It was fully dark by the time we made it back to the academy, I still carried the blood stained sword I’d made. Sophia had been very quiet as we walked. I’d not said much either
The lights of the entrance hall were fully on. The receptionist from earlier was still at her desk. I was puzzled by that, they normally went home at night.
“Master Tristan, sir, a letter has come for you,” she called as we approached.
“A letter? Who uses letters nowadays.” We continued walking to the desk
I don’t know sir, it’s not my place to speculate.” She placed the tattered envelope in my hand. “I was waiting for you, now that it’s done I can go home.”
Sophia looked as the letter then caught sight of the sword, blood still dripped from its tip. She paled and the words she was about to say died on her tongue.
No words were exchanged. Neither of us were in the mood.
We walked up to our apartment. Sophia ran off to her room, rushing past Airis in the process. Airis looked to me.
“You are her companion and protector not her accomplice. The pair of you were to stay with Jase.”
Airis opened his mouth to speak but I held up my hand and the bloody sword.
“No, I don’t want to hear it. I have had to do something that I wish I hadn’t because she was there. It is your responsibility to protect her in this case even from her self. None of this needed to happen.” I said the anger had faded, now I just felt tired and empty.
“None of this needed to happen” I repeated softly to myself.
“What happened? I’m sorry Tristan. I didn’t think it would do any harm.”
“Sophia will need you tonight. Please don’t let there be a next time.”
Airis nodded and shuffled off towards the bed rooms.
I was left alone, I longed to put the sword down but I couldn’t unclench my hand from the hilt. It felt wrong to let go. I don’t know why. The letter in my hand drew my attention. I raised it so that the light caught the gently curving glyphs, common glyphs minus the complicated connectives of mage glyphs. There was no clue on the envelope about who it was from. It wasn’t official, that much I was certain about. I still hadn’t received my mage certificate, but I knew those envelopes were thick and creamy. This was cheap, simple. I wasn’t in the mood for it right now. I wanted to bathe, to eat, to put down the fucking sword that my hand refused to let go of.
I walked past the table and threw the letter on to it, it landed on the edge. I continued on to my room.
Outside my door I could hear muffled conversation from Sophia’s room. I could guess what was being said. My dark mood told me exactly how badly I had failed Sophia.
I entered my room and left them to their conversation, I wanted no part in it right now.
My room was dimly lit the lights on their lowest setting whilst still being on. It matched my mood, dark and shadowed. I sat on my bed and laid the sword over my knees. It was the only white thing in here. My eyes were drawn to the beautiful ugly thing. The sharp serrated edge. The long straight spine. The dark, so very dark, stain of blood stark against the gleaming whiteness.
My mood darkened further. A life I had taken in rage. I failed to protect Sophia. Her bruise was all the evidence I needed that I couldn’t give her what she needed.
I couldn’t be a parent.
I hadn’t even spoken to my own for years. I remembered the fights we’d had about me becoming a Mage. ‘A life of blood, shed and spilled,’ my father had called it during one of his more eloquent rants. My last year at home had been uncomfortable. It had been three years since I’d even mirrored them. As much as I’d hated my training here, it had been an effective excuse to avoid them.
I had done this all of this, I could blame no one. I chose this life, again and again at every hurdle I had chosen this life even with the possible blood shed and pain. I’d never envisioned a child stuck in it with me. I cared for Sophia deeply but I could never give her the peace I wished for her, I couldn’t take the pain of losing her parents from her, I couldn’t fix it, all I had to offer was magic and more pain.
I stood and walked over to wall there was a weapons rack next to the bathroom door. I’d never considered that I would even need a weapon but when given the choice between taking the Ventrastus for judgement I’d chose blood. what that said about me I don’t know but it wasn’t anything good. I hung the sword on the rack then walked through to the bathroom.
I shed my clothes unhurriedly, all the passion and haste I normally felt gone. I wasn’t a man anymore. I was a shell. A burnt out husk.
