“Veltyen,” Foria called out, sounding unusually harried.
Veltyen stopped to let her catch up. “What is it?”
“We have a housing crisis,” she proclaimed.
“…That can’t be right. Only three mages have joined Eterna since the new year. Even if their entire extended families moved here, the town would be able to handle it.”
“That would be true if only them and their families were here. However, these are three highly successful craft-mages with entire workshops full of assistants, not to mention being regular purchasers of expensive materials who have caused several merchant caravans to divert their trade routes to stop in Eterna. No one is currently sleeping in the streets, but our hotels are full and our apartment blocks are uncomfortably crowded.”
“Surely Devlin and Ariela wouldn’t have let so many people join at once if we couldn’t accommodate them?” Veltyen asked.
“Actually, they’ve decided this is the perfect time for a couple of ambitious building projects. Which you’ve been volunteered to help with.”
“Me? But I’m only qualified for demolition, not construction.”
“You don’t need to construct anything, just keep things stable while the real builders get things in place. You can make things lighter, too, right?”
“Only if I’m touching them.”
Foria patted his shoulder. “I’m sure they’ll find a use for you at the construction site. It’s going to be eight storeys tall; Ariela and Devlin don’t want the town to sprawl outwards too much. If it goes well, they’re planning on adding a few floors on top of the guild hall.”
So it went that the next day, Veltyen was at the construction site a few minutes’ walk from the guild hall, stabilizing the ground made sodden by the melting slush in mid Thirdsmonth. He had plenty of experience in this particular magic to stabilize the ground directly beneath his feet, but extending the area of effect to include the entire construction site burned through his magic at quite an alarming rate.
Two hours later, Veltyen was preparing to call a break and find Sery to replenish his depleted enna when a rush of magic flowed into him out of nowhere. The unexpected wave of pleasure weakened his concentration and a few of the workers stumbled on ground that was suddenly soft and treacherous before he got his magic back under control.
“Sorry!” he called out. “Won’t happen again.”
As construction resumed, Veltyen pulled a flat rectangle of mage-crystal from his pocket, one of a pair of communication devices he had commissioned for Sery’s Longnight present. It had felt rather narcissistic to gift her the ability to call him at any time, but she had been so wordlessly happy that he had known he had chosen correctly.
Activating the crystal, he waited only a few seconds before Sery’s face appeared.
“Hi,” she said with a smile.
He could not help smiling back. “Hi, Sery. Where are you?”
“Did you learn how to sense how full someone’s enna is from a distance?”
“Only for you,” she answered softly.
“And sending magic from this distance?”
“Only for you,” she repeated.
He shook off the feeling of intimacy the words produced. “Does this have to do with all the ‘listening’ to my enna you’ve been doing?” he asked, trying to think logically about Sery’s evolving abilities.
“Any other new powers I should know about?”
“Not yet,” Sery answered, a hint of mischievousness entering her expression.
“Looking forward to hearing about them later. Try to call me before sending magic like that, okay? I don’t want to lose my concentration at the construction site and cause an accident.”
Sery’s eyes widened. “Sorry.” She looked genuinely repentant, but not crushed with remorse and self-criticism the way she would be at such a mistake a few months ago.
“It’s fine. Nobody got hurt,” he assured her.
“I’ll see you at lunch?”
Sery nodded again.
“See you,” he said.
They spent a moment staring at each other through the screen while a slow grin built on Veltyen’s face. “It appears neither of us wants to be the first to disconnect.”
Sery nodded, a hint of a playful smile at the corners of her lips.
He chuckled. Finding an out-of-the-way spot, he sat on the ground, heedless of the mud and slush, magic holding him dry and comfortable. “Why don’t you tell me about what you’re reading?” he invited.
He settled in to enjoy Sery’s smooth voice explaining one of the latest theories in mana particle formation.
“Sery!” a voice called from behind as Sery made her way to the dining hall half an hour before noon.
Sery paused and turned, seeing Galen catching up with long strides. He slowed to match her smaller steps as she continued forward. “How’s it going?”
“Good,” said Sery.
“Where’s Veltyen? I haven’t seen you alone in months.”
“At the construction site.” Veltyen had taken the entire winter off work and Sery had been enjoying all the time he spent with her, though she feared that with the warmer weather, he would again be gone more often not. She slid a hand into her pocket to reassure herself the communication crystal she always carried was still in place.
“Ah. Well, lucky me. Want to eat together?” he invited.
Sery shook her head. “Sorry. I’m taking food to the construction site for Veltyen and the workers.”
For a brief moment, Galen’s expression looked… frustrated…? before smoothing into his usual easy smile. “I’ll help you carry it. Food for that many people will be hard to haul that far.”
“…Okay.” Sery had been planning on using Veltyen’s levitating platform but supposed she would not need it with Galen carrying half.
Maurio was waiting in the kitchen with four large baskets packed. Galen insisted on taking three of them and Sery took the fourth before they headed off.
Veltyen smiled as he detected the rise in ambient magic that heralded Sery’s arrival. He looked up the road and was surprised to see Galen beside her, carrying the bulk of the food baskets.
Veltyen smiled and waved but hung back to allow the rest of the construction crew to get their lunches before walking up.
“Hi, Sery,” he said, automatically giving her a hug. “Hi, Galen. Did you already eat?”
