How did he follow me here? thought the Master.
He watched his gangling apprentice work his way down the subway car toward him.
“Master,” he said, pressing his palms together and bowing his head briefly.
“Poltos, how did you find me here?” He looked the boy up and down. “And why are you wearing that outfit?”
Poltos was wearing tight black padded bicycle shorts and a yellow cycling shirt, zipper pulled down to reveal his chest, sternum and ribs stark like the teeth of a wide comb, collarbone spread and jutting like the underside of a bird’s wings. The clothes were at least two sizes too small, exposing the boy’s narrow midriff and displaying an embarrassing bulge between his legs. In San Francisco, perhaps, on the right day at the right time of year, this ensemble would attract little attention, but in New York City, on a crowded subway, this was more conspicuous than the Master had hoped to be.
“I’m sorry, Master. It was all I could find. I arrived…” he looked around, leaned closer to the Master, and whispered, “…completely naked in the middle of a park in broad daylight. I hid behind trees and shrubs as best I could until I found these clothes beside a changing room.”
“That explains the smell, then,” said the Master, leaning away from the boy in disgust, waving his hand in front of his nose. “I had the same problem, but I arrived on someone’s back patio. I was fortunate to find these rags on a clothesline. It must be some side effect of the spell, something about it that excludes inorganic matter, even if it’s in direct contact with the subject. I’ll need to tweak it later. But, how did you find me? If nothing else, the spell was designed to have been untraceable.”
“That’s what I came to tell you, Master. Despite your efforts, the spell left a residue behind. A faint one, to be sure, but visible, nonetheless, to those who would know to look.”
The Master furrowed his brow. “That is troubling.” Consequences and possibilities rushed through his head, filling it with a thousand alternate futures, a branching nest of potential events that spidered his mind like ice across a frozen window pane.
“There’s more,” said Poltos. He bit his lip.
The Master looked up sharply. He saw his apprentice’s hesitation, and that troubled him even more. “What is it, Poltos?”
“Master, the reason I came so quickly, rather than waiting for your return…” He looked around behind him again, leaned in again, but was stopped by the Master’s upheld palms, leaning his body away from the boy, turning his face away, nose crinkled. The boy mumbled an apology and straightened again.
“…I saw Counselor Erithma riding through the main gates.”
The Master blanched. “Did he see you?”
“No, I don’t think so. I came immediately, as soon as I saw him.”
“How many were with him?”
“Two riders, Master, though I could not make out who they were. One may have been Lord Stil.”
The Master swore under his breath.
“Stil will slow him down, at least. That buffoon couldn’t make a swift decision if his choice was to live or die. Plus, Erithma won’t know what to look for. Not at first, anyway”
“Do you think he won’t notice the spell residue?”
“Little chance of that. Erithma is too skilled a sorcerer to miss any magical traces, no matter how faint. And when he finds us both gone, he’ll immediately be suspicious, so he’ll be even more on his guard.”
He swore again, this time loud enough to cause the young blonde woman seated beside him to look over her shoulder at him. He giggled at her and wiggled his fingers, waving, hoping she’d dismiss him as just a crazy old man. She eyed him and Poltos for only an instant before averting her eyes again. It helps sometimes to look discomfiting enough for others to want to pretend you don’t exist, even when they’re looking right at you.
A woman’s warm voice, a recording over the loudspeaker, announced their approach to the next stop. “We’d better get moving, Poltos. If you found me that easily, it won’t take Erithma long, either.” Again, he eyed his apprentice from head to toe. “And we’d better find you some different clothes.”
The train slowed and the Master stood, moving to the door. Through the clouded, scratched, split window, the dark black of the tunnel walls gave way to the pale yellow light of the platform, a color that, when paired with the humid, fetid stink of the underground stations, never failed to remind the Master of urine. The train slowed, the faces of the people on the platform slowly becoming unblurred. He watched the flat line of the concrete draw by, slowing. A pair of black leather shoes, impeccably shined, drifted into view, centered on the door as the train hissed to a halt. He heard Poltos suck in his breath behind him. The Master pulled his eyes up the fine cloth of the pantlegs, the tasteful cut of the tailored shirt, the subtle pattern of the silk tie, the elegant fashion of the suitcoat, seemingly custom-made for its wearer, before settling, as the doors rattled open, upon the manicured blonde beard, impeccably styled blonde hair, and smooth, glowing skin. The pale blue eyes, amused, looked back, unhurried.
“Hello, Siryl,” said the man.
The Master sighed. “Hello, Erithma,” he said.
How in the world did he get such beautiful clothes so quickly? he thought.