I went through my ablutions slowly and with extra care, my mind blank as I did the routine task of cleaning my self. My fingers stung as I washed. The backflow of my blast, a lingering reminder that I would have failed if the people hadn’t helped me. I’d not even asked their names. They had burnt the body there and then on the street. The thick greasy smoke had risen straight up, a darker mark against the dark sky.
Sophia had been silent as a statue, her face as grim as I’d ever seen her. her childhood was being stripped away from her piece by piece and it was my fault. I clenched my fist in the steaming water. The burns hurt but it was a good pain. A sharp prompt that I wasn’t equipped for this. I needed more training and Sophia needed someone else, someone who could give her a normal life.
I reached for a towel automatically, my body going through the motions while my mind was elsewhere. I walked back to my room, the bright light came from the open door to my room, a shadowed form stood at my doorway, the light spilling around the shape but not illuminating the person.
“Tristan, oh my Tristan. I heard, the whole town is abuzz with the news,” Lyphia said. She hurried forwards to embrace me.
“Don’t, I killed him. Don’t touch me.”
She stopped halfway across the room
“Tristan, be honest with me, was there another way?”
“I could have taken him for judgement, Rysan, Orb and Jase could have served. I don’t need to execute him.”
“From what I hear you did the right thing. He was exploiting the people, he hurt a child. He’s done worse,” Lyphia said.
“Maybe, but I didn’t need to be the one that did it. There are systems in place for that but… He hurt Sophia.”
Lyphia closed the distance, she ignored my feeble nudges. Her arms wrapped around me in a tight yet gentle embrace.
“You protected your daughter. You protected the people. You did the right thing.” she said softly against my chest.
I could feel my emotions waking up, her gentle touch stirred something in me. My eyes itched.
“She isn’t mine. Her parents are gone. I just saw her hurt, and it broke something in me.”
“You are her father in every way that matters right now. You love her and want the best for her. That is why you did what you did.”
“Its not enough, I can’t give her a quiet life. She’s even a mage now, of all things. She hates magic. I can’t be a father to her, I barely know mine. I walked away from my parents to be a mage.”
Lyphia pulled back and looked up at me.
“Tristan you know how to be a father, I’ve watched you with her. You are doing fine. Her being a mage increases her need for you not lessens it. No one else can understand her like you can.”
“I killed a man for hurting her. It wasn’t justice. It was revenge. I couldn’t stand the thought of him getting away with hurting her. I cut his head off because I could. I was so angry.”
“Tristan you know how to be a father, someone hurt your little girl, you made sure he could never hurt anyone again.”
I had nothing to say to that.
“Now you have something you need to do.”
“Yes, you need to get dressed and you need to talk to her.”
“What if she hates me? What if she turns away?”
“Stop it. No what ifs. We aren’t playing that game. You are going to go in and comfort that little girl who looks up to you. She needs you and, unless I’m much mistaken, you need her.”
I was led to the wardrobe. Lyphia picked out some clothes for me and I numbly put them on.
“Now go. I will arrange a meal for us all.”
I walked to the door in a daze.
“Can Airis eat?” Lyphia asked.
I halted trying to make sense of what had been said. “What?”
“Can Airis eat? I know he’s a golem, but he’s a boy too. It would be nice if he joined us for our meal.”
“He can eat, he doesn’t need to, but he can. I’ve not actually tried.”
“He’s a boy, we have to feed him. Now go do your duty.”
I continued out the door. I stood outside Sophia’s room. My hand was raised to knock. the earlier sounds had stopped. I took a deep breath put a small false smile on my face and knocked.
Airis opened the door, his boyish face more a mask than I had seen even when he was first-born. He looked at me, a glow kindling in his eyes as he raised his head. He squared his shoulders and set his feet.
“No, you aren’t coming in,” he said.
“I wish to talk to her.”
“No, she’s upset. I don’t want you in here,” his form started shifting. The wooden floor creaked as his mass increased, stone replacing flesh.
