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“Full of fierce girls, fabulously fun magic, humor, and so much heart. I loved it!” —Stephanie Burgis, author of The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart and Kat, Incorrigible
A young wizard’s apprentice discovers that the best magic is not the biggest or the brightest, but the magic unique to you, in this cinematic middle grade fantasy in the tradition of Kiki’s Delivery Service and The School for Good and Evil.
Antonia may not be the most powerful wizard the world has ever seen, but she’s worked hard to win her place as apprentice to renowned sorcerer Master Betrys. Unfortunately, even her best dancing turnip charm might not be enough when Moppe, the scullery maid, turns out to be a magical prodigy. Now that Betrys has taken Moppe on as a second apprentice, Antonia’s path to wizarding just got a bit more complicated.
But when Betrys is accused of treason, Antonia and Moppe are forced to go on the run. To prove their master’s innocence—and their own—the rivals must become allies. As their island province teeters on the brink of rebellion, they’ll face ancient spells, vengeful mermaids, voice-stealing forests, and one insatiable sea monster.
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Chapter 1 1
IT’S HARDER THAN YOU’D THINK to make a turnip dance. I mean, obviously you need to use magic. But it’s not a difficult spell.
I learned the magespeak word for turnip almost six months ago, on my very first day as Master Betrys’s apprentice. She says turnips are the perfect subjects for practice because they’re plentiful and won’t do too much harm if I accidentally send one zooming out her window across the plaza. I think the real reason is that she hates eating them and is trying to thwart Cook. There’s no reason we couldn’t be using carrots or quinces, except that Master Betrys hasn’t taught me those words yet. I had to look them up myself, secretly, in her study, when she was out repairing Arles Nevin’s enchanted clock.
But she did teach me the words for animate and dance. So I shouldn’t have been having any trouble. And yet...
I tried my best to scrub the scowl from my face, to evoke the exquisite grace Master Betrys always displayed when casting even the most challenging incantations. I forced myself to ignore the ache in my shin from when I accidentally bumped into—well, kicked in frustration is more accurate—the kitchen table after my last failed attempt.
The innocent purple-white vegetable lay waiting atop the oak bench, bathed in the soft red glow of the banked hearth fire. I hadn’t bothered to light a lamp. Everyone else was asleep at this hour, except for Master Betrys, who was out at a dinner party. And I didn’t particularly want to be observed, especially if I failed again.
Master Betrys was expecting me to perform the enchantment tomorrow morning. And I would do it. I had to. In just over two weeks it would be my half-year anniversary as an apprentice. I was running out of time.
I still remembered my mother’s words as she frowned over the banknote paying for my first half year of study with Master Betrys. Six months, Antonia, she had said. I’ll give you six months to demonstrate that this fascination of yours is of any practical use to our family. If not...
I shuddered. I could already imagine the fine lines denting my mother’s perfect brow, and the look in her bright green eyes. Not disappointment. You had to expect something from someone in order to be disappointed. If I failed as a wizard, my mother’s eyes would say, I told you so. Then she would summon me home, and all my dreams would die. I’d lose the one thing that made me feel like there was a place for me in the world.
I shoved Mother out of my thoughts. I could do this.
I kept my arms loose at my sides, remembering how Master Betrys rolled her eyes at mages who indulged in what she referred to as “unnecessary theatrics.” I took a deep breath and held it, setting the three words firmly in my mind.
Turnip. Animate. Dance.
Then I spoke them. Carefully. Slowly, but not so slowly that they sounded unpracticed and halting. I bent every scrap of my will at that cursed purple root. A tickling ripple of magic flared through me. For one brief moment I was part of something greater, one perfect stanza in the song shaping the universe. Glorious anticipation thrummed in my chest.
The turnip shivered. Slowly, slowly it bent one fibrous root. I’d specifically chosen a turnip with several rooty “legs.” In theory it made no difference to the spell. It could have been an egg and it would find a way to dance, if the magic was strong enough. But I was going to take any advantage I could get.
My turnip clambered upright. It looked as if it might topple over at the slightest puff of breeze.
I said the words again, louder. The turnip executed a wobbly pirouette. Good. I could do this. I’d show my mother she was wrong about me. I could already see myself, arriving home with my robes of mastery flowing all about me in a glory of blue velvet. And Mother, coming to meet me, her eyes shining with pride, the way she used to look at my brother. The way she’d never, ever looked at me.
That was when I heard the noise. I frowned, cocking my head. I could have sworn someone was snickering. I eyed the turnip suspiciously as it attempted another drunken pirouette. But animation didn’t work that way. The turnip would only do what I specifically ordered it. And I certainly hadn’t told it to laugh at me.
