For three phases of a moon, the Captain was busy enough most days that I was free to disappear as I liked.
Those mornings I ate a quick breakfast in the kitchen and ran out to meet Sebastien. I returned by lunch and was back in the Captain’s office reading about different cases and studying whichever book he had assigned before he could notice that I had ever been anywhere else.
Like all good things, I knew that my happiness would eventually end. There seemed to be a universal law about that, and I expected it every day. But until it happened, I planned to enjoy every minute of my freedom and my newfound friendship.
With Sebastien’s help, I was learning to sense the full saturation of magic around me, and I could do small magic tricks. To me it was thrilling, but he could not remember being so limited. He never said it, but I could tell that he was frustrated at my slow progress. He tried everything he could think of to help me.
On the twelfth of the tenth moon, unaware that the end was fast approaching, I went to meet Sebastien for the thirteenth time.
After I showed him some of the little tricks he had taught me, such as making little fire-flowers, he leaned back on the bench looking thoughtful. I sat next to him, disappointed that he was not impressed. “Is it bad?” I asked.
“Your magic is…” he thought about it for a bit. “Something about it is incorrect. The way you use it, or…” He could not think of how to explain what he was seeing.
“Oh.” He had said before that my magic looked weird to him. “Am I abnormal?” The question begged to be asked, though I knew the answer.
“You should visit the Guild of Mages,” he shrugged, lacking the knowledge to answer and the carelessness to lie. “They tell you all you need. They teach, too.”
“I cannot. Mother forbade it.” I clenched my teeth, annoyed at my openness. Next I would be telling him what Grandfather said to me about magic, and who he had been.
Sebastien knew what it was to obey one’s parents and could understand my hesitance to go against mine. “Do not worry for it. I will teach you control—I cannot explain the reasons, but I understand action. This I teach you gladly.”
“Thank you,” I smiled, relieved.
His keeper shouted, and we made plans to meet later, at what he called ‘high tide’. I did not follow his reasoning, but he seemed to think I would be more successful with my magic then.
My daily outings might not have been noticed by the Captain, but there were two women in the palace who had begun observing me with uncomfortably sly expressions. They were Mirelle, the seamstress, and Iris, the cook.
That day, they laid a trap for me.
On my way to the Captain’s office, I was stopped by Mereditt, the runner. He told me that the Captain was out, but that there was lunch in the small kitchen if I needed any. Innocent of any suspicion, I made my way through the halls and to the little kitchen. I stopped just inside the door, but the cook bustled me into a chair, and put a fork in my hand. Behind, the door was firmly shut.
At the table, Mirelle and Anna were eating a dessert bread and watching me out of the sides of their eyes. The cook casually leaned against the closed door. With the strength of their attentive inattention, I could not eat the cold noodles before me.
I trusted Anna. “Anna, what brings you here today? Is your class finished? I did not expect to see you at the palace anytime soon.”
Anna looked at Mirelle. “She sounds Salizan.”
“I said it first,” the cook murmured from her post.
Mirelle nodded. “She has been wearing dresses and slippers.”
All three turned their glowing eyes on me.
As if I had been given any choice. “I am wearing the clothing that was provided to me.”
“She goes out every morning.”
“I heard her humming.”
“See how nicely brushed her hair is?”
“I made a friend.”
Wow, you broke fast.
The cook joined us at the table, and I told them half of everything. They were the best listeners I could have hoped for, and it was surprisingly fun to talk about my new friend.
The cook and Mirelle laughed and smiled encouragingly, but Anna was quiet, thoughtful. “You have not gone into any of the other gardens?”
I shook my head. There had been no reason to explore the others, and no temptation given the gates and guards.
“I would not,” she advised. “Most of those manors are owned by the Great Families. They can be very ungenerous. But that one is owned by the king, and he will not mind.” She smiled.
“He has a palace,” I said, confused. “Why would he need a manor?”
They all three hid smiles, and the cook returned to her stove.
Anna’s expression was kind. “His is a small family, it is true, but it was not always so. At times, other members of House Saliz have lived there, and it is sometimes used to house diplomats and dignitaries. It is not so comfortable to live in the palace, so the manor house is a good place for guests of the royal family.”
Does that make it our house?
“Who lives there now?” I could not remember seeing anyone official or important-looking.
“The staff and your friend, I suppose,” her eyes twinkled. That was probably the moment when she began devising a plan to include me in the upcoming festivities.
I had finished eating, so I stood and mentally prepared myself to see the Captain.
Anna recognized the look. “Eliot is not in his office this afternoon. I believe he will be in meetings until quite late.”
“Dessert?” the cook offered.
I sat back down. If there was no Captain to worry about, then I did not have anywhere to be until midnight.
