“Hey, Sery?” Galen said, falling in beside Sery as she made her way up to the study rooms after lunch.
Sery looked up at him and made to stop, but Galen waved her on, easily keeping pace with his longer legs.
“So, I’m turning eighteen this week, and there’s going to be a party on Fivesday to celebrate me joining Eterna as a full member,” he said as they reached the stairs and began climbing.
Sery nodded; Foria had mentioned the preparations for such a large gathering several weeks ago. Remembering that Galen often felt uncomfortable if she stayed silent while he did all the talking, she said, “Happy birthday.”
Galen grinned and rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I’m not eighteen yet. Anyways, I just wanted to invite you to the party. It’s going to be fun.”
Sery was somewhat puzzled. The whole guild was invited, was it not? Dismissing her confusion, she said, “I’ll be there.”
“Great!” Without another word, Galen turned and clattered back down the stairs.
Sery paused and looked at his retreating back. She was extremely sensitive to body language, but her experience was mostly limited to the difference between relaxation and anger, the signs she had needed to know to avoid being slapped by an annoyed slaver. Galen was neither relaxed nor angry. He seemed… nervous? She was not sure.
She shrugged and headed to her study room. He was probably just excited about the induction ceremony.
Veltyen carried the largest of the five amazing cakes Maurio had created for the night and placed it in pride of place at the centre of the buffet table set up in the dining hall.
As he turned back, he passed Sery, who was carrying a platter of artistically cut fruit. He altered his path to bump her gently and was rewarded with a startled look and a shy smile. He grinned and continued on his way.
At the kitchen, he accepted a large pot of soup that made his stomach growl with its delicious smell; apparently, Maurio was handing him all of the heaviest items. Call it prudent conservation of magic or manly pride, but he avoided activating weight magic to help with the hefty dishes.
All around, guild members pitched in with the preparations for the party. Some helped to set up the extra tables, expanding the dining hall’s seating capacity to include all hundred-plus guild members, as well as close friends and family. Some of the younger guild apprentices had been set the task of decorating the hall, their exuberant efforts making everyone smile.
Though Galen’s induction was the official reason to hold such a large gathering, the upcoming party was mostly to celebrate Eterna itself. Ariella and Devlin tried to arrange at least one such occasion a year to allow all the guild members, often away on jobs, to gather and renew their ties to each other.
“Veltyen!” a voice called.
Veltyen turned and grinned. “Shain! When did you get in?” His friend was an energy mage specializing in controlled explosions and had taken a long-term position at a gem mine in the mountains near Oslethia’s eastern border, several weeks’ travel from Eterna’s headquarters.
“Just last night. Cutting it close, I know, but one of our horses went lame.”
“Did you find a proper place to stay? The guest rooms here must be stuffed. You’re always welcome to bed down at my place,” Veltyen offered. His equipment room doubled as a guest bedroom and it would not be the first time Shain had stayed there.
“Oh, we’re staying at the Magefly Inn,” said Shain, naming the highest-rated hotel in town. He coughed awkwardly. “That is,” he gestured to a woman standing a few steps away, “I’d like you to meet my wife, Marissa. Marissa, this is Veltyen Indei, a four-star combat mage and co-conspirator in every one of my childhood mishaps.” A pretty brunette with a single streak of silver at her left temple moved forward, hand open in greeting. “Pleased to meet you,” she said with a smile.
Veltyen was stunned at the unexpected announcement. Shain Uolei, married? His body went through the automatic motions of greeting Marissa and bowing over her hand while his mind reeled.
Marissa made his hand bump his nose when she attempted to shake it while he bowed, a clash of custom between old-style nobility and the rising liberal middle class. She flushed in embarrassment. “I am so sorry!” she apologized.
Shain snorted in amusement. “Don’t worry, Rissy. It’s Veltyen’s own fault for trying that outdated nobleman nonsense with you.”
It was Veltyen’s turn to be embarrassed. The manners instilled in him by his mother were strict and old-fashioned even by most houses’ standards. He had learned to adapt to a world that was considerably less formal, but reverted to his training whenever he was distracted. “Yes, the fault was mine. Please excuse my clumsiness.”
“Veltyen,” Foria called. Veltyen looked up to see her waving from the second-floor balcony overlooking the dining hall. “They want you to move the piano.”
“Got it!” He waved back, then turned to Shain and his new wife. “Talk to you later?”
“For sure.” Shain slapped his shoulder companionably. “See you!”
Veltyen headed up to the music room, still unsettled. Shain was his age-mate and a boyhood friend. It made Veltyen realize that he was now of the age when most men were already married. The shift in self-image felt… strange.
With the help of magic, he handled the grand piano easily. The weight of his thoughts was harder to deal with.
If Foria had not already told her that the induction ceremony was going to be short and simple, Sery might have been disappointed, considering that the entire guild and the members’ families were present.
