Sery immediately felt at home in Veltyen’s apartment. The simply-decorated rooms seemed to echo his personality. The furniture was made of gleaming dark wood, lightened by deep blue and silver cushions. Comfortable carpets covered the floor. Large windows allowed sunlight in, and several mirrors made the large space feel even roomier. Most of all, the air smelled faintly of his personal scent, clean and comforting.
Sery sat neatly on the couch in the living room where Veltyen had invited her to sit before going into the kitchen to make tea. Her hands were folded in her lap, her posture so straight that her back did not lean against the couch.
Veltyen returned from the kitchen, placing a tray on the low table in front of the couch while sitting down next to Sery. His large, calloused hands deftly managed a delicate porcelain teapot as he poured steaming liquid into a set of matching cups. Blue flowers with silver stems spread delicately across the ceramic surfaces.
After Veltyen invited her to take a teacup with a tilt of his head, Sery closed her hands around one. She quickly released it as the handle-less cup scalded her fingers. She glanced over at Veltyen; he seemed to have no trouble with the temperature of his own teacup, holding it easily in one hand. Waiting for her tea to cool, Sery took a cookie from the plate on the tray and ate it in small bites.
Veltyen leaned back against the couch with a small sigh of relaxation, his pose much more casual than Sery’s. “It’s good to be home,” he said; Sery was not sure whether he was talking to her or to himself. His eyes closed for several seconds, as if he might fall asleep.
Sery quietly finished her cookie, trying not to disturb Veltyen if indeed he was resting. Touching a finger to her teacup, she found it still too hot and took another cookie off the plate.
Veltyen opened his eyes and turned his head to look at Sery without sitting straighter. “So, what do you think?” he asked.
Sery tilted her head confusedly. “About what?”
“About this apartment.”
The words to describe how comfortable and right it felt to be sitting where she was… They were beyond Sery’s reach. “I like it,” she said instead.
Veltyen smiled. “Then how would you like to live in a place just like it?”
Sery’s brow knitted in thought. Even an identically furnished apartment would be lacking if it were not near Veltyen.
“What are you thinking so hard about?” Veltyen asked, genuine curiosity and a hint of teasing in his tone.
“What you meant by ‘just like it’,” Sery answered.
“Well, the apartment across from mine is for sale, and has the same layout as this one, so if you like it, I could purchase…” Veltyen trailed off. Sery’s eyes had gone enormously wide. “What is it?”
“Y-you can’t buy an apartment just for me,” said Sery, voice shaky. If there was anything a farmer’s daughter knew down to her bones, it was the value and cost of property.
“Well, you can’t live at the guild hall forever, so you need an apartment, whether it’s this one or one somewhere else,” Veltyen said in a matter-of-fact voice. It was then that Sery realized that he had intended to purchase an apartment for her all along.
“I, I…” Sery did not know what to do. She had wanted to come to Eterna to help Veltyen, not become a huge financial burden.
“Hey.” Veltyen reached over and snagged a visibly distressed Sery around the waist, pulling her close until her head rested against his shoulder. “You really don’t have to worry about it. Money isn’t an issue for me.”
Veltyen’s last name was Indei, the –ei suffix indicating that he descended from a noble bloodline, like about half of his mage colleagues. His father was a minor titleholder, unimportant in Oslethian politics and steward of a small farming estate that produced grain and fruit. His elder brother would inherit estate and title, but Veltyen had been given the finest magical education money could buy, as well as the funds to live comfortably in the town of the guild he had chosen to join.
Veltyen’s income as a four-star mage was several times larger than his expenses. He liked to live simply; expensive foods and wines, gaudy clothing, decorative gems, none of these things held any interest for him. Once he had saved up a nest egg considered very healthy even by the most conservative standard, the extra money went into indulging his hobby of collecting magical weapons.
It was an expensive hobby indeed. Each one of the items in his collection was worth more than the apartment he lived in, and he usually accumulated only one every year. The weapons were a mere indulgence and not a legitimate work expense; as his personal magic could make a low-quality sword as hard and sharp as a fabled adamantine blade, he did not need even one enchanted weapon, let alone the five currently in his possession.
Dipping into his savings allocated towards the commission of his next collectible to buy Sery an apartment was no hardship at all.
Sery appeared deep in thought, and Veltyen relaxed into the resulting silence. Normally, he enjoyed both being alone and having personal space, but somehow it felt utterly natural to have Sery tucked against him. Absently, he toyed with the ends of her long, silver hair.
