Eterna’s dining hall at early lunch was its busiest time, with more than half the seats occupied. It was even noisier than the crowd would imply, due to the fact that this was the time that Eterna’s students and apprentices came to eat before afternoon lessons.
Veltyen did not need to call the youths over to introduce to Sery; they gathered and swarmed as soon as they saw the new face. Ages ranging from six to seventeen, there were about a dozen in total.
Veltyen felt Sery shrink back at the noisy crowd. Ignoring their questions and comments, he stepped forward and held out an arm to make them move back. “Calm down, everyone. You’ve seen new faces before.”
“Who is she, Veltyen?” The impertinent question came from twelve-year-old Jayme.
“Everyone, this is Sery,” Veltyen began. Before he could continue—
“Is she your apprentice?”
“She doesn’t look like a fighter.”
“Why is she starting so old?”
The babble of voices made the crowd seem a lot bigger than it was.
An ear-splitting whistle rent the air, causing everyone in the dining hall to wince. “Everyone, shut up.” Both whistle and order came from seventeen-year-old Galen, the oldest of the group. A three-star dimensional mage, he was expected to join Eterna formally after his birthday in a few months.
“Thank you, Galen,” said Veltyen dryly. The young man gave him a cool nod. Ah, the bravado of youth.
He returned to his introduction. “This is Sery. She has joined Eterna as a full member. Her magic is a bit unusual, and you may not have heard of it; she’s a Source. You may want to ask your teachers about it during lessons this afternoon. Now, everyone, come introduce yourselves and then go back to your seats.”
A haphazard line formed. The youngest children determinedly wriggled their way into the front. Sery glanced back uncertainly at him, but appeared reassured when he smiled at her.
A tug on his hand drew Veltyen’s attention downwards. Little six-year-old Leena had made her way over to him rather than Sery. He bent down to speak with her.
“Is she a princess?” Leena asked in a hushed whisper.
Veltyen stifled a smile. “No,” he whispered back. “What makes you think so?”
“She’s dressed like a princess.”
Veltyen ruffled her hair affectionately. The daughter of two non-mage tailors, Leena would be given lessons for a year or two to control her weak mage gift before following her parents into the clothing business. Trust her to notice that the fashions Evodie had chosen for Sery would not look out of place on mage-gifted nobility.
“She’s not a princess,” he repeated in a whisper. “Go say hello.” Leena scampered off. The reverent way in which she introduced herself made it clear she was still convinced of Sery’s royal status. He smiled in amusement.
Most people were born with a touch of magic; it was as rare to be a true null as it was to be a five-star mage. Most of the merchants and nobles sent their children for magical tutoring, even those who rated less than one star. A year or two of lessons was enough to keep their small gifts under control and to allow them to use minor spells in their everyday lives.
Of the one- and two- star mages, approximately half chose to make a living through their magic. Those who did not underwent approximately five years of part-time training to control their gifts and use them in the service of their otherwise non-magical careers.
Of the apprentices, three were three-star mages who had continued their training into young adulthood.
Sery blinked in surprise at seeing double. In front of her were a pair of identical twins. Silver-streaked brown hair that one wore in a ponytail and the other loose to her shoulders. Their clothes were of similar style, though one wore green and the other yellow. The most striking similarity was the kind expression in their brown eyes.
“Hi,” said the one in a green dress and ponytail. “I’m Marielle, and this is Tasielle. People have trouble telling us apart, so don’t worry if you call us by the wrong names. I specialize in cold magic, and Tasielle in heat magic.”
“Hello. I’m Sery.” Sery reached out and carefully shook hands with Marielle, then Tasielle.
“How old are you, may I ask?” This from Tasielle. “It looks like we’re about the same age.”
“Sixteen,” Sery answered.
The twins smiled. “We turn sixteen next month,” said Marielle.
Tasielle glanced at the clock on the wall, then made an apologetic expression. “Sorry to hurry, but we have to be on the other side of town in a quarter hour.”
“Welcome to Eterna, Sery! Let us know if you’d like a tour of town or anything!” Marielle chimed in. The twins left the dining hall at a trot.
Sery turned to watch them leave. She felt a small smile on her face as her shoulders unknotted. The large group of children had overwhelmed her with their boisterous energy but… she felt welcome here.
A polite cough behind her. Sery flushed and turned instantly; she had forgotten that there was a last person to greet. It was the young man who had whistled so loudly earlier.
He did not appear upset with her inattention and offered a hand with a friendly smile. “I’m Galen Steader.”
Sery carefully reached out to shake hands once more. She absorbed details of appearance: significant streaks of silver in short, black hair, hazel eyes, athletic build. Galen wore clothing rather similar to hers, modified for his taller, stronger frame. His tanned skin was much darker than her own.
“I haven’t eaten yet. Care to join me?” he invited.
Sery looked over at Veltyen, unsure what to do.
He smiled. “Go ahead,” he urged gently. “I’ll go sit with Kiera.” He walked toward the table where the other sword-mage was eating.