The guild masters stood with Galen at the centre of the guild hall while everyone else sat at the round dining tables and looked on.
“Galen Steader, you have completed your apprenticeship at Eterna. Your status as a fully certified mage has been registered with the Guild Association. What will you do now?” Ariella intoned, the words weighted with the thousands of repetitions that came before this ceremony.
“I would like to join Eterna as a full member,” Galen answered with certainty.
“We welcome all who would join us with honest intentions. Do you swear to obey our laws, honour your fellow members, and demonstrate integrity when representing Eterna to the world?” asked Devlin.
Devlin produced the mana crystal stamp carved into Eterna’s infinity symbol. “We accept you as you accept us.”
Galen elicited wolf whistles and cat calls when he had to pull aside his mage robe to expose the shoulder he wanted his tattoo on, but bore the good-natured teasing with a grin. Devlin pressed the stamp down, and it left a dimensional-purple mark behind.
There was a general cheer, and the feast began without any further speech. People began pouring drinks and loading their plates from the revolving tray set in the centre of each table and loud chatter broke out.
“Would you like some champagne, Sery?” Foria asked. She held a glass bottle and was pouring some bubbly, golden liquid into glasses when people held them out.
Sery did not know what champagne tasted like, but she mimicked the others and held up her glass.
“Just a sip for her to try it,” Veltyen put in. “I have a feeling…”
Foria nodded and poured just enough to fill the curved bottom of the narrow glass.
Curious, Sery swallowed the mouthful of liquid.
Foria and Veltyen laughed as she tried not to make a face at the bitter taste.
“How about this?” Veltyen plucked a ceramic jug from the tray and poured out a slightly darker golden liquid.
Cautious now, Sery smelled it first. It was just apple juice. Taking a sip, she realized that it was apple juice enhanced by Maurio’s food magic, the sweet tartness bursting onto her tongue. Veltyen filled his own glass from the same jug.
Ariella and Devlin joined them at their table. In addition to Veltyen and Foria, there were also Asher, Marielle, and Tasielle. Galen sat with his family at another table; it appeared that he was the eldest of six siblings, and the only one to sport the characteristic silver markings of a reasonably powerful mage.
The sound of four hundred people conversing was almost overwhelming to Sery, but she gradually adjusted to what she knew was a joyful din. Relaxing, she listened to the cheerful conversation at her table.
“Shain’s finally found himself a wife, has he? Good for him!” said Devlin, nose slightly red from the champagne. “I was about that age when I finally convinced my Ari that I wasn’t joking when I kept proposing to her.”
Ariella snorted, neither her perfect posture nor wits affected by the token amount alcohol she had consumed. “More like that’s when you finally stopped joking about it. Besides, weren’t you in love with Lunna Bright not two years before?”
“Nonsense, my dear,” Devlin said, draping an arm over his wife’s shoulders. “Lunna couldn’t hold a candle to you.”
Ariella cracked an evil smile. “She may have tried once. I may have made the candle explode. By accident, of course. My control wasn’t that good at that age.”
The couple laughed at what must have been an old joke.
“So when are you going to settle down?” Ariella asked Veltyen.
Veltyen looked like he was unsure how to answer the casual question. “Ah, not for a few more years at least, I would guess.”
“Probably sooner than you think,” said Devlin in a knowing tone. “These things sneak up on you.”
Ariella’s sharp gaze noted Foria and Asher’s amused expressions and she was quick to add them to the inquisition. “You two as well. You’re only a year younger than Veltyen. Get out of the guild once in a while and go mingle with people your age.”
Sery hid a laugh. Foria and Asher could comfortably discuss the most complex topics in art and science, but the idea of socializing with strangers made them awkward, Asher frozen and tense, Foria retreating into the professional persona she used to speak with guild customers.
She thought she had managed to keep her laughter silent, but at that moment, Veltyen looked at her. For a second, there was something in his gaze that made her catch her breath. Then he smiled and looked away, and everything was normal again.
Confused, Sery stared down at her plate and lost track of the conversation, telling her heart to calm down.
Eventually, she convinced herself that the moment had just been her imagination and turned her attention back to the party.
After eating, everyone helped move the leftovers and clear the floor of tables and chairs to allow room for dancing. A couple of the more musically inclined guild members headed up to the second-floor balcony, which had been set up as a musician’s gallery. They would rotate in and out throughout the night, giving everyone a chance to dance and socialize.
As the ostensible guest of honor, Galen led the first dance, escorting his mother onto the floor. She was a sturdy woman in her late thirties, skin tanned farmer-brown, beaming in pride at her son. After the first few measures of music, other couples joined in, turning the hall into a colourful show of swirling mage robes. People more interested in cake and other desserts headed over to the buffet table. Yet others simply gathered at the edges of the room, chatting.
