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art by Shane M. Gavin

The Magician of Words

Ruth Nestvold is an American writer living in Stuttgart, Germany. She attended Clarion West in 1998, and since then, her work has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov's, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Baen's Universe, Strange Horizons, Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, and several other anthologies. She has been nominated for the Nebula, the Sturgeon, and the Tiptree awards. The Italian translation of her novella "Looking Through Lace" won the "Premio Italia" for best international work. Her novel Yseult/Flamme und Harfe (Flame and Harp) appeared in translation from Penhaligon, a German imprint of Random House, in 2009. She maintains a web site at ruthnestvold.com and blogs at ruthnestvold.wordpress.com.

Public Alley 434 hides secrets. Boxes full of former lives guard the entrance, cloaking magic in the mundane. It is here the Magician of Words plies his trade, hidden between the back walls of the old brownstones, behind the facades of things that are what they seem to be.
You think to seek him out, be other than you are? Beware what he can do--you cannot know what you will get, where the spell will take you. Are you not content with your lot? But contentment has nothing to do with it; it is the spell itself which draws you, the magic of illusion.
Then let us say you think you are comfortable with insecurity, with things becoming other than they seem, with alleys and sidestreets and ghettos and locked doors, with politicians and storytellers and quacks and whores. You seek out Public Alley 434, make your way past the boxes of garbage, the discards from lives left behind: jeans that no longer fit, lists of tasks never completed, old tomes of literary criticism, street maps of Austin and Eugene and Seattle, a wedding ring, a string of broken promises. Next, the lives that never were: an electric guitar, a book of poetry, a child with blue eyes.
It is no wonder that not many people make it this far.
Finally, there is the magician, inclining his head, chuckling. "I think I need to work on those security locks."
And then his words are surrounding you, their touch skimming along your skin, a spell of loam and earth and beauty, of damp leaves on the forest floor, things deep and magical, drawing you in with their cadence, pulling you down, to the earth, a song bright and brown, tugging at your heart.
You resist, looking him in the eye. "This is not what I want."
The magician nods, and the spell shifts, licking your skin like flame. You gasp, desperate for air. The words are feverish kisses, too long, too short, too deep, containing a promise that cannot be kept. These bonds are fire, hot and sweet, the links glinting and burning, painful to the touch.
You shake your head. "No, no, no, this is not what I want."
Regretfully, the Magician of Words speaks the language of air. The words change yet again, shifting direction, the fetters lifting and fading, becoming feathers. Cool air brushes against your skin, skimming up your arms and down your back to rest lightly on your shoulder blades, caressing, drawing out the feathers sprouting there, smoothing them with a gentle hand. You twist around to watch the wings as they grow. They are not white, like an angel's, they are brown, like you are, the brown of earth and loam and sand, humus and beige stone blending into the lighter brown of your skin. Expectations fall away as the feathers brush your calves. Throwing off the magician's other spells, your heart grows lighter, leaving a small knot of painful joy just below your rib cage.
You spread your wings. "Thank you."
As the magician watches you soar above the alleyway, he speaks the language of water. If you were to look down, your lovely feathers damp with moisture, you could see him even now between the brownstones, hiding tears in the rain.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, June 14th, 2012
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