Indrina gasped. The city of White Shores was spread out beneath her; its buildings and avenues visible in all directions, with the glimmering blue waters of the lake sparkling beyond. "It's beautiful!" she exclaimed. She leaned against the parapet, amazed by the view.
"Yes, it is," Antonio said. The young prince stood beside her, one hand resting on the smooth white stone of the parapet. It had taken them quite a while to climb the curving stair that led up to this tower, high above the family wing of the palace. "My father first brought me up here when I was still quite young. He showed me the view and said, everything you see will be your responsibility." Antonio paused and looked down at her. "He told me that it would be my duty to care for everyone who lived in White Shores and beyond. He said their lives would be in my hands, and that it was a grave and solemn duty. I have never forgotten that." He looked out across the city, his face grave. "Being king means I must be more compassionate, more caring, and yet more ruthless, that anyone else in the kingdom. I must love everyone equally and favor no one." He looked a little bit sad as he spoke and Indrina put her hand on his.
"But I don't think it means you're not allowed to have people how are special to you," she said. "Your father loves Lord Kieran more than anyone, doesn't he?"
Antonio smiled. "Yes, he does. Honestly, it makes me a little bit jealous. I'm already older than Father was when he met Kieran. I have no one that is that close to me and I often wonder what it must be like."
Indrina squeezed his hand. "I'm sure you'll meet someone eventually."
"Or father will choose a wife for me if I don't fall in love with someone." Antonio made a face. "It's probably too much to hope that there is some young lady as excellent as my mother waiting to be discovered."
Indrina couldn't help laughing. "You set a high bar, Prince Antonio."
Antonio ruffled her hair. "Wretch." He leaned on the parapet with his arms crossed. "I'll miss you when you go to the Wizards Hall next year. I like talking to you. You're not afraid to tell me what I need to hear."
"You have Lida."
Antonio nodded. "Yes. And Vincent will be back in five more years. The three of us came into the world together and we have always relied on each other. I miss having him here, but I think he's already grown beyond us."
Indrina bit her lip. "Being a wizard makes you different," she said quietly. "I'll be different."
"I don't think so." Antonio's smile was affectionate. "Accepting his wizard powers was a struggle for Vincent. Coming to terms with it changed him. Not in a bad way, mind you, but he had to change in order to accept what he was. But you have always embraced your abilities, Indrina. You have never been anything but a wizard. So, for you, there will be no great change." He straightened up and put his hands on her shoulders. "But from what Kieran told me, I think you will make a difference in the Wizards Hall. Stay close to your common-born friends. Unity in the Wizards Hall is essential for peace in this kingdom, and that is what I desire above all else: to have a kingdom as peaceful and prosperous as my father's."
Indrina lifted her eyebrows. "Your father had to fight two wizard wars."
Antonio pinched her nose and Indrina yelped. "My hope is to avoid that."
Indrina rubbed her nose and scowled at him. "That hurt."
"Perhaps you still need to learn when not to say what I need to hear."
Indrina had to restrain the urge to pelt him with blasts of air. She turned back to the parapet and the view. She was a little too short to easily lean on the wall the way Antonio did, so she clasped it with her hands and rested her chin on her fingers. The view really was breathtaking. White Shores seemed big when one was traveling through it, but to see it like this made one acutely aware of its scale. The city was vast, even without counting the manors on their manicured estates that surrounded it. "How does anyone learn their way around?" she murmured. "It must take years."
Antonio chuckled. "It's not that bad. But we should head back down. I think you have lessons this afternoon."
Indrina immediately pushed away from the wall. "I do! My tutor said we will work on mathematics today." She bounced on her toes. "It's so nice to have an instructor," she went on. "I've learned so much in just a few weeks."
"You're weird," Antonio said with a warm laugh. "I would much rather learn state craft or swordsmanship than mathematics."
Indrina bounded for the door leading to the staircase. "I love learning!" she exclaimed. "I honestly don't care what it is; I just love learning things I didn't know. Mathematics, literature, magic, penmanship; everything is wonderful!" She grinned at him over her shoulder. "How can you not want to know everything?"
Antonio shook his head, but he was smiling. "I don't think there's enough room in my head for everything." He reached out and caught her hand before she could run down the stairs. "And there won't be enough room in yours if you smash it on the staircase. Be careful. You're in a skirt."
Indrina returned his smile and slowed her pace to a ladylike walk. She loved spending time with Antonio. He treated her like a little sister, which was odd to say because his behavior toward her was nothing like her brother. But then, her brother had resented the fact that she had wizard powers from even before she began to manifest. Antonio had grown up with wizards. It made a difference.
