Chapter 1You didn't have to be good at something to enjoy it. Otherwise, Bryony never would have stayed at the Mage's Academy.
She'd first showed up for the weekly lessons when she was twelve, before the controversy and the protests. Her grandmother knew some basic spells, and one of her ancestors was apparently a great magician, so her parents decided that she must have some kind of untapped power. But ever since she'd cast her first spell, she'd been a consistent mediocrity - except when she read the book Metals and Magnetism and managed to get many of the spells to not just work, but work well, even though she didn’t understand anything in the last few chapters.
Nevertheless, she loved it. Even the simplest charms gave her a sense of accomplishment and made her grin like a toddler. Niklas Varg, on the other hand, didn't bat an eyelid at the book that turned its own pages, or the statue that could change form, or even the flaming spear.
They were all enchantments he was showing his class, the C-levels - mostly fifteen-to-nineteen year olds. It was a demonstration only, and wasn't what they were being instructed to do. Their task - which they'd practiced between lessons - was to learn to enchant a stone so that it would multiply when thrown. (Bryony had mastered this, but unfortunately the enchantment didn't work on gold coins.)
The enchantment would be much harder in the lesson. At home, she could use her talisman, but she was expected to cast spells with her wand in the lesson.
The talisman took the form of a ring. It came from another of Niklas' demonstrations, when Bryony had first arrived, joining the E-levels.
'Magic,' he had said, 'can be conducted using almost anything that's been properly enchanted. Almost any object has some kind of power or energy.'
Niklas had then pulled out a wand, a pendant and a leather boot, and passed them to the nearest students.
'You will learn to use wands, as they are the most well-rounded conductors, but there are many other conductors. A staff will give you a more powerful attack, for example, but they are hence counted as a weapon and are illegal in many places. That talisman is good for earth-related spells and warding off dark magic. And the shoe...well, it can also be worn as a shoe.'
At the time, the talisman was a tear-shaped stone of what looked like lapis, hanging from a gold chain. When the students passed it around, Bryony was the last to look at it. It had felt more powerful, more... right than the wand she'd purchased the day before. But it wasn't hers. She had to give it back.
She'd tried to. But then Niklas had shaken his head and started passing more around. 'They're yours. I want you all to experiment with a different conductor after you learn wand magic, but I don't recommend using them in class.'
So Bryony shoved the talisman into her pocket and never looked back.
One thing about talismans: they were awkward at casting spells with hand gestures. Because they were on a chain, they tended to swing in the wrong direction when you used them. It irritated Bryony. And so one day, when the talisman had misdirected yet another spell, she'd grown angry and sort of... reformed it. She'd made the chain circle itself over and over, becoming shorter and thicker, until it wasn't a chain anymore - it was a metal band, and the talisman was a ring. It stayed that way.
In lessons she could cast using the talisman - people would assume that she was using her wand, as the ring was on her hand, right next to it - but the wand would conduct the spell as well, and she'd end up with two different items floating up to the ceiling. (As if one wasn't enough.) She'd had to adapt, so she blocked the wand's energy.
Blocking magic was supposed to be hard - advanced magic, not the kind of thing Niklas would teach the C-level class. Bryony hadn't found it hard. But she hadn't used the traditional technique, either. Instead of taking its magic out, she put other things in. She gave it her weakness, her memories of exhaustion and apathy and emptiness. The wand's energy was crushed under it, leaving it dormant... powerless. But magic is persistent. The magic would come back to the wand eventually, forcing everything else out.
She looked up and realised that the class had lined up to demonstrate their enchantments. Niklas passed her a small pebble, then moved away.
She started to block the wand's magic. As she did it, it started to feel colder and weaker until it felt like a regular stick. Then she prepared to cast the spell using her ring.
Usually, magicians were supposed to call upon at least one of the Eight Divines before doing a powerful spell like an enchantment, even if they weren't religious. Some people thought that this was the reason spells worked, but Bryony doubted that any god would want to help her turn a pebble into two pebbles.
Regardless, that was what you did.
'I’m not sure who to call on for this, so, um… Gudea? I’m going to pray to you,' Bryony mumbled, her voice low and monotonous. 'I pledge my support and my magic to you. I thank you for your, er, time? Now can you please support the growth of my skills and knowledge by... uh, allowing me to enchant this rock.'
Bryony directed the ring's strength into the pebble. She didn't like calling upon the Divines, because her prayers was vastly improvised, and she wasn't good at doing things without a plan. But when she threw the stone, it hit the wall and broke into two pieces. As she watched, the two chunks grew back their missing halves. It was a messy transformation, but at least it worked. That was all she cared about really.
