A/N: Some of the OCs seen here were originally introduced in an earlier fic about Margarita's past, "She Heard the Fairies Singing." Don't worry if you haven't read that one yet, though; they're all fully described herein as well.
~X X X~
Michael Lemon let out a heavy sigh.
"Mr. Lemon, what's wrong?" sixteen-year-old Margarita Surprise asked. The girl looked like most others in her village, in a plain, drab gray dress. As Father Braastad always preached, adornment was vanity, an act of pride that in turn incited lust and envy. She had auburn hair, pince-nez spectacles perched on the tip of her nose, and her elfin, pointed features wore a look of concern.
Lemon closed the book in front of him.
"Margarita, I'm worried."
She looked up from the lesson he'd set her.
"Is this about my work on the Wicca Rune? I know I was having trouble, but I think I know where I went wrong and—"
He held up a hand, smiling at her response.
"No, Margarita, it's not about that," he said with a chuckle. "I've told you before; no one masters a Rune on their very first try. It takes much study and practice—sometimes even years of study and practice for the more complex Runes—to learn them properly. I'm quite proud of how you've learned the basic theory and practice of magic and gone beyond it to learn the Fairy Ring, Hell Gate, and Purgatory Runes. You're quite a skilled student."
"Thank you, Mr. Lemon." It really ought to have been Master Lemon, he thought, when his apprentice addressed him, but that was simply too risky under the circumstances. If she got used to calling him that in private, she might slip and do so in public.
Besides which, both of them really only had one master.
"But if it isn't my magic studies that worry you, then what's the problem?" Margarita asked.
He paused before answering, as if thinking of the best way to express it.
"It's your age, Margarita."
"My age?" she yelped.
"You're sixteen now. That's about the average age when girls in a rural village like this start to look seriously at marriage, isn't it?"
He knew he was right, so it was no surprise that she nodded.
"Uh-huh. My big sister Paloma got married at seventeen. And my parents have been making noises about if any of the young men catch my eye. Oh!" she exclaimed, realizing what he was driving at. "If I get married, then what's going to happen to our lessons?"
He nodded again.
"Exactly. You've been studying magic under the guise of receiving supplemental lessons towards taking over for me as the village schoolteacher. But as a wife—an adult—you'd be expected to work at adult tasks, not continue to be an apprentice."
"A village this size doesn't need two schoolteachers, either," she quickly caught on. "Either you'd have to move on, or I'd have to become an ordinary goodwife while you stayed on, and neither option leaves any excuse for magic lessons. Plus I'd have a husband underfoot at home, which is a lot more intrusive than parents!"
He'd thought she'd see the point; it pleased him.
"That's what worried me. It's important to remain concealed—as unlicensed magicians, we both would face the stake anywhere in this province, and obtaining a proper license would entail going on quite a long journey and risking being executed as a traitor."
Margarita peered at him over the top of her pince-nez.
"You have a plan, though, don't you? I mean, this is something that we could put off for a year or two, right? But you're worrying about it now, so you must have thought of something important."
He smiled again, a broad, genuine smile. "Excellent! I'd hoped you'd see that." He rubbed his hands together briskly. "The fact is, there's a good chance for you to serve our Master—and to continue your magic studies under the best teachers in the kingdom."
"The best teachers? Mr. Lemon, do you mean...the Magic Academy at the Silver Star Tower?"
"That's exactly right."
"Then...you want me to go there as a spy?" Her eyes widened.
"A spy, no. This would not be that simple an affair."
She flinched, as well she might.
"More than that?" she repeated. "What more can I do?"
Lemon's face was serious.
"As you already know, when the Archmage realized that he was going to be defeated by Gammel Dore, Lujei Piche, and their allies, his last act was to secrete the Philosopher's Stone somewhere within the Silver Star Tower, hidden in a chamber that both is and is not of our world so that a mere architectural examination would not reveal its location. Because of that, when the Master was executed, Lujei used her powerful necromancy to first force Archmage Calvaros's soul to remain in this world rather than passing to the next life, and then to trap it, so that they could attempt to interrogate him as to the Philosopher's Stone's location." He frowned sourly. "It wasn't enough for our government to merely defeat the Archmage; they demanded to steal his power for themselves."
