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A DECEMBER NIGHT
On a wild night in deep winter in the year 1537, the greatest magus in the world gathered together and dismissed his household servants, wrapped himself in his traveling cloak, took his staff in one hand and in the other a small wooden box sealed with pitch and clasped with silver, and stepped out into the whirling sleet, bound for the harbor and—so he expected—immortality.
All but the city’s most utterly forlorn inhabitants had been driven from the streets by the bitter weather. The remaining beggars and strays were fully occupied with their struggle to survive until dawn, so the magus walked uninterrupted through alleys of filthy slush. Nobody so much as saw him; any lifted eyes would have been stung by the icy rain, which felt as if it blew from every direction at once. Nobody but one.
Some thirty paces behind him, a figure followed, bone-thin as the stray dogs and ragged as the beggars. It looked like little more than a jumble of sticks and scraps of cloth that should have been scattered at once by the ferocious wind; but seen more closely (though nobody saw) it was a woman, gaunt, weather-beaten, but steady. Her eyes were fixed on the man’s back, and never turned away no matter how the sleet blew.
Beneath his cloak, the magus kept a tight grip on the box. Inside it, padded around with wool, was a calfskin pouch pricked out with marks of warding and asylum. Inside the pouch were two things: a small oval mirror in a velvet sheath, and a ring which appeared to be carved of wood, though it was not.
Inside the mirror was a share of the magus’s soul. Inside the ring was all the magic in the world.
He came out of the alleys and hurried as best he could along a broader thoroughfare by a frozen canal, where the wind was at last able to settle on a single direction and roar at full force. He was not afraid, exactly. Since mastering his art he had seen far more than any other living man, and outgrown faintheartedness. Still, the things he carried were infinitely precious to him, and he was eager to be away, across the sea in England.
Even in the foulest weather, a falling tide and a wind blowing seaward kept the wharves from being entirely deserted. He had to break stride to pick his way through the lantern-lit clusters of carters and watermen clumped alongside creaking hulls. That was what made him glance around, and so for the first time notice his pursuer.
His fingers closed tighter on the box.
Her voice made a space for itself in the air, slicing between the weather’s din and the clattering and flapping of the ships. He halted, his back to her.
The moment she caught up with him, the wind stopped. Instead of sleet, snowflakes fell, gathering on his hood and shoulders. In the abrupt silence he felt in his ears the guilty hammering of his heart. The rest of the world around them had gone still. The two of them stood as if alone in the snow, as they would again, long, long afterward, in their last winter.
He sighed, and closed his eyes. “How do you come to be here?” he asked.
“Johannes, turn.” She spoke in Latin, as he had.
“I know what I will see.”
“Then face me.”
He neither turned nor answered.
“What you took from me,” the woman said, “you must now return.”
At this his eyes blinked open. He pressed the box tight to his heart.
She stretched out an arm toward his back, hand open, and held it still. “You cannot bear it,” she said. “Save yourself.”
Still without facing her, the magus raised his voice. “I did not look for you to be here. Let me go.”
“Look for me?” He had never heard her angry before. He had not thought her capable of common passions. The ice in her voice cut as keen as winter. “You never looked for me. No more can you dismiss me. But if you do not turn back, I will go, Johannes, and the end you fear will have arrived.”
For a few seconds neither spoke. The snowflakes made white shadows on the trimming of his cloak, and thawed into cold drops on her upturned face.
He set his lips tight and took a step forward.
She gave a despairing cry, instantly drowned out by the return of the wind. In an eyeblink it hurled away the flecks of snow and spun them into the freezing murk. He looked around, but the ragged woman was nowhere to be seen. She at least had kept her word, and was gone.
A voice bellowed: “Master John Fiste!”
It was how he had given the captain his name. The vessel and its crew were English. He shifted around to put the wind at his back and saw a mariner beckoning, and beyond that, the harbor light glowing through a sparkling curtain of sleet.
Still holding the box tightly concealed under his cloak, he followed the man aboard.
Some hours later the wet abated, and because he had urged haste and paid them extravagantly, the ship put out to sea. The wind was strong but steady, and the crew made light of it. But as dawn approached it grew into a storm. All that day it swept the carrack unrelentingly westward, far past the port where Master John Fiste had expected to begin his life again. When at last they were close to being propelled altogether out of sight of land, with no sign of the storm relenting, the captain resolved to risk an approach to the lee of the English coast, hoping to enter the great harbor at Penryn. As they neared the estuary, the wind squalled capriciously, the ship was blown onto a reef, and captain, crew, and passengers were drowned, Master John Fiste and the rest.
For all anyone knew, the greatest magus in the world had stepped out of his house alone one winter night and vanished. In time, most came to say that he had sold his soul for his art and been called to a reckoning by the devil, snatched off without a trace. It made a good cautionary tale for a more skeptical age. Believing Johannes in hell where he and his practices belonged, even wise men barely troubled themselves with the fact that all the magic in the world had gone with him.