A Princess Forsaken (Preview)

Fantasy • Dark • Surreal

Summary:

When a knight forsakes his calling to save a trapped princess, he does more damage than he knows. But he’ll find out soon enough, if her devoted servant and darker forces behind it all have their way.

Content Notes: semi-graphic torture, dark themes

A 300-word preview:

Read the full version on Patreon early as a patron or free on 2/11

You have already heard this story. Beautiful, they call her, noble and selfless. A princess has faith in people, hers or others, and trusts them to do the right thing. She is as kind as she is sheltered, her ignorance being an admirable one. In the end, she will be gracious while she is held prisoner in some dark tower. Her knight will come and her gratitude shall be expressed in a kiss and eternal matrimony.

This princess was the exception. Still is, if the story is to be believed. Her knight did not come to rescue her, but to seal her further; the kiss withered on her lips and died in her heart. Her beauty became harsh, nearly painful to look at, as tender freckled skin faded to shadowed circles under her eyes and a pale sallow in the cheeks. Yet her green eyes shone ever blithely in the eclipsing dark and that easing grace of her lineage never left her. Like stains of innocence, those freckles persisted, matching her rusted blonde hair.

Now she became the threat, inclined to lean in close and drive the dagger deep. Fate had not been kind or gracious, and she had learned from him. When instead her servant came to save her from that damned stone tower, she tried to kill him. Failing that, she held him in the dungeon within her dungeon. The darkness was already in his eyes, buried deeper than even enucleation could reveal—if she elected to go so far.


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Into My Shadow: Dark Beginnings (Preview)

Fantasy • Dark • Drama

Summary:

Dira’s found himself trapped in a literally underground magic lab, and he knows this isn’t something he’s worming his way out of. Not alone. Luckily, his concept of “living things” is pretty flexible.

Content Notes: swearing, non-graphic torture | Dira reference (yes, he’s different, yes, there’s a reason)

A 400-word preview:

Read the full version on Simily or on Patreon

A nameless mage prodded him with some magic staff, precharged with a lightning spell if he had to guess. A hard task to do, what with his screaming blending with a resonant thrum, rising and falling like a stormy sea thrashing against an imposing cliff. No one was getting anywhere. Not the mages, not him, and definitely not the entity living in that glowing crystal.

He must’ve struck a chord because that zap pressed on past the point of Dira enduring it that time around. His grip on the wooden bars as he shook would probably leave him with splinters once he could feel his hands again. Problem was, whatever they had trapped down there bonded with him and that made it all worse. It felt his pain, which he felt it feeling. The shock in his muscles bounced around the facets of its plain crystalline form. When Dira could catch glimpses of the entity there with him, he could see the smoke swirling around it and almost pressing against what had it smothered and powerless. All with a low and faint gong sensed more than truly heard. Whether in sympathy or pain, or some combination, Dira didn’t know from the short and miserable weeks he’d been there.

But kindness was kindness, especially in a place so likely to be his last. The spell eventually faded from that awful staff, and Dira took that rare chance to put his hand on the bars closest to the crystal. He heard someone step closer and crouch down but didn’t bother to move. Whatever they were going to do next to test this connection they couldn’t have or understand, he didn’t want to see it.

At least he wasn’t alone down there. He’d been getting pretty tired of that.

“You pity it.”

Slowly, Dira turned to look at the elf studying him. He’d seen him before. Sometimes, Stefan snuck him extra food when he knew no one else would be around. Being the least terrible person in the forbidden magic den didn’t exactly get him any awards. Dira squinted, bringing another arm to the bars and wrapping his hands around both. Might help to have those in place for whenever someone came back with a new staff.

“I’d pity any creature’n a place like this.”


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Holmes Institute: Legacy (Short Story)

Modern • Academy • Drama

Summary: 

Being one of the top students at Holmes Institute involves more responsibilities than Jasper Madero really wants. Luckily, she’s pretty clever and can slip out of those with only a little fuss. Her friends want to help smooth things over, and her school’s founder just wants her to live up to her potential. She gets that. She just really wishes she didn’t. 

Words: 1200 (2 to 10 minutes) | Content Notes: swearing | Patron-Only WIP | Also on Royal Road

Sneaking back home from Watson Hall was the first step to comfy clothes. Jasper would rather be in the era-inspired commons, flopped sideways on the carved sofa with her legs over the arm, than standing backstage in a suit. Getting stared at by an ocean of donors in their stuffy outfits with deep pockets—that Verity Holmes wanted a piece of—wasn’t Jasper’s idea of a top tier Friday night. And what did she need an award for anyway? To prove she was smart? That’s what the grades were for.

Jasper didn’t regret the decision once the bus dropped her off, and she didn’t by the time Darius got back with the other two best students either. The only thing she wished she’d done differently was bring the remote closer for when Netflix asked if she was still watching.

