Sery stared out the carriage window, entranced by the snow-covered landscape passing by. Brightly-coloured Longnight decorations on the villages in the distance added cheer to the otherwise solemn layer of white blanketing the trees and buildings.
Ahead, an impossibly tall structure appeared on the horizon, an elegant tower that appeared far too delicate to support itself. As Magewhisper and Mindseye raced towards the city of Lettia, shorter towers became visible, creating the unmistakeable silhouette of the capital’s royal palace and attached Guild Association. Sery had seen illustrations of the city in books, but they did not convey the sheer size of the buildings before her.
The carriage slowed as they reached the city proper, the noise of travellers, animals, and merchants a confusing clamour that matched the bewildering visual chaos. The main streets of Lettia were easily four times as wide as Eterna’s, yet still so clogged with traffic and vendors that their progress was barely at a walking pace.
“This is your first time visiting Lettia, isn’t it?” Ariela observed from within the carriage.
Sery glanced inside and nodded. As usual, the guild head looked composed and unperturbed by her surroundings, however grand or humble.
Beside her, Devlin was busy making base mana crystal, new material seeming to appear out of thin air to attach itself seamlessly to the piece in his hand. “It’s a fun place to visit, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live here,” he murmured, most of his concentration on magic rather than conversation.
“You should take Sery to see the palace gardens, Veltyen,” Ariela commented. “They have the most amazing ice sculptures in the winter.”
“Sure,” Veltyen agreed from the seat beside Sery. “Plenty of time during your administrative meetings.”
Ariela groaned. “Nobody warned me about meetings when I agreed to this job.”
Devlin chuckled. “What did you think being a guild head entailed?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Who knows? I was young and ignorant.”
After some time, they passed through the gates that separated the royal grounds from the rest of the city and picked up speed. Sery watched, fascinated, as crews of workers cleared snow off paths, carted goods back and forth, delivered messages, and generally created a flurry of controlled chaos without getting in each other’s way.
The carriage came to a stop in front of the largest stables Sery had ever seen, with the capacity to house even more horses than Silver Meadows. Immediately, a crew of men arrived to unharness Magewhisper and Mindseye and unload their luggage.
Sery followed her companions out of the carriage, accepting Veltyen’s steadying hand as she navigated the steep step to the ground.
Ariela handed an official her mage identification card, Eterna’s infinity symbol etched prominently on the back. Yet another worker was summoned in order to guide them to their assigned rooms.
“Sery, why don’t you go ahead and find out where the rooms are while I take care of Magewhisper and Mindseye?” Veltyen suggested.
“Sir, we can take care of the horses,” said one of the grooms, a burly man who laid a gentle hand on Mindseye’s shoulder.
“Thank you, but I prefer to settle them myself,” said Veltyen, gesturing for the groom to lead the way to their assigned stalls.
Sery followed Ariela and Devlin as the guide took them through the Guild Association’s complex network of hallways and corridors, noting the turns carefully so she could find her way back to Veltyen. The passageways were as richly decorated as Eterna’s public spaces, rich wood inlays and intricate tapestries lining the walls. Sery wondered if there were more casual areas hidden behind the doors.
Their journey ended at a set of rooms on the third floor. In a feat of that other kind of magic, their luggage had arrived before them, neatly stacked just inside the doorway.
Ariela thanked their guide gravely and waited for him to leave before abandoning her dignified posture and draping herself across the couch in the common area. “Such a long journey and we start back-to-back meetings tomorrow morning,” she complained.
“The trip only took two days this time with Magewhisper and Mindseye along,” Devlin pointed out, calmly sorting out the luggage and moving his and Ariela’s to one of the bedrooms.
“True. And we get to leave just as quickly once this is all over,” Ariela said in a brighter tone, sitting upright. “Anyways, Sery, pick one of the bedrooms and settle in; I think they’re the same. We have nothing scheduled until dinnertime.”
“I’ll go find Veltyen first,” Sery said, edging the door open enough to slip outside while Ariela waved goodbye.
Sery carefully retraced her steps along the hallways and staircases, focus on her mental map of the Guild Association complex rather than her actual surroundings. She was startled into stillness when she heard voices just around the corner from where she was about to turn.
“Did you hear about the Source?” a female voice asked, her intonation the kind that Sery had learned to associate with noble status.
