The fourth Magic Thief book comes out on September 16th, and to celebrate, here’s a free story. If you know other readers, let them know–it’s a story that a lot of readers have emailed to ask about!
Lost and Found
(At the end of The Magic Thief: Found, Conn gives up himself in order to complete a spell that binds both magics to the city of Wellmet. All that is left behind is an empty shell—Conn’s body, but not his true self. At the very end of the book, Conn touches the baby dragon, Pip, and all his memories return to him. That’s where the book ends. This is what happens right after.)
Scowling, Benet punched down the rising bread dough. Just as he’d like to punch the city’s magics, if he could get his hands on them. Grimly he shaped the dough into two loaves, slapped them into their pans, and with a clatter slid them into the oven. The kettle on the stove-top boiled. Time to bring some fresh tea up to that blank-faced boy.
The boy who looked like Conn but was not, ever since the accursed magics had stolen his memories. Not just his memories, his very self. The not-Conn reminded Benet of an empty hearth, all cold, gray ash, the flame and warmth missing.
With an angry growl, Benet set a teapot, a fresh cup, and a plate of stale muffins on a tray. The not-Conn wouldn’t notice that it wasn’t biscuits hot out of the oven and dripping with butter. Benet left the warm kitchen, trudging up the narrow stairs to the study, where Master Nevery had set the not-Conn to reading some magical book or other to help him remember himself. Hopeless, that was. Then Nevery had gone out, because as Benet knew well, he couldn’t stand being in the same room as the blank, still, silent not-Conn, seeing the constant reminder of what they’d all lost.
He didn’t even answer to Conn. Only to Boy. It was like living with a statue. A thing, not a person.
Benet nudged open the door to the study. The not-Conn was sitting at the table with a book. On the book crouched the baby dragon, all gleaming golden and green scales, and a fiery red eye. Benet glared. The dragon was a little thief, and it had been hanging around Heartsease, stealing whatever bits of food that were not locked up tight. It was up to no good again, no doubt.
The not-Conn had his hand on the little dragon’s back, between its wings. Usually the not-Conn looked blankly at Benet, thanking him politely for tea or stale muffins, but never saying anything more, as if his head was empty as a bucket.
Seeing Benet, the boy at the table jumped to his feet. The thief dragon leaped into the air, flapped awkwardly in a circle, and then landed on the boy’s head.
“Ow!” the boy said, laughing. He reached up and wrestled the tiny dragon out of his hair. “Mind the claws!” The dragon settled on the boy’s shoulder and wrapped its tail around his neck like a scarf. The boy grinned. “Hello, Benet.”
Benet frowned and set down the tea tray with a thump. The not-Conn never laughed or smiled. Maybe, just maybe … “You hungry?” he asked, testing.
“Oh, you know me. I’m never hungry,” the boy answered, and peered at the tea tray. The dragon hopped to the table and poked its nose at the plate of stale, cold muffins. “You don’t want those, Pip,” the boy told it.
With a big hand, Benet reached out and grabbed the boy by the shoulder. He leaned closer and peered into the bright blue eyes. Not blank. Not empty. “Are you in there?” he asked roughly.
The boy nodded. “It’s me, Benet. I’m back. I’m very glad to see you.”
Not as glad as Benet was to see the empty hearth warm again with fire. “Listen you,” he said, tightening his grip. “Don’t ever—” He broke off, his voice gruff.
“I know,” Conn said, suddenly sober. “I won’t. Not if I can help it.” He gave a half grin. “I have to tell Nevery. D’you know where he is?”
Benet blinked and let him go. “Out somewhere. Maybe the Dawn Palace.”
“Right,” the boy said. He headed for the door, and the dragon swooped from the table to his shoulder. “I’ll be home later,” the boy said, without turning around.
Benet folded his arms and gave a contented nod. Conn was back. Home, where he was supposed to be. It’d be chicken pie for dinner, then, and apple cake for afters. And he wouldn’t forget the biscuits, either.
Captain Kerrn’s office was perfectly tidy. She kept an always-filled inkwell in the exact center of her desk. In a drawer she kept a tray of clean pens. On the left side of the desk was a neat stack of papers—requisitions, and a list of recruits, and a guard schedule ready to be filled in. On the right side of the desk was another neat stack of paperwork, all completed in her perfectly precise handwriting.
Dipping a pen into the inkwell, Kerrn added another name to the schedule she was working on. There. A job done cleanly and efficiently, just as she liked. She added the paper to the right-hand stack. Nothing ever upset her system. It was organized. Neat. Not boring. Not boring at all.