When they exited the tower into the main hallway, Antonio released her hand. "Don't be late. Tutors always seem to have a thing for promptness."
"I won't." Indrina waved as she trotted away. After two weeks in the palace, she was starting to feel like she knew her way around, at least in the family wing. The room where she had her lessons was the same one where the royal children had studied when they were her age. Her tutor was already there when she arrived. Lady Matin was young, unmarried and quite strict, but she was also kind and Indrina liked her very much. She curtsied as soon as she entered. "Good afternoon, Lady Matin."
"Good afternoon, Indrina. Please be seated." Matin stepped to the chalkboard, on which she had already written a few equations. "Today, we will be studying addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Please get out pen, ink and a fresh sheet of paper."
"Yes, my lady." Indrina took the items from the drawer in her desk and sat attentively. How could anyone not be excited by the prospect of learning? What greater goal could anyone have in life except to know everything there was to know?
Vincent realized he was getting spoiled. He hugged his pillow closer, sniffing for Geran's scent on its surface. They were both facing big mid-term tests in the morning, so they had decided, or rather Geran had decided, that he should sleep in his own room that night so they would be well-rested in the morning. It was a great theory, except for the part where Vincent slept better when he had company. He shifted position, finding it difficult to settle down when the empty bed felt enormous. For probably the tenth time, he glanced at the window to see if it was getting any lighter outside, convinced he had been awake for most of the night.
A tiny sparkle of light glittered outside the pane.
Vincent frowned. The glimmer of light didn't move like a firefly, although it was the right size for one. For a few long minutes, he watched it without moving. The light remained stationary, sparkling like a distant star. Still without moving, Vincent allowed a stream of invisible light to flow off his hand. He directed it across the floor and up the wall to the window, where he allowed it to form a disk on the glass, completely encompassing the flickering light. Although his light under normal circumstances was constrained by solid surfaces, it didn't have to be. He waited a moment longer to see if the sparkle of light would react to the presence of his invisible light, but it hung in the same spot just beyond the glass. Holding his breath, he pounced, thrusting his disk of light through the glass and enveloping the sparkle of light in a swift grab.
The instant he touched it, he knew it was a spell. He could also tell it was still attached to the wizard who had created it. Tightening his magical grip, he cut the spell off from its master. But he didn't banish it. Instead, he captured it, using his own magic to sustain the spell. But at the same time, he turned his light to inky blackness, hiding the spell in a ball of darkness the size of his fist. Pulling his light and the tiny spell back through the glass of the window, he floated it into his outstretched hand. Staring at the black ball on his palm, Vincent's frown deepened. "I'll ask Lord Jonas if he knows what it is in the morning," he murmured. Sticking the ball to the underside of his bed, he settled back down, but he knew there was no chance for sleep now. His mind churned with dismay and worry.
In the morning, he hurried down to breakfast, but waited at the end of the hallway leading from the wing where the resident wizards lived. Thankfully, Jonas was one of the first wizards to appear and Vincent accosted him immediately. "Lord Jonas, may I speak with you for a moment?"
"Of course, Vincent." Jonas stopped with a friendly smile on his face. "But I'm not giving you any hints about your mid-term."
Vincent made a face. "It's not about that." He held out his ball of black light. "It's about this."
Jonas grew thoughtful. "That's your light, isn't it?"
"Yes, but I'm asking about this." Vincent banished his light, leaving the glittering sparkle of the captured spell resting on his palm. "I caught this outside my window last night. I was wondering if you could tell me what it is."
Jonas held out his hand and Vincent dropped the tiny spell onto his palm. Jonas lifted the spell close to his face and studied it. "I think it's some kind of watching spell," he said after a moment. "It doesn't seem capable of recording, though, like your friend Geran's listening spells." His brow wrinkled. "But you should be able to see what it's seeing. It's attached to you."
Vincent scowled. "It's attached to me because I usurped it from whoever made it. But since I didn't know what it was for, I wasn't sure how to use it." He focused on the spell. "But if it's a watcher…" he continued thoughtfully. He closed his eyes and concentrated, feeling for the trickle of magical output from the spell. A faint image appeared in front of his closed eyes, growing clearer when he focused on it. It was himself, standing there with his eyes shut. He growled under his breath. "It's watching me," he said tightly. He opened his eyes. "Whoever put that outside my window was trying to watch me."
Jonas' eyes widened. "You didn't make this spell?"
"No, I captured it," Vincent grumbled. He was too focused on his own irritation to see the look of consternation on Jonas' face.
