Leon led me onto a large, raised wooden platform. Thick canvas hung over our heads and enclosed the sides, blocking most of the wind, and flames in glass encasements bled heat, warming it and illuminating the stage. Again, I detected a brief hint of magic keeping in some of the warmth.
Simon and Theo stood near one side of the enclosure, along with several other nobles. One sat at a square table opposite a woman a few years older than us, dressed in bright, flashy reds and blues. The woman had an almost serene smile with eyes fixed on the noble in front of her.
I turned my gaze to the table itself and saw a fabric cushion covering most of it. A glass sphere roughly the size of my fist hovered around a half-foot above the table, and around it, I could see a thin sheen of yellow.
Though I could not see his face, the seated noble had his shoulders hunched and his body tense. There was a faint sense of wavering in his mana, fluctuations that indicated his skill was lacking and failure imminent. A moment later, my prediction came true as the orb shattered, breaking into a thousand tiny pieces.
The shards rained down onto the cushion, twinkling softly like stars in the firelight. A string of swears came from the noble as he pushed away roughly, throwing up his hands and yelling, "This is impossible!"
Leon and I were a few feet away by that point, and I heard my young lordling mutter, "Embarrassing," before turning to me and smiling as he asked, "You want to try?"
"Maybe, but what exactly is the point?" I asked as we walked up to the table.
The woman working the table heard my question, and as she swept a hand and gathered up the glass shards, responded, "It's a simple game. Try to hold up an orb for as long as possible without breaking it. The longer you manage, the better prizes you earn. Five gold for a turn."
"And we added an extra bit of excitement since none of us have...well, we can't win." Leon said with a rueful smile, "We each bet another five gold per attempt. The longest to hold up an orb wins the pot. Not much of a prize, I suppose, but it keeps things interesting."
That last comment nearly made me laugh. Five gold was a fortune to my parents, but it was pocket change to Leon and his friends.
Rather than focus on that, I sat and weighed my odds of winning. If Sophia were here, they would be nonexistent, but without her, I had a chance. Not much of one, but better than zero.
I closed my eyes, placed both hands flat onto the table, and focused inwardly, picturing my mana in my mind's eye. Rather than rush forward, I pushed a tiny amount into the glass, taking care to move as slowly as possible and get a feel for the object.
On its face, all I had to do was pull out some energy and lift the orb, but if that were all it took, that other noble would have blown past the competition. Poor control or not, that was an elementary task that any first-year could manage. That told me there was more to this than at first glance.
The orb itself had wafer-thin walls, and I knew anything above a feather-soft touch would crush it into countless fragments. Worse, it looked so fragile that its weight might crack it if pressed against too unforgiving of a surface. I had to keep my touch feather-soft and retain some 'give,' but not so much that it fell through the diffuse energy.
The shape I settled on was a net or my closest approximation, and I took nearly a full minute focusing on the thought as I pulled on my mana. Forging had honed my control and creation skills, but even so, it gave me the beginnings of a headache forming the construct.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a faint green shimmer underneath the orb. As I let out a long, low breath, I pulled, carrying it upward in one smooth motion. The sphere hovered, rattling from one side to another and reflecting my distorted face towards me. If I was not struggling to maintain the improvised creation, I might chuckle.
Suddenly, the orb dipped, nearly falling through my loose 'net,' and I mentally swore, pushing more mana into it to try and compensate. I knew even as the energy flowed forward that I had made a mistake, and a half-second later, there was a tinkling sound as the orb shattered.
"Wow...little clumsy there, Vayne." Leon remarked with a chuckle, patting me on the shoulder, "Didn't expect you to have that much 'oomph' in your magic."
"You've not been paying attention then, Leon. The commoner's got more strength than half the nobles in our class." Theo responded, and strangely, there was no hint of disdain in his tone. Bizarre.
I ignored that strangeness, standing and smiling at both nobles, "Hopefully, either of you will have better luck than me."
Theo shook his head and replied, "I didn't, unfortunately. My mana burned a hole right through mine. Fire mana, even unshaped, can get as hot as an oven."
If improperly controlled, he meant, but I did not correct him. Theo was by no means acting friendly, but cordial was a damn sight better than before, and I would take it. Picking fights and antagonizing Leon's friend was an idiotic idea.
