Sery woke up naturally at dawn. Still lying in bed, she examined the guest bedroom Foria had assigned her the night before. The walls were beige, the curtains and bedspread deep green. She stroked the fine texture of her blanket. The sensation reassured her that her current reality was not a dream.
The faint sound of metal striking metal caught her attention. Sery slipped out of bed and opened the window, causing the sound to grow louder. Directly in front and below her were the horse paddocks; nothing was causing the sound there. She stuck her head out the window and looked left. There was the source of the noise: two figures fighting with swords.
At this distance, Sery could not make out any facial features, but she was certain the taller one was Veltyen. Was the other Kiera? Veltyen had said that they practiced together.
Sery started to hurry downstairs, only to reverse direction when she remembered she needed to change out of her nightgown. She was not used to having several sets of clothing, but she had listened carefully to Evodie’s running commentary and memorized which garments were suitable for each occasion.
She carefully dug through the one trunk she had opened, its contents spilling over the edges now that Evodie’s compression magic was undone. There were several pieces that Evodie had said were for “everyday wear”; she chose a dark green mage robe and brown pants, hoping that she had matched them correctly. The nightgown she folded neatly and put away as best she could, given that the trunk was already over capacity.
The clashing of swords continued unabated, letting Sery know Veltyen was still outside. She quietly went downstairs and slipped out of the guild hall, using a side door instead of the grand front entrance.
Her instincts had been right; Veltyen and Kiera faced each other in a fenced-off area of packed dirt adjacent to the horse paddocks. Their expressions and body language were focused but not grim, letting Sery know that they were practicing and not fighting in earnest. Staying still and quiet, Sery watched, staying far enough back to avoid attracting attention.
The warriors moved and exchanged blows. Veltyen moved with the grace and speed Sery had seen at Dreible’s tower, but appeared to be losing. Kiera danced in and out of range, occasionally moving with blurring speed in a way that had to be magic, striking several blows for each one she avoided.
Acceleration magic. Sery could see that it gave Kiera a great advantage in combat.
Yet, as she continued observing, she saw that Veltyen was holding his own. He was not actually trying to block or avoid Kiera’s blows, concentrating on counterattacks whenever she was in range. His leather armour gave off a strange dull thunk when it was hit, and he showed no sign of discomfort from any of Kiera’s blows.
Almost an hour later, Veltyen and Kiera were both breathing hard and sweating. “Let’s go eat breakfast,” Veltyen suggested, lowering his sword.
“Yeah,” Kiera agreed. Gathering a pile of belongings, she walked into a small shed next to the practice arena. “Be out in fifteen minutes,” she called behind her. The door swung shut.
Veltyen turned his head and smiled at Sery. She startled. Had he known she was there the whole time? She took hesitant steps forward until they were within speaking distance.
“Good morning, Sery.” Veltyen’s voice and body language were slightly more relaxed than usual. She guessed it was due to the intense exertion he had just finished.
“Good morning,” she answered.
“You don’t have to hide, you know.”
Minimizing her presence had become such a deeply engrained habit that Sery had not noticed it as unusual behaviour until Veltyen pointed it out. “…I didn’t want to be a bother,” she finally answered.
“You’re not a bother.” Veltyen reached out a large, graceful hand to pull her towards him, only to pause and grimace. “I’m all sweaty, sorry. Why don’t you head to the dining hall and let Maurio know Kiera and I will be there soon? I’ll shower and be out in five minutes.”
“Okay.” Sery hurried off as bidden, glancing back to see Veltyen disappear into the shed adjacent to the one Kiera had entered.
Early in the morning, the dining hall was almost deserted. Sery spotted Foria eating alone at the table closest to the kitchen.
Foria looked up from her plate and smiled. “Good morning, Sery. Why don’t you join me?”
Sery slipped into a seat.
“Did you go somewhere this morning?” Foria asked curiously. “I went upstairs to invite you to breakfast, but you were already gone.”
Sery felt startled, then remorseful, for causing Foria trouble. “Sorry… I went outside…”
“Oh, don’t worry about it.” Foria waved off Sery’s apology. “Did you go watch Veltyen and Kiera practice? It’s quite something, isn’t it?”
Sery nodded. “I’m supposed to tell Maurio they’re coming.”
“Maurio!” Foria called.
The chef popped his head out the door, nodded, then disappeared back into the kitchen.
“I know he’s a life-mage and there’s no way he could actually use a magic to keep track of the dining hall, but he always seems to know who’s coming and when,” Foria confided with a conspiratorial smile.
Sery did not know how to respond to the comment, so she just nodded.
A few minutes later, Maurio delivered a plate of delicious-smelling food to the table. “Go ahead and eat,” he said. “I’ll have another plate for you when Veltyen gets here.” Without waiting for a reply, he returned to his domain.
Foria eyed the plate, which was piled high with food. “Are you still going to be hungry after eating that?”
Sery shrugged, not sure of how to respond. “I… don’t really feel full,” she attempted to explain.
Sery shrugged again. She had never been given large amounts of food as a slave, so her only experience was the past two days.
