by Sherwood Smith
Wren peered out the open window in her room at Cantirmoor’s Magic School. The sun shone on fuzzy green buds on all the branches. Birdsong carried on the breeze that smelled like new grass and turned soil . . . so what was wrong?
Of course! She was too warm.
Laughing, she pulled off the heavy woolen winter tunic she’d just put on out of habit, and reached in her storage chest for her light cotton summer tunic, folded away so many long months ago.
But where were her sandals? Ah. Hiding behind a pile of books of historical plays that she’d been meaning to take back to the palace archive, but it had always been too snowy, too sleety, too cold.
She sighed, and began to pick up the books. May as well haul them all back now, and get it done at once. She’d have to clean her room out anyway, for this spring she was expected to write up her journeymage project, petition the Magic Council through Master Halfrid, and then get to work. In addition to her other studies. And sometime, in the next year or two or three, she’d complete the project, present it to the Magic Council, and hope to be awarded the white tunic and blue sash of a master mage.
Master mage. Mistress Wren.
She laughed at herself again. The idea felt too much like play acting. Well, that day lay somewhere in the hazy future. Maybe by then she’d be used to the idea.
First, to make sure she had all the borrowed books. She scouted under the bed, under the desk, behind her storage chest, on her shelf. Sure enough, three small books turned up.
Now the pile nearly reached her chin. You borrow two, then three, then one, then another two, and suddenly you find you have almost twenty books that don’t belong to you, and have to be lugged back.
“Sooner done, sooner over with,” she muttered, backing out her door.
She whirled around, almost dropping the books onto the toes of a tall foxy faced fellow with long, unruly brown hair. “Tyron!”
“You were expecting maybe Andreus?”
“If I were expecting a social call from a wicked king, I would have worn my silk gown.” Wren simpered. “With armor over it,” she added, pretending to curtsey. Though she nearly dropped the books.
Tyron smiled, turning a thumb to her stack. “What’ve you got there? Magic texts for your journeymage project?”
“Is that a hint for me to get busy? Actually they are plays. Going back to the palace, since I’m due to visit Tess anyway.”
A couple of magic students passing by gave Wren covert glances. She pretended not to notice. Nobody but she called the new young queen ‘Tess.’ Wren, having spent years with Teressa in an orphanage when the then-princess was in hiding, couldn’t think of her as anything else.
Tyron waved a hand. “Go visit Teressa. Get rid of your books. I wasn’t dropping any hints. You told me as soon as the first fine spring weather came you’d get started researching for your petition. I’m here to find out if you mean it, or if I can get you to teach the basic illusions class.”
“Of course I’ll help,” Wren said, hiding an inward sigh. It was beginning to look like this year would be like last, but how could she complain?
The Magic School was mostly repaired from the destruction caused by Lirwani warriors the winter before last. Masters had been either promoted, like Tyron, or else hired from a distant school to replace the ones killed during the war. But the Magic School was still short two positions—and Master Halfrid, who was the head of the school as well as the Queen’s Mage, had been going off on extended trips to see to some sort of Magic Council business. Everyone therefore had extra duties to keep the school running more or less smoothly.
Tyron gave Wren a rueful look. “Just today and tomorrow. Fliss was the only we had to send north on an errand, and she’ll be gone two days.” He shook his head. “You’ve been great at helping out with the beginners, but Halfrid really wants you to have some time to think about your journeymage project. Now, get to the palace before your arms fall off.”
Wren was glad to comply. Her arms already ached.
Before she’d gotten ten steps outside the vine-covered archway leading to the palace road, one of the younger students popped round the corner, almost ran into her, and backed hastily away.
“Oh, sorry, Mistress Wren.”
“Just Wren. Out here.” Mistress Wren. She knew it was just an honorary sort of title—given by the younger students to senior mage students who helped teach classes—but it made her feel uncomfortable, like she was pretending to be something she wasn’t.
Especially as the boy’s round brown eyes looked so, well, respectful. Suddenly Wren felt old. She’d always been the youngest, but now she wasn’t any more. The school was full of boys and girls much younger. How had that happened without her noticing?
