“Astounding,” Baelin said as he looked over Alex’s sheet. “Truly astounding. I am not as involved with the curricula for mana manipulation as Professor Val’Rok is, of course, but I know well it’s not an easy subject.”
He shifted the papers, looking next at Sinbrok’s notes for the practical exam. “My, my look at this. These are some fairly devilish challenges, especially for a wizard with a lack of experience.”
His eyes rose, focusing on Alex again. “What did you say you worked in before you came to Generasi? In your story, you didn’t mention the sort of magical work or apprenticeships you did.”
“Uh,” Alex scratched the back of his head. “I was a baker’s apprentice.”
“I see.” Baelin nodded in thought. “And which spells did you know before your application or being recruited.”
“Just forceball,” Alex said.
“I see, I see.” The chancellor stroked his beard-braids. His bronze clasps tinkled as they came together. “That would explain some of it: if one could only practice a single spell controlled by mana manipulation, then that would definitely give one more experience with the skill than the average entrant. But, this is something else. We have a fair many who Challenge Exams for Credit at Generasi and a good deal succeed, but this is not a routine example of such a circumstance.”
He handed Alex back the papers. “Those who pass such exams are usually experts, with plenty of experience or training in a certain subject before arriving at Generasi. For you to pass it—and quite nearly master it—with your level of previous training and experience is not common…”
His eyes focused directly on Alex, and once again, the young man felt as though they were piercing right through him. “…not common at all. It seems you have a natural talent for the subject, Alex.”
‘Well, that and a divinely granted boon that helps me learn it really damn fast,’ Alex added mentally. Despite himself, he watched Baelin closely for any sudden changes. No changes. Good. Still no mind reading. Probably.
“And your sister is granted a strong fire affinity. Interesting, truly interesting.” Baelin almost seemed to be performing mental calculations. “And you say your parents—may they rest well in Death’s embrace—were not wizards themselves?”
“Like I said, they ran an alehouse,” Alex said with a little force in his voice, almost defensive about that fact. They might not have been incredible spellcasters—ready to bend the forces of the cosmos to their will like Hobb said—but he didn’t want anyone looking down on them.
If Baelin did look down on them, though, he hid it well.
“Interesting. What about a grandfather or grandmother? Or anyone in your town: a hedge wizard or country witch to show you a thing or two?”
“No.” Alex shook his head. “I learned everything from a spell-guide in my church school’s library. Maybe that means there was a wizard in Alric at some point, but if there was, then not even our elders remember that time. Trust me, I asked.”
“I see. Entirely self-taught then, and mastered the entire material of one of the most challenging first-year courses that is taught here. Fascinating.” Baelin’s eyes shimmered for a moment, fading and turning milky until it looked like he had gone blind.
Alex gasped and was about to say something, but by the time he had opened his mouth, the chancellor’s eyes had returned to normal. “Hm? Something the matter?” the ancient wizard asked.
“N-no. It just…nevermind.”
“Well, then, I will be quite interested in watching your journey through your first year. Especially considering your performance in COMB-1000.”
“Oh, I’m uh, doing well?”
“Hah, ‘I’m uh, doing well?’ he asks. Let me put it this way: taking into account the adaptability and results you’ve shown during the practical portion of the class, if you even do moderately well on the written midterm…well let’s just say you should come by my office and see a certain list posted to my door. I think you will be pleased by what you see.”
Alex thought on those lists Sinbrok had mentioned, and felt a growing excitement.
“Please, make sure you keep in contact,” Baelin continued. “You know my office hours, I would appreciate it if you would join me for a hot drink again.”
Alex’s stomach flip-flopped. “Yes, I’d love that. A-as a matter of fact, I worked as a baker’s assistant in my home town, I’ll definitely bring you some goodies next time.”
Baelin gave a hearty laugh. “Goodies, you say? Well, you know how to charm the elderly.”
“Well, you know how to charm your students.” Alex waved his hand over the empty mango plate and cider cup.
“Ah, careful with that phrasing,” the ancient wizard’s eyes twinkled. “You could get me sanctioned.”
As they laughed, Alex wondered if this was how merchants felt when one of the great lords of the realm strongly hinted that they would be interested in doing business. One of his goals when coming to Generasi had been to be noticed for his talents so that he wouldn’t ever be suspected of being The Fool, and it seemed he was succeeding quite nicely.
Here they were, having a good time like a young man who’d gone to see one of their village elders and had stayed for a cup of brew.
“You know, I don’t think they’d dare sanction you,” Alex joked. “I’m pretty sure you could blow up half the school if you really wanted to. I mean, who’s going to stop you? You could just teleport the castle into the depths of the ocean, couldn’t you? Like you did with that Hathar-Motkin guy?”
Baelin paused for a moment, and suddenly his laughter went from a hearty chuckle to a roar of mirth that seemed to reach the sky.
Alex’s laugh caught a little.
Though the chancellor was laughing along with him, that mirth did not reach his goat-like eyes. They were still firmly on Alex.
Measuring. Calculating. Seeing.
Alex remembered the line of skulls on Baelin’s shelf in the room below.
‘This is not a village elder,’ his mind reminded him emphatically.
He shook the thought from his head. While he wasn’t sure if he could trust the chancellor completely, the beastman had been nothing but helpful and guiding, if maybe a little terrifying.
