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Chapter 12: Wherein A Myth is Broken and A Legend Created

"I'm Rat," I said to the old man.

As soon as I spoke, I knew that if this was a test, I had just given the wrong answer. He glowered at me and I recognised that look in his eyes, the look of a man at his wits' end. The end of a man's wits isn't as far away as people like to believe. It's exactly the distance between when a man gets angry and when he decides to lash out. Regrettably, I had brought about such outcomes a number of times in my life. I cringed back, holding my breath, ready for the blow.

The blow that didn't come. I peeked at the old man with eyes half-closed. Naturally, the Grand Magic Master knew how to exercise self-restraint.

"Are you mocking me, boy?" he asked quietly, like a growling wolf.

"No," I answered instantly. I was perplexed. What did he think he knew about me that I never realised before? In the past few hours, I had come to accept the fact that indeed I am a Wielder, taking it as another given in the unfolding chaos of my daily life. But while there were always more non-Wielders than Wielders in society, that still didn't mean Wielders were rare.

"Then pray tell me, child, what are you doing?" The forced mild humour in his tone indicated that he was hanging onto the last few strands of his patience. I was overcome with the conviction that insulting an ordinary man was one thing, but the Grand Magic Master had more to strike out with than merely his fists.

I swallowed and tried to look polite. That's a nearly impossible task for me, because no matter how hard I try, there is something about my face that always makes it seem like I'm up to no good. "I'm answering the questions that you ask, sir," I said. I never had to clarify the matter of my unconventional name before. "Rat is my name. I don't live anywhere, I come from nowhere. I mean no trouble, mister, honest to gods." That pleading tone had never worked for me before, but I tried it anyway, because there seemed no alternative.

The Grand Master found it absurd. "What kind of name is that?"

"It's the name that's mine," I said bluntly. I was good at lying, but bad at acting. Funny how a lie would have been much easier to get away with than the truth. "And that's a fact." I always loved to bring about the facts while in an argument.

"I won't be having this nonsense." He was exasperated by my tone.

Right then, in my head, something broke. It was a long way to go, but I had finally reached it, my wits' end. "Neither will I!" I yelled, heat coursing through my body, up to my face. "I've been killed four times since last night, cursed into obedience and sold into slavery. I don't care who you are or what you are or what you want, you're a nutter and I'VE HAD IT!" I stomped my foot and turned to leave.

I expected the flames of hell to rise out of the earth and engulf me, I expected the sky to open up and torch me with its lightning. I expected him to answer my fire with his fire. I did not expect his hand to land on my shoulder, firm, but gentle. "I have no doubt," he said, his voice so serene it startled me. "that I know who you are."

My heart skipped a beat, my breath caught in my throat. I stopped mid-step, because I was a child, and I wanted to be loved and cherished. I wanted a father and a mother. I had no identity, I had no past. I thought that I had put those fantasies away long ago; I thought that I no longer dreamt of discovering that I was some hidden prince, some tragic hero of a famous tale. I thought that I no longer yearned to be something, anything more, than merely nobody.

So I turned back to face the old man, I guess that he could recognise that my gaze was sincere. "I don't know how it is you came to this fate, child," he said with a smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle. I was sent into an unknown zone, no adult had ever given me that kind of warm and caring smile before. "But I have no doubt who you are."

He kept smiling, brimming with joy, I couldn't understand him, but I wanted to. "Who am I?" I asked, trying to be patient, fearing to hear the truth and greedily eager to have it.

"You are," he said, "the son of Harlock Cooper."

* * *

When I opened my eyes, I was indoors. It was dark, but the air was clear, the room was clean. At first, I couldn't see much of anything; it was as if my eyes forgot how to see. I felt like I had just risen out of a deep, dark ocean, as if I had been dead and had come back to life, taking in my very first breath of air. But slowly, gradually the blur around me became shapes, illuminated by soft white moonlight that poured in from one of the windows.

I became aware of my body, its temperature, various small pains here and there. There was something weighing on me, light yet at the same time reassuringly heavy, warm, soft and entirely unfamiliar. I tentatively realised that I was under a blanket, except the grubby, rough, and wooly things I knew were blankets, those moth-eaten things that itched and stung more than kept you warm were not related to what now covered me.

I had always thought that feather-blankets were a myth designed to make me feel bad about my way of living.

The mattress I was on was soft and springy, and I felt light, as if I were made out of steam. Under my head was a healthy mound of pillows. I turned left and then right, thrilled, cozily luxuriating. Perhaps I was not steam; I was more like bread dough after it had risen and just before it was put into the oven.

My eyelids felt heavy, sleepiness was overtaking me again, so powerful even my stubbornness couldn't fight it. Had the door not opened just then, I would have drifted off once more. My eyes followed the light of a small oil lamp being carried on a tray by a short woman with a white apron. I blinked at her, finding her the least threatening person I had encountered in my life.

As she neared the bed, her face was overtaken by a wide grin. "You finally woke," she said, hurrying her stride. She placed the tray on a bedside table, beaming at me in a way that made me feel blessed. "I was so worried." She placed a hand on her heart. "You slept and slept and wouldn't wake." Casually, as if she had done so a hundred times, and maybe she had, she reached over and brushed the hair away from my forehead. I was too taken by surprise to pull back. "Last couple of days, I began wondering if you ever would," she said softly.

"Days?" I tried to ask, but the word didn't form correctly, instead the sound that escaped my throat was more like the caw of a crow.

But the woman seemed to understand. "Six days and nights," she said solemnly. "But who is to blame you? Poor mite, you came to us in such a state! Feverish, starved and beaten with nits the size of walnuts on your head, fleas in your clothing and worms in your belly. Oh the state of you, child, it broke our hearts to pieces. And you just wouldn't wake. The Grand Master, bless his heart, told us to just wait. Said it's a witch-sleep, that you've been through too much, but that you're sure to awaken once you've gotten some strength back in you."

I had questions I wanted to ask, so many things I needed to know. The day I met the Grand Master – my most recent memory flooded back, and with it what he had told me. I was overwhelmed, sent into a whirlwind of confusion. I felt dizzy and closed my eyes to steady my spinning head.

"Oho, listen to me!" the apron-clad lady exclaimed, "I won't burden you any farther, love, come, drink some of this and have another rest." She gently cupped the back of my head and brought a steaming mug to my lips and patiently helped me sip a creamy broth that slipped down my throat and calmed my stomach, the heat making my muscles relax.

"My name is Mitchillie, dearie, I'll be waiting just outside the door. All you need to do is call," were the last words I heard before I was once again engulfed by sleep.

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