The Master Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy #3)

by Charlie N. Holmberg

CHAPTER 1

CEONY, WEARING HER RED apprentice’s apron over a ruffled blouse and plain brown skirt, stood on her tiptoes on a three-legged stool and stuck a square of white paper against the east wall of the Holloways’ living room, right where the wall met the ceiling. The family was celebrating Mr. Holloway’s awarding of the Africa General Service Medal, and had submitted a request to hire the local Folder—Magician Emery Thane—to fashion the party decorations.

Of course Emery had passed the “frivolous task” on to his apprentice.

Ceony stepped down from the stool and backed up to the center of the room to survey her work. The large living space already had most of its furniture removed for the sake of the elaborate decorations. Thus far, Ceony had adhered twenty-four bearing squares to the wall and plopped large sheets of plain white paper around the room, cut according to the measurements Mrs. Holloway had sent via telegram.

After ensuring her bearing squares aligned correctly, she said, “Affix.”

Twenty-four long sheets of paper leapt up from their looping coils on the ground like hares darting through a field, each surging toward its appointed bearing square and latching to it. The heavy sheets sagged from their bearing squares until Ceony called out, “Flatten,” and the sheets adhered to the walls like wallpaper, evenly coating the room in white. Minus the stairs on the north wall, of course.

Mrs. Holloway had requested a jungle theme to reflect her husband’s brief campaign in Africa, and so Ceony—after referencing several books on the subject—had written the requisite spells on the backs of the large paper sheets and Folded the tips of their corners accordingly. Now she only had to test her design.

“Portray,” she ordered, and to her relief each sheet darkened into hues of green and brown, coloring and morphing the same way a paper doll would. Dark swathes of hunter green cast shadows against the walls, and brighter mints and chartreuses gave the appearance of light pouring unevenly through leafy canopies threaded with vines. Wisps of olive formed patches of long, wild grass amid shades of umber and mahogany in the uneven soil near the floorboards, and the song of a red-throated loon called between fluttering bug wings in the distance. At least, Ceony’s best rendition of a red-throated loon. She had never actually heard one before, only guessed on the sound based on what bizarre African birds she had been able to find in the zoo.

Ceony circled the room with small steps, taking in her massive illusion, a live mural created from the magic of her own hands. Every thirty seconds a long-eared mouse skittered between two trees, and every fifteen seconds leaves and vines rustled in a gentle breeze. Despite not holding paper, her fingers tingled with it. Spells like these never ceased to amaze her.

She let out a long breath. No mistakes—good. If she couldn’t perform illusions like this one flawlessly now, she’d never pull them off when she tested for her magicianship next month. She planned to take the test within a week of her two-year anniversary as Emery Thane’s second-and-a-half apprentice.

Retreating to the front door, Ceony crouched over her large tote bag of spells and pulled out a wooden case filled with starlights, which Langston, Emery’s first apprentice, had taught her to Fold so long ago. The small pillow-like stars were no larger than a farthing, and all had been Folded using amber-colored paper, although the merchant who sold the paper to Ceony had listed the color as “goldenrod.” Ceony had Folded dozens of the stars over three days’ time, until her fingers cramped and she feared early arthritis. She had then affixed a small zigzag of paper to the back of each star, also amber.

She dumped the starlights onto the darkly polished floorboards and commanded, “Float.”

The starlights all turned zigzag side up and glided like bubbles to the ceiling. Ceony ordered them, “Glow,” and the starlights burned with a soft internal fire. Once the Holloways extinguished the electric lights, the room would take on an eerie and somewhat romantic radiance.

Ceony animated small paper butterflies that would flutter about the room, as well as triangular confetti across the floor that would shift around guests’ feet, giving the illusion of blowing wind. She had even Folded and enchanted paper napkins for the dinner, which would glow turquoise and read “Congratulations, Alton Holloway” when the guests unfurled them. She had considered including the occasional ghostly story illusion of an elephant or lion, but she would need to stay during the party in order to read the spells. That, and she feared some of the older guests might react poorly. Just a few months ago she’d read an article in the paper about a grandmother who’d had a heart attack after seeing a mirror illusion of an oncoming train by the theatre, an ill-advised advertisement for the new American play being performed there. It would surely ruin the party if a guest attempted to shoot a paper lion.

As Ceony released animated songbirds with the instructions to only fly close to the ceiling, Mrs. Holloway came down the stairs and let out a startled cry, which was fortunately followed by a wide, tooth-filled smile.

“Oh, it’s astounding! Just magnificent!” she cried, hands pressed to her heavily powdered cheeks. “Worth every pound! And you’re just an apprentice.”

“I hope to test for my magicianship next month,” Ceony said, though she beamed under the compliment.

Mrs. Holloway clapped her hands twice. “If you need a recommendation, dear, I will give you one. Oh, Alton will be so surprised!” She turned to the stairs. “Martha! Martha, leave the laundry a moment and come see!”

Ceony grabbed her bag—much lighter now—and bowed out of the home before her customer’s excitement could grow too out of hand. The decorations needed no further maintenance, and Mrs. Holloway had prepaid by check earlier that week. Emery would no doubt let her keep the entire sum—a considerable sum—though apprentices usually had to work for free, minus a monthly stipend. She would send most of the money to her parents, who had finally moved out of the Mill Squats and taken up a flat in Poplar. Her mother, especially, hated receiving “charity,” but Ceony could be just as stubborn.

Crouching on the walk outside, Ceony pulled out a sheet of paper and created a small glider with oblong wings, then wrote in its center the address for the intersection at the end of the street. Bringing it to life with the command “Breathe,” she whispered coordinates to it and released it to the wind. The little glider flipped a loop and took off southward.