Ariela placed one last pin in Sery’s hair and spun the chair around to face the mirror. “What do you think?”
Sery stared at herself, or rather, the elegant stranger where her reflection was supposed to be. Her hair had been pulled into a neat knot that made her neck look long and graceful, her features subtly enhanced by cosmetics to make her skin look flawless and her eyes larger. The elegance matched the vibrant red of the mage-silk gown Evodie had designed. Ariela deftly fastened ruby drops to her ears to complete the picture; the high-necked gown required no necklace.
“It looks beautiful,” Sery murmured, not quite able to reconcile the image with her own identity.
Ariela laughed in understanding, her own hair and makeup already done. “Don’t worry, it all comes off easily. Don’t tell Evodie I said this, but I’m glad she didn’t manage to turn you into a peacock.”
Her expression turned serious. Meeting Sery’s eyes in the mirror, Ariela said, “I’ve been reaching out to my contacts since Veltyen told us about that conversation you overheard, and it seems that there are at least five or six guilds plotting something underhanded to get their hands on you. Far more than that would accept you on the spot, and some of the contracts they’d offer are far richer than Eterna could afford.
“That being said, I’m aware that you are not particularly interested in fame or wealth, so regardless of the morality of the strategy, I think it’s best to confuse everyone’s plans, don’t you agree?”
Sery nodded hesitantly, not sure what Ariela was planning.
“It’s common knowledge in the gossip that you don’t come from a noble house, so…” she gestured to Sery’s current appearance, “…we’ll give them a noble.”
Sery’s eyes widened. “But I’m not,” she protested.
“No, but your manners are more than good enough to fool anyone. I’d just need to introduce you as a family friend and their imaginations would do the rest.”
Sery did not know how to answer. The idea of deliberately deceiving people made her uncomfortable, and she did not think she would be able to act convincingly even if she wanted to.
Seeing her reaction, Ariela patted Sery’s shoulder. “We don’t have to do it if it makes you uncomfortable, dear. Just enjoy the ball. Your appearance alone will be confusing enough to those who think that there’s something special about noble blood other than slightly too much inbreeding. Let’s go.”
Ariela ushered Sery out of the bedroom and into the shared living room of their guest apartment, where Veltyen and Devlin were already dressed and waiting, chatting on the couch. Sery took a moment to admire Veltyen in a set of steel blue dress robes, the colour setting off his gray eyes and auburn hair to perfection—
Then he looked up. Sery ducked her head, feeling the warmth rising in her cheeks as Veltyen stared. She could never decide whether she enjoyed the feeling when one of Evodie’s creations made him look at her, an uncomfortably strong mix of self-consciousness and a bubbly feeling she could not quite name.
Devlin was the first to stand and come around the couch. “You look lovely, ladies,” he said, coming to take Ariela’s hand.
“Your plural is noted and appreciated,” Ariela said jokingly, kissing her husband on the cheek.
Veltyen stood and walked up without speaking. When he swept into a formal bow, Sery responded with the correct curtsey for a noblewoman with mage abilities, lifting the edge of the fabric that looped around her waist to create her skirt to emphrasize that her gown was indeed a mage-robe. She timed her rise to match Veltyen’s exactly.
“Perfect,” came Ariela’s approving murmur. “They’ll assume she’s noble even if we don’t say anything.”
Veltyen’s expression hardened as he glanced at Ariela, giving Sery a rare glimpse of the warrior that he tended to hide from her. He offered an arm in formal escort.
Sery straightened her posture and positioned herself in the most formal hold, a clear space between her body and Veltyen’s. He pressed his lips together at the stiff distance, but did not comment as Ariela and Devlin led the way out towards the Guild Association’s main ballroom.
Sery thought back to the days since they had arrived in Lettia. Veltyen had not verbalized his feelings again, but during their sight-seeing around the city, it had become a habit for them to hold hands, first to avoid being separated in the crowds, then just because.
Sery closed the distance until she could lean her head against Veltyen’s arm. “Just until we get there?” she murmured.
Veltyen glanced down at Sery in surprise before patting her hand. “Of course.”
Sery seemed to have gained a new confidence since coming to Lettia. Veltyen was not quite sure where it had come from, but he found himself being surprised by her behaviour now and then.
The confidence was undeniably attractive, a sign that Sery was coming into her own as an adult. Combined with that damn red dress Evodie had cooked up…
Veltyen reminded himself that he was nearly a decade older than Sery.
