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The Fire Rose

Book One of The Elemental Masters

by Mercedes Lackey


Golden as sunlight, white-hot, the Salamander danced and twisted sinuously above a plate sculpted of Mexican obsidian, ebony glass born in the heart of a volcano and shaped into a form created exactly to receive the magic of a creature who bathed in the fires of the volcano with delight. It swayed and postured to a music only it could hear, the only source of light in the otherwise stygian darkness of the room. At times a manikin of light, at times in the shape of the mundane salamander that bore the same name, this was the eyes and ears of the mage who had conjured it. He was a Firemaster, and all creatures of the element of flame answered to him. They brought him the news of the world now closed to him; what better source of information could he have? Where fire was, there they lurked; candle-flame, or gaslight, coal-fire or stoked box of a steam-boiler, burning hearth or burning forest—all held his informants, any of which could impart their observations to him. What one saw, all saw; speak to one and you spoke to all of them, for such was their nature.

Their patience was endless, but his, being mortal, was not. At length, he tired of watching it dance, and determined to set it upon its task. He summoned the creature from the dish with a thought; obedient to his will, it hovered above a pristine sheet of cream-laid vellum. This was special paper, and more exclusive than it seemed, pressed with his own watermark and not that of the maker.

He spoke out of the darkness of his velvet-covered, wingback chair, his voice rising from the shadow like the voice of the dragon Fafnir from its cave. He was Fafnir; like the giant, now utterly transformed to something no one who knew the former self would ever recognize.

Time to construct his letter, while the Salamander and all its kin considered his requirements. "Dear Sir;" he said, and the Salamander danced above the vellum, burning the characters into it, in elegant calligraphy. "I write to you because I am in need of a special tutor for my—

He paused to consider the apocryphal child of his imagination. A son? A lonely, crippled waif, isolated from the laughter and play of his peers? No, make it two children. If the crippled boy was not bait enough for his quarry, an intelligent, inquisitive girl would be. "—my children. Both are gifted intellectually beyond their years; my son is an invalid, crippled by the disease that claimed his mother; and my daughter the victim of prejudice that holds her sex inferior to that of the male. Neither is likely to obtain the education their ability demands in a conventional setting."

He weighed the words carefully, and found them satisfactory. Appropriately tempting, and playing to the "enlightened" and "modern" male who would be the mentor of the kind of tutor he sought. He wanted a woman, not a man; a male scholar with the skills he required would be able to find ready employment no matter where he was, but a woman had fewer options. In fact, a female scholar without independent means had no options if she was not supported by a wealthy father or indulgent husband. A female had no rights; under the laws of this and most other states, she was chattel, the property of parents or husband. She could take no employment except that of teacher, seamstress, nurse, or domestic help; no trades were open to her, and only menial factory work. There were some few female doctors, some few scientists, but no scholars of the arts, liberal or otherwise, who were not supported in their field by money or males. He wanted someone with no options; this would make her more obedient to his will.

"My needs are peculiar, reflecting the interests of my children. This tutor must be accomplished in ancient Latin, classical Greek, medieval French and German, and the Latin of medieval scholars. A familiarity with ancient Egyptian or Celtic languages would be an unanticipated bonus."

The Salamander writhed, suddenly, and opened surprisingly blue eyes to stare at its master. It opened its lipless mouth, and a thin, reedy voice emerged.

"We have narrowed the field to five candidates," it said. "One in Chicago, one in Harvard, three in New York. The one in Chicago is the only one with a smattering of ancient tongues and some knowledge of hieroglyphs. The others are skilled only in the European languages you required; less qualified, but—"

"But?" he asked.

"More attractive," the Salamander hissed, its mouth open in a silent laugh.

He snorted. At one point he would have been swayed by a fairer face; now that was hardly to the point. "Have they relatives?" he asked it.

"The one in Chicago is recently orphaned, one of those in New York was raised by a guardian who cares nothing for her, and her trust fund has been mismanaged as she will shortly learn. Those that do have families, have been repudiated for their unwomanly ways," the Salamander told him. "They are suffragettes, proponents of rights for women, and no longer welcome in their parents' homes."

Tempting. But relatives and parents had been known to change their minds in the past, and welcome the prodigal back into the familial fold.

"Show me the one in Chicago," he demanded. She seemed to be the best candidate thus far. The Salamander left the vellum page and returned to its obsidian dish, where it began to spin.

As it rotated, turning faster and faster with each passing second, it became a glowing globe of yellow-white light. A true picture formed in the heart of the globe, in the way that a false picture formed in the heart of a Spiritualist's "crystal ball." The latter was generally accomplished through the use of mirrors and other chicanery. The former was the result of true Magick.

When he saw the girl at last, he nearly laughed aloud at the Salamander's simplistic notion of beauty. Granted, the girl was clad in the plainest of gowns, of the sort that a respectable housekeeper might wear. He recognized it readily enough, from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog left in his office a few years ago by a menial.

Ladies' Wash Suit, two dollars and twenty five cents. Three years out-of-mode, and worn shabby.

She wore wire-rimmed glasses, and she used no artifice to enhance her features. In all these things, she was utterly unlike the expensive members of the silk-clad demimonde whose pleasures he had once enjoyed. But the soft cheek needed no rouge or rice-powder; the lambent blue eyes were in no way disguised by the thick lenses. That slender figure required no over-corseting to tame it to a fashionable shape, and the warm golden-brown of her hair was due to no touch of chemicals to achieve that mellow hue of sun-ripened wheat.

"She is orphaned?" he asked.

The Salamander danced its agreement. "Recently," it told him. "She is the most qualified of them all, scholastically speaking."

"And possessed of no—inconvenient—family ties," he mused, watching the vision as it moved in the Salamander's fire. He frowned a little at that, for her movements were not as graceful as he would have liked, being hesitant and halting. That scarcely mattered, for he was not hiring her for an ability to dance.

From the look of her clothing, she had fallen on hard times—unless, of course, she was a natural ascetic, or was donating all of her resources to the Suffrage Movement. Either was possible; if the latter was an impediment to her accepting employment, the Salamander would have rejected her as a candidate.

"We will apply to her—or rather to her mentor," he decided, and gave the Salamander the signal to resume its place above the half-written letter. "I am willing to pay handsomely for the services of any male or female with such qualifications, to compensate for the great distance he or she must travel. The tutor will be installed in my own household, drawing a wage of twenty dollars a week as well as full room and board, and a liberal allowance for travel, entertainment, and books. San Francisco affords many pleasures for those of discriminating taste; this year shall even see the glorious Caruso performing at our Opera." Clothing he would have supplied to her, having it waiting for her if she consented to come; easier to supply the appropriate garments than to hope the girl had any kind of taste at all. He would not have a frump in his house; any female entering these doors must not disgrace the interior. While his home might not rival Leland Stanford's on the outside, the interior was enough to excite the envy of the richest "nob" on "Nob Hill." There would be no cotton-duck gowns from a mail-order catalog trailing over the fine inlay work of his floors, no coarse dark cottons displayed against his velvets and damask satins.



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