“Airis, I’m not going to push this. I just want to make sure she is okay”
“Let him in please Airis. thank you for wanting to protect me but Tristan won’t hurt me”
Airis stood a moment, a considering air about him.He lurched to the side reluctance in his every motion. The glow in his eyes didn’t diminish, if anything they grew brighter and more probing.
I stepped past him, Sophia was sat on her bed, her arms wrapped around her knees hugging herself. Her head was down, red hair covered her face, hiding it from me.
Soph, how are you doing?” I asked softly. I stood near the edge of her bed fighting the urge to run away. my mouth was dry and my heart felt like it was in my throat.
She raised her head, tears were clear in her eyes. Little tracks of their passage marked her face, the bruise stood out in stark relief against her pale skin.
“I miss them,” she said.
I looked at her, my mind felt stupefied. stunned that it had taken this long for her parents to be brought up.
“I know Soph, I know.” I moved over and sat on the edge of the bed. I looked down at my hands as I spoke. “I wish I could give you a better life. You don’t deserve this.”
“Tristan, I love my parents, but they would never have done what you have for me. Jase told me what you did. You risked everything for me.” she unfurled from the ball she was in and wiggled over to sit next to me
“Sophia your parents loved you, they would have done anything for you. They …” I trailed off. How was I supposed to say they died in unimaginable pain to spare you? They could have let go and taken you with them, no I couldn’t tell her that.
“They what?” she asked
“They were incredibly brave, your mother asked me to look after you. I’ve done my best but I don’t think I can give you what you need. I’m not a parent. I barely speak to mine. I don’t know what I’m doing and you keep getting hurt.”
“You don’t want me,” she said, she slid away from me.
“Its not that, I do want you. I really do but I can’t keep you safe. My life is dangerous. I’m not always here. You need stability.”
“You get to decide that?”
“Yes, I’m an adult.”
“That’s what my mum used to say.” Her tears flowed quicker now. “But she is gone and now you want to get rid of me. Fine do it, send me to an orphanage. I’m just a burden on you. You don’t love me. You don’t want me!” her voice rose with every short sentence choked and muffled by her tears as it was.
“Sophia I’m trying to do right by you. I don’t want to see you get hurt anymore. I killed a man just for laying his hand on you. But you shouldn’t have been there. I shouldn’t have lost my temper but seeing you on the ground, changed everything. What am I supposed to do?”
“Do your duty Mage! she spat the final word at me, the venom in her voice starling.
“Tristan leave!” Airis commanded me. he had moved his stone from grating as he came closer. His eyes blindingly bright.
“Not now Airis.” I replied dismissively.
I felt hard golem hands wrap around me and lift.
“Airis put me down now!”
“grr” a deep stony rumble echoed from his chest through me.
“Airis put him down!” Sophia’s strident tone rang through the room like a bell although slightly muffled.
We stopped moving.
“He hurt you, I failed before, I won’t fail again.”
“Tristan won’t hurt me,” she said.
A strange feeling of joy, hope even, rose inside me at the faith this small girl showed in me. A matching wave of fear rose too, that I wouldn’t be able to live up to this hope.
I felt Airis release his grasp.
I found my feet then turned
“Sophia, all I want is the best for you.”
The little girl that had claimed a place in my heart, broke. Her tears began anew. Deep racking sobs shook her. “Don’t leave me,” she cried out.
I rushed over to her, wrapped my arms around her and whispered fiercely “I won’t, I’m sorry I won’t leave you.”
Her little arms held me tight, tremors raged through her.
I smoothed her hair down. “I won’t leave you.”
“Uhum,” a sound came from behind us.
I turned my head, my neck was stiff. Lyphia was stood behind us.
Sophia was curled in my lap, my arms were still wrapped around her. her sobs had stopped long ago. we had cuddled in silence, there was no need for words, we had made our peace with the situation.
I wasn’t sure what everyone wanted for dinner, so we are going out” Lyphia announced to us.