After a moment of serious thought, Foria smiled. “Well, Maurio is going to take that as a challenge,” she joked, though her tone was half-serious.
Sery nodded while beginning to eat. As before, Maurio’s food seemed to burst with natural flavour. She savoured the taste without eating slowly.
Sery and Foria were joined by Veltyen, then Kiera a few minutes after, their hair still damp after showering. As promised, Maurio brought Sery a second helping along with the combat mages’ food.
“Good morning,” said Veltyen, sliding into the seat next to Sery’s. Kiera sat on his other side and echoed the greeting. They both dug into breakfast with enthusiasm.
Having finished her much smaller breakfast earlier, Foria sipped on her morning coffee and asked, “What’s everyone up to today?”
Kiera made a face. “Meditating. I have a job in two days, and my mana reserves aren’t quite where I want them to be.”
Kiera’s remark about her insufficient magic made Veltyen glance at Sery for a brief second. It was clear to Sery that he would not ask her to help his friend, but she offered anyway. “If you need magic…” she trailed off softly, holding a hand out to Kiera.
Kiera’s eyes seemed to look everywhere but at Sery. “Oh no, I couldn’t. Sery’s already helping you,” she said to Veltyen.
Veltyen raised an eyebrow at Kiera. The way she was avoiding talking to or looking at Sery was rude, and he did not understand the reason for her behaviour. “It’s up to her,” he said mildly.
Veltyen was not worried about Sery exhausting herself. Kiera was on the weak side for a three-star mage; if Sery was a five-star Source as he suspected, she could replenish literally hundreds of three-star mages before she felt a thing. He looked for a tactful way to explain this to Kiera. “Sery is probably ranked higher than I am, so giving you a boost probably won’t tire her out.”
Kiera shot a look at Sery, flushed a little, and said, “Okay, if you’re sure.” She held a hand out somewhat reluctantly, and Sery gently grasped it with both her own.
The entire process took less than a second. As Veltyen watched, Sery closed her eyes briefly and Kiera was suddenly flush with power. Looking flustered, Kiera withdrew her hand as fast as she could without flinching.
“Thanks,” Kiera said, making the briefest moment of eye contact with Sery.
Sery looked to be slightly intimidated at Kiera’s odd behaviour. “You’re welcome,” she murmured, eyes downcast.
Veltyen instinctively gave Sery a reassuring touch on the arm. He was rewarded with a bright smile and a surge in ambient magic that made Foria and Kiera’s eyes widen.
Foria cleared her throat and tried to return the conversation to normal matters. “What are you up to today, Veltyen?”
It was a good question. “I don’t know,” Veltyen admitted. Much of a mage’s time was devoted to meditating in order to help replenish
stores. With Sery around, it looked like he was going to need to pick up a new hobby or two.
“Take Sery to see the town,” Foria suggested. “It’s market day.”
Veltyen nodded in agreement. “Sure. Want to come?” he asked Kiera. Foria had to man the front desk, but Kiera no longer had to meditate.
“Oh no, you two go ahead. I, I have to pack for my trip.” Kiera hastily picked up her empty plate and dropped it off at the kitchen before escaping out the door.
“…Kiera is certainly acting oddly,” Veltyen remarked.
“Yeah. Since when does she pack two days before a trip?” Foria shook her head. “If she’s not back to normal by the time she gets back from the job, I’m going to have to do some meddling.”
Veltyen smiled warmly. Foria was the same age as him, but she looked after all of Eterna’s members like an eagle-eyed mother hen.
He turned his smile towards Sery. “I guess it’s just you and me today.”
“Have fun!” said Foria cheerfully.
Veltyen reached over to pick up his empty plate, but Sery beat him to it, stacking both his and Foria’s on top of her own and taking them to the kitchen with quiet, hurried steps.
Veltyen and Foria followed Sery’s steps at a slower pace on their way out of the dining hall.
“Is it just me, or are Sery’s mannerisms almost unbearably cute?” Foria asked in a murmur when Sery was out of earshot.
Veltyen gave a small huff of laughter. “I think so too,” he confided. “Magewhisper is absolutely besotted with her.”
“Not what you’d expect from a sixteen-year-old. At her age, I’d be expecting rebellious eye-rolls and melodrama.”
Foria’s tone was light, but Veltyen answered her seriously. “She’s been through a lot. Keep an eye on her for me when I’m not here.”
Foria’s expression sharpened at the hint of Sery’s unhappy past. She remained silent because Sery was closing the distance between them, holding a small bag in her hand.
Veltyen recognized the cloth bag as one Maurio used to hand out treats. “So
why you took our plates to the kitchen,” he teased. Looking at Foria, he said, “She wanted to hog all of the treats to herself.”
Sery’s eyes widened in a panic. “No!”
The steep drop in ambient magic told Veltyen that Sery had taken his thoughtless remark seriously. His gut clenched in guilt and remorse. “Sery, I was just joking…”
Foria swept Sery into a fierce hug before Veltyen could do anything else. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she murmured, stroking Sery’s hair in a soothing motion. “Veltyen was just being an idiot. We appreciate your thoughtfulness in taking our plates.”