Sery shook her head, retrieving a paper-wrapped sandwich from her basket to pass to him and handing another to Galen. She also pulled out a folded tarp.
“No need for that,” Veltyen assured her. “The ground won’t get you wet.”
Sery nodded and sat directly on the ground, trusting her fine mage-robe to his magic. She retrieved her own lunch from the basket.
Galen gingerly touched the ground with his hand and only when it came up dry did he take a seat. “How big of an area can you cover like this?” he asked, glancing around at the groups of workers likewise sitting on the ground.
“Depends on how much magic I want to burn,” said Veltyen. “This construction site would burn me out in an hour or two without Sery.” He leaned sideways to bump his shoulder against Sery’s and she smiled in response. “I should definitely learn a more efficient way to maintain this for longer periods of time if I end up doing this more often.”
Sery’s expression sharpened at his comment and she looked questioningly at him.
“I’ve been thinking of transitioning to work that require less travel away,” he admitted. “I’ve been doing some practice with permanent materials magic, but I’ll never be as proficient at that compared to a specialist. I was a bit stumped at what work would be suitable for temporary and semi-permanent materials magic, but this project has shown me many areas in the construction process where it would be quite helpful. If Eterna continues expanding the way it has been, I’ll even be able to work within town for the foreseeable future.”
Sery looked down to hide her expression, but he could feel the surge of ambient magic. Smiling, he stroked her hair affectionately.
“Really?” Galen asked. “Don’t you find staying still all day stifling? I thought that’s why you picked such an odd specialization for materials magic in the first place.”
The magic level plunged and Sery looked at Veltyen with wide, distressed eyes. “If… you should keep…”
Veltyen controlled his surge of annoyance at Galen and focused on Sery. Putting his hands on her shoulders, he made sure to speak the exact truth so she would not suspect him to be hiding things for the sake of her feelings. “Sery, it’s true that I tend to get restless if I have to sit in place all day, but one, that’s gotten a lot better since I’ve gotten older, and two, working on a construction site isn’t exactly a desk job. I’m not making some huge sacrifice; I’m adjusting my career to suit me better. Okay?”
Sery did not look completely convinced, but at least her expression had lost the guilty anxiety of before.
Veltyen sighed and started on the sandwich he was holding. His annoyance at Galen was mostly forgotten as the incredible taste of Maurio’s food hit his taste buds.
“So, what are you doing here, Galen?” he asked conversationally.
“I bumped into Sery on the way to lunch and offered to help her carry the baskets here. We haven’t had lunch together in a while.”
Veltyen nodded. The explanation sounded odd to him, somewhat too complete. After all, he was not a parent to whom Galen’s actions had to be accounted for.
After lunch, Sery went to gather the paper wrappers from the workers to be disposed of properly. Veltyen did the same in another direction. Surprisingly, Galen tagged along with Veltyen.
“Veltyen, I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“What is it?” Veltyen asked, holding out one of the empty baskets for people to drop their wrappers into.
“You’re Sery’s guardian, right?”
“Yes.” Veltyen did not elaborate on the complexities of his relationship with Sery.
“Do you disapprove of me or something? I feel like you’ve been keeping Sery away from me all winter. Is it because I’m not a noble?”
Veltyen turned at the utterly unexpected direction the conversation was going. “…I don’t disapprove of you. I certainly haven’t been actively trying to keep you away from Sery and I don’t care about bloodlines.”
Galen sighed in relief and ran a hand through his hair. “So… You’re okay with me dating her?”
The question hit Veltyen hard. “…I’m not going to try to influence Sery’s choice on this matter in either direction,” he finally said.
In contrast to the decidedly neutral answer, Galen was enthusiastic. “Thanks, Veltyen!” He clapped Veltyen on the shoulder. “I’m going to ask her to the spring fair.”
“I’m…” Veltyen trailed off and sighed. Galen had run off before Veltyen could explain that Sery was already going with him. Keeping an eye on Sery, he cringed in sympathy when Galen’s invitation was obviously turned down. He shrugged helplessly when Galen sent him a betrayed look, mouthing, ‘Sorry’.
Pride stung, Galen nonetheless put up a cheerful demeanour before saying he had to get back to work and bidding a hasty retreat. Veltyen came up beside Sery and helped her arrange the baskets.
“You can go to the fair with Galen if you want, you know,” he murmured. “Our plans can always change.”
Sery looked up to check his expression before relaxing. “I want to go with you,” she answered.
Veltyen did not know what to say. Galen was a solid, capable young man who was close to Sery in age, but Veltyen could not quite bring himself to encourage Sery to spend more time with the weather mage.
It was Sery’s choice, he reminded himself. Yes, his opinion still carried too much weight with her, but she had grown confident enough to express her own thoughts and desires, trusting that he would not be displeased if they differed from his own.
He helped Sery loop the baskets over her arms; even empty, they were bulky and rather hard to manage alone. “Why didn’t you grab Magewhisper’s platform device?” Veltyen asked. He had to stay on site to keep his ground-stabilizing magic active.
“I didn’t want Galen to feel too useless,” Sery confided with a humorous twinkle in her eye.
Veltyen laughed, giving her an affectionate hug before watching her walk down the road back to the guild. Sery could hold her own when it came to Galen.
His smile faded as she disappeared from view.
“You’re okay with me dating her?”
“Not really,” he muttered to himself.