Airis stood next to the door, he hadn’t moved since our little encounter, not a word or a motion. He moved at that. A twitch of a hand, a stiffening of his back, his blank face dropped slightly. I wasn’t the only one that noticed.
“Don’t look so down Airis, you are coming too.”
Is going out really the best idea?” I asked.
“Don’t be such a grump, going out is an excellent idea. I know because I came up with it,” Lyphia’s smile bloomed at that, a charming impish thing.
“Soph, do you want to go out?” I asked, I fought my own smile. It was small but real.
“Uhfh,” Sophia said against my chest.
“What was that?”
Sophia untangled herself from me. then looked to Lyphia.
“But I’m a mess. We can’t go out,” she said.
“We can and we will. It will do you good. We can send the boys ahead while we get ready if you want,” Lyphia said.
“No, she doesn’t go anywhere on her own,” I said.
“No,” Airis said at the same time.
Lyphia looked between Airis and myself. A tense expression clouding her features. “Don’t be ridiculous, she isn’t on her own. She will be with me. She is a little girl she shouldn’t be around men all the time. You boys don’t have a clue about dressing up. She will be with me, she will be safe,” her voice softened on the last and her eyes found mine.
“If its okay with Soph then its okay with me” I said, I wasn’t going to win this one. Better to bow out first.
“Yeah, I get to play dress up again.” Sophia said. She scooted off the bed and over to Lyphia where she took her hand and dragged her to the bathroom.
I looked at Airis. His hostility hadn’t diminished much. I couldn’t blame him I’d made him this way.
“Could you ask Lyphia where we are meeting her please? I will wait for you in the main room.” I asked him.
I didn’t even get a nod, he stalked off to the bathroom.
I left and went into the main room.
I considered sitting down it had been a long day, I ached. I decided against it. I was dressed and clean, better to stay ready than risk stiffening up further.
The envelope on the table drew me, I stepped closer to pick it but Airis came through.
“Lyphia says the place you went to last time,” he said sullenly.
“Good that gives us time to talk.”
Airis didn’t even bother to respond. He just headed to the door.
I followed. The letter could wait.
The deep blackness of the night hid most of the town from view, the stars shone brilliantly in the void above. Their cold light couldn’t reach the earth. They watched like angels in the sky.
We walked over the white stone paths, our steps heavily echoing in the still night air. Airis walked next to me, his head down, focused on the way.
“I didn’t mean to imply…” I started.
Airis raised his hand cutting me off sharply.
“Shut up Tristan. I know my job and I failed. She is mine to look after. I couldn’t keep her safe from the gnomes. I didn’t even think she would be in danger in town. I don’t even have any skill that would let me protect her. Unless a chair is going to help,” he said in a bitter mocking tone
“A chair might, you never know,” I said trying to lighten his mood.
“This isn’t the time for jokes.”
“There is always time to joke, we can’t life get us down”
“Is that what you did over the body of the man you killed? Did you tell jokes?” he asked.
That shut me up, I turned my own eyes to the path. My mouth tightened in a grim lines.
We made the rest of the way in silence. As we got closer more people appeared. The people on the streets were festive, music came from the restaurant. Warm cheery light poured from the windows and door. The crowd didn’t touch us, our grim faces and sombre moods acting as a shield against them.
We walked in. A server asked us how large our party was.
“Four, two are still to come.”
“Very good sir. I will show you to your table,” the young server said.
We wove our path through the crowd. I noticed the sheer mass of people in here. They were everywhere except a small area near the back wall. The once colourful murals were blank.
So much for studying how to make them. Sophia wanted one. I thought to myself.
Our table was along the edge of the empty area.
“Why is it so busy in here tonight?” I asked the young server.
His eyebrows rose in an incredulous look “You don’t know?”
“No. That’s why I asked.” It was surprisingly difficult to keep the sarcastic tone from my voice. I think I managed.
