Terra breathed deep, trying to clear her mind of the myriad distractions. Yet even in the comfort of her own parlor—with its familiar sumptuous furnishings and the blended, heavy aroma of exotic wood, fine perfume and salt air—the weight of her two previous failures were still draped about her tiny shoulders like a leaden cloak. Worse were the stares. Her mother's agonized and frantic; her father impatient and demanding. Then there were the tutor, with a gaze of heavy and unreadable iron. Her mouth went dry as she forgot the words of the simple spell.
"Again," the tutor said. His voice held the authority of a whip. Even his requests were imperious. She felt his unsettling voice was more than half the reason she was doing so poorly on this particular entry test.
"L-light of cosmos—"
"Do not stammer."
"Light of cosmos, gather into my hand!" Terra swallowed down her fear and raised her staff high—a little girl playing make-believe with an expensive stick "Light!"
Yet again the tiny ball of light that would make her a novice sorceress did not appear. Face and hair the same shade of vermillion, she slumped in her starry, tailored blue robes and let the overlarge hat slip down over her eyes. She focused a blue glower at the gloom colored carpet as she tried not to hurl the stick.
"Such a thing would be very unbecoming a magi, child," the tutor's words cut across her thoughts, startling the ten year old girl. Terra met his hard eyes with frightened defiance, daring him to guess her thoughts again, but old Grayzag was as impassive as an iron pillar. He did not have to wear the gaudy, star-studded robes her mother had insisted upon. His robe was gray, drab wool, the very image of a storybook wizard, with his broad shoulders, crooked leathern face and long white beard. Eyes of steel, sharp enough to cut her, peered out from low bangs and hoary brows, hard and mocking as he called out, "Again."
She wanted to stick her tongue out at the old man and his bossy tones, but she raised the staff and chanted again, carefully annunciating every syllable.
"Light of Cosmos, gather into my hand." The cantrip for magical light was one of the simplest spells devised, and one she had practiced diligently since the last disastrous exam. But for all of that, the room remained lit only by the rays of the westering sun through silk curtains. Terra growled and gave the staff a violent shake.
"Temper, Sweet," her mother Irena called out like the test was a sporting event. Even using that stupid pet name she thought to be encouraging. Biting her lip, Terra whirled about, but "Stay out of this, mother!" turned into "Aiiie!" as she caught on her robe and planted her face into the mahogany floor.
"Most graceful," Grayzag's intoned. "Now do it again. The spell, that is."
Eyes watering, Terra picked herself up and stared at her parents, challenging them to say anything.
Lawrence Goanzona met her gaze, outwardly cool as he sat in his favorite uncomfortable teak armchair, though he wrung his hands with all the nervous energy of a banker on a pirate ship. Beside him, her mother crouched on the divan, pulling her red curls out of their sculpted braid, her ruffled emerald gown now wrinkled by the nervous clenching of fists. Two sets of blue eyes one frantic expression settled on her with a single heavy message: Don't fail.
"Does it really have to be the Fellowship of Baal?" her father had said a week before, "There are so many other quality sorcerer guilds in the kingdom you have not yet applied to."
"Of course it has to be them, father," she had said, her arms spread as their portly maid Mathilde stitched a new sleeve to her robe. The guild Sapphire Ifreet required its applicants to conjure fire in a silver bowl. She had missed the bowl.
"But these guilds so rarely allow second tries, and it costs so much to convince them otherwise," her father had said. He had been at a desk pouring over a shipment ledger.
"But Father, they're a magnificent guild," Terra's eyes had sparkled while she spoke. "All the famous explorer and adventurer mages of the past century have come from the Fellowship. And they—."
"And," her mother interrupted, "They are one of the elite guilds of the continent. The family's reputation for being associated with them would more than make up for any expense. Just imagine, dear! If she does well, our Terra could have a chance at marriage with a marquis, or even a duke."
The impatient rap of Grayzag's iron staff against wood brought Terra back from her angry memories. She spared one last glance at her mother as she cringed at the floor's defacement.
"Child." Terra's grin disappeared at the sorcerer's admonishing voice. "This is scarcely the time for daydreams, and your efforts thus far have been most unsatisfactory. Do you even have the gift?"
"You'll have to forgive her, m'lord," her father spoke, all the while mopping at his dark bangs. She didn't miss his glance towards her. "The girl is just nervous."
"A mage must be without fear," Grayzag said, unfazed. "Again. If you can."
A snake of hot static writhed about in her belly, a flood of angry Power, the same as when the proctors from the last three proctors had mocked her for her failures. The tingling in her fingertips and a wave of heat caused a shudder as the magic swelled within her breast. It would feel so good to set it free and cause a bit of havoc, just to show this snarling coot what she thought of him. Before her, Grayzag's brow rose like a waking bear and she smirked at his slow realization. He had to know if she spoke the words now that there would be much more than a simple ball of light.
I'll bet he's sorry he made fun of me now, she thought, letting her smirk grow wide as the brim of her silly hat.
The clearing of a stern throat, a reprimanding whimper and the sudden odor of burning wool brought Terra back to herself. She was a lady quality, as her mother was fond of telling her, and ladies did not throw tantrums. This was her last chance into the greatest guild on Talmarin, explosions were unwelcome. So she crushed her glee into a pretty twit's smile the way mother had taught, and suppressed the anger with slow, calming breathes. Once again she uttered the incantation, but the comforting warmth of her Power had already slipped away.
Her round face quirked into something not quite a smile and not quite a grimace as she stared at her unlit staff in accusation.