"If I'm understanding you correctly," Jonas said, "you took control of another wizard's spell well that wizard was still operating it?"
Jonas' shocked tone broke through Vincent's irritation and he met the older wizard's stunned gaze. "Well, yes, I did," he admitted reluctantly. He had not realized until that moment that asking for Jonas' help would expose yet another of his heretofore secret abilities. "I can only do it with spells that are based on light, though." He did not add that he had been unable so far to expand the ability to other kinds of spells, but it didn't matter.
Jonas straightened and his face settled into a stern expression. "Capturing spells is an extremely rare and controversial skill," he said sharply. "There are only three wizards in recorded history who purportedly could do it. And now you. Have you told anyone about this?"
Jonas shook his head. "I assumed that," he retorted. "I mean, have you told your instructor or Lord Estan?"
"No." Vincent shook his head as he answered. "But you just pointed out why I haven't. No one else can do it. It's just one more thing I can do that sets me apart. I don't need another reason for people to start grumbling about me again." He made no effort to keep the bitterness out of his voice, because he refused to let the conversation get distracted from what, to him, really mattered. "But the fact is that someone was spying on me. Again!" He glared at Jonas, half expecting him to wave away Vincent's complaint.
But Jonas did not. "You're right. The fact that someone was spying on you should not be overlooked." He paused and studied the spell again, which was still resting in his hand. "But have you considered that it might be a student this time?" Jonas lowered his voice. "A lot of people know how close you and Geran are. Maybe someone was hoping to…" Jonas trailed off and his cheeks reddened.
Vincent flushed. "Catch us doing something?" he concluded. A wave of embarrassment swept over him. Despite the erotic dreams he sometimes had about Geran, they had diligently kept their promise to each other regarding celibacy.
"You did not get any hint of the wizard who made the spell when you captured it?" Jonas asked.
"No. I could just tell that it was still attached."
Jonas grew thoughtful. "What does it feel like to a wizard when you capture a spell?"
"Geran says it feels like the spell was banished," Vincent replied.
"So the person who made this knows you discovered the spell but will have no way of knowing you figured out what it was doing."
Jonas held the spell out. "I suggest you banish this and tell no one about it. I will report the transgression for you to Lord Estan and Lady Asita." He fixed a stern eye on Vincent. "I will also have to tell them about your ability to capture spells. Expect to be summoned for a discussion on ethics in magic," he said.
Vincent sighed loudly but responded in a civil tone. "Thank you, Lord Jonas." He banished the little spell.
Jonas patted his shoulder. "Try to forget about this for now and focus on your mid-term. But pay attention. If you see more of these spells, let Lord Estan know."
Vincent started for the dining hall at a trot. The room was already nearly full, with students settling into place at their tables and wizards chatting in small groups. He joined his classmates, where the conversation, not surprisingly, was about their upcoming test. Clancy was speaking in an animated tone as Vincent dropped into an empty spot on the end of a bench.
"Lady Micklin said we could use any spell we wanted to solve the problem!"
"But she didn't say what the problem would be!" Jessri responded in an equally animated tone. "There has to be a right way to do it!"
"And a bunch of wrong ways," Collette added mournfully. "I am really dreading this."
"Don't get all depressed," Harvin put in. "We'll either pass or not. It's best to go in thinking positively about your chances."
"I agree with Harvin," Clancy stated emphatically. "She's not going to throw something impossible at us. We just have to stay confident."
Jessri looked hopefully at Vincent. "You didn't by any chance get Geran to tell you anything about this mid-term, did you?"
"No," Vincent replied. He made a face. "Like every other time I've asked him about fourth year training, he says he doesn't want Micklin's switch tracking him down and beating him. And his class has a mid-term today, too, so he's been really distracted."
"But, I think Harvin and Clancy are right," he continued. "We need to approach this with a positive frame of mind. We've all been working really hard. We've mastered a lot of skills. You have the training and knowledge to solve whatever she throws at us, so don't twist yourself up with so much worry that you forget everything."
"That's a very good point," Clancy agreed with an emphatic nod. "Worrying too much is the real trap. We have to assume she doesn't want us to fail."
"That is not the impression I've gotten from some of our past lessons," another student, Kip, grumbled under his breath.
"Yeah," Collette agreed. "Isn't Micklin's favorite saying 'from failure comes success'?"
"Did you have to bring that up?" Jessri groaned. "Now I'm really worried." But worry didn't stop her from attacking the plate of sausages a servant plopped onto their table at that moment.
