[In this excerpt, thirteen-year-old Gregory Brazier makes an unhappy discovery. Belonging to a bloodline of proud pyrokinetics, he finds his own superhuman powers are very different to those of the rest of his family.]
On the previous day Gregory had been with Willem in the garden. Their tutoring was done for the day, Professor Olgarne had gone home, and they had a couple of hours in which to amuse themselves before dinner time. Willem was experimenting with fire, as he often did, and Gregory was looking on, as he often did, because there was little he enjoyed more than watching his older brother practise the incendiary skills that he himself would, for certain, command one day. It was a foretaste of his own future.
At first Willem experimented with shapes. It was no longer an effort for him to conjure fire out of nothing. He could do it with just a frown (and sometimes a snap of his fingers, to show his brother how simple it was). After two years of pupillage under master trainer Sardon Drake, Willem had also become reasonably proficient at manipulating the flames he created. He could mould them into basic geometrical forms – sphere, cube, pyramid, cylinder, hourglass – which he could float back and forth through the air and make dart and dance. He was just beginning to be able to generate more complex objects and also greater quantities of fire.
Gregory had a very clear recollection of the moments leading up to the accident, and he appreciated that what had happened was largely his fault. Had he not been so thrilled at what Willem was up to, and so generally in awe of his big brother, he would not have urged him to attempt larger and more intricate designs and would not have strayed closer and closer to them. Willem was not entirely free of blame, of course. He should have admitted that he was getting tired, and thus losing concentration, and he should have warned Gregory to move back. He was, though, relishing Gregory’s delighted attention and was keen to keep impressing him.
And so he fashioned a cat, as Gregory requested, and then a dog, although it was a lumpy, malformed kind of dog and when Willem tried to get it to wag its tail the whole thing lost cohesion and collapsed into an elongated, fluctuating lambent mass, which he chose to claim was a representation of a giant dog turd, to Gregory’s immense amusement. Next he attempted a horse, but he couldn’t quite make it full-size. He lacked the strength yet to summon up that much flame, and anyway had over-exerted himself already. He settled for something that was closer in dimensions to a foal, and with an intense amount of concentration succeeded in animating its forelegs, so that it sort of seemed to be rearing up, almost prancing.
By this stage Gregory, who had had it drummed into him that he should keep his distance while Willem was practising, had sidled up to within a few feet of his brother, the better to appreciate the fiery display. Willem, although he knew he ought to call it a day, asked Gregory what he would like to see next, and Gregory decided he would like to see a snake.
A snake was made – a narrow crackling tube of fire with a tapered tail at one end and a flattened, triangular head at the other. Willem, pale from mental exertion, forged eyes and a mouth for the creature and got it to coil and wriggle in a suitably serpentine manner. He even managed to furnish it with a set of fangs and made it bare them menacingly. Gregory chortled, fear mixed in with the glee, as the snake flexed and lashed, golden and beautiful and surprisingly lifelike.
“Make it bigger,” he said, and Willem obliged. Soon the snake was as thick as a man’s arm and twice as long.
Then Willem said, “Put your hand up.”
“Go on. I’ll get it to pretend to bite you.”
Gregory gave him a dubious look.
“It’ll be all right,” Willem said. “Promise. I’ll just get it to snap at you and you can snatch your hand away and make out as if it got you. Tell you what, if we get this right, we can do it for Mum and Dad at supper. Put on a little show for them. I’ll make the snake, you can walk up to it, I’ll make it seem to bite you, and you can fall down on the floor and pretend you’re poisoned and die.”
That clinched it. Gregory liked the idea of acting out the role of a snakebite victim, with all the melodramatic writhing and screaming that it would entail. He thought his parents would find his and Willem’s little playlet funny. Without further ado, he held out his hand.
Willem got the snake to rear back, drawing his inspiration from an image Professor Olgarne had projected into his and Gregory’s minds during a natural history lesson. Along with the telepathic vision had come feelings of mesmerised panic, as if the snake were being viewed from the perspective of some little furry mammal that was its intended prey. Gregory was suffused with these feelings again as Willem’s flame snake tensed itself to pounce. It occurred to him – almost a premonition of what was to come – that he should drop his hand. But he trusted his brother, and he put his faith in that trust over any misgivings he might be feeling, which were, anyway, nothing more than a memory of illusory impressions installed in his brain by an Air-Inclined private tutor.
The snake lunged forward like a partly-coiled length of rope being snapped straight, and Gregory’s fingers were suddenly, oddly cold, as if he had dipped them in icy water, and then just as suddenly they were hot, very hot, and hurting, really hurting, and he pulled them back reflexively to escape the source of the pain, but the pain came with them. Part of the snake was still attached to his hand. The ends of his fingers were enveloped in flames. He was burning! He felt disbelief, and he shook his hand to put out the flames, but they were no ordinary flames, they had life, and the person who had given them life, Willem, was staring at them and at Gregory’s hand, shocked, stupefied, not yet understanding what was going on, and now Gregory was screaming, not fake-screaming as he had imagined he would be just a few moments ago, truly screaming, and still he flagged his hand up and down but he could not shake off the grip of the fire, it was as if the snake’s fangs were embedded in him, and he could smell himself, he could smell his own skin and flesh cooking…
Now, finally, Willem recovered his wits, and with a frantic, focused effort of will he snuffed out the flames that were burning Gregory. He also at the same time snuffed out the remains of the snake, which was hanging headless in the air. Everything fire-related winked out of existence, leaving just the two brothers in the garden, the one alarmed, the other howling.