“Its show night. Tonight we have a retelling of the elemental child.”
“I remember plays and such being mentioned the last time I was here.”
“Its one of the things that really draws in the crowd. The music and the food help of course. Can I get you anything while you wait?” he asked as we seated ourselves.
“Could I have a drink? Anything please I’m not fussed tonight,” I asked. I placed my hands on the wooden table. I felt myself tensing as I noticed the number of people looking at me. A hush went through the room even the music faltered.
All of a sudden a roar went through the crowd.
They were cheering.
“A drink for the mage! Well done sir. That Selac has been a menace for years. He needed putting down,” a large older man made his way out of the crowd to place a large meaty hand on my shoulder.
I looked down at my hands, they had tightened into claws digging at the smooth varnished surface.
I stood, shaking the unwelcome hand off me.
“Don’t thank me. I shouldn’t have done it,” I said as I turned around to face him.
“You did this town a service, many a girl has been forced by that dirty mage. You put an end to him. Finally we have a mage that looks out for us.” The man’s smile seemed to take up most of his face.
“Thank you, I’m uncomfortable with being congratulated for killing a man. I would rather not discuss it as you can see I have a child with me.” I pointed towards Airis.
The man reddened. “Of course. I’m sorry. It was bad manners on my part.”
I placed my hand on the man’s arm and led him a few steps away from the table “I would prefer it if this wasn’t brought up again. I’m pleased you feel I’ve done a service to you, but its a dark business that has no place in such a bright place. Let us all enjoy an evening to forget our woes.”
“Wisely said young mage. Like I said it was bad manners. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“Well, let’s say no more about it. If you could spread the word that I’m out with my lady and my wards. Hopefully that will dissuade well meaning people.”
“I get your meaning sir. I will do what I can. I hope this serves as amends”
“Trouble yourself about it no more,” I said. I turned back towards my table when I heard him call for the music to resume.
Airis had remained seated his face locked in an expression of anger, which on his face looked a lot like a childish pout. I recognised it. It was the same expression I wore every time I got caught doing something wrong. It was my mad at myself face.
I retook my seat.
“So, you ready to talk about it now? Or are you going to sit there sulking. Its fine with me either way. But I doubt the girls will be impressed with you looking like this.”
“How do you do it? Deal with all these emotions? My desire to please Sophia led me to risking her safety. I then took it out on you and now I’m sat here angry with myself. I feel too….” he trailed off. I could see him struggling to find the words.
“Emotion is a part of being alive. We all grow up with it and we don’t always handle it well. It takes time, effort and experience. I know I was a bit harsh on you earlier…”
“No worse than I deserved. I let my charge, my friend, get hurt. You were right to be hard with me.”
“No I wasn’t Airis. you made a mistake, that’s all. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made my share of them,” I said looking down at my hands. They were clean but I could still feel the sword like the ghost of a blade against my skin.
“My mistake nearly cost Sophia!” Airis said with a passion I didn’t know he could feel.
“You care for her?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I know you care what she thinks of you, but do you care for her?” I persisted.
Airis squirmed under my gaze but he didn’t look away.
“Of course I care for her. How could I not, you made me this way.”
“I didn’t. I gave you the capability for emotion, real emotion, not some pretence of it. You made yourself this way.”
Airis stopped squirming, a flicker of a glow entered his eyes.
“I don’t have to feel like this then. You can take this away?” a note of hope permeated his words.
“No, Airis. You chose this. I can’t take away your choice without turning you into a machine.”
“I am a machine,” he said although his voice wavered.
“You are not. You are a living being. You might have been born different, but you are alive Airis. I won’t take that from you.”
“You took life from that mage,” he replied venomously. “How am I worth less than a Ventrastus?”
I flinched away from him then, before I could stop myself. I looked at him. I could see what had made him speak like that, fear.
