Isendra the sorceress swept into my chambers, herding a young girl before her. The two were as different as fire and ice. Isendra was regal and resplendent in her fine green robes and gold jewelry, while the girl reminded me of a bird, her head swiveling back and forth and her eyes darting, fascinated by the things around her: the books on my shelves, the rows of bottles that were filled with strange liquids and powders, and arcane devices whose uses were a mystery to me. The girl's robes were little more than rags tattered and stained with sweat and dirt. She could have passed for one of the roaming beggar children who preyed upon rich merchants in the Caldeum bazaar. Her long dark hair was a tangled mess, dry and brittle, and as caked with dust and mud as the rest of her. Her skin was browned by the sun, and her lips were cracked and peeling.
"So, this is the girl?" I asked Isendra, looking at the disheveled child standing in front of her.
Isendra regarded the girl dubiously. "I found her in the courtyard, dueling with Mattiz, Allern, and Taliya." The sorceress's voice dripped displeasure. "They were eager to accept her challenge."
"She seems no worse for the experience," I said. "The others?"
"Mattiz and Allern are being tended to. Taliya suffered injury only to her pride."
The girl grinned at that recounting.
"Perhaps it is for the best," I said. "Those three might benefit from a lesson in humility. I will deal with them later."
"But you will deal with me now, old man," said the girl. She had a precise, imperious voice bolstered with the confidence born of a child's surety.
"She speaks." I shared a smile with Isendra.
"That she does," said Isendra drily. "And at great length."
"Who are you?" the girl demanded. "Why have you brought me here?"
"I am Valthek, high councilor of the Vizjerei and master of the mage clans of the Yshari Sanctum."
The girl was silent for a long moment as she regarded me.
"You?" she asked finally.
I laughed. "Tell me, girl, who are you and why have you come? Surely you must have greater purpose than to send my apprentices to the infirmary."
"My name is Li-Ming. And I am not a girl," the girl said. "I am a wizard."
"A bold claim," I said. It took an effort to hide my amusement as the girl invoked the style of wizard, a title saved for the most notorious mages in history, whom common people spoke of in fear and those familiar with the arcane named with dread.
"It is more than words," Li-Ming said dangerously.
I put up a hand to calm her. "Then show me."
I had barely finished speaking when a powerful gust of wind blew across my desk, sweeping up all the papers, books, bottles of ink, and other odds and ends atop it, clattering them to the floor in a messy heap. My expression remained neutral, and the girl took it as an invitation to do more. Li-Ming spread her arms to either side, and in her upraised palms she produced twin gouts of flame that licked up toward the ceiling, the explosive blast of hot air causing her hair to blow out and away from the columns of fire, whose reflections flickered in her brown eyes.
I shrugged. "A conjuror's tricks."
Li-Ming's jaw set in frustration. She closed her hands, and the flames disappeared, though the feeling of heat remained. With another movement of her arm, ribbons of incandescent red and orange burst into life and danced in serpentine shapes at the center of my desk. She waved her arm again, and the rows of books slid from my shelves, hanging in midair. She floated them in a line across the room until they spiraled around her as though they were caught in a whirlwind, then one by one she stacked them in the shape of a throne. She sat down in it, facing me.
Li-Ming raised an eyebrow, and I responded with slow, measured applause.
"Is that your best, girl?" I asked. I waved my hand dismissively, and the flames on my desk went out and the books she sat upon collapsed into a pile. Li-Ming sprang to her feet before she fell with them. "People feared the mages they named wizards. wizards drove the world to the brink of destruction time and time again, mages of such untamed power that the earth trembled at their machinations. They treated with the demons of the Burning Hells and made pacts to give us all to ruin. They cheated death and tore the very fabric of creation. You have mixed up an old man's things and set a fire to his desk."
"I can do more," she said defensively. "Someday, I mean to be the greatest wizard of all."
"In my experience, one can wait a very long time for someday and still be disappointed when it comes."
"Have you heard of the miracle of the Heron River Valley?" she asked.