Veltyen leaned against the wall, enjoying a fresh glass of Maurio’s apple juice. When the food mage made more than the guild needed, it sold for as much as fine wine. Maurio received at least three job offers a year, from nobles or restaurants or other guilds. Some of those offers involved salaries ten times what Eterna could afford to pay him, but he rarely even opened the letters, too busy with his next amazing creation.
Next to him, Sery sat on one of the chairs left against the wall, eating a large piece of mint chocolate cake in neat bites. It always amused him, how much she could eat, as much or more than him unless he had been exercising hard.
When she finished, she copied him and got a glass of juice. He took the opportunity to steal her seat, though there were empty chairs nearby. He had never been a prankster, but teasing Sery was irresistible. Watching her deal with the new and unexpected was fascinating and amusing and made him ache with pride as she slowly learned her own capabilities.
When Sery returned, she hesitated until she saw his teasing smile. Putting on a mock-exasperated look clearly copied from Foria, she dragged another chair over and sat.
Veltyen bumped her shoulder companionably and they turned their attention to the dancers. Some pairs showed off their formal training, movements poised and graceful, while others simply swayed in time to the music.
Near the end of the first song, Foria appeared. Plucking Sery’s glass away, she handed it to Veltyen and said, “Come on, Sery, I’ll teach you the fusty old dances that are all Veltyen can manage.”
Veltyen raised his own drink at the dig. He was rather hopeless at the more modern styles of dance, which were free-form and required personal interpretation of the music. The classic ballroom dances, much more standardized in their requirements, suited him.
Sery willingly followed Foria onto the dance floor as the second song began. Her expression one of intense concentration, she picked up the basic steps quickly and soon began twirling around the temporary ballroom.
The flash of a distinctive shade of green made Veltyen look to his right. It was Kiera, wearing her favourite dress robes and settling into a chair several paces away. There was a small chance she had not seen him, but he thought that she was probably ignoring his presence. It had now been close to two months since he had last had morning practice with his friend and fellow sword-mage, the longest break since they had started sparring in the first place. It was true that he had been gone on jobs fairly often recently, but Kiera had also avoided meals together, or even just talking.
Veltyen wondered why Kiera was avoiding him. Leaving her alone did not seem to be working, so he might as well try asking what was wrong.
Kiera looked up as he approached. He thought that she might be annoyed at him or make a hasty excuse to escape, but her expression brightened. “Is that for me?” she asked, gesturing at the second glass he held.
“Um, this is Sery’s,” Veltyen said. “Would you like me to get you a glass?” he offered.
Kiera’s expression took on the hostile expression he had feared. “I can get it my
,” she snapped. Rising angrily, she stomped towards the buffet table, her heavy steps incongruous with the delicate dancing shoes she wore. When Veltyen followed along, she whirled on him. “Why are you following me?” she demanded, voice loud enough to attract several worried looks from nearby guildmates.
“…Sorry.” Veltyen fell back and Kiera stalked off, alone.
Veltyen felt a bit adrift, and not a little hurt. He was a man who preferred having a few, deep relationships over many shallow ones, and his friendship with Kiera was almost a decade old. Whatever was going on, she seemed ready to abandon all ties with him, as if those years meant nothing.
Foria came by and dropped Sery off. “Finish teaching Sery, will you? Sorry, Sery, I have to go for a bit.” Leaning in towards Veltyen, she murmured, “I’ll go talk to her,” and followed after Kiera.
Masking his emotions, Veltyen smiled at Sery and held out an arm. “Shall we?”
As he guided Sery through the rest of the dance, he regretted that his mood stole the pleasure from teaching such a talented student.
Sery loitered outside the doors to the dining hall, caught in uncertainty.
Veltyen was upset about something. When she had been with him, he had kept forcing smiles that made her heart hurt. Finally, she had excused herself to go to the washroom and left him alone, hoping that solitude would help when her presence clearly did not.
Sery wondered how long she could linger without him becoming worried. Maybe two or three songs?
A burst of sound escaped the hall as someone opened the door and stepped out. Galen’s gaze scanned the corridor, clearly looking for something. He nearly walked past her before noticing her presence. “Sery!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been looking for you!”
Sery blinked in surprise. He had? Why? She failed to come up with an answer, but remembered something else. Reaching into a pocket, Sery pulled out a small, clear cube and offered it to Galen.
Galen took it and turned it curiously. A small trickle of dust within the cube flowed to the bottom with each shift. “What’s this?”
“If you charge the mana crystal, it makes a tornado,” Sery explained. She could not do it herself, but the man at the market had demonstrated it for her.
A moment later, Galen had the toy running, a small dust devil whirling within the clear casing. “Cool!” he said with enthusiasm.