Niklas was showing them their third spell when a cloaked figure walked in. They were about the same height as Bryony, and curly brown hair hung out from under their hood. Niklas recognized them - 'Lady Nora.' - and immediately bowed, but Nora shook her head.
'No, don't do that. This isn't an official visit. I just wanted to warn you - there’s another protest. No riot - some people between here and Silvervale have blocked the roads and won’t let any magicians past. Don't cast any spells there, though. They'll rip you apart.'
Niklas nodded gravely and turned to the class. 'No magic west of here for the next three days. Not safe.'
To Bryony's disgust, none of them asked a single question or even showed remote fear. Warnings like this used to scare them, but now they were mindlessly accepted. It wasn't even because they were older and braver now. It was because the protests were so common that no one was surprised by them anymore. They had become a constant worry, a normal part of a mage's life. That was alarming.
And now Bryony owed Lady Nora again.
It wasn't that they were friends - they barely ever saw each other. "Allies" was a more accurate term. Nora, who had much more power, influence and wealth that Bryony's entire family, had taken responsibility of protecting the Academy and helping the Guard decide what kind of magic regulation was fair or unfair (they seemed to struggle with that). Her uncle, King Rollan, even wanted her on the council with him. By comparison, Rollan's son and heir was two or three years older than Nora, but all he supposedly did was read and bark out meaningless orders.
Lady Nora smiled nervously at Bryony and hurried away. Niklas dismissed the class and put on his jacket, probably in an attempt to cover his left arm. While everyone knew about it, it wouldn't be the best decision to display it so obviously during anti-mage protests, and using a glamour to make it look normal was kind of a waste of magic.
Niklas had told the class that he lost his arm when he was nineteen and a B-level student. Everyone argued over the most likely cause, but the majority seemed to think that he lost it in a battle or something. (Bryony doubted that he would have told them. He never made a big deal of his accomplishments - or anyone else's, for that matter.) When he went back to the Mage's Academy, they told him at the end of the lesson that he would have difficulty with spells and should probably take a while off to adjust to life with one arm. According to those who were there at the time, Niklas said 'Nah,' and walked out. The next day, he came back with a fully-assembled, fully-working skeletal arm, just as powerful as before.
The bones were probably his. That was another thing he didn't talk about - but the students guessed that he'd just reassembled the remnants of his old arm and used magic to do the work of his muscles and tendons. That idea was much less creepy than Niklas finding a random skeleton lying around and ripping off its arm. Or killing its original owner.
Bryony gathered her equipment and walked out. She wondered how Maeve was - probably doing chores, as she tried to do them when Bryony was away, since she always tried to cast a spell to help. Maeve didn't have magic, and as far as Bryony knew, she didn't want any. That seemed ridiculous to Bryony. But Maeve didn't like the studying, the experimenting over and over, that was an integral part of perfecting magic. Maeve lived in the present - which wasn't really a bad thing. It sure saved her a lot of worry.
Bryony didn't bother stopping by her house to check in. Her parents knew that she'd be meeting up with Maeve and going to the market with her. She went straight to the orphanage.
Maeve had lived there since she was five. Her parents shown up in a lodging house with her one night, then been found dead of an unidentified sickness the next day. Since Aiwenor’s records were very inconsistent, especially in Zeit, no one knew anything about them. But, given how their dialect was described, they were probably locals. Since then, the orphanage had been run by a multitude of different people, but Aleika was the one Maeve liked the most. She was about twenty or thirty, and she seemed to alternate between acting like Maeve's mother and acting like a friend. Fair enough, too. Since Maeve never been adopted - even when she was younger, she’d still had a tendency to scare people - the orphanage was more or less her home.
Bryony pushed through crowds until she found the long, low wooden building. She could see through the window that Maeve was in the front kitchen watching the fire. Next to her, Aleika was slicing raspberries, which stained her fingers the same colour as her dress.
Maeve perked up when she heard the door open. She smiled at Bryony and skipped over, not bothering to put down the knife she was holding.
Bryony pointed to it nervously. 'I think most people would rather you didn't bring that to the market.'
'Really? I never would've guessed.' Maeve bit into a mushroom. ‘I bet I’d be allowed to bring anything if Delia had let me in Kleinhans, though.’
Like the Academy, the Kleinhans School of Combat gave weekly lessons to anyone who paid. Unlike the Academy, however, they offered free advanced lessons to people who has a special talent for combat. Maeve was a skilled swordswoman, and spent ages studying weapons and Aiwenor’s military history. But at fifteen, she was turned down, and two years later she still thought her rejection was unfair.
Aleika turned to face them. 'Reactions, Maeve.'
Maeve raised her knife to block Aleika's strike in less than a second. Chunks of mushroom fell out her mouth.
Aleika turned on Bryony, who leapt back to avoid the knife, but fell over. Aleika walked over smugly and prodded her with the knife's handle. 'You're dead now.'
