In a dim barroom a day's ride from Eterna, a richly dressed man with distinctive lightning-shaped streaks of silver hair sat down next to a woman in combat leathers who was staring dully at the tankard in front of her.

"Go away," the woman muttered, not bothering to turn to look at the man.

In deliberate contrast to the growled tone, the man kept his voice smooth and calm. "My dear Kiera, is that any way to treat a colleague?"

"We are not colleagues." Kiera drained her tankard of beer and immediately held it out for a refill. The bartender eyed her for a moment, judging her state of sobriety before filling it from the tap.

"We are working together towards a common goal, are we not?"

"Working? How exactly have you gotten off your pompous ass to do anything but drive little Miss Perfect deeper into Eterna? You said she'd be out of my hair and in your fancy guild before the end of the year."

Tristane's previously calm expression twisted into something ugly. "Maybe if you would get me useful information instead of spending all your time hiding in this forsaken location, we would have more progress."

"I already told you about how she—"

"Your advice on how to approach her had me humiliated in front of all of the most important mages in the entire Guild Association!"

"How was I supposed to know she was going to react like that?" Kiera asked hotly. "All she does is creep around like a little mouse, afraid of her own shadow."

"What matters is that you get me something I can use!"

Kiera slammed her tankard down. "There's nothing else, okay? She's so helpful and perfect and everybody just loves her. She won't even cause any trouble at the Games because she's learned to shut down her magic. It's over, okay? She's going to stay at Eterna as Veltyen's perfect little princess and there's nothing you or I can do about it."

She got up, shoulders slumped in defeat. "Don't come talk to me again," she muttered as she left.

Tristane barely noticed the woman's exit, eyes thoughtful. "Shut down her magic… Like she isn't even there…" he murmured to himself.

*/*/*

Sery looked around curiously as Mindseye took her past the signpost that marked the border between Oslethia and Roswan. The countries within the Seven Kingdoms were so closely allied and interconnected that they shared a common currency and their internal borders were unguarded.

This close to the border, there was no discernable difference between the two countries. Sery looked forward to seeing Roswan's unique style of architecture, centred around the dark redstone that was plentiful in the region.

Around Sery was a small caravan comprised of the Eterna members who were competing in the Mage Games as well as Foria and several others who had volunteered to help with errand-running and organizational tasks. The Games rotated in location between the countries, and they were currently headed towards the coliseum outside of Roswan's capital of Erratia. The Games attracted thousands of spectators, and the road was busy with travelers of all kinds.

At that moment, Veltyen and Magewhisper caught up from where they had been patrolling at the rear of the caravan. It was an unnecessary task – anything that could threaten a group of such high-ranking mages would be a national security threat – but years of habit made him restless if he did not implement at least basic patrols.

"Here." Veltyen leaned over and slid something into Sery's hair.

Sery touched her fingers to the item, careful not to dislodge Veltyen's work, feeling the smooth edges of worked wood.

"It's a hairclip in the shape of the Games symbol," he explained. "There was a merchant behind us selling them."

"Thank you," Sery said softly. Veltyen had a habit of bringing her small gifts on a regular basis, enough to fill a small treasure box she kept at home. He did not seem to consider them significant – he often failed to recognize items he had previously given her – but Sery cherished every one.

"Sery," Ariela called, beckoning from the window of her carriage. Mindseye took Sery close enough to talk.

"I'm sorry, my dear," the guild head murmured, "but I think it's best if we don't advertise your presence too much. Do you think you could tone down the magic emission?"

"Oh – I'm sorry," Sery said, immediately thickening the walls of her enna. It was somewhat embarrassing that everyone around her could so easily feel her projecting her moods. She turned to wave at Veltyen, signalling that she had done it on purpose. It still discomforted him to feel her magic disappearing, but he was starting to get used to it.

"Not to worry," Ariela said knowingly. "Your young man is being gentlemanly enough to make any girl swoon."

Not knowing what to say, Sery remained silent. Veltyen certainly was not 'hers'; she would say that she was 'his' except that she knew it would make him uncomfortable to know that she thought that way.

Veltyen turned his head to locate Sery for the tenth time in ten minutes, feeling tense and hypervigilant. If she was going to keep her enna shut down from now until the end of the Games, he was in for a long, tough time.