Margarita shifted in her seat; Lemon could tell she was getting anxious for him to get to the point, rather than repeating things he'd already taught her several years ago.
"In doing this, though, they made a very bad mistake. The ghost of a master magician is no mere spirit to be compelled by necromancy—indeed, because of various factors it would be a more difficult act than to summon and command an arch-devil. Lujei Piche was the only one who could conceivably have done it, and since her death she would be, shall we say, less motivated to assist the government in its little schemes? And so the Master remains within the Silver Star Tower, imprisoned but not controlled."
Margarita's eyes lit up.
"You mean—he could be freed? And the Philosopher's Stone would be there for him to reclaim? And you...you think I could do that?"
"None of us—the Master's older followers—could do it. Many of us are known to Gammel and his associates on sight, and it is very hard for a trained master magician to appear ignorant. The advantage you have is that you are exactly what you say you are: a young girl born and raised in this village who discovered in herself a talent for magic and was lucky enough to receive secret lessons. The question of whom those lessons were from will require some slight editing, but the point is that you have no connection to the Archmage; you weren't even born when he was defeated. You can go to the Magic Academy and study diligently, learning from those who are, truthfully, the greatest living magicians in the kingdom, but all the while investigating to locate how the Master's soul is contained and to free him."
"You think I could do that?" she repeated.
"I do. I won't lie to you: this mission is supremely dangerous. You will be risking your life, prying into the secrets of Grand Magician Gammel and other master wizards and witches. Nonetheless, young miss, I think you're the one who can do it. I thought it from the first."
"But, Mr. Lemon, I can't just run away and go to the Silver Star Tower. It would look really strange, and you couldn't take me as your apprentice because they'd realize who you were, wouldn't they?"
"They would indeed," the teacher agreed. "But, I have a plan which should not only deal with that problem, but at the same time make certain of your acceptance at the Tower."
"Rather than you going to the Silver Star Tower, we're going to have Gammel Dore come to you."
~X X X~
"I still say that you're being absurd, Isaiah," Matthew Surprise muttered as the group of men crept towards the village's one-room schoolhouse.
"We'll settle that ourselves with our own eyes," Magistrate Mint replied archly. "And this isn't the first time that your daughter's been mixed up in this kind of business. Remember the matter of the fairy ring four years back?"
"Margarita was the one who warned us about that!"
"Aye, she did—but without ever being able, so she said, to remember any names. And it was right after that Ephraim Nocino left town and that Lemon fellow moved here just when we needed a schoolteacher."
"Nocino left on account of a mob tearing up half his books and all but destroying his house," Sheriff Bailey pointed out. "Can't expect a man to feel neighborly after that kind of business."
"A God-fearing man would have a proper spirit of forgiveness," hissed Father Braastad. Unlike the other three men, the parson wasn't big and broad-shouldered but a lean, small man in his late fifties with close-cut gray hair. His zeal, though, seemed to give him tireless energy, as Surprise had seen many times in the past. "Although their aim was misguided, those men were doing the Lord's work in good faith. The evil of witchcraft must be burnt out, the Devil's poisonous seeds dug up before they bear fruit!"
"Keep your voice down, Father," Bailey hissed. "We want to catch 'em in the act! Suspicion's not enough; there's no way to say if an anonymous letter is true or just some troublemaker stirring the pot out of malice."
The priest looked affronted at this, but saw the sense of the sheriff's words and backed down.
"Still," Bailey went on, "there's something in that, how Lemon showed up in town just in time to take over as schoolmaster. It was a piece of good luck, but maybe not so much luck at all if you think about it. And if this letter was right about Miss Surprise being his apprentice in a different sense than we thought, well..."
"I can't believe you'd give this any credence," Surprise put in. "I tell you, Margarita is no witch!"
"We'll find out the truth of that soon enough," Mint replied. "By the Lord, to think if a witch has been teaching our children these past four years!"
"Ssh!" Bailey hissed. "Come on, and watch your step!"
The four men crept towards the schoolhouse as cautiously as they could. Obviously in broad daylight they couldn't be hidden, but they figured that the people inside weren't keeping a constant watch out the windows, and the men could and did stay quiet to avoid making any noise that would warn those inside. They slipped up to the windows on the north side and two men peered through each.
