Charlatans and Magi by Jason S. Ridler

 

Fast as greased weasels, two decks of cards flew from Knox's scared fingers and blurred before the crowd into a fifty-two page flipbook. Knox smiled, the breeze from the furious cards setting his Mohawk off into a wave.

"Lads and Ladies, any dime-store magi can stretch a balloon into a giraffe, but how many can make a ship of cards?"

They gawked at the ship of diamonds, the King and Queen of Hearts at the helm, and the Jack of spades swaying on the sail of clubs. All gawked but Crystal.

Snap! They were in the deck and back in his trench coat pockets as the applause began.

"No coins please!" Laughter followed and then cash. "Now, chums, hold still for some quick draw magic!"

He threw back the trench coat and revealed two white holsters with purple pistol handles. "Soap is for the dirty. How would you buds like to see authentic smoke bubbles?" Lightening quick, he drew the pistols and fired high. Hiss! Frosty mist jetted toward the sky. The smoke tangled itself into a duelling spiral before Knox snapped the pistols back in the holsters, inhaled the smoke deep in his cheeks, cracked open his lips, then flicked his jaw with one bony finger thirteen times.

Thirteen smoke bubbles popped out of his mouth, smelling of snow, floating side by side. Knox clapped and the bubbles burst into letters —

NO COINS PLEASE

Applause rose as cash dropped into his box.

"Cheat!" Crystal cried. She adjusted her Magi Academy uniform and dusted off her All Star badge on her left arm. "That's grift magic, chicanery. You're a charlatan."

Knox smiled. "Indeed. My Daddy was Knox Charlatan Senior. I'm Junior. How about a rose for a smile?" He shoved both hands into the folds of his arm pits and returned them full of two wands. He smacked them together and they burst into one fully formed purple rose. Smiling, he handed it to her.

The crowd gawked as the Crystal snickered, arms crossed. "Did that hurt?"

"Only if you don't accept this gift!" Weak laughter and no money dropped.

She nabbed the rose. "Magic is supposed to hurt. That's how you know it works."

Knox grimaced. "Who dropped those wisdom bricks on you?"

She snorted. "Every teacher. Every book. Magic without a price is illusion. And that's what you're selling here. These people are being ripped off. Now, this is magic."

Knox raised a hand of concern, but her eyes shut and her mouth incanted. The purple plastic shone white, fluttered, then settled on green as thorns burst from its stem and the petals softened to red fibres. A real rose.

She sniffed, then coughed a silvery taste. "See? Can you do that? Well, how about this?" She pressed the stem to her lips, fingers on the thorns, and began to play a bloody sweet tune. The petals turned to moths, vanishing on the wings of notes as blood stained the money in his box. When the tune ended, the rose died. She dropped the stem in his coin case, stomach rumbling, smug and satisfied. The crowd took their money back, and patted her on the shoulder before vanishing into the street.

"You're very good." Knox said.

"Better than a fake," she said, wheezing.

"Give me your hands."

She recoiled but he kneeled to reduce his imposing stature. "Does the great magus fear a street charlatan's gift?"

She sniffed, and showed her bloody hands palm up.

Knox closed his eyes and the tears ran fast onto her fingers. The wound closed and her breath eased as the blood stains evaporated. Darkness deepened under his eyes as if he'd done ten rounds with battering ram, while her cheeks were rosy and breath clear. He grunted. "They don't tell you that you can bleed out the mana, cripple your talent, until all you have left is a few petals to share to those in need. And a few memories of what it meant to be top of the class." He opened his eyes. "And the latter ain't worth a damn."

He stood, turning his back, wheezing hard. "Better run back to school, magus. The bells in the Shadow Tower will soon be calling you to alchemy. And I have an afternoon's gig to prepare for." He coughed hard and phlegmy, spine curved and shaking.On his back was an old, torn Academy All Star badge, weathered worse than his face. Crystal dove her hands into his empty coin box and held the rose petals so hard her nose bled. She dropped the fistfuls of rubies into the box, and then ran back to school.

Jason S. Ridler's fiction and poetry has appeared in such magazines as ChiZine, Nossa Morte, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Dark Recesses. His popular non-fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Dark Scribe, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, and is a columnist for Fearzon.com. Visit him at his writing blog, Ridlerville, http://jsridler.livejournal.com