Néron cursed under his breath as he ambled down the corridor toward the Spells teacher's apartments. He was decidedly in no hurry—far from it: the last thing he wanted to do on such a beautiful spring day was face Master Sylvanus and admit to what he had done. No, the last thing he wanted to do was make the request he had to make.
So close! he shook his head. If Austor hadn't tripped on the pavement, I wouldn't have run into him. And if I hadn't run into him, I wouldn't have dropped my wand…
He cursed again.
"Néron, the cauldron-seller from Marselha is back," he scoffed in a near perfect imitation of Austor's nasal Provençal accent. "The one with the pretty daughter. We should go see her."
Of course, Austor. We'll just sneak out of class and slip into town so you can chat up a girl who surely has nothing better to do than pay attention to a sixteen-year-old schoolboy. What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?
"Was she?" The voice jolted Néron back into the present. He hadn't even realized Master Sylvanus's door was open. Néron stood frozen in his steps.
"The girl," Master Sylvanus grinned, whether sincerely or in mockery Néron couldn't quite tell. "Was she as pretty as Austor said?"
"Master Sylvanus!" Néron gasped. Before he could decide what to say next, the Spells teacher continued.
"I missed the two of you in class this afternoon." He rose from his reading desk and fiddled with the folds in his robes. Néron couldn't help but notice they were patched at the elbows and fit rather poorly. He almost felt ashamed of his own robes of shimmering blue with gold brocade around the collar. Brushing a wisp of thin white hair out of his face, Master Sylvanus strode toward Néron. The grin—whatever it was supposed to mean—was gone. "You may want to know I assigned a brief chapter on Banishing Spells, to be copied from the master in the scriptorium for Monday."
"Yes, Master Sylvanus."
"But somehow I don't think you've come by merely to ask about homework. Was there something else, Néron?"
"I…uh…" There was no point putting it off any longer. With a deep sigh of resignation, Néron reached into the mokeskin pouch at his belt and pulled out his wand—or at least, what was left of it.
Master Sylvanus whistled when he saw it. It was broken cleanly in half, with only a thin membrane of dragon's heartstring holding the two pieces together. The Spells teacher reached out his hand, tears in his eyes, and Néron dejectedly handed it over.
"Is this…a hoof mark?" he said. Néron studied his shoes. Then he looked up at his teacher, willing himself to remain calm.
"There's usually a bit more fight in those gray eyes of yours, Néron." The comment didn't seem to call for a comment, so he didn't offer one.
"Austor and I went into town. We were trying to get back to school in time for class," Néron lied. "I…tripped…dropped my wand…and…."
"Running with a wand in your hand is rarely a good idea," the Spells teacher commented.
"No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. I..."
"Especially on a crowded street on a market day." He weighed the severed wand halves in his fingers. "You never know who you'll run into."
Néron felt certain a large stone had just materialized in the pit of his stomach. She knows, he thought. The headmistress knows.
"Mistress Rixenda went to market this afternoon as well," Master Sylvanus continued nonchalantly. "Something about running short of ink in the scriptorium. Normally, she'd have left the matter to Mistress Petrona, of course, but it was such a beautiful day she decided to get out of the palace for an hour or so and deal with it herself."
Master Sylvanus took the broken wand over to the window to examine it in better light. For several idle minutes he turned it over and rolled it with his fingers. The silence was unbearable.
"Can it… Can it be fixed?"
"No. You'll have to get a new one."
"Then, if I may, sir… That's why I'm here—if it isn't too much trouble. And don't worry about the money. My father—"
"Your father has provided you a very generous allowance to cover your expenses and incidentals and you'll have no problem paying for my services, is that right?"
Néron blushed slightly.
"Néron, am I correct that when you came here you were not certain Mistress Rixenda actually saw you and Austor in town? You might have gone to any other wand-maker in Bels-bastons and, as far as you knew, no one would have to know about your little excursion. And yet you came to me."
"You're the best wand-maker in town—everyone says so. That one" (he indicated the broken pieces in the Spells teacher's hands) "has never let me down. You're the reason every wizard in France comes to Bels-bastons for a wand."
Master Sylvanus once again weighed the broken pieces in his hands. "Thirteen and a half inches. Poplar. Dragon's heartstring, obviously. One of the last wands I ever made. I'm glad it has served you, Néron, but I retired from the guild when I took up teaching at the Academy. Go see Master Azemars—or better, Master Ponç. He does very good work. Tell him I sent you."
Néron shifted his weight from his left foot to his right.
"Forgive me, sir, but I would rather have another one of yours."
Master Sylvanus turned back toward his student. "Is it that important to you?"
"I haven't told anyone yet…" Néron sighed. "In his last letter, my father said he's been granted a fiefdom in England. This may be my last year at the Academy."
"I see," Master Sylvanus said. "It seems your father's star continues to climb. And of course, I wish you well—though I will be sorry to see you go. You've got a real talent, you know."
"Thank you, sir. But please…. Name your price. I can pay it."
Master Sylvanus peered deeply into Néron's young, gray eyes.
"There are things gold cannot buy, Néron," he said at last. He gently set his hand on Néron's shoulder. "And my affection is one of them."
Néron dared to breathe.
"Tomorrow morning. Dawn. On the grounds, by the statue of Saint Expeditus." He turned away.
"I will make you a wand, Néron. But first you're going to help me harvest the wood."
• The languages of medieval France are divided roughly into the langues d'oïl in the north and the langues d'oc in the south, based on the local words for "yes." In medieval documents, the southern dialects are usually called Romans (i.e., Romance) or Proensals (i.e., Provençal), although modern scholars use the term Occitan.
• In the local dialect, the city of Marseille is called Marselha—originally known as Massalia, a Greek colony founded around 600 BC.
• In French, the difference between a palais (palace) and a château (castle) is one of geography, not architecture. Palais are found in urban settings while châteaux are rural.
• Bels-bastons is Old French for "fair (or beautiful) staffs (or sticks)." The modern equivalent is, of course, Beauxbâtons. Oddly enough, bâton is not the French word for "wand," which would properly be called a baguette. Harry Potter uses a baguette; Gandalf uses a bâton. It seems clear, however, that Ms. Rowling intended the meaning "fair/beautiful wands," and I have proceeded from that starting point.
• Medieval units of measurement could vary greatly from place to place, but in general a French pied ("foot") was a bit longer than an English foot, making French inches longer as well.
• Medieval guilds began to develop around 1100. I propose, however, that the wand-makers guild of Bels-bastons is a holdover from earlier Roman craft organizations.
• After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror replaced the Saxon aristocracy with his own trusted lieutenants. England came to be governed by a foreign (Norman French) elite imposing what might be called military law. In the process, English society was totally transformed within a generation.