Min and Everitt came to find her first, which she figured gave her about 15 minutes before Miss Holmes stopped lecturing Darius by the door and marched into the living room to sort Jasper out. They stood in the open archway with their dumb starry glass trophies, plus one for her. Poor souls were still in their show gear to be paraded about. Never bothered them, though. Everitt thrived in his perpetual state of being dressed like an inclusivity model for Ralph Lauren, and Min barely needed a reason to make new clothes. Biggest differences were that he took out his ‘lucky bowtie’ for special events and she put her ethereally straight hair into a ponytail.

“So,” she deadpanned, “was it lit?”

“Miss Verity delivered an exceptional speech,” Everitt chose to describe how lit it wasn’t. Jasper just sighed. She couldn’t roll her eyes, or he’d mope for days when he took that personally. “And she awarded us with these.”

He presented her with a smoked glass trophy, aka an expensive rectangle with her name engraved on a silver plaque at the bottom. They changed the trophy style each year but kept it as pointless as ever.

“Huh.” Jasper pointed to the trash next to the redwood archway. “There.”

Everitt gasped, clutching the trophy against his sweater vest like she suggested throwing out a baby. “But you earned this! Take more pride in your intellect.”

Min held her hand out for it instead, and he recovered from his shock with a smile as he passed it off. They always made quite the duo from the first day they met at the academy. His curly hair failed to make her height over him less obvious. She had three piercings in each ear and two in one eyebrow while he had those academia rectangle glasses. And Everitt made more than enough chatter for both of them.

“I’ll put it on the reptile shelf,” Min informed Jasper. That’s what she called the collection of figures Jasper’d picked up over the years. Personal pets weren’t allowed at HI—just the community cat. Min tucked the trophy-baby in the crook of her arm with her own Smart Kid award and pulled her ponytail in front of her shoulder. “You should’ve stayed.”

“Waste two hours and then some so the donors can feel fuzzy warm?” Jasper sat up and gave them a forced smile. “Hard pass.”

“Miss Verity was upset.”

“Oh, goodness me,” she answered Everitt, holding a hand to her mouth in fake shock. “Vera, upset? Like her usual? Or—” She pulled out an exaggerated tight smile, nowhere near the PR-approved expression the newest Holmes descendent had on hand. The important part was Jasper got him to hide a snicker behind a hand. The worried pout look was getting old. “Okay, so that one. Don’t care either way.”

Didn’t need to be a genius detective to solve the mystery of whose grumpy footsteps were coming around the corner. The heels on hardwood signaled the approach of one irritated Verity Holmes, if her friends looking at her like she had a terminal diagnosis wasn’t hint enough. Jasper had just enough time to flop back on the couch before she manifested behind them.

She kept a careful neutrality when she glanced from Min to Everitt, stormy sea eyes searching for weakness. Even her hair was made to appeal to anyone with stylish waves ending in a harsh, even cut right at her jawline. Just add smokey cat eye makeup for your very own organic bitch.

“I need a moment with Miss Jasper.”

“But of course,” Everitt chimed, eyebrows still furrowed as he smiled and followed Min upstairs. She wondered for a second if Verity would care if the award took her place. Jasper didn’t want to be there then either. With her hands clasped in front of her ombre sweater, the school’s founder waited for her good students to be out of earshot.

“Every opportunity you have, and for every student in these walls,” Verity explained for the hundredth time, hoping it might stick, “is due to these donors. You have an obligation to—”

“Why did they give us money if they don’t want to? Why do they need to see us?”

“Because they want to see their charitable deed paying off, Jasper, and,” she cut off Jasper’s next reply, jabbing a manicured nail in her direction. “There is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is compromising those donations because you want to sit around and do nothing.”

“What’s wrong,” Jasper corrected her, because someone had to, “is taking back donations because you didn’t get something from it! Donating is literally giving things away for nothing.” She shrugged and looked up at the vintage-style cream ceiling. “That’s the point.”

“Jasper!” Verity closed her eyes, taking a bracing breath and giving Jasper a precious window to stick her tongue out. “You have talent. You are smart, determined, and clever.” Having a seat on the light grey reading chair she usually occupied in the promotional material for the school, Vera leaned forward. “But none of that will make you exempt from doing things you don’t want to do or understand the purpose of.”

“What, like you living off the legacy of your dead great-great-whatever?” The way her jaw locked, Jasper realized she hit home with that. Too close, probably, but there was no stopping now. She grinned and rested her hands behind her head to get a better look at that ‘don’t you dare’ glower. “Bet you had job offers in the womb just because you had alleles in common with the great Sherlock Holmes.”

Vera stood, brushing invisible lint from her pencil skirt before folding her hands in front of her one last time.

