Early in the morning when the satin gast first appears, I’m on my knees scrubbing a crust of dry vomit from the flagstones. My Master says his attention is so taken up with arcane matters that he can only get to sleep by drinking a full bottle of absinthe. Each morning I drag him from the laboratory where he’s collapsed so I can tidy before he wakes.
I don’t notice the gast until I’m swishing my rag in soapy water. Then I realize my bucket is hovering a convenient six inches off the ground. Floating bone hands, attached to no visible body, hold it up.
I freeze, horrified.
I drop my rag. The gast catches it in the bucket. That’s the way of gasts. They’re unobtrusive, polite. More bone hands appear in the air and pull my rag from the water, wring it out, and present it to me across upturned palms.
I recognize the gesture. It’s how I give things to my Master. Samara told me, before she died, that her gast would imitate her movements.
“No,” I say to it, “please go away.” I find it difficult to speak through the swell of sadness from the memories this unwanted service brings: Samara and her last days.
The bony hands are apologetic as they set my bucket gently back on the flagstones and drape my rag—just so—over the side. Then they disappear.
But I know this isn’t the end. I scrub my Master’s vomit fiercely, as if friction and soapy water could wash away my dread. They can’t. I’m terrified that now I’ll end up just like Samara.
Before I was raised to the tower, Samara used to come down to the courtyard where I waited my turn in my alcove with all the other aspirants. “Keep waiting. Don’t give up,” she advised us. She was sixty-three before she was raised up. I was sixteen then. We became friends: the oldest apprentice and the youngest aspirant.
We dreamed together of the things we would do when we became Masters. First of all, never know hunger or poverty again, and fill the bellies back home. Both of us had left families behind when we became aspirants, mine large and together still in my mother’s house; Samara’s small, only a single brother remaining, living his own life. He wrote letters to her. And beyond our families, we dreamed of the places we would go, castles livelier than the Master’s lonely tower and cities much more inspiring than the villages we came from. We dreamed also of the people we would meet, powerful rulers and subtle scholars, soldiers renowned for bravery and courtiers famous for charm, once magic made us worth consorting with. We admired the Master, but privately we agreed that he didn’t seem to properly enjoy his power. He could have done anything, but he chose to spend his time in solitude with grimoires and absinthe.
Then one day Samara came down from the tower weeping. I was scared to see the vulnerability of someone I respected and considered strong. She showed me the red welts and black bruises on her back.
“Does he beat you?” I whispered, horrified.
“No, Greta,” she said. “I did this.”
She pointed where the shadow of the tower fell across the courtyard. I saw the black line of a velvet gast, vacant in the middle like a child’s outline of the shape of a man drawn with a thick charcoal stick. It was leaning over a tombstone Samara had placed there years ago, when she learned of the death of her sister. Often when she received a letter from her brother, she would read it leaning against the tombstone of her sister, as if by bringing letter and tombstone together she were bringing her family together. I watched the velvet gast place flowers on the tombstone.
“It does what it thinks I want,” she said. “But I haven’t earned a servant. It shouldn’t be here. I try to make it stop or go away, but deep inside I must actually think I deserve it or it couldn’t be here. That’s what the Master says. I have to change myself.”
We clung together and fretted over her predicament. The velvet gast tried to cheer her with visions of her brother, traced in smoke in the air. He was sitting on a stool in the warehouse where he was a clerk, chewing the nib of a feathered pen. Samara let slip a smile, then turned away and pinched herself hard enough to bruise.
I hugged her and watched over her shoulder as her brother’s figure dissipated in the breeze. I wondered how my own family fared. They could not afford the parchment and ink for letters.
My Master sees the satin gast before I do. I am kneeling to dust the glass-enclosed shelf where he keeps his grimoires. I know something is wrong when his pen stops scratching and I receive a slight shock from the bookcase. When he’s angry, he doesn’t have to say anything. Everything I touch gives me a jolt. I look up.
Just above me, a bone hand delicately cleans the glass door of the bookcase with a blue cloth. I had intended to get to the door next.
My Master is looking at me as if he sees me for the first time. How many apprentices has he trained over the centuries? With his sharp-edged black beard and powerful frame, he may look like a man in his prime, but he’s old. Now I’m the one who stands out, but I stand out like a bruise on an apple.