She yawned and cleaned her pen.
A knock on the door interrupted her.
“Come,” she snapped, and placed a fresh sheet of paper before herself.
A wind from the door crashing open blew her two neat stacks of paper into a muddled heap on the desk.
Scowling, Kerrn looked up to see her second-in-command, the bristly-bearded Farn, dragging a boy into the room. The boy who had once been a notorious thief and dangerous wizard, but was now just a dull puppet that did not give any trouble to anyone. The boy jerked his arm out of Farn’s grip and stumbled against the desk. The inkpot wobbled, and a spatter of ink splashed across Kerrn’s paperwork.
“Flaet,” she muttered, a curse word in her own language. She tossed her long blond braid over her shoulder and got to her feet, straightening the papers and trying not to smudge her fingers with the spilled ink. “What is it, Farn?”
“Him,” her second said, and made a grab for the boy’s arm. “Caught him sneaking around the Dawn Palace.”
The boy ducked away, bumping the desk again; more ink spilled. “I wasn’t sneaking!” he protested.
Kerrn examined the boy more carefully. The kid sounded like he was up to something. She had grown up on the most run-down, dangerous back streets of Helva, and knew better than anyone how to think like a thief; she knew how an innocent face could hide a brain that was coming up with a hundred devious ways to make trouble. Connwaer—the old Conn, the thief—did not even have an innocent face; he always looked like he was busy thinking thieverous thoughts.
But this was just the boring puppet-boy, was it not? “What are you up to?” Kerrn asked slowly.
The boy’s face went suspiciously blank. He blinked twice. “Nothing,” he said in a suddenly wooden voice.
Kerrn narrowed her eyes. He was pretending, she knew it.
“I’m looking for Nevery,” the boy added. “That’s all.”
He was up to something. Pretending to be the puppet-boy, but he was not—Kerrn could see the trickery in those blue eyes.
A rush of wind sent her papers scattering, and the tiny dragon swarmed into the room. Kerrn ducked as it swooped over her head, then landed on her desk and tracked inky pawprints across the papers scattered there.
“Pip!” the boy said, and the dragon leaped on to his shoulder, clinging with inky claws.
“It is you,” Kerrn breathed.
The boy grinned. “It is.” Then he gave her a quick nod and, sidestepping Farn’s awkward grab, disappeared out the door.
“Go after him!” Kerrn shouted.
“Yes ma’am,” Farn answered, and scuffing through the papers on the floor, headed out. Then he stuck his head back into the room. “Uh, Captain?” He pointed at his own face. “You got a smudge of ink on your cheek.”
“Never mind that,” Kerrn snapped. “Catch that boy and toss him out. I do not want him making trouble!” She scowled, and Farn hurried out, slamming the door behind him.
Kerrn stared at the mess on her desk, the trampled-on papers all over the floor, the spilled ink. She rubbed at the ink smudged across her face.
Then she smiled.
Conn was back.
Things were about to get interesting again.
Ting, ting, ting-tang, CLANG!
“And again,” Duchess Rowan said, and raised her blade.
Argent sighed and started the swordcrafting drill again. His arm ached.
“To quarters,” the Duchess ordered.
She attacked again, driving him back. He concentrated on staying light on his feet and keeping his guard up. He liked being the Duchess’s new best friend, now that the gutterboy Connwaer had done something typically stupid and heroic and had gotten his brains scrambled for it. But being her friend was difficult sometimes. She was too clever, too quick. And didn’t she ever get tired?
Behind him, the door to the salle opened. A distraction. He saw her eyes widen, and she lowered her guard.
“Hah!” Argent shouted, and went for the score.
With a careless swipe, Duchess Rowan parried his blade and strode past him as he went sprawling. He staggered to a halt and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. Then he turned to see who’d come into the salle.
Argent frowned. It was that brat Connwaer, who’d pretended to be a wizard, but who’d apparently forgotton all the magic he’d learned and was now just a gutterboy again. Not so clever any more, was he?
Duchess Rowan tucked her practice sword under her arm and started taking off her gloves. She wasn’t sweating at all, he noticed. She wasn’t smiling, either, which was good. The gutterkid didn’t need any encouragement.
“Ro,” the kid was saying with his gutterboy accent. He had a lizard-like creature clinging to his shoulder. “D’you know where Nevery is?”
Argent stepped up next to the Duchess. “You should address her as Duchess Rowan,” he told him.