"The girl's really quite talented, you know," Father spoke into the silence. He was using his pandering voice, the one he used when bargaining with nobility. "And powerful. Just last week she set the representative from Sapphire Ifreet's robes aflame. Quite by accident, of course."
Terra pulled the hat lower over her eyes , counting off everything else that had caught flame . A good thing that test had been at the guild hall.
"I am aware of the incident," Grayzag said without interest. "And it is to me to determine what potential the child has, if any."
He met her eyes now. Terra gnashed her teeth behind the stupid smile. Once again she felt the heat rising in her when Mother stammered. "P-perhaps if she tried the spell in Elven? That is one of the magical languages, is it not?"
"No, no, dearest," Father said with a cool brush of patronization, "One uses the dragon tongue for such things as spellcraft. I know, I've dabbled a bit in it myself."
"No, it's not," Terra said and struck her staff hard against the bare floor. "You don't know anything about magic at all. And why isn't this stupid spell working? It's so simple." She smote the floor again and again, leaving deep scratches on the imported panels.
"Terra!" Mother said, "Stop this at once. A lady does not behave in such a crude manner."
"Have a care, girl," Father's amendment promised a severe hiding if she did not straighten up, "Be mindful of our guest." Don't ruin this chance, he meant.
"It is alright," Grayzag had his hands clasped behind him as he studied her like some fascinating insect. "I would not expect much else from such a child whose only ambition is the ambition of her parents."
"That was uncalled for, sir," Lawrence said, jumping to his feet as though the chair were full of thorns. "Can't a father want something good for his daughter?"
"Tell me, child," Grayzag spoke to Terra, "Do you even wish to be a sorceress?"
"Of course she—"
"Silence," the word was calm but carried such power that Lawrence might have been placed under a muting spell. "Why am I here today? Is it for some petty social ambition? Or do you want something greater?" His voice softened to that of a curious uncle as he asked, "What is that you wish to be, child?"
"An alchemical researcher, a seer, to learn how to apply magic to business," were the answers her mother and father had told her were acceptable. No mention was ever to be made of vagrancy or treasure hunting or wayward heroics. Honest, practical work to further the Goanzona mercantile fleet. But those bladed eyes pierced her own and drove deep into the soul, letting the truth pour out like blood.
"An adventurer, sir," she said, with the words came relief.
Before the inevitable outrage of her family could claw its way out of their shock, the sorcerer's face turned hard and he laughed in her face.
"What a dream. An impractical dream," he said, the cruelty of his laughter flogged her and brought rise to sudden tears. "You can't even call forth light. Don't you even know the first principle of magic? Ha! A scrawny, mansion-bred brat like you could never hope to survive without your urban comforts, no matter what latent power you may possess. I see I have wasted my time; and you, Trademaster Goanzona, your money. I take my leave."
Terra stood frozen, unfeeling as ice. Unaware of her mother's shock or her father's split outrage. All she could see was swirl of iron colored robes and the retreating forms of her dream. The hateful, stupid, spiteful conjurer had made it to the door when the cold gave way to the heat and the rage. For a single instant she wavered. She owed him nothing for civility now, but what would happen to her family's honor if she were to attack a guild representative for laughing at her? But the Power burned hot in her breast, and in the end she knew that she just didn't care. Abyss take it all.
"Hey! Old man!" He stopped, turned with bored curiosity on his face. Redoubling her anger, she thrust the staff towards him and said, "Light of cosmos gather into my hand: Light."
The magic ran free and beyond her control. A pinprick of orange light appeared just beyond her staff. With a whoosh it expanded and exploded in a wave of scorching heat and satisfaction. Windows and porcelain cracked, wood warped and the scent of scorched wool and wood smoke filled the air.
Her smug content died away about the time she realized that she was standing in the ashen remains of the carpet. Her expensive robes and everything else was coated with soot and stank of smoke. Lawrence cursed and Irena gasped through smudged, dumbfounded faces. A marble sized sphere of gentle light hovered over her staff like a fairy giggling over the mischief it had wrought.
Grayzag stood at the doorway, untouched by the blast. He almost smiled.
"Impressive," she stared in utter befuddlement as he clapped. "If a trifle untamed."
"A trifle?" Irena's voice first returned as a shriek. "Look what she's…my parlor! Look at all of this!"
"Impressive?" Lawrence shouted once, then his trembling legs gave out and he fell hard into his chair.
"Wha—huh? What happened?" Terra managed with impressive articulation.
The almost-smile was devoured by the sorcerer's unyielding beard. "Do not act the dullard, child. Magic is channeled emotion. Burying your feelings away to act like a servile puppy will only weaken a novice like yourself, no matter how talented a novice you may be."
Her cheeks blazed. Of course she knew that. Of course, it didn't matter now. He had already dismissed her.
"Nevertheless, I will expect my pupil to keep a firmer grasp of her temper in the future. Further incidents will not do, am I understood?"
Shocked silence froze the air until Terra stammered, "I-I passed? B-but what about…and the…I set someone on fire!"
"You fulfilled the task I set out and revealed a great deal of power. What do I care if some fool Ifreet can't recognize talent?" Grayzag said. "Now, I shall expect you at the guildhall for lessons no later than nine o'clock every morning. Is that acceptable, Trademaster?"
Lawrence worked his jaw, red faced and quivering, but then simply nodded. Terra almost saw something like pride in his eyes, but that could just have been the shock setting in. That carpet had been a one-of-kind antique, after all.
"And please do away with that absurd costume," Grayzag said as he swept out of the room. "You look like a street performer."
"Of course, master," the title came willingly to her lips. Then the fatigue fell upon her, and Terra flopped to the ground. The conjured orb grew bright with her smile.