The sound came again. A giggle of mirth, barely muffled. I whirled around, searching the dim kitchen for the source. There. A shadow beside the pantry. A shadow with gleaming eyes.
I grabbed one of the fire irons. “Who’s there?”
Master Betrys had told me not to heed the news criers, but I’d heard the stories. The rebellion was gaining ground, and I knew all too well the deadly lengths they would go to in their quest for independence. What if some rebel had decided Master Betrys was a loyalist, in spite of all her efforts to remain neutral? What if they’d come to burn down her house?
Or they could be here for me. Mother was an outspoken loyalist and a member of the council. Though I pitied anyone who actually tried to use me as a hostage. Mother wasn’t the sort to negotiate. She’d probably be glad for a chance to be rid of me. Still, I wasn’t going down without a fight.
I brandished my fire iron at the shadow. “Come out! Show yourself! Or I’m going to enchant every blade in this kitchen to slice you into—ouch!”
The ungrateful turnip had jumped off the bench and sashayed, very hard, into my ankle.
The shadow let out a hoot. “But I’m enjoying the show! It’s even better than street puppets.”
It was a girl’s voice.
She was laughing at me. She thought I was ridiculous. And she was right. I snapped out two more words in magespeak, a spell I knew well. Candles. Ignite.
Above us, the heavy iron ring suddenly blazed with light, as all twelve candles burst into flame. I could see my heckler clearly now.
She was around my age, twelve, but taller than me. Her olive skin was bronzed by the sun, making it a shade darker than mine. A patched and faded nightdress barely reached below her knees. She’d recovered from her laughter and now lounged idly against the door, arms crossed.
“Who are you?” I demanded, drawing myself stiffly upright. “What are you doing here?”
Her black curls bobbed as she gave a snort of disbelief. “I’m Moppe Cler.”
“Mop?” I asked dubiously. “Like the thing you clean floors with?”
“No, Mopp-eh,” she repeated, so that I could hear the very faint second syllable, like a forgotten breath. “And I’m here because this is where I live.”
I blinked. She was wearing a nightdress, after all, which seemed an unlikely choice for a rebel or thief. “Where?”
She jabbed a finger toward a curtained alcove tucked into one corner of the kitchen. “Right there.”
“Oh!” I said, finally understanding. “You’re the new scullery maid!” I’d heard Cook telling Master Betrys she’d hired a girl to help in the kitchens last week.
She lifted her chin. “I’m an under-cook. Not a scullery maid.”
An odd longing pinged in my chest. She looked so... confident. Like she was exactly where she wanted to be, like she knew exactly who she was. She looked the way magic made me feel. When it worked.
“Well, I’m Master Betrys’s apprentice,” I told her, taking a seat on the edge of the hearth, “and I have work to do. So you can just—”
“That candle trick was brilliant!” Moppe plunked herself down beside me. “Can you set other things on fire?”
Maybe the girl wasn’t such a bother. I loved talking about magic, sharing the wonder and glory of it, but I rarely had the chance aside from my lessons with Master Betrys. I tucked my brown braids back over my shoulders. “Yes. I mean, not stones or water or anything like that. The spell only works on things that actually burn.”
She frowned, cocking her head at the turnip as it continued its pitiful performance. “So why are you wasting so much time making a turnip wobble?”
My warm feelings chilled abruptly. “It’s dancing,” I said sharply. “Not wobbling. And it’s harder than you think!”
I smacked my turnip, sending it sailing into the fireplace. It wobbled on through the embers as the scent of roast turnip filled the air. Heaving a sigh, I headed over to the storage crate to collect a new victim.
Even with my back turned, I could feel the girl’s eyes on me. A flutter of nerves filled my belly. The whole point of practicing in the kitchen in the middle of the night was to not have an audience. But I couldn’t let Moppe rattle me. I had to focus. Returning, I propped my new turnip on the table and intoned the spell once more.
“Turnip. Animate. Dance.”
The turnip twitched. It began to roll back and forth, like a turtle tipped on its back. Only a very charitable person would have called it dancing. I snatched the thing up, ready to toss it into the fire to join its brethren.
Moppe arched her brows. “Are you sure you’re saying the right words?”
“If you think it’s so easy, maybe you should try it.” I snorted. Barely one in a thousand people were born with the ability to understand magespeak, let alone cast magic. Surely no untrained scullery maid could—
“Turnip. Animate. Dance,” said Moppe.
The purple root in my hand twitched, wriggling like a captive beetle. Startled, I let it fall. It jigged gracefully off across the worn kitchen floor.
“Ooh! It worked!” Moppe clapped her hands together, looking delighted.
My insides crumpled in shock. I’d been struggling for hours. Days. And now some kitchen girl marches in and casts it perfectly, her very first time? Was this a joke? A trick of some sort?