'Oh, alright.' Bryony pointed at the smoke billowing out of the fire and formed it into a Bryony-sized skeleton at her feet.
Bryony stepped on the smoke skeleton, and it faded away.
'Don’t be harsh. You know Bryony’s a little weird.’ Maeve raised her eyebrows at her friend like she was expecting a response. Bryony stayed silent.
Aleika rolled her wide, hazel eyes. 'Mages are all weird. When I see Niklas, I ask how he is, and he never says “fine” or “I have a cold.” He says something like “I am in a state of exhaustion-induced apathy.” My point is, Maeve, that Delia shouldn't dismiss you because… what happened? You flinched instead of blocking, right?' Her voice softened. 'A lot of people tend to do that. It's a defensive reflex.'
'I should've gotten over it by now. And people always attack without warning in a battle.'
'Well, at least you have me. I’m not as good as a proper instructor, but I’m an ex-student,' - she threw her knife across the room, and it sank into the cupboard door - 'and I’m alright.'
Maeve, at last, handed her own knife back to Aleika and grabbed Bryony's hand. 'That’s nice, but we have to go.'
There were quite a few markets in Zeit, and Maeve never tried to sell things as the same one twice in a row. The one they were heading to today was right next to Bryony's house. All the regular stalls would be there - the bakery, the glass shop, the teacher selling textbooks to people who couldn't afford proper tutoring - but there would always be someone new.
Admittedly, Bryony had little in common with Maeve. If you saw the two of them walking down the street, the only reason you might assume they knew each other is that they looked around the same age. While Bryony hung around the edge of the path, walking hunched over and staring at the ground, Maeve walked in a zig-zag, then up on her toes, then backwards. She hopped around like a child, cartwheeling and punching invisible foes in the face. A young couple heading in the opposite direction glanced at her, confused, but when Maeve glared at them, daring them to say anything, they looked away and hurried past her. There were a lot of things about Maeve that were intimidating - her strength, her cunning, the fact that she was so observant and aware of everything, how creepily silent she could be at times. But the most impressive thing about her was her confidence. Or, at least, the fact that she appeared confident.
The first person Maeve met up with was a cheerful, fat merchant named Galroth. He was selling seemingly random objects: a bowl, a pair of shoes, a cookbook. Maeve handed him some silver coins in exchange for a necklace with a shield-shaped pendant on it and an apple.
Bryony noticed a tiny horse carving sitting on the table and pointed to it. 'How much is that?'
Galroth glanced at Bryony's wand, which she'd forgotten to put down, and his face became closed off.
'It doesn’t matter. No sane person sells to witches.'
Despite Maeve's pleading, he turned his back on the girls. Bryony stuffed her wand in her bag and pulled her friend away before she could take it any further.
Maeve cursed Galroth under her breath, then turned to Bryony. 'You wanted that horse for Deion, didn't you? So what's so wrong with Zeit that buying a toy for your brother isn't allowed? Why is nobody doing anything? Why can't you guys just stick up for yourselves and jinx all the idiots?'
Bryony knew why - because it would just reinforce the belief that mages were dangerous. Magicians were powerful, but few. If the public was against them, then authority would have to be against them to keep their positions. And if authority was against them, then they were pretty much dead already.
'It's... safer not to.'
Maeve groaned and flipped her blonde plait to the side. 'Rutah's sword, if something is important, then talk about it.'
'I did.' This was true. When Bryony was fourteen, a drunk magician had set someone's house on fire, and no one knew if it was an accident or not. Most people in Zeit wanted the Academy, the main source of magical education, shut down. Bryony had ranted to Maeve a bit too loudly, and because she was so young, it shocked people. They listened. She even got to speak in front of Prince Gedeon, who’d been put in charge of Zeit by his brother the King, with Niklas and two of the other teachers. But she was a mess - she hadn't prepared a thing, she just stared at the wall and repeated the best arguments she'd heard other students use (but only within the walls of the Academy). Then something amazing happened. Lady Nora, who would've been fifteen or sixteen at the time, had turned to her father Gedeon and agreed with the magicians. She wasn't meant to - even council members had to wait until everyone finished speaking to argue for or against them. But Gedeon listened. He waited until she finished speaking and told the mages, as politely as possible, that he was never going to close the school in the first place and that they were wasting his time. Bryony’s family considered that a success, so they held a party.
But the main reason that magic was hated wasn’t the occasional accidents. It was everyone’s disgust with the idea that any one human could be born with a powerful ability that you didn’t have, and they didn’t necessarily deserve it. They could be a lazy idiot who never used it, they could be a murderer... but the fact remained that they had magic and you didn’t. No one knew why some people were born with magic and others not.