Galen made to return the box, but Sery pushed it back into his hands. “Happy birthday,” she said with a smile, glad that he seemed to enjoy the gift she had chosen. It was the first time she had bought anybody a birthday gift, and she was proud to be able to do it for her friends.
“What? You didn’t have to do that,” Galen protested.
“Do you like it?” Sery asked.
“What? Of course.”
“Happy birthday,” Sery repeated, still smiling.
Galen stared down at the box for a long moment, then looked at her. “Thank you. I’ll have to return the favour. When’s your birthday?”
“The seventh of Thirdsmonth,” Sery answered.
“I won’t forget,” he promised with rather more seriousness than Sery thought the situation called for. Shifting to a more lighthearted tone, he said, “Now, there’s just one more thing I’d like to ask for my birthday.”
“What is it?” Sery asked curiously.
“Would you do me the honour of a dance?”
Sery blinked in surprise, then her thoughts went straight to Veltyen. She was supposed to stay out of sight for a while longer, and he was still in the dining hall. “Could we go somewhere else to dance?” she asked.
Instead of questioning her motives as she had expected, Galen seemed enthusiastic about the idea. “Come on,” he said, grasping her hand and leading the way upstairs.
The hallway outside the musician’s gallery was close enough to hear the music and had enough room for dancing. Rather than wait for the next song, Galen seemed to want to jump right in, so Sery positioned herself for the ballroom hold Foria had taught her. However, Galen seemed to be following a different dance style and his unfamiliar movements pulled her off balance.
Sery stumbled and apologized. “I don’t think I know that dance.”
Galen swore under his breath and looked angry at himself. “Sorry, sorry, that was my bad. Old habits die hard. I know proper dances.” He shook his head as if to rid himself of some thought and moved into the style Sery had just learned.
“…Are you okay?” Sery asked. Now wearing a grim expression, Galen did not look like he was enjoying himself at all.
“Yes, of course.”
Sery was not convinced but did not press. Gradually, Galen’s expression lightened, and he was smiling again by the time the song ended.
“One more?” he asked.
Just as the next song began, someone walked out of the musician’s gallery.
“Oh, hello, Sery,” greeted Asher. “Hello, Galen.”
Sery knew that Asher played violin and guessed he had just finished his turn in the musician’s gallery. Before she could reply, Galen pulled her into the dance.
“Hey, hey,” Asher protested, “no need to manhandle Sery like that.”
Galen glared and Sery began to feel anxious about the hostility he was displaying. After a moment, he seemed to notice her expression and let her go. Shoulders slumping, he said, “Sorry, Sery,” then left as quickly as he could without breaking into a run.
Sery hesitated on what to do.
“Let him go,” Asher advised. “He needs to cool off. His pride won’t appreciate it if you see him sulking. Did you want to dance? I can fill in.”
Sery shook her head. Between Veltyen’s and now Galen’s mood, dancing did not seem to be going well tonight. She walked back downstairs and Asher fell in beside her.
“…Do you and Galen not get along?” Sery ventured.
“Oh, I have no problem with him,” Asher answered easily. “He has a chip on his shoulder about being common-born, so he gets rather testy with those of us who aren’t. We don’t care at Eterna, but I’m afraid that’s not true for all mage guilds. Some of the elite ones don’t have a single member who’s not from noble lines.”
This was the first Sery had heard of a divide between mages. She did not even know which guild members were noble and which were not. Everyone was treated equally, and there were no servants at the guild hall. There did not seem to be a difference in wealth, either; Galen’s mage robes were probably finer than Asher’s.
“…Would Galen not be friends with me if I weren’t common-born?” Sery asked.
“You’re what?” Asher asked, surprised. “Isn’t your last name Holdei?”
“Huh. I definitely heard ‘Holdei’ before. As far as I know, everyone in the guild – though I guess Foria would know, since she handled your registration, and Veltyen, since he brought you here – everyone thinks you’re nobility. High nobility, too, like Veltyen.”
“Wh-what? Why?” Sery stuttered.
“Well, Veltyen brought you here, you’re dressed in House Evodie’s latest fashions, and your manners are impeccable. Are you really common-born? How did you end up with Veltyen, then?”
“…He saved me.”
Asher’s eyes widened. “Mana void,” he swore, “I’m being an insensitive prick, aren’t I? Sorry, Sery, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. My mouth just runs on and on.”
“It’s okay,” Sery said. “It’s not supposed to be a secret or anything.”
“Still, I don’t suppose it’s pleasant to talk about.” Asher paused. “That does explain things.” When Sery looked curious, he elaborated, “I was wondering why you would join Eterna, especially at such a young age. Most of us got our training somewhere else.”
“Man, Veltyen really pulled one on us. I wonder if he made you look noble on purpose,” Asher pondered.
Sery wondered, too.