“Yes. Those liberal fools at Eterna somehow got their hands on her,” a male replied, pronunciation equally aristocratic.
“What a waste,” the woman complained. “Eterna doesn’t have a single retainer contract with a noble house. What are they using that power for, fixing farmer’s ploughs?”
“They won’t have her long. I hear Inheritance already made a play to poach her.”
The woman scoffed. “You call that a play? They sent their most obnoxious newling to harass her. Ever since Ariela Fillei threatened old Drustan with sanctioned duelling, he’s been hiding in his office with his tail between his legs.”
“Why all the need for violence? Just offer the chit money. She’s common, isn’t she?” the man asked. “They’ll do anything if you pay them enough.”
Sery pressed herself against the wall and held very still as the pair, a man and a woman in expensive mage-robes, strolled by without glancing down Sery’s corridor.
“I’m sure Lionsguard or Archmagnus will make their moves next, and be far less clumsy about it,” the woman said, voice fading as she moved further away.
“It will be very interesting to see how this affects the guild standings. Perhaps one of the lower-ranked guilds will manage to get her and rise to the top,” the man mused.
Sery remained motionless until the figures were out of sight and could no longer be heard, then crept around the corner, anxiety peaking.
The avarice in those voices, talking about her like a possession to be stolen, it reminded her of Dreible and her years in captivity.
Veltyen. He would know what to do. She unerringly found his unique enna among the thousands she could sense in the area and hurried desperately towards it.
Veltyen paused, surprised, as Sery slipped into Magewhisper’s stall; he had not sensed an increase in the ambient magic that usually preceded her arrival—
The realization of what that meant became blindingly obvious as he took in her fearful expression and trembling form.
He dropped the brush he was using and knelt, pulling Sery into his arms. Magewhisper came up behind her and lipped at her hair, concerned.
Face pressed against his shoulder, Sery haltingly recounted the conversation she had overheard. Veltyen’s grip tightened in anger before he consciously relaxed it, wary of bruising Sery’s delicate skin.
“Don’t worry,” he murmured, stroking her silvery hair. “None of those vultures will ever have anything to do with you.” He would personally duel the entire membership of the offending guilds if that was what it took to get them to leave Sery alone.
A pause wherein Sery’s trembling stopped and she stiffened, although she did not push away from him. “Am I making trouble for you and the guild?” she asked softly.
It was one of those perceptive leaps that Sery often made. Veltyen carefully considered his words, aware that she would pick up if he said anything that was even partially untrue and likely blame herself for the other guilds’ actions.
He straightened so he could look Sery in the eye. “We were aware that having a Source wouldn’t sit well with some of the other guilds,” he started, placing a hand on her cheek when she started to look down, “but Sery, it doesn’t matter. We don’t care, do you understand?”
He stroked her cheek until she met his eyes again. “You’re not a burden or an inconvenience. You’re ours. You’re a member of Eterna and you’ll stay one unless the day comes that you want to leave. If you’re worried about being useful, you are. The number of jobs our members have completed since you joined has tripled.”
Sery’s piercing blue eyes searched his for honesty and he felt compelled to add his personal truth. “Sery, I…”
There was no other way to say it.
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
The words shocked Sery out of her fear and guilt. She froze, eyes wide, watching Veltyen’s expression go from vulnerable honesty to a slightly embarrassed, rueful smile.
She tried to reciprocate. “I…”
Veltyen interrupted with a kiss on her temple. “That wasn’t a romantic confession. It’s simply how I feel. My life was less complicated before I found you, but it certainly wasn’t better. So don’t go quitting Eterna because you don’t want to be a bother, okay?”
“…Okay,” Sery agreed helplessly.
Veltyen got to his feet with easy grace and finished brushing Magewhisper. Sery belatedly noticed that the stallion had moved to the other side of his box stall, as if to give them privacy. Conversely, Mindseye was craning her head as high as it would go to peer over the wall curiously.
Before she could move to help, Veltyen finished with a few long strokes of the soft brush.
“Why don’t we go unpack and then do some sightseeing within the grounds before dinner?” he suggested, holding out a hand.
Sery nodded, reaching out to grasp Veltyen’s hand.
Veltyen began to walk. Instead of placing her hand on his arm in an escort or reaching over to sling his arm over her shoulders, he kept her hand in his, his grip warm and reassuring.
Sery followed. Underneath her confusion, a spark of happiness ignited.