It was a mix of relief and regret when they reached the more public corridors and Sery resumed the proper distance that etiquette demanded.
Veltyen had been to this particular gathering three times before, and not much had changed. Mages gathered in the evening for light refreshments and socializing prior to a speech by Archmage Brielan, then dinner and music for dancing.
He watched Sery dazzle and confuse some of the most powerful mages in the Seven Kingdoms with a mix of amusement and annoyance. The amusement came from remembering his own adjustment to having Sery in his life, with her mix of acute perception and innocent cluelessness. The annoyance came from the elitist assumptions that made it laughably easy to fool people who prided themselves on their intelligence and education. With a single look at Sery’s dress and bearing, they classified her as noble against all the information they had no doubt gathered over months of scheming.
It was with smug pride that Veltyen watched Sery calmly turn down offers from Lionsguard, Auria, Keystone, and even the Archmage himself. He was glad that he had finally convinced her that nobody wanted her to leave Eterna; he could see that certainty in the way she faced down increasingly forthright proposals and outright enquiries as to what it would take to get her to change guilds.
“I am happy where I am, thank you,” Sery answered, her poise unbroken.
Veltyen took the opportunity to introduce Sery to some of his friends from his days at Academy Oslethia. As a materials mage, his classes had mostly been taken with people who had gone on to specialize in various types of craft magic. His old friends were keenly interested in Sery’s abilities and jokingly encouraged Sery to move closer to their guilds. One friend, who specialized in magic-powered transportation vehicles, was so enthusiastic that he professed his intention to leave his guild and move to Eterna.
“Gaven…” Veltyen said cautiously. “I doubt your guild would be happy to see you go.” Gaven Villerei was just a breath away from qualifying as a five-star mage, and his loss would have a considerable impact on both a guild’s prestige and income.
Gaven shrugged. “I don’t love Estervale the way you do Eterna. It’s just a place to work. If another guild can offer me better advantages, that’s where I’ll go.” He clapped Veltyen on the shoulder. “I’m going to go chat with your guild heads.”
Sery glanced at him as the other mage took his leave. “Is this bad?” she asked quietly.
Veltyen sighed. “If Ariela and Devlin accept him – and they generally never refuse if the applicant is genuine in their intentions – the guild rankings are going to get shaken up. Gaining a four-star mage would take us to the top of the mid-tier guilds – and I suspect he’ll end up qualifying for five.”
There were many metrics used to compare guild power, but an easily calculated measure was referred to as the ‘star-count’, a rough approximation of the equivalent number of one-star mages it would take to match the guild’s combined enna stores. Given that each successive rank resulted in a tenfold increase in star-count value, the majority of guild ranking was determined by the number of five-star mages in the membership.
In Eterna, Ariela and Devlin were indisputably the strongest, well into the five-star range. What made their guild somewhat different from others was that they did nothing at all to optimize this score.
The test to determine a mage’s star rating was effort-dependent, as it involved sending the mage’s entire enna stores into a mage crystal device that would measure the output.
Mages’ ennas often grew throughout childhood and into the early twenties, so they often had themselves remeasured in case the growth would take them over the threshold to the next rank. Veltyen had last been measured at age sixteen and rated at a high four stars; at the time, he had chosen not to push himself to the point of unconsciousness in an effort to maximize his score, intending to be tested again a few years later. After joining Eterna and discussing the matter with the guild heads, he had foregone the retesting. In a more extreme case, Asher maintained an official three-star ranking despite the fact that he could certainly qualify as five-star with his time-dimensional augmentation of his enna stores.
As Sources were unable to interface directly with mana-crystal devices, Sery’s star ranking was rather in question. Eterna had delayed listing a ranking in the Guild Association records for as long as possible, then recorded her as a four-star based on her ability to replenish Veltyen’s enna rather than her work with Devlin. Privately, Asher had begun the complex calculations to determine her true enna stores based on the amount he had been able to siphon off, and everyone suspected she was far stronger than the guild heads.
Like the other Eterna members, Sery was willing to forego the associated prestige of a higher mage ranking in order to preserve the guild’s quiet prosperity. Gaven was nice, but also a show-off who would not hesitate to push his ranking up if he could manage it – and with a Source to fill his enna to the very brim, he could probably manage it.
Veltyen shrugged off his worries. “We’ll discuss things with Ariela and Devlin later. Why don’t we—”
“Hello, Veltyen,” came a loathfully familiar voice.
Sery’s attention sharpened on the tall, shapely blonde whose greeting had caused Veltyen to tense, his expression twisting to one of… disgust?
