quick browse, because once that bell rang, the shopkeeper knew you were there, and they’d glare at you until you felt obligated to buy something.
Sure enough, the shopkeeper looked up at the sound, giving me a small smile. He’d obviously been knee-deep in a heavy book – it lay open on the counter – and his hand still rested on it as he peered at me through a few stray locks of blond hair. He looked like a student: skinny and trapped somewhere in his twenties, with eyes too young for his smile. “Something I can help you with?” he asked, after a moment too long of me standing and looking hesitant. Every wall in the room except the one behind the not-student was lined with books, practically papered with them; I had no idea where to start.
“Yeah,” I eventually said. I approached the counter. “I’ve heard this is a good place for finding out about scholars. Good books, and all.”
“Ah,” he said, with the hint of a laugh. “You could say that.” He stood up, heading towards a section on the right. Realised, feeling like an idiot, that on top of that row was a sign – just a folded piece of cardboard, really, but visible enough – and on it was a neatly-written Mage/Scholar. There was another thing I noticed in that moment, too – small, insignificant, but informative: the gleam of a watch chain going into the hip pocket of his jeans, peeking out from underneath his shirt. Kind of incongruous, but there.
He caught me looking before I could shift my gaze somewhere else, or politely pretend I hadn’t noticed. The smile didn’t budge, but there was a wariness in his eyes. It had appeared when I’d mentioned Scholars; I should’ve put two and two together. (It was that, actually, that confirmed it – that told me he wasn’t just one of those idiots who’d started wearing watches for fashion and the double-takes they attracted. They enjoyed the ambiguity of it; this guy was resigned, a look in his eyes like he was waiting for a blow even as he covered it with confidence.) “Ask,” he said. He was still smiling. There was no hostility in it, just patience.
“Is that the wat – the focal points?”
“You can call it a watch.” There was a click, an exhalation – then he was passing it to me, small and gold.
I briefly weighed it in my palm, enjoying the solidity, the roundness of it, then hesitated: were mundanes even supposed to handle these things? When I looked up, he’d already turned back to the shelves; he was running a hand over the spines of the books, seemingly deep in thought. I wasn’t sure it’d be a good idea to disturb him, but I did anyway. “Don’t you worry about someone stealing this?”
He didn’t even pause, or turn. “Hm? Well, seeing as I can fry them with my brain before they’re out of the door…” He cocked his head. “No, not particularly.” He sighed. “I can sense what’s happening to it and where it is, and the government regulates us closely enough that a watch theft wouldn’t go unnoticed for long.”
I looked down at the watch, suddenly even more self-conscious about handling it.
The first chapter of a novel I’ll probably never get round to writing. Tell me what you think – it’d be nice to see if it’s worth continuing.