Resting bitch pose. Although Jasper knew just what she did to deserve it, and she could bank on Darius pulling her aside before breakfast to talk about it.

“Report to Miss Hawthorne in the morning for your volunteer schedule.”


Jam Notes

If you enjoyed, leave a like and/or a comment! They help motivate me to keep writing. Also, keep an eye out for the patron-only poll on my Patreon on July 1st to vote for the next patron exclusive content.

A special thanks goes to Meryem for going above and beyond standing behind my work, and all my patrons!

Where Ages Meet: Ch. 2: Changing Course

  • 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.”


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Where Ages Meet: Ch. 1: Paths Crossed

  • Word count: 1900 (4 to 17 minutes) | Rating: T
  • Available on Patreon and Wattpad
  • Note: Magic, historic elements.
  • ©2021 Jam Blute

The carriage ricketed down the path, rocking from side to side not too unlike the boat Oliver left behind a few days ago. Honestly, he should’ve puked up his entire stomach by then. If not from the motion, from the anxiety, if not from those, from the excessive spellcasting and all-nighters, and if not from all of that, from the fact that everyone he met was tired of him already.

“Excuse me, yes, pardon me,” he began, possibly out of desperation for some social aspect to break up the blur of practice and half-sleep, “Hypothetical question for you,” he said through the small window to the carriage driver. Rick was his name, just a dull-eyed teen who didn’t turn or acknowledge him in any fashion.

“If you were heading toward a massive contest, or at least formerly massive, that would earn you possible worldwide renown and a great portion of your material desires for the rest of your life, even if it would put that life in certain danger of an abrupt and humiliating end– Would you still go?” He waited. A jerk of the reins brought the horses on a steady turn and the driver scratched at his stubble.

“Just wondering. Purely hypothetical.”

“…No, sir. I believe I would not.” Ah, he did speak. Truth be told, the mage wished he would speak more. There was a certain rustic eloquence in his flowing tones and raspy voice. It matched his weathered appearance, skinny though he was, draped in rough clothes and leather packs. “But I’ve little use for fame or material things.”

“Really. That is interesting.” Oliver never could tell a convincing lie. Perhaps that was the source of his societal shortcomings and those evident traits that allowed him to become a mage in the first place. “Well now. Thank you, thank you very kindly. That will be all.”

And they didn’t speak again until the sun eased its way down and the moon slid its way up. Rick originally turned the horse onto a path to the miserable village of Kendon. That was before Oliver got him to swear to turn the carriage around, drive through the night no matter the threat, and travel to Aethia, the (waning) magical capital of the world. Rick made some money off the vow.

He woke up not to Rick, like he expected, but to Aethia’s bubbling morning bustle and the accompanying distant bird calls. The ocean was off by a day or so, but the sea birds still graced the city with caws and droppings. Even that early, six or maybe seven in the morning, people moved about the streets and brought the carriage’s pace to a patient amble. Fortunately for them, there were few of the new “automobiles” about…

Still, they made it to the arena at the city’s approximate center before noon and that was all that mattered. Even if that was when the driver got the other half of his payment, Oliver was thrilled to finally arrive, to look at the vaulted stone spires and rows of pointed arch windows.

Oh, to take it all in firsthand… As Rick unloaded the mage’s two carpet bags onto the limestone path and eventually stared at the stout steamer trunk on the rear luggage rack. Oliver was so fixed on the arena, imagining his way through corridors to his assigned and truly unremarkable room (though it would impress him to no end), that it took the carriage boy speaking to get his attention.

“Sir, the trunk.”

“Oh, of course, right,” he corrected himself, joining an unimpressed Rick at the back of the carriage and pulling up his sleeves. “I’ll handle this.”

With a whispered incantation, his eyes closed, he missed Rick’s muted expression of shock and revulsion as the trunk rocked. Sticks of cedar jutted out from its side, the wood cracking in the strain even as the process left no marks in the trunk or the leather straps. Oliver kept his eyes closed, muttering the made-up language while the sticks bent as if they had an elbow, coming out further until they ended in square hands. They had no form, looking like thumbless mittens even as they closed and opened.

It got up on its rangy haunches, shook the new arms and legs as if their stiffness could be fixed that way, and clambered down the side of the carriage to pick up the waiting bags.

“Well, thank you for all your help, kind sir.” Oliver took Rick’s hand in his, shaking it and leaving a small sack of money in the driver’s palm. “I expect my gratitude will cover your homeward expenses.”

“Sure,” he said, seeming a little concerned about something. It had to be one of their mental states. But he put the sack in his pocket and returned to the carriage led by the chestnut horse with stunted ears and eerily large eyes. Riding inside the whole time, the mage didn’t notice until now just how unsettling they were.