The woman in question was certainly dressed provocatively, her green gown cut to show the cleavage between her full breasts and her skirt slitted almost to the hip.
“Sery, let’s go.” Veltyen’s voice was almost toneless compared to its usual richness as he turned to move away from the woman.
She moved smoothly over to block his path. “Now Velty, is that any way to greet an old friend?” she purred, placing a manicured hand on his chest.
Sery found herself experiencing a strange sensation at the sight of that possessive hand, a tight knot in her chest that tasted sour.
Veltyen knocked the woman’s hand away. “We are not friends. Sery.” He turned again to leave.
“Now is that any way to treat a lady?” came a man’s slow drawl.
The speaker was the mage with the zig-zag pattern to his hair, the one Sery had encountered in Windermere.
Veltyen tensed even more. Worse, his shoulders became slightly hunched inward as if he were cold or afraid.
“What do you want, Tristane?” he asked in a low voice.
“Why, to dance with the lovely Miss Holder, of course,” Tristane answered, turning a smile onto Sery. Even if she had not noticed his effect on Veltyen, Sery would have disliked the predatory look in his eyes.
“Get out of here,” Veltyen growled.
“That’s the lady’s choice, isn’t it?” Tristane challenged, the words causing a stronger reaction than Sery expected. Veltyen dropped his escorting arm, leaving Sery standing unexpectedly alone.
Just as she was looking at Veltyen in confusion, Tristane bowed and murmured, “You don’t want to bother him all night, do you?”
The words sent a chill down Sery’s spine. Even a week ago, they might have sent her scrambling for the first excuse to leave Veltyen alone. But…
“I love you.”
Sery remembered Veltyen’s vulnerable honesty as he had spoken those words. She saw the his rigid tension in this interloper’s presence, his indifferent annoyance at the beautiful woman still trying to catch his attention.
She knew she was not the one Veltyen wanted to leave.
The ambient magic in the ballroom slammed abruptly to zero, creating the feeling of a chill. Veltyen was shocked out of his fog of helplessness as Sery drew herself up to her most regal bearing and said, “Please leave.” When Tristane did not immediately move away, she raised her voice enough to be heard by nearby attendees. “Sir, your attentions are unwelcome.”
Under the scrutiny of an increasing number of disapproving gazes and with Ariela and Devlin making their way over from the other side of the room, Tristane’s expression twisted unattractively before he walked off. Thankfully, Lavella slunk off after him.
Sery turned to him, her oddly fierce expression fading as she allowed herself to emit her normal level of magic. “Are you okay?”
She had been protecting him.
The realization slammed into him along with a torrent of emotion that he could not immediately process. All he could see was her concerned expression, her hand hovering just off his sleeve as if he might reject her touch.
He captured her hand and kissed it, hoping to convey some of what he felt while words still escaped him.
If it were not for the public eye, he might have done something foolish when she blushed and looked down.
“That Inheritance pup was making trouble again, wasn’t he?” asked Ariela as she and Devlin arrived.
“He tried,” Veltyen answered, hoping nobody would notice the catch in his voice. “Sery scared him off.”
“That’s my girl,” Devlin said approvingly. “That was your Ariela impression, wasn’t it?”
Ariela laughed at Sery’s nod. “Glad I could set a good example.”
“Do you think we can leave yet?” Sery asked quietly.
Ariela considered the question. “I think you’ve talked to everyone who needs talking to. You and Veltyen get some rest and Devlin and I will stick around.”
Veltyen was more than happy to escort Sery out of the glittering ballroom, sighing in relief at the quiet of the unoccupied hallways.
When they arrived at their quarters, Sery closed the door behind them and asked again, “Are you okay?”
Veltyen realized that being alone with Sery right now was a mistake. He was a mess of fading adrenaline and turbulent emotions, and she was warmth and comfort and delicate, unyielding strength.
He breathed out noisily. “I will be. I owe you an explanation.”
Sery shook her head, absolving him of the responsibility of telling her about the unpleasant situation he had gotten her involved in. He saw with a mix of disappointment and relief that despite her newfound confidence, he still wielded far too much power over her for them to be anything but guardian and ward.
Getting himself under control, he lowered himself onto the couch and patted the spot beside him. Sery’s warmth as she settled next to him was the same as ever, except for the slippery texture of her silken robe.
He focused on the texture as he began to talk, trying to distance himself from the memories.
