The house hurt her eyes. It loomed over the forest and, even obscured by the twisting trees, Lettie knew this was it.
It was as if the house had been built to spite gravity. The ground floor wore the first floor as a hat, the storey jutting out unsupported in what could only be magic. The architect had forgotten the second floor and a long, rickety ladder led to the third. Straining her neck, Lettie could see what may have been a fourth floor or may have been an attempt at a roof, all angular and triangle-ish. Lights flickered from the windows, although they changed so often she couldn’t decide what colour they were.
Had Mother known the wizard’s house was this ridiculous?
Lettie’s mother had picked out the job, and she didn’t trust her mother’s taste. The first thing her mother had given her was her name, and ‘Leticia’ was downright ghastly. All the children at school told her so. She always defended her name tooth-and-claw but, privately, she had to admit there was a reason she insisted on being called Lettie.
‘You have to get an apprenticeship,’ Mother had said, ‘and this is the only place that would take you.’
Well, here Lettie was, and she wouldn’t pretend to be happy about it. She kicked a stump on her way up to the door and relished the shudder that ran through her boots. They were thick boots, practical, and Lettie had bought them from a wandering trader so Mother couldn’t return them when she found out.
So what if Lettie was hot-headed? The townsfolk called Mother ‘strong-willed’; how old did one have to be for stubbornness to become an admirable trait? Lettie did not want to be an apprentice. She wanted to be a child, and do childish things such as jumping in mud and not worrying about money.
Perhaps if she annoyed the wizard enough, he would send her back home. Lettie bit her lip as she approached the house. Or perhaps he would turn her into a frog.
The house was built from several different materials, chosen more for aesthetic reasons than practical. One wall was literally gingerbread, already starting to crumble, and another was made of glistening marble. Several of the windows upstairs blinked at Lettie and she shuffled, unsure of what she should do. Her eleven-and-three-quarter years of life hadn’t prepared her for this.
Before she could knock on the door, it opened by itself. This feat of magic would have been significantly more impressive had the door not become stuck halfway in, jammed by the rapidly sloping ceiling. An orange light flickered from down the corridor and the faint sound of music drifted to her ears.
“Hello?” Lettie called. She sounded more confused than she’d intended to.
Something crashed and the music stopped. The light jumped from orange to green and back to orange again, flickering more rapidly this time.
“Yes,” cried a voice from inside. A cough, and the light changed to a garish pink. “Come in!”
Lettie weighed her options: a strange wizard, or the forest. The sun was rapidly setting, shadows clawing through the undergrowth, and a chill wind gusted against her skin. A shiver ran down her spine.
You can do this, Lettie. If the wizard tried anything funny, a heavy boot between the legs would solve that problem.
Lettie scuttled inside. Her steps rang out and the corridor got narrower and smaller until she could barely squeeze through, but when she did she emerged in a room that could only be described as a disaster. Apparently, among the many skills wizards possessed, interior design was not one of them.
A great fire roared in front of her, its flames startlingly magenta, and an armchair sat in front of it. Several bookshelves were arranged around the fire and one was mounted on the ceiling, its books held in place by buckles attached to the wood. Lettie glanced at it suspiciously.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” said the man in the armchair. “I let the room decide what it wanted to be and it decided on everything.”
One corner of the room was a kitchen with a bath instead of a sink, and another grew thick with flora. Visceral, red tubers dripped from ceiling to floor, and they grinned with mouths full of human teeth.
“It’s very… roomy,” Lettie said. She wanted to leave. An apprenticeship was too much effort, and so dull. If she left without trying, though, mother would know and Lettie would never hear the end of it.
The man who’d spoken was a caricature of a wizard, if rather young. His robe hung off his broomstick figure, more patches than fabric, and blond hair poked out from underneath his drooping hat.
Lettie cleared her throat. “I’m—”
“Leticia Dourdon, aspiring apprentice of me,” the man said. “I know who you are.”
Lettie started. “You can read minds?” Her heart hammered in her chest.
The man produced a scrap of parchment from his robe. “Your mother sent a letter of introduction ahead of you.”
Lettie scowled. Of course she did.
“My name is Wizard.” The man smiled. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He tossed Lettie’s mother’s letter over his shoulder and a tuber snatched it up, shredding the paper between its teeth.
Lettie quirked an eyebrow. “You’re a wizard called Wizard?”
“Yes,” Wizard said. “It’s simple that way.”
“I think it’s stupid.” She smiled inside, though, glad she’d finally found someone with a name uglier than hers.
A duck waddled across the room, its feathers stark white.
