Daisy dug her fingernails into her scalp as she stared at the puzzle pieces scattered over the kitchen table. Each was a lump of smooth stone, roughly cubic. They had the colours of autumn leaves: warm oranges, yellowish greens and rich burgundies.
“How are you getting on?” asked Madam Hyacintha, looking over Daisy’s shoulder.
“Hmm,” said Daisy, distractedly.
“Well, let me know if you need anything,” said her mentor.
It had been an autumn day when Daisy had first arrived at Madam Hyacintha’s red-brick town house. Inside, the building had smelled of a peculiar mixture of turpentine and burnt sugar.
“What would you like me to do tomorrow?” Daisy had asked enthusiastically as they sat at the kitchen table drinking tea. “I don’t mind if it’s boring! I could clean the floor? I know that certain movements,” she waved her arm in a circle, “are important to practice!”
The wrinkles around Madam’s eyes had twitched, making Daisy think of sycamore seeds. “Ah? You’ve heard stories?”
“Yes! There’s always something like that to start with, isn’t there? Jumping into a puddle without splashing. Painting a wall. Catching flies with forks. It seems pointless, but it turns out it’s all about reflexes and technique!”
“It seems that you’re ahead of me,” said Madam, producing a small, leather-bound book with ‘Abecedarian Magicks’ embossed on the cover. “Read chapters one to four this evening. We’ll discuss them tomorrow.”
Daisy picked up the darkest stone piece and turned it over in her fingers. It was slightly warm to the touch. Two of its sides had been carved into the shape of a scroll, with a deep groove through the centre. Madam had told her that all the grooves should line up, making a continuous line. There were twenty-five pieces; perhaps they formed a five by five square? But no matter how Daisy moved them around, she couldn’t make it work.
She wondered why Madam had given her this task. Was it to teach her persistence? Patience? Maybe she was supposed to use some sort of magical technique? She had learned several already. Madam had even allowed her to help with some quite advanced spells.
“You are more than capable of doing these things, with practice and care,” she had said. “But I want you to appreciate the complexities.”
Daisy had felt this was not the way things should go. Surely she should be absolutely forbidden from dangerous magics until she had somehow proved her worth?
As if reading her mind, Madam continued: “Do not feel that you need to creep around and experiment behind my back. You are welcome to try anything, with supervision. I am merely trying to avoid having to clean up a flood, or untangle a misapplied metamorphism, or possibly both. I will not withhold information from you if you request it.”
Daisy stirred the disassembled puzzle pieces with her finger and frowned.
A week after she’d arrived, Madam had produced a sketch. It was a woman with pale skin and pulled-back hair: a single, dark strand falling across her face. The iris of one eye was the colour of lavender. The other was white; nothing but veins crawling across the sclera.
“This is Lady Aniya Aston,” said Madam. “She is extremely dangerous. Should you meet her, I advise that you run the other way, quickly.”
“Aha!” Daisy had said, “But I expect you can’t tell me anything else about her, because it would be too dangerous for me to know! I expect you feel you must protect me from the truth.”
“Not at all,” said Madam Hyacintha. “In my experience, that sort of approach always ends badly.” She had proceeded to tell Daisy absolutely everything about Lady Aston: the prophecy, how Daisy’s parents were involved, and even, much to Daisy’s shock, all about her own past entanglements with the woman. “It is usually best,” Madam had said calmly at the end of her lecture, “to have all the facts from the start.”
Daisy narrowed her eyes. “Madam?” she said, as her teacher was about to leave the kitchen.
The older woman stopped. “Yes?”
“Are you sure,” said Daisy slowly, “that all the pieces are here?”
Madam reached into her pocket, produced two more stones and placed them on the table. Suddenly the solution was obvious. Daisy pushed the pieces into a cube, three pieces along each edge.
“Very good,” said Madam Hyacintha. the corners of her eyes twitching upwards. “Remember, Daisy, you only have to ask.”
We know how it is with mentors in fantasy and science fiction stories, don’t we? Mr Miyagi, Professor Dumbledore, Obi Wan Kenobi, even, I noticed, Odette in the recent animated children’s film Ballerina. They teach via obscure methods, withhold critical information, and generally frustrate their mentee until he, or she, does something stupid and gets into trouble. Then they die. Or get critically injured. Or just disappear.
Well I’m a teacher and I say: bugger that. We’ll have a properly structured curriculum and the teacher isn’t going to die at the end of it, thankyouverymuch.