“When I was fourteen, I decided I wanted to be a combat mage and began taking classes related to that specialization. Until then, I’d been studying generalized materials magic, my classmates fellow material mages. Combat magic, on the other hand, is dominated by energy mages, with a few life mages thrown in, so it was a completely different group of students.
“Tristane was in my class, a year older than me. Until I’d joined, he’d been the only four-star mage in the group, and he enjoyed the special attention it got from the teachers, the admiration or envy from the other students.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in getting special attention, but the combat applications of materials magic is a relatively unexplored area, so I ended up doing a lot of research and experimentation with our teachers. Our academy was associated with a higher learning institution, and I think the teachers were able to publish academic papers based on my progress. The more praise I got, the more resentful Tristane became.
“First, he tried to humiliate me in sparring. He was ahead of me in swordsmanship, but his main tactics in combat are to electrify his sword as well as distract people with light and sound, advantages that are easily nullified by materials magic. He beat me, but not humiliatingly so, and by the time I was sixteen, I started winning. People saw his behaviour and mocked him for how he was losing to an underclassman.
“After that, Tristane started attacking me socially. His family is much richer than mine, so he flaunted his wealth. He would treat everyone in the class to some exotic delicacy, except me, or invite everyone to his family’s holiday parties. I didn’t really care, and not a few of our classmates ignored the attempts to buy their favour.
“But then he began resorting to threats. His family controls some of the most important trade routes in Oslethia, ones that most estates rely on to stay supplied. Anyone who was friendly with me would see their family’s shipments get delayed or damaged. I’m not sure if he was able to actually carry out those threats, but people began to keep their distance. It might not have worked if I’d been more popular, but I was pretty reserved and quiet, my manners stiff and outdated by modern standards.
“It was pretty lonely, but I was okay. I’d graduate at eighteen and be able to avoid him. Though people didn’t go out of their way to connect with me outside of class, they were still reasonably nice, and my teachers were still enthusiastic about helping me invent new combat techniques for my magic.
“When I was seventeen, I met Lavella.” Veltyen’s lip curled involuntarily at the name.
“She’d gotten her hat stuck in a tree, and I fetched it for her, and she made a big deal out of it. It made me feel… nice, I guess. She was new to the academy and not in combat classes, so she didn’t know that she wasn’t supposed to be nice to me. I didn’t want Tristane to make any trouble for her family, so I kept our meetings a secret. It was… exciting.
“I brought her little gifts I’d made with materials magic. In hindsight, I should have noticed how much she loved things, the more unique, rare, or valuable, the better.
“I didn’t, though. I was happy. I thought I was in love. We were lovers. I thought about how I’d ask for her hand in marriage after I was established as a mage. I would have done anything for her.”
Veltyen did not know how to interpret Sery’s falling magic emittance, so he simply continued. She deserved to know.
“Ten months later, and it was graduation for Tristane and his cohort. I was glad to see the last of him. I attended the farewell dinner, intending to show my affection towards Lavella publicly for the first time.
“To this day, I still don’t know how long Tristane had known about our relationship, or how long it had been since he’d lured her away. All I know is that I’d kissed her goodnight the night before, and that night, she was on his arm, wearing an enormous emerald necklace. He looked me straight in the eye before he kissed her, and she just went along with it.”
Sery stirred, concern in her wide blue eyes. He forced a chuckle.
“And that was that. Honestly, in hindsight, he did me a favour. After he left, I stopped avoiding her in public and I could see how cruelly she treated people who were poorer than her, especially girls who couldn’t afford all the latest fashions. I’m mostly appalled by my poor judgement.
“Tristane, though, I have this irrational fear that he’s going to take away everything I value every time I see him. Having him near you…” His hand clenched.
Sery absorbed the story in silence. She wanted to take that sad look out of Veltyen’s eyes, but she did not know what to say.
She settled for a hug. Kneeling on the couch, she slid her arms over Veltyen’s shoulders and leaned in until she was flush against his body.
Her knees slipped against the silk of her mage-robe and she fell forward, knocking Veltyen sideways until he was almost lying flat along the couch.
Sery looked down at Veltyen’s face, surprised by the sudden change in position.
“Sery.” Veltyen’s voice was full of wry humour and something else that caused her cheeks to flush. She nodded.
“Why don’t you go take off that dress – I mean, change out of that dress. Into something else,” he clarified.
Sery nodded again. Carefully extracting herself out of the tangle of limbs, she went to her room.
“Damn red dress,” she thought she heard muttered.