It wasn't that it felt like she was in distress; he had adjusted to that with several practice sessions in Eterna. No, what he was coming to realize with a prolonged shut-down like this was that he had somehow developed a sense of Sery's location based on her magic emission, similar to her sense of him and other mages. That sense was now constantly screaming that she was missing despite the fact that she was right in front of him.

He needed to recentre himself if he was to have any chance of competing effectively at the Games. Closing his eyes, he inhaled, beginning a simple breathing technique that would bring him into a meditative trance.

He let his thoughts drift, not trying to control them. The first thing he realized was how long it had been since he had last meditated. What used to be a daily exercise in optimizing mana absorption had fallen away when Sery had fallen into his life. He made a note to make time to meditate regularly, the powerful clarity it gave him being just as important as his enna stores.

Turning to the other thoughts in his mind's eye, he examined them from the outside. Sery was everywhere. The powerful need to keep her safe, keep her happy, and all the complexity involved in Source magic, guild politics, money, even the current plan to compete in the Games. His own tangled, half-repressed feelings that only grew more snarled and knotted as she came into her own as an adult. The current sense of impending danger and doom that threatened to swamp him.

As he examined his thoughts and emotions, they quieted and became more manageable. His rational side came to the fore, addressing each concern head-on. He was already doing everything he was supposed to be doing to help ensure Sery would continue to thrive at Eterna, and worrying further was not going to help. His feelings towards her, well, he had very good reasons to keep them repressed, and they were not about to change any time soon.

As for the danger… Yes, he could not pinpoint Sery's location at every moment of the day, but did he need to be able to? He certainly managed to protect countless clients without such a sense, and besides, what exactly was he guarding her from? Yes, she was a target for any guild that wanted to increase its personal power, but it was not as if they wanted to hurt her, just have her join their ranks.

With one last exhale, Veltyen opened his eyes, no longer feeling like he was riding the edge of panic.

His gaze was inevitably drawn to find Sery. He smiled to see her riding next to the main caravan, bending her head to allow Foria to rearrange the clip he had haphazardly slid into her hair.

*/*/*

Outside the city of Erratia, a tent-city was forming in orderly rows to accommodate the huge influx of people arriving for the Games. City officials assessed the size of their group and assigned them a plot of land to set up their own tents and sleeping pallets.

Sery looked around, absorbing the colourful tents and equally colourful mix of people. It was clear that some of the visitors were from some of the more distant of the Seven Kingdoms and even farther abroad. In the distance, she could see the market area that had formed to take advantage of such a large gathering, by far the biggest she had ever seen.

Sery wanted to explore, but at the same time, she found the dense, noisy press of people intimidating. She stuck close to the middle of Eterna's rest area, helping to unpack and set up their sleeping quarters while Foria supervised everything with preternatural efficiency.

In only an hour, they had erected their own small 'neighbourhood' within the larger tent area. Sery left her luggage trunk in the tent that she was sharing with Foria, then wandered around, looking for any tasks left to help with.

The web-mage spotted her. "Shoo," she said with an accompanying gesture. "Everything is done. Go explore and have fun."

Sery hesitantly stepped out of Eterna's assigned area into the busier thoroughfares of the tent-city, wondering where she should go. Her sense of the ennas around her was muted as she suppressed her own magic, though she could still clearly sense Veltyen in the direction of the river, presumably still returning from the water-collecting trip he had been sent on.

She picked a random direction and joined the flow of foot traffic, watching the activity around her. As she walked, the dedicated camping areas gave way to more open ground. Sery wondered why such large areas were fenced off, seemingly unused, until she saw groups of mages practicing for different events for the upcoming Games.

Sery joined a small crowd of onlookers next to a group playing a version of the sport known as whizzball, where a large ball twice the size of a human head had to be maneuvered through a series of rings on the opposing team's side to earn points. Sery knew the athletes to be mages based on the amount of silver in their hair, but none of them were actually using any magic that she could discern. This close to the competition, she supposed, everyone was conserving every drop of magic they could grab.

Despite the lack of magic being used, the mages were managing some truly impressive maneuvers, throwing, kicking, and carrying the ball through intricate passages between the rings that Sery vaguely recalled would add a multiplier to the points scored. She looked forward to seeing the actual competition, where the skilful application of kinetic magic would make the action even more dynamic.