“That’s my cat, Rhubarb,” Wizard said.
Lettie glanced sideways at Rhubarb. “That is a duck.”
“She’s a cat.” Wizard frowned. “Say hello, Rhubarb.”
Rhubarb came over and Lettie bent down to pet her, half expecting it to be an illusion and to feel soft, feline fur. Her fingers threaded through plump feathers, however, and Rhubarb quacked.
“She is definitely a duck.”
“She’s a cat.”
“Cat.” Wizard fixed her with a stern gaze. “You wouldn’t like it if someone called you a duck when you were obviously a cat, would you?”
“That’s not a…” Lettie sighed. “Whatever.” She knew when arguing was pointless.
Wizard nodded. “Good.”
The fire spat a bright, cobalt blue, throwing flickering shadows across the room. If Wizard was even slightly more intimidating, Lettie might have been afraid, but toothbrush of men with pet ducks just weren’t frightening.
“I’m going to give you three tests,” Wizard said. “If you pass all three of them, I’ll take you on as an apprentice.”
“You mean I’m not an apprentice already?” Lettie wasn’t sure whether to be offended or secretly delighted.
“Heavens, no.” Wizard laughed. “I only met you three minutes ago. I have no idea whether you’re suitable or not.”
Lettie’s nostrils flared. “But Mother said you’d take me on.” Had Mother lied to her?
“Your mother said an awful lot of things in her letter, and I’ll wager most of them were false,” Wizard said. “To start, you are anything but mild-mannered.”
Lettie couldn’t fault him there; he was entirely correct. At least now she’d be able to fail the tests and have a proper excuse to return home with no job.
“The first test is this way,” Wizard said. He swung a bookshelf out of the way to reveal a staircase cut into grey stone. A candle flickered on the first step, which he picked up.
Lettie followed Wizard and her confusion grew with each step. The staircase did not spiral. Instead, it continued straight upwards and, if her geometry was correct, should have extended far past the bounds of the house. Lettie ran her hand along the stone to check it was really there and her fingers slipped against the smooth rock. It was cold to the touch.
“The house doesn’t like physics much,” Wizard said. “You get used to it.”
“How is that possible?” Lettie asked. She was just a tiny bit curious.
Wizard shrugged. “I have no idea.”
Was he telling the truth, or was it something he was only allowed to say once Lettie became an apprentice? Lettie reconsidered her resolve to fail the tests. If Lettie broke the physics in her house, Mother’s face would be priceless.
They emerged on top of the first floor, a flat, open space with the shadow of the third floor floating overhead. Lettie gawked at it. The rest of the house hung in thin air several feet above her head, completely unsupported. Would it fall? She hoped not. Light shone down from a square up above and a rope ladder dropped down to the floor.
Wizard set down the candle by her feet. “Wait here.”
He clambered up the ladder and Lettie gazed across the dark forest beyond. She could barely make out the individual trees, the land a mass of dark shapes, and wind blustered through the empty second storey. Lettie pulled her coat tightly around her and blew into her hands. Whatever this test was, she hoped it wouldn’t take long.
“You okay down there?” Wizard called. He peered down from the third floor.
“I’m cold,” Lettie yelled back. The candle’s flame was worthless.
“Then you’d better not take long.” There came a clanking sound, and to Lettie’s horror the rope ladder jerked upwards. “Your first test is to make it to the third floor without climbing the ladder.”
“That’s impossible!” Lettie cried.
“That’s why it’s a test,” Wizard shouted back.
Lettie’s blood raced. She was going to die. Wizard was crazy and she was going to freeze to death, all for the sake of some stupid test. Anger burned into her fear. Just who the hell did Wizard think he was?
With a cry Lettie tore forwards and leapt. Her fingers brushed the bottom of the ladder and she grabbed on, clinging madly. Her muscles burned.
“What are you doing?” Wizard yelled. “You’re not allowed to climb the ladder.”
“I’m not climbing!” Lettie snapped. She hooked an arm onto the bottom rung and prayed to the gods the rope was strong enough to hold her weight. The wind battered her and her hair whipped in her eyes. Her legs flailed wildly.
Don’t look down.
The ladder winched her higher and higher.
Don’t look down!
A skinny arm grabbed Lettie and Wizard hauled her onto the third floor. She collapsed against the floor, her whole body shuddering, and clutched where the rope had rubbed her fingers raw.
Lettie glared at Wizard. “What the hell was that?”
“The first test.” Wizard gave her a thumbs up. “You passed. Congratulations!”
“I could have died!”
Wizard tutted. “Come now. You don’t honestly think I’d have let you die, do you?”