“I’ll pay you back.” Sery’s quiet words came several minutes later.
“Mm?” Veltyen made a questioning noise, having lost the thread of conversation.
“For the apartment.”
“If you want,” Veltyen agreed. If Sery wanted to buy the apartment with her own earnings, he understood. “You’re probably going to be richer than me soon,” he commented. His tone was teasing, but there was truth in his words.
Sery sat up straighter to look him in the face. She looked unsure whether to believe him. Veltyen saw that it was time to discuss the value of Sery’s magic, as he had promised Evodie he would.
Veltyen gently maneuvered them both until they sat upright. “Sery, I don’t think you understand the value or the power of what you can do.”
Sery’s eyes were solemnly wide as she captured his words in her memory.
“The cost of a job commissioned with a mage guild depends on several factors, such as the rarity or skill level of the magic required, the length of time of the job, and possible dangers involved. However, in general, the biggest factor in calculating mage fees is the amount of magic consumed.
“You have more magic than anyone I’ve ever heard of, let alone met. In addition, you can replenish others’ magic instantly, when they would normally require weeks or months of inactivity after a job. I could easily set you up as an assistant to any number of craft mages who would climb over each other to have you, and give you half of the commission of the dozens of extra jobs they’d be able to do.”
Now Sery had gone back to looking like she did not quite believe him. He smiled. “You’ll see,” he promised.
The couch felt supremely comfortable, but Veltyen got himself to his feet. “Let’s go see the building manager,” he said, holding out a hand to help Sery stand. They made their way down the stairs to a small office on the main floor.
Veltyen knocked on the door and entered after an invitation was called, drawing Sery along behind him.
The building manager, Mrs. Danaan, was a brisk, middle-aged woman with the reddish-brown skin that indicated she hailed from the Cinnamon Islands, far to the south of the Seven Kingdoms. She was delighted to have Veltyen purchase the other apartment on the fourth floor.
“It was hard finding anyone willing to walk up four flights of stairs,” she confided. “I was afraid that I’d have to commission Eterna to build a lift before I could get it sold.”
It was almost too easy for Veltyen to obtain the apartment. Because he was already a tenant in the building, Mrs. Danaan did away with the required references and some of the paperwork. Using the office’s communication crystal, he contacted Foria and had her transfer funds from his bank account to the seller, and he was the new owner of apartment 7.
“Now, Sery here is the one who will be living in 7?” asked Mrs. Danaan.
“Yes,” said Veltyen.
“I’ll just need her to sign a tenant’s agreement.” Mrs. Danaan laid a short contract in front of Sery. “It’s basically a short set of rules we have to ensure that everybody gets along,” she explained. “No destruction of property, no loud noises during normal sleeping hours, proper disposal of garbage, that sort of thing.”
Sery carefully examined the document for several seconds before printing her name neatly at the bottom. Veltyen felt a pang as he imagined her eight-year-old self practicing diligently to form letters, her writing at the stage of losing the wobbliness of childhood, but not having gained the messiness of adulthood.
“I’ll take you up and program you into the door crystal,” said Mrs. Danaan. Leading the way upstairs, she pulled a small crystal from a chain around her neck and pressed it to the door panel of apartment 7 until it glowed green. “Now, press your hand against it,” she said to Sery.
When Sery obeyed, the glow flashed brighter for a moment before disappearing, and the door unlocked.
“There you go,” said Mrs. Danaan.
Sery pulled Veltyen’s hand towards the door.
“Would you like to give Veltyen access as well?” asked Mrs. Danaan, raising an eyebrow.
Veltyen silently agreed that it would be rather improper for a man to be able to enter Sery’s apartment at will, even if he did own it. However, Sery was quietly insistent, so he humoured her, pressing his palm to the door panel after Mrs. Danaan again activated the keying sequence. After all, just because he could enter freely did not mean he could not knock first.
“You might as well program my door to let Sery in as well,” said Veltyen.
Task done, Mrs. Danaan returned to her office while Veltyen and Sery examined the new apartment.
Its layout mirrored the one across the hall, but apartment 7 lacked all decoration and furnishing. Veltyen looked at the bare floors and walls, then checked the position of the sun through the window. It was midafternoon. There was plenty of time to purchase a few items before the shops closed.
“Let’s get started,” he said to Sery. He led the way outside and into town.