“There’s a thought.” A strange light entered Baelin’s eyes. “The professors here are incredibly talented, and some of the greatest wizards in the world hold associated offices here. Then there’s some truly frighteningindividuals in the Watchers of Roal and the city itself. Point being, there is a considerable amount of might gathered here…if I did choose to say, try to teleport the entirecastle to the depths of the ocean—which I’m not quite sure I could by myself, and even if I could that would take quite a bit of time to set up—I just wonder how far I could get before someone managed to stop me. Hmmm, you’ve given me an interesting little mental problem to ponder. Thank you, this will occupy my evening I think.”
Alex gave him a polite, tight, frightened smile. “Y-you’re welcome.”
Staying around the chancellor might fray his nerves and make him twitchy. He’d need to do something to relax himself.
Well, he’d passed the exam. He’d be writing his midterms this week and finally going to see Captain Fan-Dor; since it was the last weekend they’d be in port. He could bring Selina with him, Theresa, and Brutus since she’d enjoy being on The Red Siren and seeing the captain again.
That would get him started with learning the rest of the dance and be a fine way to relax his nerves.
With Val’Rok’s letter coming shortly and Jules’ letter in hand, he could get his application into Shale’s as well.
“Stop, thief!” a voice cried bloody murder from street. “Help! Heeeeeeeelp!”
Alex stood frozen in the doorway of Shale’s workshop, watching a hooded and cloaked figure speeding down the cobblestones with a bundle under his arm. Despite the hot sun and clear sky, they wore a cloak hood pulled down over their face.
Behind the thief, an older man wrung his hands and looked for help from the crowd. Several heads turned as the robber pushed people out of the way.
“Guard! Guard!” someone began to cry, while others levelled their hands toward the running figure.
One person in the crowd—a stocky grey-skinned woman—spat a single incantation. The figure stiffened in the middle of the street and crumpled to the ground. Above the murmurs of passersby, Alex heard a loud snoring sound.
He watched for a time as the woman spoke with the man who’d been robbed and watched as the broad-shouldered guards—their breastplates shining and each marked with a glowing glyph—stormed in and dragged the thief to their feet.
Alex shook his head.
“The thrill of the big city,” he muttered, making his way back to where their sky-gondola was waiting.
It floated above the crowd across the street, and he could see Selina, Theresa and Brutus, poking all five of their collective heads over the side of the gondola to get a better look at the commotion.
A blue bird was painted on the boat’s hull, which floated down to the crowd when Alex approached. Their gondolier—a young man named Kirk, with a smile seemingly permanently pasted to his face and utterly dead eyes—gave him a friendly nod when he arrived.
“Hello, customer and welcome back to Bluebird sky-gondolas, I hope that my service today continues to please you!” His words had the same practiced cadence as Lucia’s, but his voice was filled with the same sort of false cheer that McHarris had affected when talking to his customers.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Alex said, climbing aboard. He glanced at his sister. “Well, that was exciting wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she said, watching as the guards spoke to everyone involved in the incident. Her words were still short, but her voice had lost a lot of its flatness and her eyes were coming to life with interest again.
She still hadn’t built anything in the last while, which worried him, though. That was okay, though, as Baelin said. She was her own person and would heal in her own way. He just needed to be there to support and guide her. Him and Theresa.
As the boat lifted off again, they settled in with their grinning gondolier as the city passed below.
“So,” Theresa said to Selina. “Are you excited to see Captain Fan-Dor again?”
Now some of the young girl’s normal excitement returned and she nodded quickly. “Mhm! Mhm! And Gel-Dor too. It’s just…” She paused and her face dipped a little. “Ships…”
“What is it, Selina?” Alex asked.
She paused and leaned closer to Theresa and Alex. “Captain Fan-Dor said that fire is really, really bad on ships…so maybe he wouldn’t want me on there…”
“You don’t have to tell him anything you don’t want to tell him,” Theresa whispered. “Like how Alex doesn’t have to tell everyone he meets he’s a wizard or how I don’t have to tell everyone I meet that I like to go hunting. You can keep that to yourself, that’s okay.”
“But…that’s different. Maybe I’m…dangerous,” Selina whispered.
‘Support,’ Alex remembered.
He placed his hand on her small back. “Remember, I have to try really, really hard to cast magic. And you’ve seen how hard Khalik has to work at it too. As far as I know, you can’t really do magic by accident. I’ve never seen my friends from me and Theresa’s class use fire magic by accident. They always do it on purpose and when they have to. It’s safe. If you ever talk to them-”
He planted the seed, subtly.
“-you’ll see that they’re safe.”
She looked between Alex and Theresa carefully before nodding once more. “Okay, that makes sense.”
Before leaning back, Alex gave his little sister a tight hug and then pulled away. Theresa gave her a hug too, and she looked much cheerier after. Brutus whined and licked her face.
“Hey!” She giggled.
Her mood improved immensely after that, and she was far more interested in watching and commenting on the city passing below as they drifted over the wall and toward the docks.
“There it is!” Selina said excitedly, pointing to a ship at the dock. “That’s The Red Siren!”
Alex smiled as he saw the familiar form of Fan-Dor’s vessel.
“You know.” Theresa scanned the entire port ‘town’ as they neared it. “I don’t see any sky-pier around here.”
Their gondolier’s tight, increasingly creepy smile shifted a little. “Well that’s a bit of a story, you see-”
“What is it? What is it?” the gondolier asked. “Is there a problem?”
“No, no, go on, finish telling your story,” Alex said. “I thought I saw a shark fin.”
That was a lie, but what he did see was more cause for alarm.
Down below, standing by several docks were the familiar white robes of Uldar’s priests, milling around in front of a ship.
It looked like they were seeing their fellows off.