Everyone dug into the food and conversation died. Eating helped Vincent forget about how tired he was from failing to get any sleep all night. When breakfast was over, they hurried to their classroom. Micklin was already there, standing at the front of the room with an expectant smile on her face. "I hope everyone got a good night's sleep," she said as they filed to their seats at the small desks facing her. Vincent had to suppress the urge to scrub a hand over his face. "I'm sure you have all been anticipating today's mid-term," Micklin continued, "so, let's get right to it." She turned to the chalkboard and began writing. "I want you to create a spell that performs the listed functions." She continued to write and whispers of consternation sprang up. After listing out five separate features, she turned back to them with lifted eyebrows. "If you find the list intimidating, good. It's supposed to be. The point of this mid-term is to force you to stretch. You have all day to complete the task. Take breaks when you need to. You do not have to work in the classroom, but I will be here one hour before dinner to examine your results. I suggest you bring whatever you have, even if you have not managed to incorporate all the features. I will be giving partial credit, with extra credit for creativity." She smiled warmly. "So, take a deep breath and begin." And with that, she marched out of the classroom.
Vincent exchanged a look with Jessri. Jessri groaned. "That's it?" she exclaimed. "Well, I'm going to go work on this in my room." She took a piece of paper from her desk and copied the instructions from the board. "What about you, Vincent?"
"I'm going outside," he responded. "I think best in the outer garden." He also retrieved a piece of paper to copy the instructions. He only half-listened as the other students talked about where they planned to work on the test. A few decided to stay in the classroom, but most spoke of finding someplace quiet to work. Vincent set out for the gardens as soon as he was done copying. The autumn weather was cool, hinting of the winter to come. The grass underfoot was more yellow than green and few bushes along the borders still had flowers. Finding a lonely spot well past where the gardeners bothered to cut the grass, Vincent plopped down in the middle of a field and examined his assignment. "This is not going to be easy," he murmured. Stretching his arms above his head and cracking his knuckles, he got to work.
Racing back to the classroom later with the setting sun casting long shadows across his path, Vincent tried not to grin like an idiot. It had taken him all day, but he had come up with a spell that met all the requirements set by Lady Micklin. The best part was that he had managed to do it without using his native light. Lady Micklin never discouraged him from using his light, but she had once remarked that it might be a crutch for him, and that comment had made him struggle to avoid using his light to solve problems in the classroom. He dashed into the room on the heels of two classmates and collapsed into his seat. A handful of students were not yet there, but they arrived in minutes, sprinting through the door and skidding into their seats with looks of relief when they saw Micklin wasn't there yet.
The lady herself stepped through the door exactly one hour before dinner and beamed at them. "I'm glad to see everyone here on time. Doris, I'll start with you." Doris had the disadvantage of being seated in the front closest to the door. Rising to her feet, Doris prepared to cast her spell. One by one, Micklin worked her way through the class. About half of the students had failed to incorporate all of the required features. Of those who had incorporated everything, several had cobbled together weak spells of which they were obviously not proud. Marco, Clancy, Vincent and Jessri were the most successful. When she had reviewed everyone's work, Micklin clapped her hands. "Well done, all of you. I will post your grades before breakfast tomorrow. Go and enjoy your dinner. I'll see you in the morning."
As they shuffled out, Collette shook her head sadly. "Your solution was so elegant, Jessri. I can't believe I didn't think of that."
"But you'll think of it next time," Jessri said. "Honestly, I think that's why she had us demonstrate our spells in front of the whole class. Seeing how other people attacked the problem has me thinking about things I could have done differently."
"Me, too," Harvin said. "I bet she asks us about that tomorrow."
"You're probably right." Collette perked up. "I'm going to eat a ton of dinner and go right to bed. No matter what my grade is, at least I got through it. None of us failed to produce a mostly working spell. Nobody's getting sent down because of this test."
"That's right," Jessri nodded sharply in agreement. "We're still the best fourth year students around!"
Vincent looked for Geran as soon as he entered the dining hall. The 6A students were already there, clustered around their table in a tight group. He could not tell from their expressions how their mid-term had gone. He lifted his hand to his mouth. "Meet me after dinner?" he whispered. Geran's head popped up from the group and he nodded. Vincent continued to his own table. "I hope they're quick," he said. "I'm starving."
"Me, too," Jessri said. "And then I'm going right to bed, just like Collette said."