Sery had never seen
kind of magic before. Veltyen led the way through the orderly streets of Eterna, stopping at a variety of stores. All of the shop-keepers seemed to know Veltyen by name, and were very courteous and accommodating. Veltyen either purchased ready-made items, or placed rush orders on things that still needed to be crafted. In one afternoon, he had efficiently arranged for everything an apartment could possibly need.
Two of the ready-made pieces Veltyen purchased were a heavy wooden desk and a tall bookshelf. Veltyen accepted the master carpenter’s offer to have the furniture delivered to the apartment by wagon, but declined the services of the two burly men who usually hefted it into its final place.
“Sery and I can manage,” Veltyen said, lifting one end of the desk.
Sery was dubious about her ability to support half the desk’s weight, but tried anyways. Expecting heavy resistance, she heaved up with all her strength, which caused the desk to fly up off the ground.
Sery was startled. Somehow, the desk weighed less than one of the luggage trunks Evodie had packed for her.
Veltyen looked amused. “Magic,” he explained. “I don’t specialize in weight properties, but I can do this much, at least temporarily.”
One of the deliverymen shook his head in amazement and amusement. “Mages,” he said. He and the other deliveryman deposited the bookshelf at the base of the stairs and drove away while Veltyen and Sery carried the desk to the fourth floor.
The very last store they visited was filled with paintings. Just before entering, Veltyen covered Sery’s eyes before guiding her through the door.
“If you could hide the price cards, please,” she heard Veltyen say.
“Certainly, Mr. Indei, right away.”
Sery heard footsteps and the rustling of paper for a few minutes before Veltyen uncovered her eyes.
“The rest of the decorations can wait,” he told her, “but you should have at least one piece of art to make a place your own. Now, go choose your favourite.”
Hesitantly, Sery looked at the paintings. Some were small enough to fit in a locket, others took up an entire wall. She saw oil paintings, watercolours, abstract art, portraits, landscapes… It was bewildering. Sery wandered through the store, wondering what she should pick. Maybe something small…
One particular painting made her stop in her tracks.
It was a medium-sized oil painting, so realistic that Sery felt like she could walk straight into it. An overcast sky, an endless grassy plain. In the centre, a mage-bred horse mid-gallop, all four legs in the air as every muscle strained forward for even more speed. A gap in the clouds allowed a single beam of sunlight through, turning the horse’s coat into silver fire.
“Ah, Master Sorenson’s latest work. The young miss has an excellent eye,” said the art dealer.
“Is that the one you want?” asked Veltyen.
Sery felt torn. She was certain that such a beautiful painting had to be incredibly expensive. Uncertainly, she looked up at Veltyen.
He smiled. “We’ll take it,” he said to the art dealer.
In a few minutes, the painting was wrapped in canvas and ready to go to its new home.
Veltyen hung Sery’s painting in the middle of the living room’s largest wall, admiring the art she had chosen. Master Sorenson was a renowned artist throughout the Seven Kingdoms, and a minor materials mage who used magic to alter his pigments in order to achieve perfect realism in his paintings. He was known for his ability to capture the beauty of nature, but Veltyen felt the artist had outdone himself with this piece.
It was well worth the asking price.
Though now magnificently decorated, Sery’s apartment was still bare of many of the larger pieces of furniture, including the bed. It would take at least a week of the carpenters working overtime to finish the pieces he had ordered.
“I wanted to get you settled in before I had to leave for my job, but it looks like you’ll have to stay in the guild hall until I get back,” he said apologetically.
“That’s okay,” came Sery’s soft voice. She still seemed half-entranced by the painting.
Veltyen put his arm around Sery’s shoulders, causing her to look up at him. “Come on. We can have dinner at the guild hall, then get you settled in for the night.”
Evening passed comfortably and easily. After dinner, which was free of incident, Veltyen passed Sery into Foria’s care and carried Sery’s trunks into her temporary room.
“See you tomorrow morning,” he said to Sery and Foria.
“Good night!” said Foria cheerfully.
“Good night,” Sery repeated in a more subdued fashion.
Veltyen walked home alone, feeling a strange sense of absence. It had been less than two full days that Sery had entered his life, but he had already become accustomed to the elevated levels of ambient magic she produced. The air felt less alive.
Veltyen gave himself a mental shake. He would be fine until morning, and so would Sery. Still, as he pressed his hand against the door panel of his apartment, he wished Sery was settled in, right across the hall. He smiled as he entered and saw an empty plate of cookies next to an untouched cup of tea.