“You think you are worth less than an oath breaker, and a vicious one at that? Oh Airis, you are worth so much more than that. You have a life, maybe even a soul. You have chosen to care for someone else. I didn’t make that happen. You did. Emotion isn’t a bad thing. Give it a chance, if you are still uncomfortable with it, I can install some limiting protocols. But I want you to give it a real chance.”
Airis looked at me, a kind of flickering in his face as it shifted between emotions, hope and fear dominated before settling into a steely resolve. He nodded to me.
I nodded back.
We sat in silence, but it wasn’t tense or awkward now. The music in the room resumed a low but lively piece. I found myself tapping my foot to it as we waited.
I watched the staff of the place, setting up a few chairs at the back of the empty area. four chairs. They remained empty for some reason.
I turned my head just in time to see Lyphia and Sophia enter the restaurant. I raised my hand to wave them over. I received a smile from Lyph and a small wave from Sophia. Her own smile was a bit frayed around the edges but she shared it with everyone. Lyphia’s smile was just for me.
The server brought them over to the table and seated them before hurrying off.
“Sorry we took so long but we had to fix Sophia’s face.”
I looked at Sophia, she turned her head so I could see.
Her bruise was gone or hidden, I couldn’t tell which. I gave her my very best smile to hide the anger I felt welling up.
She should never have been hurt. I’m a failure, my thoughts taunted me.
Lyphia laid a hand on my arm and lent into me.
“Let it go Tristan,” she whispered.
“We should order now that everyone is here,”I said.
“Yes I’m starving,” Sophia said.
Airis said nothing, his own eyes rested on the side of Sophia’s face.
“What do I have a smudge or something?” Sophia said to Airis, her hand came up to rub at her face.
“Don’t. You don’t want to smear the make up,” Lyphia said
Sophia froze in mid motion. “Is there something wrong with my face? Airis keeps looking at me. You said I was pretty,” she turned to Lyphia.
“There is nothing wrong with your face Sophia. Tristan back me up here.” Lyphia said.
“There is nothing wrong with your face.” I echoed dutifully. Which earned me a little jab in the ribs. I grinned at the girls.
“Men,” Lyphia said while rolling her eyes at Sophia.
“I’m sorry Sophia you look nice,” Airis said then looked down at the table.
“Thank you Airis,” Sophia said smiling widely at him.
I raised my arm to call a server over.
“Yes sir, what can I get you?”
I looked over the others at my table, my family in a way.
“Could we have the specials all round please, and some drinks? Tristan, hey Tristan”
I felt a nudge.
“You drifted off again. Please focus. The young man here needs to know what you would like to drink.”
“I’m sorry, could I have a glass of the house white wine please?”
“I will have the same, just the one though. Kids?”
“Can we have wine?” Sophia asked looking at me.
I looked at Lyphia. She nodded after a moment’s consideration.
“Half wine, half juice please. We can’t have them missing the show.”
“We can do that. I will be back in a moment with your drinks, your meals won’t be long either,” the server said, before diving back into the crowd.
Thank you,” Sophia said. She turned to Airis and started animatedly telling of her war wound and her makeover in a hushed voice.
“You knew about the show?” I asked Lyphia.
“I did, I thought it would take everyone’s mind off things,” she said.
“You are a genius.”
“I know,” she smiled broadly at that. Her hand came to rest on mine on the table. She looked me deeply in the eyes. “Stop shaking, I’m not going anywhere. We are going to have a nice night together. The four of us. Then just the two of us,” her gaze heated with the last.
I found myself chuckling. Her hand tightened on mine. I hadn’t even realized I’d been trembling.
I gripped it back.
Our drinks arrived.
The server said, “Your meal will come next. The show is just about to start so if you could keep the talking to a minimum please.” He passed our drinks to us, then hurried off as the lighting began to dim.
Sophia nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement, a small squeak escaped her.
“Shush,” I whispered.
Our table was right on the edge of the ‘stage’. It was the only part of the room lit. We could see the once empty chairs now had people in. Two men and two women all in their mid twenties bar one an older man in his late forties, they sat perfectly still with they hands clasped in their laps around foci. Small wands, they looked specially made. Very complex glyphs engraved down the sides.