“Do you want some help with those?” the boy asked shyly. Tam, that was his name.
“I’m going to the palace.”
Tam smiled. “I know. Your weekly meeting with the queen. Everyone knows that. It’s on my way. More or less.” He reached for the top four or five books, and her burden eased just a bit.
“So, how do you like Basics?” she asked, feeling obliged to say something to her helper as they walked along the sunlit road toward the city gates.
Tam wrinkled his nose. “Boring. But I sure do like illusions class. Especially when you teach it,” he added in a rush. “We all think so.”
Wren laughed. “Flattery will not get you through your Basics Test. I’m not a Master Mage!”
“But you are a good teacher,” Tam said earnestly. “You’re funny. You make us laugh, so it’s never boring, but somehow we learn a lot.”
Two more brown-clad students ran up, both wearing spring sandals. The tall one, a boy, greeted them, then said, “Aren’t you going to the pastry-shop, Tam?”
“Stopping at the palace first. Just to help Mistress Wren with these books,” Tam explained, brandishing his share of the burden.
“Just Wren outside the class,” Wren muttered.
“We’ll help too,” the girl said, digging an elbow into her companion’s side.
The two each took a few books off Wren’s stack, leaving her with only four.
The girl said, “We were going to get pastries, to celebrate the nice weather. We would invite you along, Mistress Wren, but—”
“You have to meet the queen,” the tall boy put in. “We all know that.”
Wren began to say “Just Wren!” but then she shrugged. They were too used to classroom politeness, that was all.
As they passed up the royal road and through the city gates, the younger students began chattering happily about the prospects of spring, and who was making their Basics test soon, and wondering what kinds of questions might be asked. Wren was reminded of her own classmates, when she first came to the school.
Spring bloomed delightfully everywhere, filling the air with the scents of new herbs and blossoming trees. Windows in the living areas above the shops were unshuttered, letting in fresh air for the first time in months. Some people put fresh-washed quilts over the sills to dry in the sun, others were busy setting out flower boxes full of blooms carefully nurtured through the snowy season.
They passed a bakery. Tam veered a couple of steps, as though drawn in by magic spell toward the compelling aroma of baking cinnamon buns. Wren smothered a laugh, just as horns sounded, faint but clear, from somewhere beyond the buildings: horns!
Those were the horns of outriders—unfamiliar horns, playing a fast, challenging chord. Moments later, the palace bells rang the quick Alert at your station signal. People stopped, listened, then some scurried inside their houses and slammed doors and windows. Others hastened on, ducking inside the doors of shops.
Tam whirled around and peered anxiously down the cobbled Royal Road toward the city gates, where sentries’ outlines could be made out against the clear morning sky. They too had gone still.
“Those are not Lirwanis,” Wren said, trying to sound calm. Easy. “They didn’t blow their horns quite like that. Their horns blatted more. Like this.” She put up her free hand, held her nose, and squawked a parody of the war horns of the invaders two winters before.
“That’s right, you were in the middle of the war,” the tall boy said. “Did you really—”
“I don’t want to hear any horrible war stories,” the girl interrupted, her voice sharp. “I heard enough from my mother.”
“But those of us who got hidden away safely, well, we have to remember, we have to be ready, that’s what I keep hearing,” Tam retorted.
The girl paled, then she glared at Tam, her lips parting–
To prevent an argument from starting, Wren said, “How about a funny war story?” And when three faces turned her way, she resumed her brisk pace, heading up an alleyway that was a shortcut to the palace. “Would you like to hear how I managed to get myself kicked by my own shoes?”
“It was the protection spells,” the tall boy exclaimed. “Wasn’t it? That Master Tyron laid over the school, before the Lirwanis came and tried to destroy it?”
“Tyron and Laris,” Wren said, her chest hurting. Never forget Laris. “Well, Tyron had gotten most of the spells undone before I arrived back at Cantirmoor, and don’t think it wasn’t a whole lot more work than it had been to place the spells!”
The girl nodded soberly. “If you didn’t keep notes you have to find them.”