What they saw made their stomachs clench in sudden fright and their knees tremble.
The two of them were there, Lemon and Margarita. Each held a book, but these weren't the school primers one would have expected if they'd been innocent, instead being large volumes with leather binding and metal hasps. The desks and chairs had been pushed back against the walls, leaving a large open space, and in that space an ornate symbol had been traced on the floor. The lines and curves of the sigil glowed with green light, and in the radiance above it they thought they could see the pale images of figures holding hands as they turned and turned in a circle dance. The four men did not know that they were looking at a Fairy Ring Rune, but they could definitely tell that it was magic.
They couldn't hear what Lemon said, but his lips were moving, and Margarita nodded in response. She held a slim stick about a foot long in her right hand, and she made gestures with it that caused the symbol to shine more brightly, the dancing figures to circle faster.
"My God!" Surprise gasped, shuddering. The sight of his daughter engaged in such practices terrified him.
"The Devil's claws are sunk deeply in her," the priest hissed. "This must be stopped now, if we are to save her soul."
Mint and Bailey looked at one another, the magistrate and the sheriff united as one. Their fear was there, stark and cold, but after the initial shock it turned, solidifying itself into anger. How dare these witches come here? How dare they infect our community, our children with their diabolic magic? They would carve the corruption out, exorcise it with steel and fire. Swords slid from their sheaths.
Three gazes turned to the trembling father.
"Are you with us, Matthew?" Mint asked.
The awful struggle he was going through was written plain on Surprise's face. But though he had gone pale, he set his jaw and nodded firmly.
"I am. I cannot allow her to damn herself any further."
"It is a blessed thing you do," the priest said.
"Let's do this, then, before they finish whatever curse they're working now."
The four men sprinted around the building, and Bailey tried the door. Not surprisingly, it was locked, so he raised his hobnailed boot and with a single savage kick stove it open. The crash of the wood around the lock giving way was echoed when the door hit the wall.
"Stop right there, witches! You're under arrest for your foul crimes," the sheriff bellowed.
"For the sake of your souls, surrender yourself to the mercy of God's justice!" Father Braastad echoed.
Margarita shrank back in terror, but the schoolteacher laughed at them, his face seeming strange and twisted in the ghastly green light of the Rune.
"The mercy of the stake and the rope? The mercy of a howling mob of superstitious fanatics? I hardly think so. Surely, please show these fools what it means to challenge a true magician."
"As you wish." The voice was rumbling and deep, a threatening one, but the part that chilled the men was that the speaker wasn't a person, but a huge frog, as big around and half as high as a human head, that was sitting on the teacher's desk. Its eyes glowed a brilliant, ugly yellow, it opened its mouth, and it belched out a cloud of stinking violet fumes. The poisonous vapors stung the men's eyes and burned the skin; they staggered about, doubled over choking and coughing, tears streaming down their faces. After a minute or so, the toxic cloud seemed to clear enough that Bailey could raise his head and wipe his eyes clean on the back of his sleeve.
"Damnation!" he cursed. Lemon was gone and the frog with him, no doubt fled through the now-open window on the far side of the room. Even as he watched, Margarita Surprise was trying to follow her master, but was having trouble, her skirts hampering her ability to climb up onto the sill.
"Oh, no, you don't, gel," he barked out and charged across the room, grabbing her arm and hauling her back from the window. "Try and of your witch tricks and it'll be the end for you!" The edge of his saber pressed against her neck to illustrate his point. The eyes behind her pince-nez were wide and staring with fear.
"Do you understand?"
"Y-yes," she stammered.
The other men were there in a moment. Mint helped the sheriff tie Margarita's hands and gag her so she couldn't work her magic while Father Braastad wrenched away the witch's wand. Surprise had picked up the book his daughter had dropped, handling it gingerly and with obvious unease. He gave it to the priest as soon as he could.
"This isn't...this can't be possible," he babbled, still not fully able to believe the horror that had turned his family life on its head. Margarita stared at him with pleading eyes, but he looked away, unable to bring himself to meet her gaze.