“Make yourself comfortable, dear,” Marta said, placing a tray of tea and snacks on the side of the desk set up for Sery in the library. Her hair brown streaked with plain grey, not silver, Terry Chandler’s wife acted as the accountant for most of the mages belonging to Windermere – now Eterna, Windermere branch – and worked from home, acting as host for Sery’s weekly visits to provide branch members with a recharge of their
stores. This was her third visit to the smaller town and Sery was beginning to settle into a comfortable routine.
“Thank you,” said Sery.
“I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.” Marta left Sery to her studies with a cheerful smile.
Sery sat at the desk and placed her current study material on its surface with an uncharacteristic sigh. Rather than her usual eagerness when it came to learning, it filled her with a vague sense of anxiety.
, the title read. Sery had asked for a book on the subject after reading everything Eterna had to offer on Sources and their magic. Foria had raised an eyebrow but obligingly located the authoritative text on the strict social customs followed by nobility in the Seven Kingdoms.
The more Sery read, the more she realized that many of Veltyen’s mannerisms were actually deeply engrained training. He had adapted to life at Eterna, where no one else followed the rules and protocols he had grown up with, but when he was not paying attention, he would revert to a nobleman’s bearing.
Last week, Sery had responded to one of Veltyen’s greetings with the appropriate reply and had been rewarded with a surprised smile.
That was… appropriate if Sery were a noblewoman. Many of the rules depended on the relative ranks of the individuals involved, and Sery was as common as they came. However, Veltyen seemed to naturally treat her as his social equal, and seemed to appreciate it when she responded in kind.
Between the extensive wardrobe and well-furnished apartment and Veltyen’s comfort with the old customs, it was clear to Sery that, whether Veltyen consciously realized it or not, he would prefer it if she assumed the role of a noblewoman.
And so she would. Memorizing rules and changing her behaviour to conform was of little consequence. What filled Sery with anxiety was the amount of distance the rules of propriety demanded between herself and Veltyen. Unrelated by blood or family alliance, if she were really to become ‘Sery Holdei’ – as many in the guild seemed to think she was – she would not be able to spend time alone with Veltyen, not be able to live across from him, not be able to receive a hug when she felt bewildered by the world around her.
Veltyen had never stinted on the affection that Sery required to feel secure, but the more she read, the more she worried that he was forcing himself into uncomfortable behaviour for her sake.
The thought of pulling away from the man who had become the centre of her world made Sery want to throw the book away and pretend ignorance, but that was no solution. Sery could not continue to be a burden on Veltyen for the rest of her life. Whatever her naïve intentions upon joining Eterna, it was clear that Veltyen did not need or want her help. He was in town less than a week every month, the rest spent travelling on jobs. Sery had once proposed accompanying him on a trip, and had been so firmly rebuffed that she had never brought up the subject again
Sery shook herself from her melancholy mood. If she stayed upset all day, she would emit less magic and that would be unfair to the mages in Windermere. Putting the book aside, she stood. She should go on a walk with Mindseye. The mare had a way of making Sery laugh.
Letting Marta know she was going out, Sery walked to the boarding stables where Mindseye had a comfortable stall during their visits to Windermere.
Spotting Sery, the mare whinnied a greeting.
Sery smiled at her partner. “Want to go for a walk?”
Mindseye bobbed her head.
Sery opened the stall door – being a smaller town, Windermere was not accustomed to mage mounts and its stall doors were not designed so Mindseye could easily open them herself – and the mare stepped out into the sunlight, silver coat gleaming in health. The pair ambled out into the streets with no particular destination in mind.
“Hey Foria, any jobs for me?” Veltyen asked, leaning on the counter in front of the web-mage’s desk.
She gave him a look through her dark-rimmed glasses. “Are you saving up money for something?”
Veltyen frowned in confusion. “Not particularly. Why?”
“You’ve taken more jobs in the last four months than you normally do in a year. At first, I thought you were just being careful about expenses given that you’d picked up a ward, but Sery’s income now exceeds yours and you still haven’t cut back.”
“I… Oh,” Veltyen said in realization as he looked back on the time Sery had come into his life. He had vaguely intended to pick up a hobby to fill the time he no longer needed to spend meditating, but instead, had fallen into the habit of going on a job as soon as he had adequate magic stores. He was surprised that he had not become fatigued from the constant travelling, but having full
stores seemed to boost him physically as well as magically.
“‘Oh’ is right. I suggest you take the winter season off. Travelling in ‘Levenmonth and Twelvemonth is horrible anyways.”
Veltyen nodded. “You’ll keep me posted about emergencies?” Some of the work Veltyen did saved lives, and he would do those jobs regardless of weather or pay.
