Leaf Jesperson looked crossly across the counter at the sullen, dark-haired boy standing there with a sign in his hand. Leaf knew the sign. He had put it in the window himself. It said "Apprentice Wanted. Must Have 3 Years Experience." It was the sort of sign you brought in and showed to the owner if you thought you might be the apprentice that was wanted.
"What do you want?" Leaf asked anyway.
"I need somewhere to learn magic," said the boy.
"Well that's not my problem."
"Then why did you put this sign up?"
Leaf snatched the sign away. "Do you have three years of experience, boy?"
"Yes," said the boy.
Leaf regarded him skeptically. "Yeah? So you can provide me a reference?"
"I learned on my own," said the boy.
"Oh, homeschooled," said Leaf, rolling his eyes. "Look, why don't you go back to school, learn your numbers or whatever they're teaching these days, get good grades, and then apply to one of those magic universities, and when you're done with all that, come back to me with a degree. Then we'll talk."
"I need to learn magic now," said the sullen, dark-haired boy, slamming his hands down and leaning over the counter with an intensity that made even Leaf, who had a good 100 pounds on him, flinch. "Or someone is going to get hurt."
Leaf reminded himself of how much larger he was than this stripling child and straightened up, puffing his chest slightly. "Oh, tough guy, huh? Real cute. Look, if it'll get you out of here, I'll give you the test."
"Okay," said the boy, taking his hands off the counter and straightening up himself.
Leaf pointed at a target on the wall. "All right, let's see if you can hit that target with... anything you got. A water dart, a light orb, anything." He folded his arms and leaned back smugly. Top grads would get nervous and flub this one, barely managing to conjure a spark, or panicking in slow motion as it drifted weakly off course.
The boy raised one finger and in the microsecond between call and action Leaf realized something was not normal, but it was too late to speak. A bolt of darkness shot from the boy's hand and blasted a six-foot wide hole through Leaf's wall.
Leaf was at a loss for words but he was the kind of person that always had to say something, whether he had anything or not. "That was my best wall," he said.
"I didn't mean to do that," said the boy in a tone that was less indicative of apology than mild surprise. "But that's why I need to learn magic," he added. "So someone doesn't get hurt."
Sneaky little gears began to turn in Leaf's head. "Maybe there's something we can work out," he said, turning away from the hole in the wall and back to the boy. "What's your name?"
Leaf snorted. "That's an odd one." "What's your name?"
The boy said nothing but continued to look him straight in the eyes with the same intense gaze he seemed to bring to everything. Leaf was starting to dislike that gaze.
"Leaf Jesperson," said Leaf, louder and more boldly, gesturing to the front of the store. "That big sign over the door that says Jesperson's Magic Services? That's me. Jesperson. I own this place."
"Sure," said Inversion, looking behind Leaf at the shelves of papers behind the counter. Leaf felt an instant relief as the gaze left him. "Do I have to sign something?"
Leaf waved him off. "We can handle the paperwork later. Let me introduce you to somebody." He dinged the bell on the counter.
The curtains behind the counter rustled and a woman in a top hat and overalls burst out. "Sorry for the delay! Can I help -" she stopped, surprised to see Leaf already behind the counter. She stared at Leaf and then Inversion.
"He's not a client," said Leaf. "Boy here wants to be an apprentice."
"Oh," said the woman, sizing up Inversion. She seemed surprised but hesitant to say anything.
"Sure, he's a bit young, but I think we can make something of him," said Leaf. "After all, how's a lad with no years of experience to get three years of experience until someone gives him a job first?"
The woman eyed Leaf even more hesitantly as if not sure if this was some kind of joke.
Leaf did not give any indication that he was anything but perfectly serious. "Take him in the back, sort out his living arrangements, and maybe take him out for your rounds today, if you've got anything."
"Sure thing, boss," said the woman, and opened the gate in the counter, motioning for Inversion to pass through.
"I'll catch up with you in the evening," said Leaf, as the two went back through the curtain.
It looked like any back room Inversion had ever seen. Dimly lit, cluttered, smelling slightly of mold. There was a cot in the corner.
"Well, we did just have a cot open up," said the woman cheerfully. "Unless you've got your own spot."
"No," said Inversion.
"Well, there you are," she said, pointing to the cot. "I'm up there," she said, indicating a hammock hanging in one upper corner.
"What happened to the last person?" asked Inversion, looking at the cot.
"Ah, he moved on to a better opportunity," said the woman.
"Oh," said Inversion.
"In the afterlife! Ha ha ha!"
Now it was Inversion's turn to wonder if someone was joking.
"Oh, sorry," she said. "Yes, he really died. Gallows humor, you know. You kind of develop it with all the occupational hazards. It actually hit us all pretty hard but you just got to wad it up into a little ball deep inside you and carry on! Anyway, in with the new. I'm Fate Piranha. I didn't get your name?"
"Inversion," said the boy.
"Ah," said Fate. "What a perfectly normal name. Pleased to meet you. So here's the deal. I usually get up around 7, wash up in the washroom -" she pointed to what looked like a closet, "and the biscuit thief delivers biscuits by about 7:30. I'll have to ask him to put in one more order. After breakfast, we head out for regularly scheduled jobs," she said, indicating a battered clipboard hanging from a nail. "If there's a special job or a one-off, Leaf will let us know. Sometimes he'll clip a note on the clipboard, sometimes he'll just yell at us from the front room."
"How long do you work?" asked Inversion.
"However long it takes," said Fate. "If I go fast I'm usually able to knock off around 6."
"Do you get paid extra if it takes longer?"
Fate blinked as if trying to parse out the word. "Paid? We don't get paid. Except for the biscuits. And experience. And luxury living," she said, indicating the cot and the hammock.
"Hm," said Inversion.
"Anyway, I was just about to head out," said Fate, grabbing a sheet off the clipboard. "First up is just a routine security check at the Halberta mansion, just make sure the wards are fresh and there's no signs of any incidents."