Bookworm II: The Very Ugly Duckling
his life, quite unfairly. Well, largely unfairly. Johan might not have been able to brew a potion to save his life, but he had managed to sneak a few herbs into Jamal’s drink after one particularly bad bullying session and give his brother a few very uncomfortable nights.
    “I was talking to Marina, of House Clyburn,” Jamal said. “Father and I were closing the deal for the marriage contract. I would have been her husband.”
    “Oh,” Johan said. He had an awful feeling that he knew where this was going. House Clyburn was poor in wealth, but rich in blood and connections. An alliance between them and House Conidian, sealed by the marriage of two of their children, would bring money to one and connections to the other. “And?”
    Jamal leaned forward. “And they insisted on hearing about our entire family,” he hissed. “When they found out about you, they cancelled the negotiations and tore up the contract.”
    “I’m sorry,” Johan said, weakly. “I ...”
    For a moment, he almost felt sorry for his brother. Alliances between strongly-magical families were meant to blend the best of their lines together to produce children that were vastly more powerful than their parents. But the merest suspicion of weakness in the family line could destroy an alliance. A weak magician alone would have been bad, but a powerless ... that was even worse. His mere existence had destroyed the planned contract. No wonder his father had been so desperate to find even the merest hint of magic.
    “And look at them,” Jamal added, waving towards the speaker, who was still pontificating. “They are powerless , just like you! And we are not going to stand for it!”
    Johan looked at his brother ... and, in a sudden flash of insight, understood. Jamal had been raised to be the Heir to House Conidian, to take over the family magic and patronage network when their father died. No wonder he was such an asshole; their father pressured him constantly, trying to shape him into a worthy heir. Johan’s complete lack of power should have reassured his brother, but it also undermined him too.
    He looked up as he saw a handful of other magicians wearing graduate robes. “What are you going to do ...?”
    “Hush,” Jamal said. He waved a hand and Johan found himself frozen, utterly unable to move or look away from the speaker and his audience. “I just want you to watch and learn.”
    “That’s your brother,” one of the other magicians said. “Why isn’t he joining us?”
    “He’s too soft,” Jamal said, quickly. “Father wants him to watch to toughen him up.”
    Johan would have laughed if he could have moved a muscle. Jamal wouldn’t want to advertise his powerless brother, even – perhaps particularly – to his closest friends. It was a good excuse, he had to admit ... and it made it unlikely that any of the others would help him, if they were so inclined. Besides, they’d probably mistaken him for Jay. If they’d realised that Johan existed, they might have started to wonder why he hadn’t attended the Peerless School.
    “Stay here,” Jamal said, with an oddly-nervous laugh. “And watch carefully as we teach these upstarts a lesson.”
    The other magicians laughed, then started to march towards the crowd, lifting their wands into ready position. Some of the protesters saw them coming and started to scatter, but others were trapped by the sheer press of the crowd, unable to escape. A hail of rocks and stones flew towards the magicians, only to be stopped easily by shield charms. Johan watched, literally unable to tear his eyes away, as Jamal cast the first spell.
    He felt his body try to shiver. The nightmare spell was a child’s prank ... which didn’t stop it being thoroughly unpleasant if the victim had no magic to defend himself. A dozen protesters started to scream in horror as they saw their worst nightmares coming to life, their screams echoing over the square. Other spells were being cast; Johan watched,

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