The Duchess gave Argent one of her sly, sidewise glances. He hated when she looked at him like that. It meant she was finding something funny that wasn’t really funny at all.
The gutterboy was grinning. “Duchess Rowan,” he said, accenting the words just to make Argent’s blood boil. “D’you notice anything different?”
Argent saw the Duchess’s face turn pale. “Conn,” she gasped. “Did you remember?”
The gutterboy’s smile widened. The lizard on his shoulder twitched its tail.
“You remembered!” Rowan exclaimed. “You’re you again!” She dropped her gloves, and then she let the practice sword clatter to the floor. A moment later, she was laughing and hugging Connwaer, and chattering to him. All he did was grin back at her. The kid didn’t talk much; Argent had noticed that a long time ago. It was the one good thing about him.
“Yes, yes,” the Duchess was saying. “You must go tell Nevery at once. He’s not here at the Dawn Palace, though. You might check the Academicos library.”
“Right,” Conn answered. “If that guard of Kerrn’s comes looking for me, tell him I wasn’t here, all right?”
Argent frowned. “Do you expect the Duchess to lie to her own palace guards?” he interrupted.
Rowan laughed again. “Just go, Conn.”
The gutterboy quirked a last grin and went out the door, the lizard still clinging to his shoulder.
Duchess Rowan turned to him. “Conn is back!” she said, glowing with happiness.
Yes, Conn was back, Argent thought glumly. He bent to pick up the Duchess’s practice sword and gloves, and handed them to her.
“Thank you,” she said. He could see a glint in her eyes. She was planning something she thought was clever. “Now that Conn is himself again,” she said briskly, “he can serve as the Ducal Magister.”
Argent blinked. “Him?” A gutterboy in one of the most powerful positions in the city?
“Yes, him,” Duchess Rowan said. She gave her sideways smile. “He’s a great wizard, you know. All he needs is a little polish.”
Argent snorted. “Polishing that kid would be like trying to polish a—a lump of stone,” he exclaimed. “He is what he is, and you’re not going to change that.”
“Oh yes I am,” Duchess Rowan said. “You’ll see. He’ll become the Ducal Magister, and he’ll like it, too.”
“No, no, no,” Magister Brumbee muttered to himself. He was sorting through the locus magicalicus stones stored in a secure room at the Academicos. He hadn’t checked them in many months, and they were all out of order. It was almost as if they re-sorted themselves, the tricksy things.
He looked up as the door opened and the sad, empty thing that had once been Nevery’s apprentice stuck his shaggy head in. “Is Nevery here?” he asked.
“No,” Brumbee said absently. The stones that were bits of gravel had gotten mixed in with the bigger stones. Maybe he could get a wizarding student to sort them into their proper boxes.
“D’you know where he is?” the boy persisted.
“Try Dusk House,” Brumbee answered, frowning. He’d advised Nevery not to turn to pyrotechnics to get his apprentice back, but in their lifetime as friends, Nevery had never listened to his advice. The Conn who had caused so much trouble with the magics of Wellmet was gone. Nothing that Nevery could do would bring him back, not even pyrotechnics.
“Right,” the boy said. “Thanks.” A rush of wind, and the door slammed.
Brumbee looked up, blinking. Wait a moment. Something about the boy had been different. “Conn?” he asked. “Was that you?” He hurried to the door and opened it, looking out into the hallway. But it was empty.
He stepped back into the room full of locus magicalicus stones. Then he froze. Every single one of the stones was glowing and humming happily to itself. Brumbee could feel it in his bones, a kind of echo, as if the stones been touched briefly by some kind of hugely powerful magic.
Brumbee knew what that meant. That had been no empty shell of a boy. No, indeed.
Conn was back.
“Oh dear me,” Brumbee murmured to himself. “Dearie, dearie me.”
Nevery sighed and closed the book. For all his searching, he’d found nothing about a magic stealing a person’s very self from his body. Nothing about how to find a person who was lost from himself. He’d read every book in the Academicos library and every book in the Underlord’s library in the newly rebuilt Dusk House.
A creak at the door. Nevery looked up to see the young Underlord in his wheeled chair.
“Any luck?” Embre asked.
“None,” Nevery answered. “Even pyrotechnics can’t help.” It was time to accept that Conn was gone. Lost. All they had left of him was that blank, silent boy who ate when food was put in front of him, and slept when he was put to bed, and never seemed to have a thought in his empty head.