A scholar named Lucas Wern theorised that everyone was born with a reserve of magic within them, which either active or, more likely, passive, determining whether you could use magic or not. Readers, who could apparently “read” people’s magic to learn more about it, agreed with this, and said that some magicians actually used up their whole supply and had to wait weeks for it to regenerate. Why they were active in the first place was completely unknown - some theories were that it ran in families, that it coincided with the time of your birth and whether the Divines favoured your parents, or the alignment of the constellations, or that it was actually just random. Magic was an enigma, but people were figuring out more and more of it each day - which just made things worse. Normal people didn’t want magicians to be more powerful and know a lot more than them too. Still, the innovations were exciting to hear about if you were a mage. When Bryony had heard about how air elementalists had finally established a difficult but reliable system of flight, she’d felt amazing - powerful, hopeful. Like she understood her magic and could finally master it. Like she was flying herself.
She’d never felt that way since.
Maeve was still glaring at the merchant, and Bryony sighed.
‘Look, would it help if I stole a copper from him?’
‘If you want to break the law, take enough money to actually buy something.’
‘If I want to break the law, don’t talk so loudly about it.’ Fortunately, Galroth didn’t seem to be paying any attention - he was busy haggling with a narrow-eyed man trying to buy a jacket.
Suddenly, there was a crash, followed by shouting and around twenty thumps. Bryony and Maeve whirled around, but there was no apparent source of the noises - they seemed to be following the path of a small boy running frantically. He was holding a heavily-embellished necklace, all pearls and giant golden beads. It looked expensive, and it didn’t take Bryony long to work out what must be chasing him.
Six of them toppled into the marketplace at once, one losing her helmet in the process. She didn’t stop to get it.
The boy, who looked about eleven, was struggling to outrun them, and while most of the merchants were clearing a path for him, an older woman didn’t notice him coming - she was busy searching her bag for something - and he crashed into her, sending coins flying. Bryony made an effort to pick up the coins, but Galroth snatched them from her and gave them to the woman himself.
The boy managed to get up again, but he was cornered by the guards. In a panic, he dropped the necklace. One guard pinned his arms behind his back and another began to yell at him. Bryony noticed Maeve tensing up beside her. No, Maeve. Please don’t do anything.
Her friend dropped her basket, stepped forward coolly and moved between the guards and the boy. ‘You’re scaring him. Stop.’
The guards were silent for a few seconds, and one nodded. Bryony willed her friend to back off. She’d been lucky so far. She couldn’t keep it up.
But Maeve took another step towards them. ‘He’s a child. If you punish him unfairly, then he won’t grow up respecting the King's Guard, will he? He’ll see you as the enemy. You’re just creating more problems for yourselves.’
Bryony linked arms with Maeve and tried to pull her away. ‘You’ve made your point…’ she hissed. ‘Stop.’
The guard who had lost her helmet grimaced. ‘I will ensure that he has a fair trial. I won’t let him be punished too harshly. He just needs to learn his lesson - and now, not when he’s all grown up.’
Galroth lumbered over. ‘That one’s a mage! She’s armed!’
Bryony glared at him, but she took out the wand and ring anyway.
‘I was using these magical… um, instruments… at the Academy. There is no law against them.’
‘Only against staffs,’ jumped in Maeve, ‘which, due to their larger body and less refined core, are used as destructive tools and can be classed as a weapon.’
Maeve had an incredible memory, and she’d spent a lot of time reading over the laws regarding magic - mostly to defend Bryony if something like this came up, but also because she liked telling people that they were wrong.
‘So really, Galroth is just being a paranoid idiot, and he can…’
‘Alright, that’s enough.’ Another guard frowned at them. ‘Please, everyone, move away. NOW.’
Maeve narrowed her eyes. ‘We’re not in the wrong here.’
‘Everyone who continues this is "in the wrong." Guards cannot leave an area without settling any disputes that may end in violence, so legally, we’re stuck here until you sort things out.’
Galroth sighed, cast a final glare at Bryony and shuffled away, but Maeve was only getting angrier and angrier.
‘Oh, really? So the only reason you want him to shut up is so you can walk away freely? That’s ridiculous! How about wanting to help because you’re a DECENT HUMAN BEING?’
The guard lunged forwards and pinned Maeve’s arm behind her back, making the boy scream. ‘Look... now you’ve jumped from being a little audacious to actually breaking the law. We’re taking you to see the captain.’
Maeve’s fury subsided, and her eyes turned wide and hollow-looking. ‘No…’
‘This is what happens to people who unfairly challenge a guard. You need to learn to deal with consequences.’
As Maeve was dragged away, Bryony couldn’t bring herself to do anything but pick up Maeve’s basket, close her eyes and walk in the opposite direction.