Leon's attempt went about as well as mine, though his control felt a hair short of mine. Still, wind mana was a bit gentler than Aether, and with that, he managed a full second longer than me. But Simon was the major surprise of all of us.
Rather than use pure mana, Simon created an orb of water and wrapped it around the glass, keeping it loose as he pulled upward, levitating it. I expected it to break, but as seconds ticked by, it remained untouched and whole.
When he set it down after a full fifteen seconds, the woman across from him smiled and clapped her hands, handing him a small, sealed box. His prize, it seems.
"Remind me to start practicing my mana control more with you," I remarked as Simon stood and walked beside me, slipping the box into his pocket.
Simon blushed, mumbling, "Not a big deal. Water's easy to control for me, and my father-well, I can't say much else. Sorry."
As night fell, we exited to a crowd gathering near the center of the square, where a massive stage stood. On the wooden platform, dozens of men and women stood covered in shining plate armor. Some carried swords and shields, others spears, and others still axes and claymores large enough to require two hands. An array of lights in every color imaginable shimmered above, reflecting off the metal in hypnotic patterns.
Even further overhead, another platform hovered without any apparent supports. I could sense mana from it but could not place the element precisely at a distance. A robed man stood atop it, looking down at the gathering crowd with what I assumed was a smile. I could barely see in the darkness either way.
"Welcome, one and all!" shouted a voice that had to be magnified with magic, "Please, step right up. You don't want to miss this!"
Considering the size of the stage and the way the conjured lights illuminated several hundred feet around us, I doubted anyone could miss the show. As the crowd finished muttering, the robed man raised both hands, and in unison, the metal-clad warriors turned, facing one another in pairs.
"I've traveled far and wide, but the best crowds are always here in Volaris," he said, and the crowd swelled and cheered, eager to hear their praises sung. When they died down, he continued, "And that is why I'm always eager to put on a show for you all. With that, please feast your eyes on the Silver-Clad Soldiers!"
The moment he finished speaking, these Soldiers of his burst into movement at some unseen signal.
Almost immediately, I could see that they were well-trained and skilled. Each figure's strikes were crisp, their blocks precise, and their movements balanced and assured. There was a clanging as weapons slammed into shields and whistling of air as sharpened edges narrowly missed contacting against armor.
But there was something...off about their movements. An uncanny element that I could not place at first. It was not until a full minute of watching one near the edge, a spearman who stabbed and twirled their weapon, that I realized what was wrong.
People as a whole had little quirks to their movements that were nearly impossible to remove even with years of training; An extra adjustment to your grip or a brief half-step to alter their balance. Little things that I would never have noticed six months ago but now stood out to me. The benefit of several hundred hours of training, I assumed.
These men and women did not have any of those minor imperfections. Their moves were not just good, but perfect. There was not an ounce of wasted movement, and every motion looked copied out of a book rather than performed by a flesh and blood creature. There was nothing living about it, for lack of a better term, and that last thought is what prompted me to reach out and focus on one, in particular, revealing the truth.
Metal mana surged through the armor, flowing down limbs and filling the empty cavity inside. Every one of those figures was not a person, but an animated construct, controlled by magic rather than muscle and bone. If I had to guess, it was an enchantment designed to move them through a set series of motions. When paired off with the correct partner, these moves would appear like a duel, but in reality, neither was responding to the other.
The only other explanation that came to mind was that the robed figure overhead was controlling each individually. While possible and far versatile, the sheer mana and control required were staggering. Frankly, if he could do that, the robed man would not be performing for a bunch of bored nobles and wandering commoners in Ferris. He would be doing mercenary work, killing entire packs of creatures for a fortune single-handedly.
Still, if I could recreate the trick, maybe I could set up automated training dummies for myself. Sparring with a partner was better, but that could prove helpful in a punch, letting me polish up my blocks, dodges, and so on better than drilling forms and combinations.
As the sounds of chattering conversations and metal clanging fell into background noise, I silently watched, taking notes and making plans. I would need to find a way to thank Leon for dragging me out today. Already, it was proving itself as a beneficial little break from my usual routine.
And if it happened to distract me from the banquet coming up faster than I liked, all the better. However, that did bring up something that I had been pushing into the back of my mind. Did banquets have dancing? And if so, should I practice so I do not make an even bigger fool of myself than I might already?