The Underlord rubbed his forehead with a thin hand, as if he was tired. “My stupid cousin,” he muttered, “leaving us behind like this.”
“Mm,” Nevery agreed. A chilly breeze crept through a crack in the window, and he shivered. He was feeling the cold of Wellmet’s winter in his bones. Time to head home from the Dusk House to Heartsease, which was hardly a home any more, now that the light and warmth had gone out of it. Even Benet didn’t seem interested in cooking any more.
“D’you think he’s with the magic?” the Underlord asked, wheeling further into the room.
Nevery had considered that possibility. “Perhaps.” Knowing that Conn might be part of the city’s magic didn’t make losing him any easier. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No, I suppose not,” Embre agreed sadly. There was a long silence. “Magister Nevery,” he went on at last, “I think we should change his name.”
Nevery frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Embre shrugged. “That boy. We keep calling him Conn, and he’s not Conn.” He added in a low, bitter voice, “We have to stop pretending that he is.”
With a sigh, Nevery gripped his cane and climbed to his feet, settling his cloak over his shoulders. His locus magicalicus was in his pocket, along with a purse string strung with silver lock coins.
“Well, Magister?” the young Underlord prompted.
When he answered, Nevery was careful to keep his voice steady. “You are right, of course,” he said.
“I’ll try to come up with a new blackbird name for him, then. And, well…” Embre trailed off, then took a deep breath and continued. “You could send him here to live, if you want. If it’s too difficult, I mean.”
For just a moment, Nevery closed his eyes. The Underlord was only trying to help, he told himself. It was too hard. For a while he had hoped—with time and care the boy would come back to himself. But he hadn’t. The time for hope was over. Still, he wasn’t going to abandon the boy, even if he wasn’t Conn, would never be Conn.
Without answering, he put on his broad-brimmed hat, strode past the Underlord, and went down the hallway and out the front door of the Dusk House. While he’d been reading, night had fallen, and the winding streets that led to the Night Bridge were crowded with shadows.
He bent his head and headed down Wyrm Street. Instead of going straight to the Night Bridge, he turned left on Strangle Street. As he passed the chophouse near the corner where Conn had first picked his pocket, he slowed. Then he gritted his teeth and went on.
Then he felt it—a tug at his cloak pocket. Quick as a flash he turned and grabbed the pickpocket by the arm. “Got you,” he growled.
A pale, wide-eyed face looked up at him. “I was too slow,” the boy said.
Nevery dropped the thief’s arm and stepped back. He’d gotten used to seeing the boy’s blank face, the emptiness behind the blue eyes. He could see quite clearly that this boy was not that empty-headed boy. He felt a flutter of hope. But he kept his face stern, frowning down. “Hm,” he muttered. “Come along,” he said, and started down the street, his cane tapping on the cobblestones, the boy walking beside him. The tiny dragon, Nevery noticed, was following them, flying from one shadow to the next. With every step, Nevery’s certainty grew: it was him, Conn himself, back from wherever he’d been for such a long time.
“I’ve been looking for you everywhere, Nevery,” the boy said.
“Have you indeed?” Nevery answered. They walked in silence. The boy took a few running steps to keep up.
“It’s me, Nevery,” Conn said.
Nevery’s mouth twitched, but he kept the smile from showing. “I can see that quite clearly, my lad.”
A very quiet “Oh,” from the boy.
Nevery stayed silent for a moment. Should he tell the boy about the long months of searching, the grief, followed by the despair of knowing that it was too late, that Conn was never coming back?
He stopped, staring down at the boy. “I’ve been searching for you, too, Connwaer,” he said at last.
“Well, I’m found,” Conn answered.
“Good,” Nevery pronounced. Then he added gruffly, “Take care that you don’t get lost again, boy.”
“I won’t, Nevery,” the boy said solemnly. “I promise.”
Nevery nodded. No doubt Benet knew the boy was himself again. It’d be biscuits for dinner, then. He gave a satisfied nod. “Come along.”
“Nevery,” the boy asked as they headed down Strangle Street. “Did you ever think about locus stones? There are a lot of them. D’you think it’s possible that everyone has a stone, they just never find it?”
Ah, a good magical discussion. Just what he needed. “Hmph,” Nevery answered. “A typically radical idea, Connwaer. Whatever led you to consider it?”
“Well, Nevery…” the boy began.
Nevery smiled to himself and strode on, listening to the boy’s latest strange theory. Everything that had been wrong in his world settled back into rightness. The lost had been found. Conn was back.