The two turned their separate ways and that brought Oliver to the arena’s gate, guarded by security officials in navy blue uniforms with glinting silver trims almost outshone by the spotless black of their shoes and for some, the badges on their uniforms. Naturally, only two of the ten officials would talk to him.

He went through unsurprising questions without much trouble. What sort of mage are you? How long have you been practicing? Have you ever been detained or arrested by the Mages’ Council for any purpose? Passing that test, they moved on to the practical portion of the exam. Cast any spell for us, okay, that’s great, now use another to unlock this chest no wider than a tankard and get your Trialist Charm. Great, you did that, now…

“Where’s your aide?”

“Hm?” Oliver looked up at the stern woman’s face, finally over the scar at her left jaw line and not staring at it instead of her eyes anymore. His new fixation had been on the opalesque gem in the center of the stone charm. He was in the middle of wondering if everything at the arena was made of stone when she interrupted him. “Excuse me?”

“Your aide. Where are they?” Aide. Aide. Why hadn’t he heard of this before? Oh no, not good… They were starting to question his hesitation.

“Oh, my aide, you meant them. Well, they’re off looking after the horse. Chestnut, a real dear. Well, no, she’s a horse, but…” He trailed off and sensed that they had lost their patience. “I’ll go and get him, she’ll be alright.”

He didn’t even ask if he could join without an aide since he already had the Trialist Charm and all. He just left the trunk behind to wait, running past the landscaped woods towards central Aethia. If he could find Rick at the stables, if any remained, offer him yet more money, which he was running out of, and convince him to be his aide, learn some magic… Well, that shouldn’t be hard. Wasn’t that everyone’s dream?

Panting, Oliver stopped in the first motel he came across and began the search. He wouldn’t leave the city that day because he hadn’t slept the night before, which left that night and the next morning to find him. “Excuse me, pardon, if it’s not too much trouble,” he paused for a gasp of air, “Did a young man come in here named Rick? To stay the night?”

They said no in that place and demanded to know who was asking in the second one, assuring that he wasn’t there mostly because Oliver didn’t want to argue. So the hunt went until the fourth place of lodging, where the staunch doorman told him what he so wanted to hear. If the horse and carriage outside weren’t obvious clues. “Yeah, a few hours ago. A real lanky thing he was. Looked like he hadn’t slept in a day.”

“Oh, that’s him,” Oliver sighed, daring to smile now that he had the news he wanted. “Which room is he in?”

He got a leery look, a once-over to see if maybe he looked the sort who would kill someone in their rented room and cause a huge mess for the owner. Another few coins lost, but the room’s location gained, he went upstairs to the third door on the left and banged an open hand on the door.

“Rick, open up,” he called, staring down at the knob and forcing himself to not go in anyway. “I have another favor that needs doing. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with it, of course, so I came to give you the first chance. Extra money, Rick, I can promise you that if you’ll help out with this one favor.”

Oliver jumped at the thump inside the room, maybe something slamming against the wall or onto the floor. He waited, biting his lip and biding his time. “Rick,” he ventured after a few seconds without another sound. “How is everything in there? Are you alright?” Soft rhythmic creaks got louder and then the door opened just a crack. Rick looked worse now than before, a lot worse.

“What is it.” Eyes half shut and the look on his face just begging Oliver to give him a reason to punch the mage, Rick wasn’t in any mood for politeness and Oliver wasn’t crazy enough to demand it.

“Can I come in and talk?”

“No.”

Well then. Alright, Oliver could work with that. Running both hands through his hair, taking a deep breath, he started up with his explanation.

“Remember that probably massive contest?” And his future aide’s eyes shut even more. He lost some ground there, granted, but it would be won back as soon as he got to tell the story. “Well, to be in it for real, I need an aide.”

“I’m not it.”

“Hey, hear me out,” he bargained, stopping the door with his hand only because Rick didn’t slam his hand in it. If he really wanted to, he could. Being a carriage driver made him a lot stronger. “There’s a lot in it for you, Rick, I promise. I’ll pay you twice what you made as a driver,” Oliver said, counting the benefits on one hand and watching the driver’s interest pique as his eyes almost nearly opened.

“I thought magic was dying off,” he answered, but he was swaying, Oliver could just feel it. Or perhaps that was the numb, light feeling of lacking oxygen.

“And isn’t carriage driving? Look, I’ll teach you magic, and that in itself is an experience to behold. Plus, you can stay at the arena with me and a ton of other mages and their aides, and the Council will take care everyone completely free of charge! What do you say?”

And then there was the wait. He kind of hated looking at Rick leaning against the doorframe, thinking, wondering if this was worth it. When that smirk finally came, it brought a flood of relief with it and Oliver smiled back. Wasn’t often that both of them felt happy for the same reason. “Alright, Mr. Oliver,” he agreed and held out his hand that wasn’t on the doorknob of his side of the door. “You’ve got a deal.”


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