“What a time this is to be going out.” the Captain’s voice echoed out of the gloom, scaring me clear into the next season.
“Don’t lurk like that!” I pulled away from the door to face him, but he was invisible in the dark office. “Why are you out here at this time, and in the dark?” I tried to find where he was standing, squinting and blinking my eyes against the darkness.
“I am observing my student sneaking off like a criminal at Mage’s hour.”
“Mage’s hour? What does that mean, when even is that?” I was saying too much, too quickly, and in too high a tone.
You should have continued attacking. You are rubbish at defending.
“You do not—mage’s hour is the center of night, between sunset and sunrise. It is the hour when the forces of magic are most potent.” He said it as though he were simply speaking of a time, not accusing me of being a mage.
I relaxed too much. “High tide,” I said thoughtfully. That explained why Sebastien had thought it a good time to practice.
“Some call it that, but not where you are from.” The Captain sounded too awake for me to be participating in this conversation, and I felt uncomfortably like he could see me, although the office was fully black.
“I must have heard the phrase somewhere.”
“And that is how you came to be going out at precisely this time.”
The worst thing I could do was be defensive, Avery was right. “I needed air. Is that a crime?”
Great going, genius.
“I fully expected you to attempt something stupid. You have been too quiet recently.”
I had been out, enjoying the air and good company. “And what is it I’m attempting, exactly?”
You should have opted for ‘needing the facilities’.
“But there is no use trying it tonight,” he continued without answering my question. “Take a look outside.”
Taking a look outside required me to pass the Captain’s desk and enter his bedroom. Naturally, I did not move.
The Captain’s shadow separated from the other shadows, opened his door and walked into his room. It was dimly lit from outside, and I saw his shadow stop at the window.
I joined him and started to open the balcony door—all this time he had a balcony out there! He caught my wrist to stop me and motioned for me to look out towards the south tower.
Three figures stood billowing in the wind, looking sinister in the starlight.
Woah. That’s attractive.
“What am I looking at?”
“See how the trees do not move.”
It was not windy outside, they were creating their own currents. Having realized to look, I saw that the figures were glowing from within. Mages. I stepped back reflexively, colliding into the Captain.
“Mage’s hour occurs every night, but it is more potent in the middle of the moon. They always go out there like freaks and stand on rooftops. The king’s mage explained it to me once, something about harnessing potential.” Was it the lack of light that made him sound more like an Eliot and less like a Captain?
“How does that work?”
“No idea. I was not listening.”
I looked over my shoulder at him, and he half-shrugged unapologetically. “Go back to sleep, Avery. There is nothing for you out there tonight.”
“But, why does their weird meditation mean I can’t have a da—dark moonlight stroll? I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. I could stay on the north side of the place.” Or the east, right before I left by the front gates.
“You were going on a date at this hour,” he sounded incredulous. “There are two such idiots. There is a moron that chooses the mage’s hour in the middle of the moon, and an that imbecile agrees.”
The Captain and I scowled at each other in the dark and we each made comments best left forgotten. Mine were all in my head, with Avery’s frequent input, as we waited for him to run out of steam. “You must be mad,” he said, not for the first time, and finally fell silent.
“Why does mages being bizarre have anything to do with me?” The distance from the tower to the ground was far. A mage could not see another at that distance unless they were actively using magic. I had no intention of using any, so I was safe.
“You were not even listening.”
“Of course not. I would have had to find myself a new apprenticeship if I had. That would have been a shame, because you see, I rather enjoy the one I have. It’s most interesting, and I feel quite useful. Out of loyalty to the crown and kingdom, I was obliged to not listen.”
The Captain’s hands, which at some point had gripped my shoulders and resisted the urge to shake sense into me, trembled, and for a moment he did not speak. He must have forgotten that the difference in height and our respective positions relative to the window, through which a sliver of moonlight flitted in, together with the length of his speech, meant that my eyes were adjusted enough to see his twitching lips and twinkling eyes. It was easy to distinguish, even in dim lighting, the difference between anger and laughter. All of the former had been replaced by the latter. When he spoke, his voice remained neutral. “Allow me, then, to inform you that if you were to go outside, a dozen mages at least would be aware of your location before you reached the gate. It is not only those three that are enjoying the strength of the moonlight tonight.”
“What does that matter? I am hardly anyone worth noticing.” I could speak easily because his amusement had cheered me, and the shadow I was in protected my own expression. I only wanted to know if he thought I was the mage he sought.
The Captains hands tightened again and he pulled me away from the window to close the curtains. “It is not a good idea. Return to your room and sleep. You sound tired.” He had turned away and seemed unlikely to continue the conversation, so I went meekly to bed.
Before I could determine how annoyed I was, I fell asleep.