“I told you how to do this already.”
“Yes, sir,” said Jess, stumbling over the title, tiny pearlescent beads of sweat popping from his forehead. “Sorry. I forgot.”
Amos sighed. Hovering over his apprentice, he watched with consternation as he made all the wrong weaves, a misstep he’d tried to correct over a dozen times during the past week.
Suddenly there was a bright electric flash like a strobe, and Jess staggered backward.
“Jess!” cried Amos, though he was too late to stop it. He was equal parts relieved and enraged to find he’d come away from his mistake uninjured. “Goddamnit, Jess! You could’ve killed us both.”
Jess looked back at him blankly.
“Here,” said Amos, collecting himself. He raised his hands into the air. “I’ll show you again.”
He proceeded to step through basic fingerings he’d learned when he was ten. He penetrated empty space, took hold of two threads. He tucked one behind the other and twisted until the pair was taut. Then he relaxed his grip and let the weave unravel slowly between his fingers. It emitted a soft golden glow.
“The weave for light,” said Amos flatly. “The tighter the twist, the more energy that’s released, the brighter the light.”
“I mostly had it,” said Jess, rising to his own defense. His cheeks had turned pink. “I just gave it too much tension.”
“And almost blinded us both,” snarled Amos. “You can’t just let go of a weave like that. You have to let it unwind slowly, keep it under control. Magicians have burned themselves to cinders for making mistakes like that.”
Jess had balled his hands into fists.
This wasn’t working. Simon had said the boy was headstrong, and that was true enough, but what he’d left out was that the boy was also a fool. Take either attribute apart from the other and you’d have something Amos could work with. If the boy were headstrong but talented, he could find some way to channel his pride toward a healthy confidence. If the boy were foolish but humble, he could be patient, step through the basics over and over again, confident that he would pay attention and eventually learn. But a headstrong fool? There was nothing to be done for that.
“Listen,” said Amos, and he had to swallow a vile insult that had risen up into his throat like bile. “I know you’re anxious to get through the basics, that you want to be a great magician like your father, but you’re young, you know nothing and it takes time. Your father was a great man because he knew when to listen as well as when to lead, because he spent hours in his workshop after you kids had gone to bed to drill himself on the essentials.”
“My father?” shouted Jess, leaping to his feet. “What do you know about my father?”
“Quite a bit more than you, apparently,” said Amos, trying to keep his voice level. “He never would have put up with your refusal to listen, your stubbornness in the face of correction. I would’ve thought you’d know better.”
“My father said I was destined for greatness,” argued Jess.
“Maybe. If you’d spent more time under his tutelage before he died, perhaps you would’ve learned what it takes to be great. But now? I’m beginning to think you’ll never learn.”
Jess looked like he was about to say something. Tight cords bulged from his neck like ropes. But after a moment the rage drained out of him and his head fell into his hands.
“He always made it look so easy,” said Jess in a vulnerable tone Amos had not heard before. “Before he died, he made it look so easy, and then Simon tried to teach me, and I couldn’t get it, and I felt so stupid. I got frustrated, and I thought, ‘if only Dad were still here to teach me himself.'”
A tear fell from one of the boy’s eyes, and Amos’s appraisal of him changed. Perhaps Jess could be reached after all. Maybe his pride was a facade, a front he’d erected to protect a battered ego further embittered by the premature loss of his father. With some patience and kindness (God knew this was not his forte), perhaps the boy would turn out all right.
“Jess,” said Amos, “Your father spoke very highly of you. I believe you can do this, but you have to be open to correction. You can’t take it as a personal affront every time I point out that you’re doing something wrong. Part of your father’s greatness was due to his willingness to own up to mistakes and fix them. If you do the same, you can be like him, I’m sure of it.”
“You think so?” Jess looked up then, and Amos’s heart softened at the sight of him.
“I know so.” He placed an affectionate hand on the boy’s shoulder. He would take him under his wing, he decided, not just as a mentor but as a guardian and a friend.
Jess nodded, sniffled, reached toward his nose to wipe away more tears. “Show me again?”
Amos reached into empty space once more, and this time Jess paid attention.