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Time to meet the Mage-Mistress. It’s all right, she isn’t scary (much).
IT WASN’T THE first time Hawk had visited Mage-Mistress Evariste’s study, but it was not such a regular occurrence that the sight of an ice lion sprawled across the rug beneath the window didn’t make him pause. Pure white, richly furred, big and beautiful the creature was enough to stop anyone’s heart. And that was before she flexed her front claws or revealed her teeth in an insolent yawn. When Sidony squeaked the ice lion didn’t even open an eye, just lashed her thick tail and stayed where she was.
Ice lions were an unusual sight even in their native northern Tyllatt, and they rarely ventured as far south as Wrystan. It was even rarer to find one as a mage-beast. Lady Evariste was widely envied for her spectacular companion and the stunning Ariella fully enjoyed her status.
On Hawk’s shoulder, Cyrus gave a disgruntled ruffle of his feathers. From her perch on Mage Faron, the usually phlegmatic Ira did the same. Mage-beasts hated feeling inferior.
Seated behind the desk, to the left of the ice lion, Mage-Mistress Evariste looked up. Her features were smooth and cool, a reflection of the far north. Ice blue eyes showed no sign of dimming, though the white hair swept tidily up behind her head showed her age. Few age lines wrinkled her pale face and no number of years could diminish the proud beak of her nose. She was every bit as formidable as her lion.
Under the power of her stare, Sidony grabbed Hawk’s hand while Arien edged behind him, watchful and silent. Her eyes fixed on the three young mages, Lady Evariste opened a drawer in her desk and brought out a green leather-bound book.
“I see you were successful, Mage Faron. You suffered no problems?”
“None, my lady,” the mage-tutor replied. “They found me.”
“Ah.” Lady Evariste looked at Hawk. “You have returned to us, mage-page. This second year will demand more of your time. I trust you are ready for it.”
So much had happened since he’d left Royas Bay at the start of the summer that Hawk hadn’t even considered how this next year would go. Last year had been exhausting enough, splitting his time between his mage and page training. Yet worth it. His magic had grown, developed and deepened so much through the year that he couldn’t wait to learn more. If he had to give up sleeping in order to balance the two disciplines he would find a way to cope.
As if reading his thoughts the Mage-Mistress gave a thin smile and turned to Sidony. “Lady Sidony Roscoe of Summerford Lea, I presume.”
Sidony gulped and dipped a polite curtsey. “As you see, my lady.”
Lady Evariste studied her for a long moment and nodded. “Indeed I do.” She flipped open the green book and lifted a quill from her ink stand. “You are young, Lady Sidony, but I believe your parents have acted correctly. Most students allow their magic to settle in for a year or so before coming here. You,” she paused in her writing to pin Sidony with an icy stare, “will never settle. As you have already found out.” Her quill scratched as she looked down again.
Sidony glanced pleadingly at Faron, not knowing what was expected of her.
The mage smiled gently. “Despite her age, Lady Sidony is already showing excellent signs of control. Her power might have emerged in a most, er, explosive way, but since then she has shown no signs of danger.”
Mage-Mistress Evariste shot him a very dry look. “After an awakening like that, Faron, I would be surprised if she shows the slightest spark of magic for the next month. Then and only then will we be able to assess her control.”
Sidony withered beneath the frosty tone, but Mage Faron kept smiling, untouched by his superior’s scorn.
“Where is your mage-beast, Lady Sidony?” the Mage-Mistress asked.
When Sidony hesitated, Hawk untangled their hands and gave her a supportive but firm nudge. She shuffled reluctantly up to the desk, patting her clothes in search of her mage-beast.
“He’s called Cricket, my lady,” she babbled nervously, her tunic rippling as the shy but surprisingly determined Cricket evaded her attempts to bring him out. “He’s a wood mouse.”
The Mage-Mistress’ eyebrows rose sharply. “A wood mouse?” she questioned as Sidony slapped her hand across her ribs, trapping the unfortunate Cricket with a squeak. “A Rampant Roscoe with a mouse?”
Sidony stuck her hand under her tunic and pulled out the quivering Cricket. When the Mage-Mistress held out a commanding hand, Sidony ruthlessly dropped him straight into it. Despite his attempts to cling to his mage, gravity defeated him and he sat shaking in Lady Evariste’s palm looking smaller and more timid than ever.
“I do believe I’ve seen everything now,” the Mage-Mistress murmured. “Though a beast balances its mage as often as it complements.” She put Cricket gently on the desk. “You may return.”
The mouse waited for a few frightened heartbeats before dashing back to Sidony, flinging himself across the gap between desk and girl, scrambling up her tunic and diving down the neck of her shirt. It was the most activity Hawk had ever seen from the little creature. Then again, it was the first time he’d seen Cricket away from his mage. He raised a thoughtful hand and stroked a crooked finger down Cyrus’ bright chest.
The Mage-Mistress made a note in her book and turned her sharp attention to Arien. For once the boy didn’t drop his eyes but met that icy gaze with blank acceptance. Hawk could feel his tension, though, as if the boy was preparing himself for an attack or a blow.
Lady Evariste stared into Arien’s dark eyes for a long, long time. Eventually she sighed and glanced at Faron. “He’ll need help. Where’s Mara?”
“Last I heard, my lady, she was inspecting the defences along Tobrid Point.”
The Mage-Mistress nodded. “Then she isn’t far. Good. Sir Tobias, would it be possible to send someone in search of her?” It was a demand more than a request.
Tobias bowed. “I’ll see to it at once, my lady.”
“Not yet.” The Mage-Mistress held up a hand. “I have something else to discuss with you and chances are she’s already on her way. No doubt Lady Sidony will have sparked her incessant curiosity. You might not have to send anyone at all.”
Her icy eyes returned to Arien. “In the meantime let’s have a name, boy, and let me see that mage-beast of yours.”
Unlike Sidony, Arien showed no hesitation in walking up to the Mage-Mistress’ desk. “This is Rowan,” he said, voice surprisingly clear for one so rarely used, his faint accent already starting to fade. The pine marten around his neck sighed and slithered down his chest, landing in Arien’s hands and permitting himself to be passed across the desk like a weighty scarf. “And I am Azarien of Veshna, East Neystan.”
The ice lion sat up and two pairs of pale blue eyes narrowed on the boy. There was little surprise there, but a lot of curiosity.
“East Neystan?” Lady Evariste questioned. “Then how, by the mountains, did your mage-beast come to you?”
Mage-beasts were a quirk of magic unique to Wrystan and Firthen, the lands either side of the powerful Rythen Mountains, some three thousands miles or more from the eastern reaches of the Neystani empire. Nowhere else in the known world produced them. In the same way Tyllatt had its star-mages and Neystan had its sand-, wind- and wave-crafters, most of the countries in the known world had their own way of doing things. And they never mixed.
The pine marten of high forests and cold climates romped across the desk to climb back up his mage’s chest and curl around his neck. They stared the Mage-Mistress and her ice lion down with eyes every bit as dark as theirs were light.
“He found me.”
“In the deserts of East Neystan?” the Mage-Mistress scoffed incredulously.
“No.” Arien gave a sharp shake of his head. “In the slave markets of North Callisun.”
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