- Word count: 2100 (4 to 17 minutes) | Rating: T
- Read chapter 1
- Available on Patreon and Wattpad
- Note: Slight blood, magic, historic elements.
- ©2021 Jam Blute
“Mr. Oliver,” Rick muttered, regretting his moment of impulse already. Oliver seemed close to his age, even if he was short, and that was where their common ground ended. Following him anywhere made Rick a crazy person. “I gave up my room for this.”
That was only the short version. He re-packed his belongings, haggled for some of his money back from that hotel, and carted them both to the arena. Setting up the horse and carriage for the night was another task and a half. Finding one of the few spaces still there took up most of his time, since most stables were turned into parking for cars. Paying for it used up the last of his boarding money. Hands in his pockets, Rick sighed and stared ahead at the building, circular with high walls and towering spires that he’d never been allowed past. Didn’t look like that was going to change today either.
“It’ll be alright, I promise!” Oliver scrambled, hand over his heart like he wasn’t making all this up as he went. This should’ve been the drop that overfilled the glass for Rick. He could still cut his losses and get home to the Lucky Stables in Drizero. But there was something about the eagerness and desperation in Oliver’s green eyes, or maybe the childlike expressiveness on that freckled face he sometimes wished he’d never seen at the stables … Or Rick could be mature and admit that learning magic sounded like the first real adventure he’d ever been on in his life. He exhaled again and waited for the rest of his excuse.
“I’m sure they’re just—talking. You see, she,” Oliver stopped and pointed to the well-dressed woman with long, black hair speaking to the new guards posted at the gate. The ones stationed there when he dropped off Oliver were nowhere to be seen. “She’s Cyrille of Silon, one of the leaders of the Mage Council and a family friend. I’ll go speak with her, and you’ll see how very alright everything is.”
“And the other three?” Two women and a man, from what he could see, stood together behind this Cyrille. That was more or less the end of their common ground.
“Oh, the other leaders? They’re not family friends, no.” Before Rick could stop him, Oliver patted his back and trotted off to what was plainly a tense conversation he wouldn’t be welcome in.
He had to learn sometime. The present was as good a time as any.
While Oliver got involved in the mess right in front of him, Rick just scratched at his stubble and thought about the mess he’d made of everything else.
This was a mistake. When Rick got home late and underpaid, his uncle would scold him until he couldn’t breathe. Then his father would take over if he was even home. But the excitable mage didn’t exactly force him into this. More like begged him, and he caved. That was on Rick.
A warm glow from the setting sun gave the tan walls of the capital arena an orange look, and the spring nighttime chill was closing in with it. At least he could sleep in his carriage if he had to. That was only fair for giving up his room for something stupid like this. It’s what Rick’s uncle would say, anyway.
He didn’t even notice the woman in glasses that met Oliver in the middle and walked him back, not until they were almost in front of him. A neat braid swept over her broad shoulders, and a scar on her right eyebrow showed she wasn’t the stereotypical delicate mage despite the pin in her collar. He didn’t know exactly what the swirling shape and rich stone meant for her in the Council. Still, he recognized it as a mage’s bauble. Everyone in Drizero knew the basics from the chatty sailors docking in their port at the Rauthia-Mucann border.
What she wore was more expensive than the mystical-looking gem set in Oliver’s stone pendant hanging on loose rawhide around his neck. He could tell that much by looking.
“It’s official Council business,” Oliver explained, smiling up at him as he absently tightened his messy bun. Like that made a difference in how scruffy he looked.
“I’m so reassured.”
If the sarcasm was lost on Oliver, and he had a feeling it was, she definitely caught it. Closer up, he realized the woman was younger than the Council leaders but older than the both of them. Maybe it would’ve been better if he’d put stock in his first impression instead of his frustration… Which was why he always drove the carriages and his uncle did the important work.
“My name is Sidonie. You are his aide, I see?” Her accent lingered on vowels and harder letters, and he quietly thought it was beautiful. Shaking the hand she offered, Rick nodded.
“Yes.” He was surprised how easy that was to say. Mistake or not, it appeared he didn’t have any regrets after all. That shock had to show on his face as he blinked it away.
“The training is—” She rolled her hands, frowning while she searched for the word. That and a smile came to her with a snap of her fingers. He half-expected them to spark. “Difficult, is it not?”
A blank glance to Oliver didn’t help much. He brightened and waved Rick on like they’d done anything for training. The one-sided conversations about spells and magical contests from the ride to Aethia did not count here. He saw Oliver animate a steamer trunk once, that was pretty difficult to wrap his head around. Rick looked at her and nodded again. “Yes.”
Sidonie chuckled, crossing her arms and giving him an approving look. “I like you.”
“Good eye as always, Sidonie!” Oliver introduced her at last. He was even worse with people than Rick. Blind to it all, Oliver grinned at him. “I find Rick here exceptionally likable.”
“And that’s enough of that,” Rick muttered. Driving a carriage kept him separate from people most of the time. It became a routine, driving and talking only to the horse when he didn’t have noisy passengers like Oliver. Then he’d stay the night alone if he had to and drive back to pick up another customer. Sometimes, he found someone to pay for the trip to the Drizero docks. Rick didn’t expect to discover that he was unused to attention by having two people say they liked him after barely knowing him.
