"Oh, come on, boy, concentrate! I've always said it - young people these days have no attention span, but does she listen to me? No! because she's young herself! Far too busy with maggots and scrawny blokes with too much permafume on - not a thinker, in my opinion, very quick to jump the taser -"
"Do you want me to concentrate? 'Cos you're making it a tiny bit difficult."
Lorden was standing stony-faced in the middle of Oakstaff's reading room. Dusty tomes were sitting admonitory on mahogany shelves. The room was lit softly by Ancient light-bulbs with their superheated tungsten filaments. Oakstaff's grey hair glistened in the half light as he sat lazily in his chair, a bootclad foot tapping impatiently on the sharp steel floor.
"Excuse me, boy? Such impertinence -"
Lorden's anger flared, and the PI sitting on the floor between them suddenly jumped into the air, spinning crazily - it flew at one of Oakstaff's eyes, clinked off his omnilens and landed, rather mundanely, on the floor.
"Do I look happy? Oh, aye, because nowadays you're supposed to be happy if something hits you in the eye. If it hadn't been for my omnilens you could've -" Oakstaff was getting very red in the face now. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "It's not about speed, boy, it's about control! You moved it, sure, but where's the stop? Try again, and this time make it stop at eye-level, not in my eye."
Lorden tried to block out Oakstaff's chuntering for the umpteenth time today. It had been a while since the first lesson had started - at 1100 this morning, in fact. It was now 1952 by Oakstaff's digiclock, and Lorden's temper was at breaking point. How was he supposed to control his magic when anger was pumping like stimulant through his veins?
"Well, I can see you're very hotheaded," said Oakstaff reprovingly, watching the smooth anger on Lorden's face. "I tell you, young people think they get everything right, don't they? They get far too much these days, in my opinion, growing up too fast, walking around with PIs and hologames and all this other riff-raff from four years old - well, if you've been alive as long as I have, boy, you'll see there's a whole lot more to this world than X Tube and iSocial. I don't know who brought you up but -"
"Yeah? You don't know who brought me up?" Lorden was furious now. "Well, neither do I."
"What are you talking about, boy?"
"What would you know? Or care?"
That quelled Oakstaff for a tiny moment. But not for long.
"I can tell you boy I know a lot more about the world than you -"
"I don't reckon you had a hard childhood, did you, Benjamin? With your cars and fast-food-joints and school and credit benefits? Yeah, well, it's a harder world now. We don't eat nice food or have free education - or help with money if we don't have an Assignment. And for the CD, my father died when I was six, trying to stop me from being caught by a Compliance Team. How did your fa die? In his sleep, probably, with a wife beside him and a hot water bottle to keep him warm -"
"How you dare -"
"- and since then I've had to look after my own arse, even though the Authorities found me a flea-bitten, selfish old moose to steal my inheritance and boss me around. So believe me, mate, it hasn't been all fast cars and beds of roses, nor the fun and games you seem to think most young people get up to behind the lev-sheds at midnight on Freedays. I don't want you to feel sorry for me, I don't reckon you could anyway - but I ain't takin' no ruff from you, old man ... no way ..."
And Lorden's thoughts span away from the dark reading room, back to a week before, when he had first woken up in that Medroom ...
Dear Griselda Lornax -
As you may be aware, your second cousin Adrian Damroc has
been killed in an unfortunate incident relating to the RedLamp East
Compliance Team. This leaves his orphaned son Lorden with no
Due to Adrian's actions before his death in defence of
unacceptable magical activities, few foster parents wish to take on
Lorden as they believe their current charges will be "infected" by
this residual magic ...
And so in that fateful letter, Lorden had finally learned the true nature of his orphanship. At the time the Compliance Team had been sympathetic - they had killed the father and orphaned the son. But after no-one had agreed to accept Lorden into their families, the Compliance Team had been forced to leave him with some money-grabbing witch who scarcely had his best interests at heart - and the truth about how his father had died had been kept from him for so long ...
... and suddenly Oakstaff's corpulent voice sliced through his reverie, bringing him abruptly to the present.
"I don't have time to listen to heart-throb, over-emotional teenagers. Do you want me to teach you magic or not? Well? Get on with it. Raise the PI to eye level, slowly, and hold it there for ten seconds."
Lorden tried to channel this energy into the PI, but the magic wanted other things. It escaped from him in a small but potent burst. The PI exploded, screen smashing spectacularly, plasmids dribbling over the floor like earthbound fireflies, the music screeching to an abrupt halt.
Lorden met Oakstaff's eyes briefly and prepared himself to face the music (of a rather different kind to his PI) when there was a knock at the door. Ceridwen appeared, without waiting for an invitation. It did nothing to improve Oakstaff's mood.
"How's he doing?"
Ceridwen took one look at Oakstaff's face and read the answer at once.
"You can get that look off your face at once, Ben," Ceridwen said darkly. "There's another one."
"What?" Oakstaff snapped. "Who?"
"Princess Elenia Costellian," said Ceridwen, with an air of quiet triumph.
"You got her?" said Lorden, both impressed and doubtful.
"It was only a trivial matter for Dagger's skivvies," said Ceridwen. "She's held, strangely enough, in the room next to yours. And according to the Magic Scanner 4000, she's powerful."
"Yeah? And have you thought of an idea of how to get her to serve you?" said Lorden, with a touch of defiance.
"Oh, I'm about to make her an offer she can't refuse," said Ceridwen. "But I'm goint to need your help." She turned to Oakstaff. "Thank you, Ben, but that'll do for today."
Lorden considered thanking her enthusiastically but held his tongue - Oakstaff's doddery old temper probably wouldn't be able to stand the strain - and followed Ceridwen out of the house.
Lorden had no idea what Ceridwen had planned, and to be honest, neither do I.