Hope and the Clever Man excerpt

Edits are proceeding on Hope and the Clever Man and its sequel, Hope and the Patient Man. I'm planning to have them out before and after Christmas, respectively. Here's an excerpt from the first Hope book to whet your appetite.

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Bucket led her to a newer part of Illene, where the ancient, organic-looking, rounded or hexagonal elven buildings were replaced by newer dwarfbuilt structures, foursquare and solid. The small university city was built on the old river floodplain, and the streets were straight and wide. He flung open an undistinguished door and bowed her through as if welcoming an ambassador to the audience hall of a realmgold.

The room beyond was large, but she only knew this because she could see the enormous skylight that made up the whole ceiling. Her view of the room itself was blocked by a number of wheeled boards, covered in spidery dwarvish script interspersed with magical sigils and some other symbols that she found completely unfamiliar. She navigated through them, and found herself in what looked like a serious collision involving a print shop, a mage’s workspace, the stockroom of a mad glassblower, sixteen or twenty more boards, and the junk-midden of a medium-sized dwarfhold. Standing amid the ruins, bent over a draughtsman’s table, was a man no taller than Hope, and probably not much older, though his face was creased with worry-lines.

The Realmgold had mentioned things her clever man didn’t do well. These clearly included sleeping, eating, dressing, washing and shaving. His hair looked like it should be arrested for disorderly conduct, his eyebrows as if they had been partially burned off, and he had scars all up his arms, which were visible because his worn and threadbare sleeves were unevenly rolled up above his elbows. The state of his fingernails would have shamed a drunken farrier. His once-white shirt and beige trousers were marked and stained with scorches, odd colours and more than occasional burn holes, as was the tradesman’s smock he wore over them.

He didn’t look up at the sound of Hope’s footsteps.

“Master,” said Bucket loudly. “Master. The Realmgold has sent you a mage.”

The man looked up from his work, and visibly came back into the room from a great mental distance. “Oh, Bucket,” he said. “Did you go out?”

“For half the morning, yes,” said Bucket, but with more amusement than irritation. “Master, this is Hope at Merrybourne. She’s here to see if she wants to work with us, so you’re going to have to talk to her.”

“Oh,” said the man, and peered at Hope curiously.

She flushed a little under his gaze. It wasn’t the gaze she was used to getting from men. For one thing, when he looked away from her face his eyes didn’t go to her chest, but to her wrist, where she proudly wore the mage’s bracelet she had earned from the University (and was still paying off). It was made of silver set with a prominent ruby, showing that she was a full mage in energy magic. The clear diamond for the High Distinction and the cat’s-eye topaz for the Master-Mage’s prize would join it once she could get it to a jeweller. The bangles of a Mage-Minor in mindmagic (blackwood) and lifemagic (bone) bracketed it. It was fresh and unmarked — she would eventually have spells she used frequently scribed into it — and she valued it more than the arm it was clasped around, not only for its monetary worth but for the years of effort it represented.

She adjusted the bracelet nervously, making sure that he saw the ruby, and, on impulse, strode forward. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, holding out her other hand across his workbench for the mutual palm-press that was the usual greeting. He stared at the hand, and after an awkward couple of heartbeats, she took it away again, wiped the sweaty palm on her trouserleg and put it in her pocket, then took it out again.

“Tell her your name, Master,” prompted Bucket.

“Oh,” he said. “Dignified Printer.”

She had to swallow a smile. Not only was the name completely ill-suited to him, but it was rather an odd one. Silvers, people of the merchant and administrative class (as the name Printer revealed him to be), generally copied the Gold nobility and named their children after desirable abstract qualities, but Dignified was not one of the usual names.

“Hope at Merrybourne,” she said, in case he’d forgotten already. It seemed likely. He nodded, and kept staring at her inquiringly. She was obviously going to have to carry this conversation herself. Perhaps she could find something he was passionate about.

“So,” she said, “can you explain these symbols to me?” She pointed at random to one of the nearby boards.

She had spoken in Pektal, but at her question he perked up and began talking in rapid-fire Dwarvish. He had a good accent for a human, hardly adding any vowels at all, but she barely had time to notice that because she was busy trying to keep up.

Hope knew she was very intelligent. Nobody gets High Distinction at the University of Illene without a lot happening above and behind the nose. But Dignified was off over his own distant horizon of intelligence, somewhere that looked a lot like insanity to the casual observer. Despite her good mathematical education, it still took her some time to even figure out that what he was doing was mathematics, and another hour, and a lot of questions, to understand how that related to magic.

“Oh, right,” she said, as something Dignified had said finally connected two other concepts. “So…” she turned to a nearby fresh board that Bucket had unobtrusively rolled up. There was a kind of pen, a stubby thing with a thick barrel, resting in a little cup hung off the bottom of the board, and she snatched it up and started writing out the standard spell for making a permanent light. It was one of the first she’d learned, and she could write it out without thinking about it.

“If you say that this is…” she wrote out a formula in his notation, “and this bit is…”

“Not exactly,” he said. “You need to…” he snatched up another pen and wrote in a correction.

“Oh, I see,” she said. “And that means…” she scribed up another formula, looked at it for a moment, changed one variable, and turned to him with a questioning look.

Yes,” he said.

“That’s obvious,” she said. “Why didn’t my professors tell me this?”

“Old-fashioned,” he said. “Reactionary. Defended against the new. Whereas…” he started writing another formula next to hers, and she jumped up and down.

“I’ve wondered about that for years,” she said.

Bucket, smiling, manoeuvred carefully and quietly around the junk piles, retrieved some requisition forms from his little office and started to fill them in. Hope would need a few things, since she was obviously going to be staying.

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