"I have heard a story of that place. Some business of a drought and a young girl who tried to set things right," I said offhand. "I believe they called her a wizard."
"I am that wizard," Li-Ming said proudly. "It had been months since the last rains, and the Heron River had dwindled to a trickle, and the fields had gone dry and brown. The people of the valley thought there was nothing to be done but to wait for the gods to save us. But I knew I could do what the gods would not."
"You may find it prudent not to blaspheme the gods so lightly," I said.
She ignored my interruption. "I looked for what water I could. I drew it from pools deep below the ground and gathered the last thin stream that inched along the cracked clay of the riverbed. I took it all and cast it into the wind and tried to create a storm. Nothing happened at first, and people said I was a foolish girl waving my arms and praying for rain. But I knew. Hours passed, and the clear sky darkened. Faint gray clouds appeared where before there had been none, stretching across the horizon and growing until even the sun was hidden behind them. They turned to the color of night, looming clouds heavy with rain, drawing their shadows across the valley. Those who had laughed began to believe. The sound of thunder echoed from every direction, and flashes of lightning lit the clouds from within. The air grew wet, and I could feel the damp on my skin as mist crept down from the mountains. The mist became a drizzle, the drizzle a shower, then a downpour. The earth drank it all, and the Heron River flowed again. That is what I can do."
Isendra was incredulous. "No child could have done that."
"That it is beyond your abilities does not mean it is beyond mine," Li-Ming said to the sorceress, who was two decades her elder.
"I was once as skeptical as you," I said to Isendra, "but I have had the truth of it, and it is as she says. Though she has left out certain details."
The grin on Li-Ming's face faded, though her chin still had a defiant set to it.
I continued. "After the rain came and went, the months that followed saw the drought return, and worse than before. The people pointed their fingers at the wizard who had brought the rain, putting all blame upon her shoulders."
Li-Ming said, her voice soft, "Those who had praised me demanded I be sent away. My father and mother agreed. I only wished to help. I did not know what would happen."
"People do not trust mages. They fear what they do not comprehend. Any mage trained in the Yshari Sanctum would have known the danger of what you attempted." I offered a smile. "And yet, had those mages tried what you attempted, I have little faith that they could have achieved a piece of what you accomplished."
Li-Ming sensed the change in my demeanor. "Then teach me."
"I had considered it, but now that I have your measure, I do not know if it is within you to be a student here. You have much to learn, more to unlearn, and I wonder that you have the will to see it through."
"How can you say that? I am stronger than any of your apprentices. Bring them here, and I will show you! I will fight you if that is what you wish, old man. It does not matter. I came across sea and desert to study here, and I will."
"It is not for you to decide. The decision rests with me," I said.
"Let me teach her," said Isendra abruptly.
"What?" I asked.
Li-Ming looked dubiously at the sorceress.
"There is something about this girl. As you say, it may be fruitless, but I can see as well as you that she has potential, and the time may come when we will need her and regret that we sent her away." Isendra smiled. "And perhaps I see a little of myself in her."
Li-Ming shook her head. "I do not want you. I want the old man to teach me."
Isendra scowled. "You should be pleased. I went to war against the Lords of Hell while you were nothing more than a thought in your parents' imaginations. I have not done all that I have so I could teach a disrespectful child magic, but that is my offer."
"And my answer is no," Li-Ming said.
I had been silent as I considered whether to agree to this partnership. Isendra was peerless in her ability, almost my equal, and she had experience that might intrigue the girl and keep her attention. But I had my concerns.
"Quiet, both of you," I said as I stood. "Isendra's knowledge of elemental magic rivals mine, and I believe that you and she will find you have much in common. For you, there is no better teacher. Were I you, I would hope that I had not convinced Isendra to reconsider. You will have her, or we shall see how you fare on your own. History is littered with forgotten wizards who amounted to nothing."
Li-Ming chewed upon her lip. "Have I no say in this matter?"
"No," I said. "You do not."