After a long moment, Foria let go and stepped back. Sery looked calmer, but no happier, keeping her gaze near the ground. She pressed the bag of treats into Foria’s hands in a way that made it clear she wanted nothing to do with it.
Foria tucked the offending object into a pocket, out of sight. “Thank you, dear. Veltyen will buy you
the treats at the market today.” The web-mage fixed Veltyen with a threatening look that clearly told him to fix what he had broken.
Veltyen trailed behind as Foria steered Sery to the front entrance with an arm around Sery’s shoulders. He would gladly buy her a small mountain of treats at the market, but he did not think that would solve anything.
Sery silently berated herself as she walked through the town of Eterna with Veltyen and Magewhisper. After taking a moment to calm down, she realized how obvious it was that Veltyen had been teasing her, and now felt quite embarrassed about her overreaction.
She wanted nothing more than to put the incident behind them, but she had clearly ruined things by the way Veltyen no longer felt comfortable around her. His posture was always straight, but now it was stiff in a way that told her he was guarding himself, something he had not done before in her presence. He even kept Magewhisper between them.
Delicious scents and novel views abounded at the largest market Sery had ever seen, but she could not enjoy any of it.
Immersed in her negative thoughts, Sery paid no attention to her surroundings until Magewhisper beside her suddenly stopped walking. Looking up, she was startled when the stallion deposited a small, soft object onto her head.
Sery picked it up in her hands and looked: it was a stuffed horse toy, very finely made. Clearly supposed to represent a mage-bred horse, its coat was made of silver felt and its mane and tail of real silver horse hair.
Her gaze shifted from toy to Veltyen when he laughed. “So you want to buy that for Sery, huh?” he asked his equine partner.
Magewhisper nodded his head up and down.
“Is this coming from my income or yours?”
Magewhisper gave an annoyed whuff and poked Veltyen’s stomach with his nose.
Veltyen chuckled. “Just checking. Maybe you wanted it to be from you.”
As Veltyen turned to pay the stall merchant for the toy, Sery mustered up the courage to ask a question. It was only because Veltyen was again relaxed after laughing that she dared. “…Does Magewhisper have an income?” Sery found herself having to speak louder than usual to be heard above the noise of the market.
Veltyen glanced down at her with an easy expression and answered. “Oh yes, Magewhisper receives twenty percent of the payment I get for all guild jobs; it’s part of the contract we signed when he agreed to become my partner. His feed and stabling are costs for me to cover, while he sends his income back home to his breeding farm to help with the upkeep of his retired family and newborns. Of course, if he wants, he can spend the income on himself, but horses aren’t much for material possessions.”
Sery nodded in understanding. Magewhisper seemed to have a human level of rights to go with his human-level intelligence.
Purchase made, Veltyen continued walking down the market street. Sery followed happily along, relieved that he seemed to have forgotten his earlier tension.
Veltyen silently thanked his horse as they continued through the market. The gift of the toy horse had done the trick in freeing Sery from the shuttered unhappiness of before. She now looked around with that wide-eyed curiosity he was becoming accustomed to seeing.
The way Sery held the toy made him smile privately in his mind. She did not hug it overly tightly as a young child would, nor hold it carelessly like an adult. Rather, she held it like a precious, delicate object, hugging it gently and protectively against her body.
The next few hours were some of the most fun and relaxed Veltyen had experienced in years. As promised, Veltyen bought small mountains of treats, including a candied apple for Magewhisper. Sery was quietly curious about many of the items offered for sale in the market stall; it was clear, however, that her little horse was more precious to her than any gold trinket or magical gadget. It was not a full festival day, but there were still a few street performers. They spent some minutes watching a juggler keep an improbable number of objects in the air at once, followed by a man holding a philosophical conversation with what was clearly a mage-bred bird.
As the noonday sun approached, the day became rather uncomfortably hot, especially in the crowded marketplace. “Let’s head back,” he suggested.
Sery nodded readily, and they wound their way to the emptier streets leading to Eterna’s guild hall.
Veltyen noticed that Sery’s posture was slightly drooped compared to normal. “Are you tired?” he asked. Veltyen could easily stay on his feet all day, but Sery was not used to a lot of physical exertion.
Sery shook her head in a rather unconvincing denial.
Amused at her poor acting skills, Veltyen smiled and said, “You can sit on Magewhisper on the way back.” With his hands around her waist, Veltyen lifted Sery easily onto the stallion’s bare back. The mage robe she wore billowed out behind her, not designed for riding. Veltyen accommodated the clothing by sitting her sideways on Magewhisper, both legs on the same side. He kept a hand on her leg to prevent her falling off.
Veltyen and Sery bade goodbye to Magewhisper at the guild entrance. Sery gave the stallion a hug. “Thank you for the horsie,” she said softly, glancing at Veltyen to include him in the thanks.
Veltyen smiled and spoke for both of them. “We’re glad you like it.”
Magewhisper headed off to his stall for water and lunch, while Veltyen and Sery went inside for food and company of the human variety.