With a wistful glance after Veltyen, Sery obediently followed Galen to a different table. Food arrived. Sery could not recognize the dish or all of its contents, but it was delicious.
“It’s really good, isn’t it?”
Sery glanced at Galen, then away, and nodded.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know what magic was, or even really believe in it. It wasn’t until my first meal in the dining hall that I was convinced.” Galen’s smile invited Sery to join in the amusement at his younger self.
Sery slowly relaxed into Galen’s comfortable conversation. The young man had an easy presence about him that accepted her shyness while coaxing her into venturing a few words of her own. She learned that he had started training at the age of five and was a dimensional mage specializing in weather prediction.
“…So do you know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow?” Sery asked timidly.
Galen’s laugh was heartfelt and good-natured. “Sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you. We – my master and I – are currently working on a set of predictions for the season over the farmlands in Yveen Province, to the east, so I know the weather over there in three months better than I do for tomorrow, right outside my window.”
“Earth to Veltyen, Earth to Veltyen.”
“Hmm? Oh, apologies.” Veltyen tore his attention away from Sery and Galen’s animated conversation and focused on Kiera, whom he had been ignoring for several minutes. The last he saw of Sery was her showing Galen the silver guild mark on her wrist.
His table-mate looked justifiably annoyed. “Just let the kids entertain each other.”
Veltyen started to agree but… something about the way Kiera had said “kids” sounded derogatory. He looked more closely at her face, reminded of her strange behaviour this morning.
He decided to disagree with her in order to see her reaction. “Galen and Sery are close to becoming legal adults,” he said mildly.
“Whatever.” Kiera dismissed his words with a flap of her hand. Her body language looked defensive.
“You’re acting strangely.”
“What? No, I’m not.”
“You’re not a very good liar.”
“Yes, I – Wait, no—” Kiera narrowed her eyes. “You’re trying to trick me.”
“You’re tricking yourself. Just tell me what’s going on.”
Whatever Kiera was going to say was interrupted by a soft voice. “Veltyen?”
It was the first time Sery had said his name. He turned to see Sery and Galen.
His voice gentled as it always did around Sery. “Yes, what is it?” Seated, his eyes were level with Sery’s standing height.
“… Galen invited me to go look at his master’s workshop.” It was phrased as a statement but sounded like a question.
“Yes, of course, if you want to go. Do you want me to come pick you up later?”
Galen spoke. “That won’t be necessary, sir. I can walk her back here afterwards.”
Veltyen took a moment to choke back the urge to be overprotective. Eterna was a very safe town. Sery would be fine. “See you two later, then. Have fun.”
Sery hesitated, then reached out. A burst of magic in the air as Veltyen wrapped her in a gentle hug. “Bye,” she said, her smile less shy than the day before.
Pride was a gentle ache in his chest as he watched Sery leave.
By the time he looked back, Kiera had already escaped the dining hall.
“So what’s with you and Veltyen? Family friends?” Galen casually asked the question as they walked towards his master’s workshop.
Sery shook her head, hesitating. She did not know how to describe her relationship with Veltyen.
“Are you two betrothed or something?”
Sery’s eyes widened and she shook her head vigorously.
Galen chuckled at her reaction. “It’s just that you two seem really close,” he explained.
“…He takes care of me,” Sery finally said. It was inadequate to describe Veltyen’s extraordinary kindness, but it would do.
“Glad to hear he’s not a rival.”
Sery frowned in puzzlement. “Rival for what?”
Galen winked at her before changing the subject.
Master Brovan Jenkall’s workshop was a strange and wonderful place. Strange devices measured and recorded the weather. Mana crystals flashed in complex arrays. Most of all, loose sheets of paper were everywhere, some with neatly recorded tables and others with complex calculations.
Master Jenkall was a thin, bespectacled man of average height. In his fifties, his hair was a mix of natural grey and mage silver. It was clear he loved his work. After being introduced to Sery, he gave her an enthusiastic tour and explanation of weather prediction.
“Weather systems follow patterns,” he explained. “In Oslethia, the prevailing winds run from northwest to southeast, so the weather now in Ukken province can tell us a lot about what’s going to happen over in Yveen a few days later. Using a system of measuring devices placed throughout the country, mathematical modelling, and a few time-spells to check our predictions, we’re able to provide accurate predictions to all of Oslethia four months in advance,” he said proudly.
Sery nodded, impressed. She did not know about all the places he referred to or the complex mathematics he spoke of, but no matter how it was done, knowing the weather four months ahead was amazing.
While Sery spoke with Master Jenkall, Galen had begun to read the numbers displayed on the mana crystal arrays and transcribe them neatly on paper. Noticing Sery’s gaze, he quirked his lips. “It’s not all fun and magic. We spend most of our time with numbers and paper.”
“…Want some help?” Sery offered hesitantly. The number transcription looked simple enough that Sery could do it.
“Oh, no dear, you’re a guest,” Master Jenkall interrupted. “Device recordings are what apprentices are for.” The last was said as an affectionate gibe to Galen.
“You need me, old man,” Galen retorted just as affectionately. “With your fifty-seven day forecasts, you’d only be able to predict three months ahead.”