“Stop that. Go away,” I mutter at the gast.
It pauses cleaning, hovers, whisks one last speck of dust, and disappears.
My Master’s expression only darkens when the gast obeys my order. He rises from his desk and stalks out of the room. He was going to give me the day’s lesson when I had finished with the bookcase. I suppose now there won’t be a lesson.
I know from Samara that it’s useless wishing a gast away. You might as well wish away wishing. You have to change yourself. She’d almost succeeded, at the end. Do I have the willpower to do what she did, or the strength to survive it?
I lean back where I’m sitting, planning to let myself fall flat on the cool stone floor, to contemplate the ceiling and my fate. But I don’t fall. Soft blue satin ribbons catch me as I tilt. I watch six bony hands holding the edges of these ribbons as they lower me like a baby to bed.
Toward the end, Samara wasn’t eating. Thin, with dark rings around her eyes, bony wrists, bruises and cuts everywhere, she would limp down from the tower to see me.
“Is this worth it?” I asked, cradling her head in my lap. Her hair was falling out, and there were sores on her scalp.
“He won’t teach me as long as it’s around,” she said, her voice weak. I looked up at the velvet gast. Its hollow form had taken to holding a platter draped in dark cloth with bright pieces of fruit on it. Right then it had a cluster of grapes, each sphere unblemished, polished, deep red. They made me hungry, and I wasn’t even starving.
“Without teaching,” she said, “an apprentice is just a slave. I waited sixty-three years for this, Greta.” That must have been her mantra. While she repeated it aloud to me, some of the old fire came back into her eyes. She sat up.
“I’ve been researching them on my own,” she said. “Gasts. They first appeared to Archimedon. The book said they are magic itself, choosing to help out of love instead of giving power in exchange for sacrifice or because they were compelled. But Greta,” and she gripped me with surprising strength, her nearly fleshless fingers digging into the plumpness of my upper arms, “magic’s made a mistake. It shouldn’t love me. Not me.” Her fingers were so tight, so sharp.
The velvet gast knelt behind her just then and began to knead her shoulders, a gesture of comfort. With a whimper she released me and struggled to her feet. She left as if pursued.
“I love you too,” I said to the emptiness.
I keep ordering the satin gast to stop, to go away. It works to make me comfortable, providing an ease that I gave up to become a good apprentice. It smoothes my sheets and makes my bed in the morning when I rise to clean the Master’s laboratory. It gives me a lift up when I try to reach high shelves. It floats the broom or bucket after me if I forget them. It would be easy to stop noticing the gast itself, to sink into the comfort it provides like a soft pillow.
The Master makes sure I don’t stop noticing. He hasn’t given me a lesson in a week. He doesn’t speak of the gast. He doesn’t punish me outright, but his gestures grow angrier: he slams doors; refuses to eat what I cook. Each day, he turns from his grimoires to his absinthe earlier in the afternoon. I feel guilty, desperate. At some moments, when I catch myself holding out my hand expectantly, knowing the gast will give me the brush or ladle I need, I hate myself in a way I never have before.
One day, I bring my Master a feast, hoping to prove how sorry I am, hoping to win back his approval. I have labored for eight hours in the tower kitchens, and my covered platter contains fresh bread steaming through the vents in its perfect crust, potatoes marinated until they are spicy and tart, meat roasted until it is slipping off the bone; ripe fruit, mulled wine.
He has locked the door to his study. I balance the heavy tray on one arm and knock. He does not answer. The tray tilts, and the gast at my elbow steadies it.
“Master,” I call, “your dinner!”
His response: reproachful silence.
I worked all day on this meal. It is more food than my whole family would share on a feast day. And he doesn’t care. I am so tired. I lean my head against the door, feeling the rough wood cool against my skin, and I cry. I don’t try to muffle my sobs.
There is no answer. The door remains shut.
At last I turn and begin to carry the tray back down the winding steps of the tower. Something is building in me as I walk, something dark and terrible. I reach the large window at the third landing and feel anger like a sudden gush of bile. I hurl the tray and all the food through the window, shattering the glass.
The platter crashes on the courtyard below, then shards of glass tinkle around it. I sit, exhausted, on the steps. I know that in a moment, I will begin to feel guilt about the mess, that I will hurry to clean it before the gast can do it for me.