Looking around, Sery saw more people practicing the athletic components of the upcoming competitions, but no actual magic use. Nobody was practicing for the competitions she was most familiar with, the ones her fellow guild members were competing in, but she supposed that, with the exception of Veltyen and Magewhisper's Chase event, everyone else was competing in a show of pure magic power and skill, where it was even more important to conserve enna stores.

Sery eventually wandered away from the athletics fields and ended up in the market section of the tent-city. It was larger by far than anything she had ever seen, merchants selling wares from all over the world, foods, jewelry, clothing, books, even exotic animals.

She wandered down the rows of stalls, shaking her head as peddlers called out to her with offers to try this or that gadget, touch a fine silk, smell a custom fragrance. She managed to mostly stay out of the way of faster-moving traffic, though it was impossible to completely avoid bumping into others in the crowd.

Sery halted in her tracks at seeing a flash of gray.

Before her were trays of semiprecious gemstones in gold and silver settings. Based on the shop display, they were designed as brooches that could replace traditional laces to fasten a mage robe.

The gray that had caught her eye turned out to be a set of three brooches, each a shiny gray that matched Veltyen's eyes in bright sunlight.

"The missus has good taste!" the shopkeeper enthused. "These here fasteners are the latest craze over in Alossura, and they're sure to catch on quick in the fashion circles. How about these aquamarines over here?" he suggested, lifting a tray that held pale blue gems that would complement Sery's colouring.

Hearing of the exotic fashion trend, Sery decided to buy sets for Marielle and Tasielle, the twins having a keen interest in keeping up with all the latest modes. She picked out a set in green garnet and a striped tiger eye. In the end, she could not resist the gray hematite that had initially stopped her and asked for all three to be wrapped up.

Sery reached into her pocket for her small purse, only to find it missing. Checking her other pockets was equally fruitless.

Watching her, the merchant's expression turned sympathetic. "Pickpockets get you, miss? They're rampant around these parts."

Sery's stomach sank as she realized that during all the jostling in the crowd, her purse must have been stolen.

"Will you be okay to get somewhere safe, miss? Have lodgings all booked already?"

"Yes… I'm with a large group…" Sery said, distress lowering the volume of her voice until the merchant had to lean in to hear her over the crowd.

"Well, that's good. If you want, I can keep these set aside for you if you want to come back and pay for them," the merchant offered.

"I-I think so. Thank you."

Sery turned and walked back towards her guild campsite, mood falling lower with every step.

She was not concerned with the amount of money she had lost; she only kept petty spending money on her person, far less than she earned in a day of work.

No, she was upset because she had lost a wallet that Veltyen had gifted her.

Veltyen had brought it back to Eterna after a job last fall, a slim piece of leather that was just big enough to hold her mage identification card and a few bills. Its purpose was to allow her to transfer the essentials between the larger purses and bilfolds that Evodie constantly rotated in and out of her wardrobe as fashions shifted.

Her identification card! The sinking feeling in her stomach grew. What if she was refused entry to the Games because she could not prove she belonged with the Eterna competitors?

By the time Sery reached the Eterna camp, she was thoroughly miserable and convinced that she would be barred from the Games.

*/*/*

"Sery, what happened to you?" Foria exclaimed.

Veltyen interrupted the process of brushing Magewhisper and pushed between a pair of tents to find the web-mage with her arm around Sery's shoulders. Sery looked uninjured but her gaze was downcast and her shoulders slumped.

Her gaze flicked to meet his eyes for a brief moment before returning to the ground. "…I lost my purse," she confessed.

"Are you hurt?" Veltyen demanded, gaze raking Sery's body and clothing for any sign of violence.

He felt himself relax as she shook her head. "Just a pickpocket, then? It can happen in crowds like this, no big deal. Was there something you wanted to buy? If we don't have enough cash on hand, we can always head into the city to visit a banker."

He was a bit surprised at how upset Sery looked, and had a moment of wishing the walls of her enna were down so he could get a feel of her emotional state. While a setback like this would have thrown her into a loop of guilt and self-recrimination when he first met her, she had recently been taking challenges more in stride, her confidence growing to match her expanding knowledge and experience.