Foria waved off the silly question. “Sery’s been working her way through
,” she said in an abrupt change of topic.
“I didn’t ask, but I assume it’s your fault,” Foria answered dryly.
“I didn’t – Sery is fine the way she is,” Veltyen protested.
“Well, the way she is is overly earnest and a little odd, and you’ve been gone a lot. Maybe she’s trying to get your approval.”
It bothered Veltyen, the amount of influence he had over Sery’s thoughts and behaviour. In retrospect, he had noticed Sery’s manner changing towards the formal elegance demanded of ladies of rank, but she was so naturally quiet and poised that it had been a subtle shift. “I don’t want her to – I just want her to be happy, you know?” he said, clumsily trying to articulate his feelings.
Foria met his eyes with a look of sympathy. “Me too. Spend time with her. She just wants
to be happy. Show her that you like her just the way she is.”
“Thanks, Foria.” Veltyen left the guildhall and headed towards Magewhisper’s stall, feeling a mix of guilt and frustration. There was no etiquette book, no roadmap to guide him when it came to Sery, and every time he stumbled, it was she who was hurt.
“Hey, Mage,” he greeted his partner. “Want to give me a ride? Sery’s in Windermere today.”
Magewhisper’s ears pricked in interest and he walked towards his saddle. They were out of town soon after, Magewhisper settling into a steady gallop that would take them to the smaller town in about three hours.
Sery and Mindseye took a long stroll through Windermere. The town was not particularly large, with only two major streets in the north-south direction, so they went up one and returned down the other, enjoying the fresh air. Sery walked beside her partner rather than riding, in no hurry to get anywhere.
When a group of finely-dressed riders passed by, they looked out of place in the humble town. Compared to the ponies and draft horses used by the townsfolk, their mounts were the finest money could buy. Wondering what exactly such people were doing in Windermere, Sery made sure not to stare as she and Mindseye passed the group in the other direction.
“Hey you! Girl! You’re a Source, right?”
Startled, Sery’s glance shot back towards the riders. The speaker appeared to be the leader of the group, a blond man in his mid-twenties. Jagged lines of silver zigzagged through his hair, a pattern quite unlike the natural-looking streaks Sery had seen in Eterna guild members. The other riders, two females and a male, had similarly artificial-looking silver patterns in their hair. All four had a similar symbol embroidered on their clothing.
The blond rider turned his mount and rode up to her, careless of any pedestrians who had to scramble out of his way. Sery shrank closer to Mindseye as he loomed over her, followed by the other three. This close, she could see that the symbol they wore was that of a king chess piece; based on the characteristic electric blue and deep purple of the embroidery, it represented a guild mark.
“You’re the Source, right?” the man demanded.
Mindseye screamed and reared, hooves lashing out aggressively. The riders’ mundane mounts shied back despite the mare’s relatively small size, unwilling to withstand the attack, whatever their riders wanted.
Mindseye nudged Sery towards herself and Sery scrambled onto the mare’s back. Mindseye cantered away, going as fast as she dared on the crowded streets while Sery clung on without the benefit of a saddle. Behind her were sounds of pursuit.
Passing the stables and the Chandlers’ house without a pause, Mindseye made for the edge of town and the road towards Eterna before opening up into a mage-gallop, leaving the aggressive strangers far behind.
Riding at a gallop, Veltyen frowned in confusion, sensing Sery’s presence approaching at a rapid speed. He was still an hour away from Windermere.
He spotted a blurred silver streak that must be Mindseye at a mage-gallop and pulled Magewhisper to a stop. “Sery!” he called.
Mindseye slowed and came to a stop beside them. On the mare’s bare back was Sery, not at all dressed for riding, a look of fear in her eyes.
“Sery!” Veltyen leapt from his saddle and tried to get Sery off her mount. Sery’s hands were clenched and stiff from staying on at a full mage-gallop without a saddle, and it took her a while to unlock them enough to let go.
Veltyen pulled her into his arms, feeling tremors rock her delicate frame. “What happened?” he asked, trying to soothe her the best he could.
Haltingly, Sery described the riders at Windermere and Veltyen’s gut clenched. He recognized that guild symbol, and he recognized the description of the blond man with the artificial stripes in his hair. “Inheritance guild,” he said grimly.
Sery looked up at him, eyes still distressed, and his hand clenched into a fist on her back. “They will
bother you again,” he vowed. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
Veltyen lifted Sery onto Magewhisper’s back and climbed up behind her while Mindseye hovered protectively.
“But I’m supposed to be at Windermere today,” Sery protested weakly when Magewhisper turned towards Eterna.
“We’ll call them from Eterna and let them know what happened today. They’ll understand. You can make it up another day.”
Sery did not argue further.