The Lesson

“No. Try it again.” His master scowled.

It was a simple enough technique, but he struggled to get anywhere with it. And his master was growing ever more irritated. Trying to ignore all of that, he focused once more on the candle in front of him. The strands of power were obvious all around, and he pleaded with them to touch the wick, even briefly, just enough to set it alight.

But the glowing threads, normally so responsive to his call, seemed indifferent now. No amount of coaxing moved them. It was useless.

“Stop!”

He winced at his master’s tone. The disappointment was obvious. A scolding – or worse – was not far behind.

“It is too painful to watch you fail over and over. Why are you incapable of learning the simplest things?”

It was a rhetorical question. He knew better than to answer. The rant was just beginning.

“I sometimes wonder if you have the gift at all. Starting a fire is the first skill any wizard learns. After a year, you still cannot manage it. Yet you ask me to teach you other things. I have half a mind to send you back to your parents. What use is an apprentice who cannot even light a candle?”

The whole thing was unfair. There was more to magic than starting a fire. He had achieved other effects. The power bent to his will easily. Yet his master was convinced that he would never be a wizard if he could not do this one thing.

“Well, what do you have to say for yourself? Why should I keep you?”

There was no right answer to the question; that much he knew. However, if he did not answer, it would be worse for him. He wanted to take the tinderbox and light the candle with it. But he did not. Clever though it might be, the old wizard did not appreciate cleverness. The lesson was to be performed correctly. And though he did not admit it aloud, he was as frustrated with himself as his master. How could he manage to freeze water and control the cold but not generate a single spark? It didn’t make sense.

Wait, he thought. Maybe that was it. It should not work that way. Cold was supposed to be merely the absence of heat. But what if cold were just as real? Could he…? There was only one way to find out.

Ignoring his master’s expectant glare, he turned again to the candle’s wick. This time, he asked the threads to pull all the cold out of it. The strands of power pulsed. He knew it was an odd request, but they tried to comply this time.

Slowly, they pulled the cold away from the wick. Just as slowly, it began to smolder, and, many seconds later, it finally lit. It did not burst into flame; rather, it begrudgingly gave way to fire.

His master snorted at the result. “That was rather inefficient. But at least you finally accomplished this simple task. Such tricks will not always work, however. You need to learn to do things properly.” He paused to think a moment. “Enough for now. Go clean my laboratory. And do not break anything. We will pick up your lessons again later. Be sure to practice lighting the candle. I want to see improvement.” With that, he walked out, leaving his apprentice to his chores.

It might not have seemed like much, but getting through that without a beating counted as high praise indeed. At least he had finally lit the candle. He hoped it would get easier, but suspected that he would not be so lucky.

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