Luckily, he was saved by Cyrille of Silon stepping up behind his new and unlikely magic teacher.
“Oliver,” Cyrille greeted him with a lighter accent than Sidonie, and he went in for an odd hug where they left airy kisses on each other’s cheeks.
This family friend of his looked every bit like a mage. Willowy and graceful with intricate tattoos on her olive skin, plus shining black hair pulled back in rows of small ponytails, she carried herself with the posture of someone who knew all there was to know about this world and the next. Even when she curled some stray hairs pointlessly behind his ear and asked, “How was the boat?”
“Oh, fine, fine,” he said through a laughed and looked away. Oliver really was a horrible liar.
Cyrille raised her eyebrows as Sidonie walked over to stand by Rick. It occurred to him then that she was probably Cyrille’s aide. Or whatever that was called when her teacher was a Council leader and not a barely held-together wandering mage.
“I might’ve gotten seasick,” Oliver finally gave up with a sheepish smile, scratching at his neck. Working his real magic, he swapped back to beaming in an actual blink of an eye. “But I kept up my practice!”
Resting her hand on his shoulder, Cyrille answered. “Of course. You are never discouraged.”
“Oh. Oh no.” He clasped his hands and stared up at her. Flicking his gaze from one eye to the other like something would change, Oliver actually looked like he was starting to sweat. “You’ve got bad news.”
Rick couldn’t get a read on Cyrille, neutral and patient as she was. He turned to Sidonie instead. She simply shook her head with a slow blink. Not for the first time, he found himself feeling bad for the guy. All that nervous hope and for what? Rick honestly had no idea how he held that up.
“The Aethia arena won’t be holding the Mage Trials.”
Oliver stayed perfectly still for once. He just took deep, quick breaths and stared. “It has to.”
“It doesn’t.” Cyrille said it as reassuringly as she could, bringing up her other hand to his opposite shoulder. Past her arm, he could see Oliver holding his hands together so tight that he was almost shaking.
“But it does!”
Out of nowhere, all his desperation to get to Aethia as soon as he could made more sense. Rick guessed this messy, talkative young man in the carriage wanted nothing but fame and fortune like so many people going to the capital. Oliver implied he’d even put his life in danger for it and at the time, Rick figured he’d die without getting there like every other idiot before. Only standing outside the arena with genuine fear in his voice did Rick realize something bigger was at stake.
He frowned, glaring at the smooth sidewalk. Maybe Oliver was a better liar than he thought. He knew enough to hide when something mattered to him, although he wasn’t experienced enough to not have anything matter to him to begin with. That’s what his uncle would tell him as he went to pieces over a silly trial. And what did he have to show for that? The man was allergic to hope. A nervous sort was better than nothing.
Looking at Sidonie, he saw her biting a corner of her lip. He took a page from Cyrille’s book and reached over to put a hand on her shoulder too. She moved her hand over his, which did suggest that was the right thing to do.
“An automobile show offered more for the space,” Cyrille explained, moving one hand to rest on Oliver’s chest. It seemed to help him steady off his breathing a little. “The arena accepted.”
“That’s—can they do that?” Dropping his hands and relaxing his death grip, it had to be progress of some kind that Oliver was closer to disappointed than panicked.
“In the Kingdom of Rauthia, yes.” That clipped delivery for her words revealed how upset Cyrille was or might be. It didn’t show in her expression at all. “Master Firuze will find another way.”
“But no, no, the Trials’ve been held in Aethia for generations, ever since Clair Roydon-Frye forged a pact with Duke Gord of Ghadog over a clever bet. It’s—” Whirling to face Rick so fast, Oliver actually reeled but somehow managed to talk anyway. “This isn’t me in a good light. Are you going to lose all respect for me?”
Rick was caught by surprise, pointing to himself as if he was gawking at anyone else like a lost puppy. He didn’t really respect Oliver any more or less than anyone else he hardly knew. Saying that would make the night worse for his new teacher and probably ruin his chances of being taught at all. Rick told him something else that was mostly true.
“Not possible, Mr. Oliver.”
“Good, very good.” He let out a long breath, possibly his longest since Cyrille joined them. “I’m happy you—oh no.”
It was good she still had a hand on his shoulder, because he needed the support throwing his head back like that. Rick and Sidonie both rushed over, catching the first glimpse of blood coming from Oliver’s nose before his close family friend had a handkerchief over it.
“Hold that there.” Cyrille ordered, taking her hand away from the scalloped black cloth while he took over like he was told. Gold embroidery trimmed the edges in a style he didn’t recognize as magic-inspired. Maybe from Silon? Old habits of figuring out if customers had money to tip well died hard. “You overexerted yourself.”
“Me?” His voice was muffled behind the dark fabric. A cheeky smile could be heard in it anyway, which wasn’t as endearing as Oliver must’ve believed. “What horrid slander. I would never, madame.”
“Sidonie,” Cyrille ignored him, a wise decision on her part. Sidonie took another step forward with a little bow that Rick hoped he’d never have to do for Oliver. “Call a car. Let’s get to the hotel.”