With a loud thump, one of the storage crates suddenly tipped over, loosing a tide of purple roots. Dozens of turnips scattered across the kitchen floor, some the size of my thumb, others nearly as large as my head.
And all of them were dancing.
All. Of. Them.
Moppe gave a stifled shriek. The turnips were getting wilder, bounding and spinning and leaping dangerously high. I yelped as one large root smacked into my chest. More hard blows battered my arms as I flung them over my face.
Desperately, I scrambled up onto the table. Moppe tried to follow, only to trip over a shimmying turnip and crash to the floor.
“Stop!” she shrieked. “Stop it! I take it back!”
“You need to use magespeak,” I shouted. “The word for deanimate is—oomph!”
Oomph was not, in fact, the magespeak word for deanimate. It was the noise I made when a leaping turnip smacked into my mouth.
But Moppe was already shouting, “Oomph! Oomph! Can’t you hear me, you nasty things? OOOOMMMPH!”
I yanked the rooty legs of the turnip that was trying to gag me. It squirmed, resisting my hold. Thumps and bumps struck the air, followed by a tinkling crunch that sounded distressingly like fine china being smashed to bits. I gave up tugging and bit down instead. The turnip gave a satisfying crunch, going limp. I spat it out.
One down. Only about one hundred more to go.
Below me, Moppe shrieked, huddling as a wave of prancing turnips bounced onto her, pelting her spine.
“Turnips. Deanimate!” I cried in magespeak, but it did nothing. I flung myself down along the edge of the sturdy table, reaching for one of Moppe’s flailing hands. “Here! Get up on the table!”
Her fingers tightened on mine as I tugged her free of the turnips. She collapsed beside me a moment later, breathless and glassy-eyed. “Watch out!” I called, as a particularly large turnip bounded onto the table, rooty feet tapping an ominous tarantella as it advanced toward us. I seized the horrid thing with both hands and was about to toss it into the hearth when a voice thundered a single phrase in magespeak.
There was a sound like brief, hard rain as every single turnip fell to the floor.
Slowly, painfully, I dropped the now-limp turnip and surveyed the damage.
An entire cabinet of the best china had somehow ended up on the floor, smashed to creamy, flower-spattered shards. The butter crock was upended, and trails of gold were smeared across the countertops, leading to the inert bodies of several well-oiled turnips.
More turnips lay in pools of dark vinegar near the pantry. Others were strewn across the floor, across the pantry shelves, poking out of pies and loaves of bread. Three of the purple roots had even managed to lodge themselves in the twisted iron ring of the lamp above.
At the far end of the kitchen stood Master Betrys. She’d just arrived home from the dinner party and still wore her long velvet dress cloak, embroidered with stars and moons. It rippled around her as she paced forward. Her brown face was intent as she scanned the room, missing nothing.
Master Betrys was the most impressive person I knew. Even more impressive than my mother, and that was saying a lot. So impressive that I did not have even the tiniest urge to laugh when I noticed the small turnip dangling from her left ear.
Moppe, on the other hand, let out a high-pitched giggle.
Betrys lifted one hand, gloved in midnight-blue leather, to flick the offending vegetable away. Then she looked at me. “Antonia. Explain.”
It wasn’t actually an enchantment, but it felt very much like a truth spell. I swallowed, preparing my defense, as I scrambled down from the table, followed by Moppe.
“I was, er, practicing. For my lesson tomorrow. I came to the kitchen because I didn’t want to disturb anyone.”
Master Betrys arched one eyebrow. She glanced meaningfully around the kitchen, then to the door behind her, where I could see Cook, Dorta the maid, and Mr. Thesp the butler all blinking and muzzy-eyed in their nightclothes, very much disturbed.
I swallowed a sigh. “I’m sorry, Master Betrys. This is my fault.”
“You did this? All of this?” She didn’t sound angry, but then, she never did. It was part of what made her so intimidating.
I hesitated, glancing at Moppe. As infuriating as she was, I couldn’t let her get sacked.
“Yes,” I began, but Moppe cut me off.
“It was me,” she said. “I said the words. Just like she did. I didn’t think it would make them all start moving. Especially since she could barely manage the one.”
“I was practicing!” I said through gritted teeth.
“Your name is Moppe Cler, yes?” asked Betrys, ignoring my outburst entirely.
“Yes,” said Moppe, standing stiffly to attention. “Ma’am.”
“Master,” corrected Betrys. “You’ll call me Master Betrys, if you’re to study with me.”
“Study with you?” I squawked. “But she’s the scullery maid!”
“Under-cook!” protested Moppe.
“No,” said Master Betrys. “She’s my newest apprentice.”