“I only met you three minutes ago,” Lettie mocked.
Wizard checked a watch on his wrist. “Eleven minutes, now, but I take your point.”
Soft feathers tickled Lettie’s face and she looked to see Rhubarb nuzzling against her. How the duck got to the third floor, Lettie had no idea, but she appreciated the comfort nonetheless. Her heartbeat slowed.
“What was the point of that test?” Lettie said.
“To test your thinking and your initiative,” Wizard said. “You passed with flying squirrels.”
The corners of Lettie’s mouth curled.
“Your second test takes place in this room,” Wizard said.
Lettie brushed herself off as she stood. The room she found herself in was comfortably lit by oil lamps, and the wooden panelling gave it a homely feel. More importantly, it was consistent. Three arm-chairs sat around the room and paintings covered the walls, a collage of everything imaginable. Lettie recognised several paintings of the royal family and one of the church in her town, but most of the landscapes and people were alien to her.
“Bring me a painting of a cat,” Wizard said. He folded his arms smugly.
“A cat,” Lettie repeated. That seemed simple enough. “Why?”
“To test your searching and finding skills.”
Lettie supposed this made sense.
A quick glance and she located a portrait of a tabby curled on a bed, all fluffy-looking and lifelike. She moved towards it, and as she did so another painting caught her eye: a white duck that looked suspiciously like Rhubarb.
A bead of sweat trickled down Lettie’s back. Cat or duck?
She glanced at Wizard.
“You choose,” he said.
Lettie wiped her palms on her coat. She didn’t know why she was so nervous. If she failed this test, that was good, right? She didn’t want to be an apprentice, not even to a wizard. Lettie objected to anything Mother wanted of her on principle.
She could still remember her feet dangling over nothing, though. The terror. The sheer, unadulterated exhilaration.
Cat? Or duck?
Lettie buried her hesitation and stomped over to the far wall. A little tugging and the painting popped loose, and she held it up to Wizard.
Wizard blinked slowly. “That is a dog.”
Lettie had chosen a painting of a border collie, rather like the one her schoolteacher had.
“It’s a cat,” she insisted.
Wizard quirked his eyebrow. “That is most certainly a dog.”
“It’s. A. Cat.” Lettie punctuated each word with a step forwards, until she was holding the painting up to his nose. She glared in defiance.
Wizard smiled. “So it is.” He waved his hand. “Put it back, then onto the third test.”
Lettie grinned in triumph. Perhaps there was method to his madness, after all, or madness in the method. She knew nothing of how magic worked. Come to think of it, she hadn’t actually seen Wizard do any magic yet, except for maybe the front door opening on its own.
Lettie followed Wizard down a corridor and scowled as she realised she was enjoying herself. The desire to disappoint Mother was strong, but the desire to learn magic was becoming stronger.
“This is the third test.”
Lettie blinked, and Wizard suddenly stood at the other end of the corridor. Between him and her, glass cups lined the entire floor, each one half-full with a clear liquid. She stared at the space Wizard had been in just moments ago and her eyes widened.
“Make it to me without spilling any of the liquid,” Wizard said.
“What?” Lettie might be eleven-and-three-quarters, but she was still heavy enough that the glasses would shatter under her weight. “Why?”
“That’s the test,” Wizard said. “There is no why.”
Lettie scowled. “What’s in the cups?”
She glanced at the floor. “Are the cups precious?”
“Not at all,” Wizard replied. “I bought them in bulk.”
Lettie stared at the floor. She stared at her boots—her thick, glass-proof boots.
With a shrug she waded through the cups, crunching them underfoot as she went. The sound was terrible, a scraping that shuddered through her bones, but she gritted her teeth and bore it. A couple more steps, and she’d reached the end.
“It’s just water, isn’t it?” Lettie said. “No harm done.”
Wizard didn’t reply. His expression was unreadable and Lettie’s heart skipped a beat. Had she judged it wrong? Her throat went dry.
Wizard sighed. “Congratulations.”
Lettie’s heart pounded. She’d failed, but wasn’t that what she’d wanted? Her lip trembled.
Wizard beamed. “You’re my first ever apprentice wizard!”
Lettie grinned in relief. “I thought I’d failed.”
“Never think that.” Wizard chuckled. “The root of magic is stubbornness, and you’ve got bucketloads.”
Stubbornness. Tears pricked at Lettie’s eyes. It was the first time anyone had praised her for being herself.
“What now?” Lettie asked.
Wizard took his hat off and placed it on Lettie’s head. It fit perfectly. “I think it’s about suppertime. Don’t you?”