Willem knew what to do. Before a young incendiary learned anything else in training, he learned about burns – treatment of, what to do in the event of. He grabbed Gregory and hustled him over to the nearest source of water, which was the ornamental pond where a school of large, mottled-orange fish spent their days placidly revolving and swirling. Kneeling on the paving at the pond’s rim, he made Gregory stick his hand in the water. The fish, under the impression that it was feeding time, clustered near Gregory’s fingertips and gaped and nibbled expectantly at the roof of their world.
“Listen, Gregory,” Willem said. “Are you listening to me?”
Gregory, through the pain, nodded.
“Mum’s going to kill me when she finds out about this. She’s going to kill you too, but she’s going to kill me more. So what we’re going to have to say is that I was practising my fire, just like now, only what happened is you were somewhere else but then you saw me and you came running over and – and I didn’t see you and you startled me and that’s how you got burned. It was a complete accident. OK? That way we both of us get off not so badly. Because otherwise we’re both deep in the smut. Do you understand that?” Willem’s gaze was hard. “Both of us.”
Gregory nodded again, but by that point he was barely listening to Willem any more. Something else was happening. Something he didn’t quite understand.
There was no pain.
He looked down at his hand in the pond’s murk. Was this common? When you were burned, the pain abruptly faded away?
“Look,” he said, frowning.
Willem followed Gregory’s gaze but it was obvious that he could not see what his brother found so weirdly fascinating.
Gregory tugged against Willem’s hand, which was still grasping his wrist to keep his fingers in the pond. Willem allowed Gregory to lift his hand out, and up it came, dripping, and the fish moved in on the spot where it had been and bit disappointedly at the foodless water.
“Look,” Gregory said again. “My fingers.”
Willem stared at the fingers. When they had gone into the water they had been reddened and blistered, skin peeling away from them in ragged loops. This was not the case any more. The fingers were perhaps slightly pinker than they would ordinarily have been, but they were to all intents and purposes undamaged. The skin was smooth, but not even in that waxy way that results from burns.
Willem could make out the whorls and fine ridges of Gregory’s fingerprints.
He glanced back at the pond, as if its water or perhaps the fish were somehow responsible for the healing that had occurred. It was clear, however, that the source of the healing lay nowhere but with Gregory.
“You’re a recuperator?” Willem breathed.
“No,” Gregory replied, and the whole thing seemed distant and incomprehensible at that moment, like a dream. “No, I don’t think so. Recuperators can’t fix themselves, can they? They have to get others to do it for them.”
“Then what are you?”
“I don’t know. I think ––”
It was at that point that their mother appeared. She told their father later that when she heard the screaming, she wasn’t too concerned. It could simply have been horseplay. When there was no laughter immediately afterwards, however, she knew then that it was time to go outdoors and investigate. Finding her sons kneeling by the pond, both apparently unhurt, she was finally able to let out the breath which, she said, she had been holding all the way from the living room.
Gregory recalled her striding up to them and halting, hand on hips. She fixed her face into one of her stern interrogative looks and said, “All right, what’s going on?”
Both boys started talking at once.
“One of you,” said their mother.
“It’s Gregory,” Willem said, pointing. “He’s manifested.”
Gregory held up his wet, intact hand, as if this in itself might account for everything.
“Did you spark a flame?” his mother asked. “Did you singe yourself?”
Slowly, Gregory shook his head.
The full, true story came out – not Willem’s amended version of it, because that was no longer valid – and the first thing their mother did was tell Willem to go to his room, adding that he was in deep trouble and would be dealt with later. The next thing she did was take Gregory into town to see the family recuperator, despite Gregory’s insistence that he was fine and nothing hurt. There was a queue in the waiting room at Dr Callentropp’s surgery, but an injured Brazier was more important than anyone else, as the receptionist was only too aware, and in no time Gregory was supine on Dr Callentropp’s leather examination couch and the doctor was wafting his hands over the singed fingers, assessing the damage. There was no damage, he pronounced, and Gregory dared to flash his mother a quick, haughty I-told-you-so look.
“But he was burned,” his mother said. “Willem burned him. Try again.”
Dr Callentropp did her the courtesy of trying again. No heat radiated from his palms. There was nothing for him to cure.
“The affected area shows no sign of trauma, Mrs Brazier,” he said, sitting back down behind his desk. On the wall behind him, bracketing his head, were a pair of framed licence certificates stamped with the seal of his profession, a hand with wavy lines emanating from it. The certificates were starting to show their age, not unlike Dr Callentropp himself. On another wall there was a full-colour engraving of a human figure, life-size, one half with the skin peeled away to reveal the musculature, the other half flensed more deeply to expose bones and inner organs. Gregory, who had received treatment in this room for every single ache, sniffle and graze, never failed to find the picture gruesome.
“If this incident occurred, Mrs Brazier,” Dr Callentropp continued, “and I do not for one moment question your word that it did, I can only assume Gregory somehow repaired the damaged tissue himself. Which would seem to indicate that…”
His voice trailed off as he realised the full implication of the sentence he had been about to finish. He steepled his long, elegant fingers and placed them against his lips, as if to prevent any further potentially tactless remarks escaping. His eyes were knowing and just that little bit alight.
“There will be no need,” Gregory’s mother told Dr Callentropp huskily, “to mention this matter to anyone else until Mr Brazier and I have had time to confer about it and decide on an appropriate course of action.”
“Discretion, madam, is a recuperator’s watchword.”
Gregory watched his mother reach into her purse and hand over twice as much money as she would normally have paid for an appointment with Dr Callentropp – twenty leaves instead of the usual ten. He sensed that more was being bought than merely a professional service, and it was then that he began to glimpse the full implication of all that had taken place. Events had moved quickly and confusingly, but the shape of them was finally becoming clear, the possible consequences becoming clear too.