"Well, yes, but… my mage ID was in there…" Sery said, biting her lower lip.

"Oh, you're going to need that," said Foria. "Fortunately, I can find it."

Sery raised her eyes at the confident statement. "You can?"

"Of course. It has an information crystal on it that I coded myself. Scrying may not be my specialty, but I can at least find my own work in the local area. Let me grab my information screen and we'll go find it."

"Don't leave without me," Veltyen ordered. Foria was not entirely helpless when it came to danger, but he was not about to let her confront a thief without backup. Ducking into his tent, he retrieved his sword and strapped it on.

Returning outside, Veltyen found Sery standing alone, looking less miserable but not quite as relieved as he would expect. Again, he cursed the need for her to cut off her enna particle emission. "Hey," he said softly. "Don't worry about it. We'll get your ID back."

Sery nodded but her expression did not change.

"It's something else, then?" Veltyen guessed. "Tell me."

She cut him a brief glance. "It's stupid."

"It's not stupid if you care about it. Tell me," he coaxed.

"…I lost the wallet you gave me," Sery confessed after a pause.

"I did?" Veltyen could only vaguely recall doing so. He enjoyed giving Sery things that he thought she would find useful or interesting, but individual gifts did not particularly register in his memory. "That's okay, we can get you a new one."

Sery's lips twisted in a wry expression. "I told you it was stupid," she said, regaining some of her usual spirit.

Grinning both at Sery's recovered mood and a sudden need to tease her, he nodded. "You were right, it's stupid," he agreed.

Sery's eyes widened and for a moment, Veltyen wondered if he had misjudged his humour. He enjoyed teasing her, but generally kept it very gentle; this was probably the first time he had ever said anything that could be construed as an insult.

Sery turned her head away and made a quiet sound that sounded very much like, "Hmph."

Veltyen laughed and wrapped his arms around her. "Are you mad at me?" he murmured.

Sery relaxed against him. "No."

Foria came out of her tent holding her portable communincation crystal, the flat screen about the size of an open book. "Really, Veltyen?" she said in mock exasperation at seeing their entwined position. "We have work to do."

"Lead the way," Veltyen said, straightening his posture and releasing Sery.

It was a matter of seconds for Foria to locate the identification card, another twenty minutes before they walked to the location and retrieved it, thrown carelessly on the ground in the middle of the market area. Unsurprisingly, the purse and money it had been with were nowhere to be seen. Veltyen thought it was just as well they did not have to confront anyone about the theft; the legalities would be somewhat hazy due to their status as foreign citizens despite Roswanian law being nearly identical to Oslethia's.

"So, is the thing you wanted to buy near here?" Veltyen asked.

Sery nodded, gesturing at a booth several tent-blocks down.

"Oh, these are nice," Foria said, inspecting the brooches on display.

"The miss is back!" said the merchant with a smile upon seeing Sery. "Are these your friends? I have the selections you made already set aside." He gestured to a plain box.

"Oh, which ones did you pick, Sery?" Foria asked.

The merchant opened the box to reveal sets in green, tiger-eye, and metallic dark gray.

"Are these for you?" Veltyen asked curiously, the colours being somewhat outside her usual palette.

Foria sighed dramatically. "Seriously, Veltyen, how dense can you get?"

"What?"

Foria pointed at the gray set.

"What?" Veltyen repeated.

Foria pressed a hand to her forehead and rolled her eyes. "Never mind. Sery, I'll get these for you. Also, please wrap up these ones for me as well. And these ones for Sery," she said, pointing at a set of amethyst purple in blackened iron as well as aquamarine in silver.

"What?" Veltyen asked Sery as the merchant happily accepted Foria's money and wrapped up the extra sales.

Sery shook her head. The corners of her mouth tipped up slightly and she said, "It's stupid."

Veltyen groaned jokingly. "You're going to make me pay for that comment, aren't you?"

Sery wrapped her arms around his waist. "No."

Veltyen felt his heart melting. There was simply no meanness in Sery, no sharp remarks, no emotional armour. It made him feel intensely protective and at the same time bypassed all of his own emotional defences.

"Oh, stop it, you two," said Foria, "Let's head back."

Veltyen released Sery from their hug but took her hand before they walked back to camp.