“Someone’s getting uppity after being able to reach seventy days
. After a full two-week vacation, may I add.” At Sery’s confused look, Master Jenkall explained, “The distance we can see into the future with a forecast spell is limited by our mana stores. Of course, we have to balance mana cost between frequent forecasts and seeing far into the future.”
“Sery’s a Source, you know,” said Galen. “We could probably hire her and do predictions a whole year ahead.”
Master Jenkall’s eyes briefly lit with delight before he visibly reined himself in. He sighed. “There’s no way I could get the extra cost approved by the agricultural minister.” To Sery, he confided, “Farmers really only want to know the earliest day they can plant and the last day they can harvest. Four months is more than they need.” His eyes brightened. “However, if there are any major storms or tornados, we could definitely use your help to pinpoint them.” He grabbed a blank sheet of paper and began writing. Sery saw the words ‘grant’ and ‘emergency funds’ along with ‘Source’.
Galen patted the workbench beside him, and Sery sat down. “He won’t notice us again for an hour or so,” Galen said with fond exasperation. He handed her a blank sheet of paper and gestured at the mana crystal array next to his. “You can help me transcribe, if you want. Just copy the numbers in the same order as they’re displayed.”
Sery picked up a quill and followed Galen’s instructions, writing numbers neatly and carefully on the page. The time passed in companionable silence. Sery found the task relaxing, simple and repetitive enough that she was able to stop thinking and just exist in the moment.
Before she knew it, the afternoon was gone and the day’s work done. Galen walked her back to the guild hall. “Boring, huh?” he asked, referring to his work.
Sery shook her head.
Galen waited half a beat too long, expecting her to say something, but recovered nicely from the awkwardness. “I’ll have to invite you along another day, then. Maybe when we’re actually doing forecast spells.”
Sery nodded, then forced herself to add words. “Sounds interesting.”
Galen’s expression was proud. “It’s not the flashiest job in the world, but it’s one of the most important. We prevent farmers from having ruined crops and Oslethia from going into famine.”
Sery nodded seriously, in total agreement.
They arrived at the guild’s main doors.
“See you around, Sery. Welcome to Eterna.”
With a casual wave, Galen walked back into town.
Sery pushed open the door and entered the guild hall.
A distracted greeting to Foria at the front desk, and then Sery was hurrying down the hall. A sixth sense told her where Veltyen was. Turning left, she headed up the stairs and opened a door on the second floor. Floor-to-ceiling shelves greeted her, filled with books of every kind. Padding steadily past the library stacks, she found Veltyen seated comfortably in a reading nook.
He looked up and smiled. “Hi, Sery. How was your afternoon?” He patted the reading chair, which was large enough that she could squeeze in beside him.
She sat down and answered, “Interesting. Weather is complicated.”
He laughed. She smiled and relaxed, telling him about her day. She remembered the exact details very well and was unpracticed at editing to shorten her stories, so it took a long time, but he listened with patience and interest.
He laughed when she told him that Galen thought them betrothed, then raised an eyebrow at the mention of rivals. “That boy doesn’t waste any time, does he?”
Sery tilted her head in confusion.
Veltyen grinned. “It’s up to him to explain it to you. What happened after that?”
Sery continued her story.
“I’m leaving for a job tomorrow morning,” Veltyen said after dinner.
Sery nodded, unhappy but unsurprised. She remembered him accepting the job as vividly as every other detail she had memorized about him.
“Hey.” He chucked her gently under the chin. “Cheer up. It’s only for ten days or so.”
Sery nodded again. “When are you leaving?”
“Dawn. You don’t have to see me off.”
Sery replied with nothing but a determined look.
Veltyen walked into Eterna’s stables in the grey of predawn to find Magewhisper already in his stall. “Hey buddy—”
Magewhisper sharply jerked his head sideways and whuffled, the equine equivalent of a shush before lowering his head into the stall, out of sight.
Veltyen peered in to find Sery curled up in the corner, sound asleep. Magewhisper adjusted the horse blanket that covered her.
“How long has she been there?”
The stallion tapped his hoof on the ground three times.
A negative head shake.
With fond exasperation, Veltyen bent down and scooped Sery up. She stirred.
“Mm?” Sery answered while still blinking sleep away.
“Did you really have to get up two hours before predawn and come down to the stables?”
She did not answer, managing to look sleepy and stubborn at the same time.
In a firm voice, he said, “Say goodbye to Magewhisper, and then I’m taking you back to bed.”
“Bye, Magewhisper,” she repeated obediently.
Magewhisper touched his nose to Sery’s in affection.
Veltyen carried Sery back to her room in the guild hall and placed her back in bed. “Get some real sleep.”
Her arms tightened around his neck in a hug before she let him put her down. “Bye, Veltyen. Come back quickly.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “I will. Go to sleep.”
Her eyes drifted shut.
Still shaking his head at Sery’s antics, Veltyen saddled Magewhisper and rode out. Passing the town boundaries, Magewhisper settled into a steady gallop he could sustain for a day with sufficient magic.