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Teman crouched behind a rough stone wall, squinting against the golden rays of the setting sun. He didn't spy any of the pack of boys who had been chasing him. Maybe he had finally lost them--he'd been dodging through the back streets for hours.
As he leaned against the wall with his eyes closed, he tried to remember a time when he wasn't hungry and cold. He couldn't do it. It would have worried him if he'd had the energy to spare, but at the moment, all he wanted to do was find a safe place for the night.
Teman sighed and opened his eyes. With a gasp of shock, he tried to back through the stone wall at the sight of a robed figure looming before him. The figure smiled, a twinkling glimmer lighting its dark eyes.
"Don't be afraid, little mouse. I don't wish to harm you."
"That terribly wicked wizard, Velachaz. Yes, I know. How about some dinner?"
Teman swallowed hard at the very mention of food. He'd found a crust of bread in the marketplace yesterday evening, and it had seemed a feast. But to trust the magic-user ... ?
"Come, boy. If you follow me, I will give you a hot meal and a soft bed for the night."
The last offer was too tempting to ignore. There had been too many nights spent under bridges or inside stables lately. Steeling his courage, Teman followed the mysterious wizard. While they progressed quickly through the maze of streets making up the slums of Farlea, Teman studied the figure before him curiously.
Velachaz wore a velvet cloak of deepest midnight over a robe that shimmered and shifted in color when the boy tried to identify its hue. Themage's hair was black as coal, except for a silver streak that ran along his right temple, and his beardless features were neither young nor old. On his left hand, a heavy silver ring with a blue stone began to glow, dimly at first, and then brighter and brighter as the sunlight faded, illuminating the street around them.
Teman noticed the magic with unease, and he had second thoughts about the wisdom of his decision to follow Velachaz. He began to slow his steps, gradually falling behind the wizard, his gaze darting right and left as he searched for an alley to duck into.
All at once, Velachaz spun, gesturing toward Teman, and muttering something under his breath. Teman found himself frozen where he stood, unable to move. His heart skipped a beat, but he faced the magician bravely.
"Don't look so terrified, little mouse." Velachaz's stern face was transformed by the gentle smile Teman had seen earlier. "You have been through a great deal, haven't you," he murmured softly. "What has put the shadows in your eyes?" Velachaz barked a command and the magic released Teman.
The boy slid to the cobblestones, his legs no longer willing to hold him up.
Velachaz hunkered down in the dirt beside the boy, ignoring the trailing velvet of his cloak. "I don't wish to harm you, lad. You have my word. Someday, you will have to trust someone. It may as well be today. Come." He held out his ringed hand, and Teman tentatively took it.
The wizard pulled him to his feet. "Tonight--dinner and rest. Tomorrow--if you are willing--I may have a task for you..."
There it was--the hidden thorn in this rose. No one had ever offered him anything for free.
Velachaz waved a hand before the blank wall of the nondescript building beside them, and a wooden door appeared. The wizard flung it open and gestured Teman inside with a flourish. "Welcome to my home."
Teman stepped forward, mouth open in awe. The single room contained jumbled mounds of objects everywhere he turned. It was crammed from top to bottom with items both recognized and fantastical. A stew pot sat beside a glowing orb. A fan wrought of delicate silver filigree lay on a bolt of satin. A chest heaped with gold and jewels was topped by a handful of scroll cases. Even a single coin from that chest would buy food for a month if carefully managed.
As if reading his mind, Velachaz reached into the chest and scooped up a handful of the glittering coins. He spilled them into Teman's hand. "These are for you."
Teman stared down at the ten bright discs. It was more fortune than he had ever dreamed of. He looked up at the wizard. "Why?"
"Because you need them ... because I don't ... because I, too, wished for something better when I was a boy." Velachaz hung his cloak on a peg. Without its concealing folds, Teman noticed for the first time how the wizard's right arm hung awkward and useless at his side.
Velachaz followed his eye. "Ahh ... yes. The rumors do not mention that the fearsome Velachaz is only half a man, and we must be sure to keep it that way. Our little secret? A bit of advice, my young friend--never fight a dragon alone--not even a baby one."
Without the sweeping cape, Teman's sharp eyes detected a slight hesitation to his companion's step as well. Despite the limp, the wizard moved swiftly around his home, and a fire soon crackled merrily on the hearth, while steam spiraled up from a pair of plates on the table. The heady scent of carrots and potatoes mixed with the savory smell of roast mutton, and Teman's head swam from hunger.
"Come and eat, boy." The wizard beamed, indicating a chair for Teman. "The food is plain, but satisfying. I think you'll find it to your taste--" Suddenly, his smile wavered and faded into a frown. "What shall I call you, lad? I can't keep calling you boy."
"M-my name is Teman."
"And you must call me Vela--all that terribly wicked business you can forget about. It is awfully tiresome trying to live up to such a reputation--and my friends know better." Velachaz winked at him.
Teman sat down at the table, and soon not a scrap of food remained on his plate.
"You were hungry, weren't you, Teman?"
"You are awfully young to be on the streets alone, lad."
"My mother died last winter, and my father beat me for it. I-I know it was his grief that made him do it, but I thought it would be better for us both if I left. I hear he has a new family now. He doesn't need me any more."
"Teman, he probably needs you more than you'll ever know. But, his loss is my gain. Because I need a strong, smart boy, with the heart of a lion--like you."
"But I am none of those things, sir."
"Oh, but you are. I watched those boys chase you for hours, and you had wit enough to keep ahead of them, though I know you were exhausted. You tried to slip away from me, but faced bravely whatever consequences would come from my wrath. Oh, yes. You are an exceptional boy. I need a boy like you to be my right hand."
Velachaz rose to his feet and began to pace about the room restlessly, as if it pained him to sit still for any length of time. "I cannot let the world know of my physical weaknesses. It fears Magic far too much, and would seek to destroy me. I have hid it this long, but it is getting harder and harder to do, as more of the townsfolk feel they have outgrown Magic and its mysteries." He swung around to face Teman, eyes alight with excitement. "But if you will stand always to my right, and do as I will teach you, we can trick the world into seeing what we wish it to see. In return, I will give you a warm bed, good food, and clean clothes ... and I will train you in the lesser ways of Magic. What do you say, Teman--will you become the right hand of Velachaz?"
Teman thought of a home ... food on the table ... warm fire ... companionship. It was a strange twist of fortune--but that didn't lessen its attractions. "I'd be honored, my lord Vela."
And so, his apprenticeship began.