“And if they overlap—”
“And if you get attacked—”
Wren nodded at each speaker, then said, “So Tyron and Laris didn’t get to all the dormitory rooms. At that time Fliss and I were sharing, you see. And Tyron had taken some extra care with the rooms of his friends. So I arrived back, tired. All I wanted was to fall into bed and sleep for a year. So I open the door. Tyron yells Wait! But it’s too late. Shoe attack! Not just my shoes but Fliss’s hurled themselves at my head, and began thumping me good!”
All three laughed, though the girl looked back with a quick, tense movement when the horns sounded again, this time much closer.
“I was howling and dancing around, and Tyron couldn’t release the spell because he was laughing too hard. When he finally managed, and it seemed to take forever, did I smart! When people count up war wounds, I have to admit the worst of mine came from my own shoes.”
Wren and her companions rounded a corner, reaching the Royal Road again. They were very close to the palace now, walking swiftly past the fine three-story houses belonging to nobles or wealthy citizens, pale stone homes with tall windows, trees and small gardens before them. The thundering clatter of horse hooves could just be made out above the thinning of city traffic, and a pall of yellow-tan dust hung in the air over the city gates. All the pie-sellers and carters and children and dogs dashed madly right and left to get out of the way lest they be trampled.
“If we hurry, we can get through the palace gates first,” Wren said. “I wonder who that is? How arrogant, galloping smack through the city, right when market-traffic is the worst.”
Even Garian Rhismordith, Teressa’s cousin and now the foremost noble of court, was no longer arrogant enough to do that. Already Wren hated the newcomer. She and her companions sped up until they were skipping, the books jiggling in their arms; Wren might be short and round, but she was a fast walker when she was determined.
Still, the fastest walker in the world is not going to outrun a galloping horse. The drum of hooves on flagstones and the newcomers’ horns blasting sent Wren’s group scrambling onto the grassy verge just before they reached the palace’s arched gateway.
Wren whirled around, glaring up at the leading rider. Then her jaw dropped. She recognized that tall young man, the broad shoulders, the long gleaming black hair falling loose to blend into the shadows of a fine black woolen riding cloak.
She wasn’t aware that she’d spoken until he raised a gloved hand and the entire cavalcade came to a spectacularly dashing halt, horses shuddering and tossing heads, hooves striking sparks on the cobblestones, outriders with their banners snapping in the breeze.
Hawk slung his cloak back over one shoulder, revealing a splendid riding tunic of gold-embroidered black, fitted instead of long and loose, and fitted black trousers instead of the loose ones she was used to seeing on the fellows around her. His riding boots were black and glossy.
He leaned back against the saddle cantle, looking down at Wren with lazy eyes and a mocking smile. “Ah, it’s the stripe-haired magic prentice. With a trail of goslings.” With a careless wave he indicated the students.
“These geese can bite,” Wren stated. “If you don’t believe me, climb down and watch.”
Hawk’s mocking smile deepened at the corners, his followers laughed, and Tam flushed, but he looked too afraid to speak. The girl’s lips were moving. Practicing spells, Wren thought in approval.
Hawk ignored them. “From what I hear, Cantirmoor’s been boring this past year,” he went on. “Aren’t you glad to see me? You know things are never dull when I show up.”
Wren scowled. “If you’re here to make trouble for Tess, you’ll wish things were dull,” she stated.
Hawk laughed. “Still hot at hand, I see.” Surprisingly, his tone was not at all cruel, it was more teasing. His slanted brows quirked even more at the ends, and he said, now laying his gauntleted hand over his heart, “But I am not here to make trouble. Far from it! I am here on a mission of peace, good will, and maybe even romance.”
Wren pruned her mouth. “Romance? Euw! What do you mean—” Then she realized, and gasped. “You can’t! You wouldn’t!”
Hawk’s laughter was as mocking as his smile. “But yes, my unromantic young mage. I am here in my legitimate position as heir to the Rhiscarlan coronet, to court your Queen Teressa.”
Copyright © 2010 Sherwood Smith
by Sherwood Smith
$1.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-029-3