No one talked about the test over dinner. Everyone ate quickly and left as soon as they were finished. Vincent slouched along to his room with his shoulders drooping. He was monumentally tired. Nevertheless, he took the time to cast a spell on his window that would block vision from the outside. It was just his native light, but it was a two-sided spell, light on the inside and dark on the outside, making it impossible to see through. Then he kicked off his shoes and collapsed on the bed.
Geran arrived a short time later, peeking in around the edge of the door rather than knocking. "Are you still awake, Vincent?" His voice was pitched low enough that if Vincent was already asleep, it wouldn't wake him.
"I'm awake. Barely," Vincent answered. He pushed up into a sitting position and scrubbed his face with his hands. "How did your test go?"
Geran came in and closed the door quietly. "All right. I'm pretty sure I passed. What about you?"
"I'm pretty sure I passed, too." Vincent grinned lopsidedly. "No wonder you wouldn't tell me about the test, though. There's no good way to describe it."
"Yeah." Geran sat down beside him. "You look exhausted."
Vincent nodded. "I am, but not just because of the test. I didn't get any sleep last night." Taking Geran's hand in his, Vincent proceeded to tell him about the watcher spell and his conversation with Jonas. "So," he concluded glumly, "someone's spying on me again and now everyone will find out I can capture spells."
Geran was silent for several long moments. "I think," he finally said, "that Jonas is probably right and it was a student. People are always asking me about you." He bumped Vincent's shoulder. "You are still a prince, after all."
Vincent scowled. "It's really annoying!" he grumbled. "Why can't they just let it go?"
"Because no matter how good of a wizard you become, you'll still be the son of King Edouard and Queen Celli. And unfortunately, pretty much everyone knows I regularly sleep in your room." Geran hesitated. "If it really bothers you, maybe we should stop."
"No!" Vincent released Geran's hand so he could wrap his arms around the other boy's waist. "I like sleeping with you and I'm not going to let other people decide how I'm going to behave. It's bad enough that I'm probably going to get lectured on ethics because of the spell-capturing."
Geran laughed and put his arms around Vincent's shoulders. "All right, I'll stay with you tonight. We can talk about it more in the morning after you've gotten some sleep."
"I'm not changing my mind," Vincent muttered. He pushed out of Geran's arms and crawled into bed, not bothering to take off his clothes. That would have been too much work.
Geran removed his shoes and trousers before snuggling in beside him. "We'll see."
The comforting warmth of Geran's presence in the bed immediately erased the irritation Vincent was feeling. Within minutes, he was drifting into sleep. His last thought as sleep claimed him was that, with just a little effort, he could probably adapt his light to automatically capture spells that came in contact with it. No one would ever be able to spy on him again.
Edouard entered the bedroom with a noisy sigh. "I thought you'd be asleep by now."
Kieran, sitting up in bed with the coverlet across his lap, looked up from his book with a warm smile. "I'm still making up for all those nights we were apart," he said. He closed the book and put it on the nightstand. "Need help?"
"Yes." Edouard took off his jacket and tossed it in the direction of the nearest chair. He missed.
Kieran slid out of bed and picked it up. "Don't make extra work for the servants," he chided. He draped the jacked over a chair and then stepped over to help Edouard undress, moving Edouard's hands away from his cravat. "Let me do that." Edouard liked the appearance of a neatly folded cravat, but he sometimes had trouble taking them off, in large part because he didn't pay much attention when his valet was folding it around his neck and tucking in the corners. Kieran removed it, draping it neatly over the jacket. "Now, then, shall I continue?"
"Only if you let me reciprocate."
Kieran lifted an eyebrow. "I'm only wearing my underpants."
Kieran shook his head with a chuckle. "Very well." He did not get many opportunities to undress Edouard because his valet was usual there to handle that chore. But Edouard had given his valet standing instructions to not wait up for him when he had a late meeting like he did tonight, and Kieran was happy to step into the role. Nor did he stop when he got down to Edouard's undergarments. He stripped those away, too, already excited about the night ahead. "You aren't too tired, are you?"
"No." Edouard touched his cheek. "Honestly, I was hoping you would wait up for me. Some days, I get tired of being king, but spending time with you reminds me why I do it."
Kieran blinked in surprise. "Why?"
"Because you are the one who told me that I am the best king this country has ever had. I want to live up to your expectations. You're the only person whose opinion of me I truly care about."
Kieran had no good response for that, so he kissed Edouard gently on the lips.
Edouard returned the kiss, cradling Kieran's face in his hands. "And now it's my turn," he whispered.
Moments later, they slipped into bed together, wrapped tight in each other's arms.
"I love you, Kieran."
"I love you, too, Edouard."
~ The End ~