“This can’t go on,” I say to the air. The gast appears, bone hands clasped in a posture of listening.
I remember Samara’s words: an apprentice without teaching is just a slave.
When Samara threw herself from the tower, she must have truly wanted to die. Otherwise, the velvet gast would have acted on her secret desires and caught her in the air or given her rich black wings to fly away. I was raised from the courtyard shortly afterward, and grief suppressed the elation I should have felt. I wrote two letters, the first to Samara’s brother, telling him what had happened. The second was to my family; perhaps they would feel the excitement on my behalf that I could no longer feel for myself. The Master had raised the oldest aspirant, and now he had raised the youngest. Perhaps he thought I would be less trouble.
No, I decide, an apprentice without teaching is not a slave. And a Master who doesn’t teach is not a Master.
The gast spreads it hands, and I put mine in them. They look like bone but they feel like satin. The gast helps me back to my feet.
When I was raised from the courtyard, I found Samara’s things in the apprentice quarters: her clothes, her books, all the letters she had received from her brother. Most apprentices are alive when the Master releases them from his tutelage; they take their belongings. It didn’t occur to the Master to clean the room before I came.
I was glad. I kept her things and looked through them. One day, I found a piece of parchment in the Master’s handwriting tucked in one of her books. She must have taken it and hid it there.
How is it possible, he had written, that after my centuries of study and decades of mastery, magic has chosen my servant as the one to serve? This is a cruel joke. I will not let that old bitch detract from what I have achieved. Magic will remember who I am.
Sometimes I would sit in the room and wonder: when he wrote “old bitch,” did he mean Samara or magic?
I let the satin gast cook for me that evening. It makes me a feast even better than the one I made for the Master. I put a roasted tomato in my mouth and think: would it be so bad if the Master never taught me anything again? Is he so happy, with all that he knows? Do I want to live alone in a tower, with absinthe I need to sleep and apprentices I’ve learned to hate, just so my fingers will twitch with power?
I help the gast do the dishes. It washes. I dry. And I remember doing the same thing with my family: the warm companionship of cleaning up after a communal meal, which made our experience rich even if our food was meagre.
At midnight I make my decision.
We must pass the laboratory on our way down the tower. The door is open, and the Master looks up from what remains of his absinthe. His eyes go wide when he sees me. He knows.
“Where are you going?” he says, pushing himself up on unsteady arms.
“Now you speak to me?” I say, trying not to let my habit of submission weaken my resolve.
“That’s no tone for an apprentice.”
I feel static in my clothes and move a step in from the doorframe before it can shock me.
“I’m not an apprentice anymore.”
“You may not leave.” He raises his arms, power crackling like lightning between his fingers, but the gast is already there, wrapping his hands in ribbons until they are useless blue mittens.
He doesn’t need his fingers. The door to the laboratory slams behind me. I push against it but it won’t open, held by the force of his will. I face him, and I wonder what I can possibly do if he wants to stop me. But he’s not paying any attention to me. With drunken clumsiness, he swings at the gast with his green bottle, clutched between beribboned hands. The gast winks in and out of existence around him, like a child teasing a cat with a piece of string. The Master roars oaths in languages I have never heard, and the whole room crackles with the electricity of his rage. He ignores me completely. I do not need the door. There are other ways out of the tower. I begin to walk across the laboratory toward the window on the far wall.
It seems foolish to fight magic itself with magic, but the Master is trying. His bolts of lightning and deadly curses don’t bother the gast, even as they crash into his alembics and set alight his stacks of precious books.
I unlatch the window, raise it, look out. The aspirants have gathered in the courtyard below, drawn from their alcoves by the Master’s shouts and the lights flashing in the tower. I set one foot on the window and look back over my shoulder.
The Master is hurling himself at the gast like a child throwing a tantrum. He doesn’t look in my direction or notice the cool night air blowing into his stuffy, reeking room.
I step out into air. It holds me of course, or rather my satin gast does, blue ribbons like stirrups materializing where I set my feet. I walk away from the tower into the sky. I am going home. To my mother’s house. To my family.
Abandoned by his enemy, the Master is shouting. When I look, I see him leaning, red-faced, out the window. He gathers a deep breath to hurl a killing curse after me, but his exertions and his absinthe catch up to him. He jerks back into his tower and vomits on his floor.
He can clean it himself.