The older man spoke. His voice was deep and clear, not loud but I was certain everyone in the room could hear it.
“Tonight we will be telling the tale of the elemental child.”
I recalled bits of the story and that I’d wanted to get a copy for Sophia, she reminded me of the story. I lent forward in my chair, and raised my glass to my lips. The wine was lightly chilled and tart, the alcohol sharp on my tongue.
Small glimmers of light danced around the foci as each player started channelling their magic through them. Ghostly images formed in the stage area, pictures of a forest. Trees grew up from the sanded floor, that had shifted to look like a deeply shadowed glade deep in the woods. A rounded pool took shape in the centre The dappled light cast strange shadows on the depths. The air in the room stirred and the audience grew quieter. the focus on the unfolding scene was almost palpable. Faint sounds reached my ears, the creak of branches, the lapping of the water against the stone edge of the poor. Snow started to fall from a cloud over the stage, fat flake drifted to coat the trees, the pool froze with a loud crackling. Waves of cold radiated so strongly I felt goosebumps ripple across my skin. The trees continued to grow as did the thickness of the snow. The scene before us now looked like a winter forest.
“Deep in the winter woods by a frozen pool, there was a child,” the older man’s voice drifted through the room carrying with it the faint sounds of the scene.
In the centre of the glade a tiny flame sprung into existence. It slowly grew into a small person. Shifting from flame to something else, almost solid. The girl, because that’s what it clearly was. She had red hair and pale skin, like Sophia.
She started to dance
“Another child had gotten lost in the woods, the sudden snow had confused her, she stumbled into the glade.”
From the tree line came a small dark figure wrapped in furs, the effort of moving through the snow filled woods evident in its every motion.
The flame girl danced around the pool, slow measured steps, in her wake the snow melted. Each step sending out tiny flares of heat. She didn’t notice the shadow of a person on the edge of the glade.
The shadow child fell into the centre of the glade just as the fire child had completed the first circuit round the pool. Still the flame child didn’t notice.
A loud crack sounded through the room. I jumped. From the titters of nervous laughter I wasn’t the only one. Sophia and Airis were enchanted with the scene before them. Lyphia held on tightly to my hand, a faint smile on her face as she watched.
The ice in the pool shattered and still the fire child danced.
“The shadow child bathed in the warmth, after so long lost in the cold it felt like coming home.”
The shadow child stripped off her heavy furs, a glove dropped onto the freshly revealed grass followed by another. Her thick coat fell to land with her gloves. Revealing the face of the shadow. Young and clear skinned, her pale blond hair a tangled mess. She was young girl, her lips were chapped and she shivered.
I felt myself shiver in response.
The fire child leaped over the pool, flickers of flame swelled around her fast moving form,fire rushed out in a bright wash of colours. Steam obscured the images in a billowing cloud that filled the room.
“The elemental child, saw the shadow girl and stopped her dance.”
When the steam cleared, the glade looked as if spring had returned. Buds of greenery had grown on the trees, small wild flowers dotted the grass.
The elemental child stood to the edge of the pool looking at the blond shadow child, a confused mix of curiosity and puzzlement on her tiny face.
The shadow child, had her mouth open in wonder, her large blue eye wide as she gazed upon the glade.
The red haired girl stepped lightly forwards like a cat investigating the new thing in her presence.
The shadow girl fell back, she landed on her back in the thick grass.
“The elemental child was curious, for she had never seen another before.”
The flame haired girl leant over the fallen girl. She peered intently at the girl’s hair, before reaching out and touching it.
The shadow girl smiled and offered her hand.
The elemental child looked at it, tilting her head this way and that, then she took it.
The shadow girl pulled herself up from the ground. Her mouth moved but there was no sound.
The elemental child leapt back in surprise but didn’t let go of the hand.
“ She had never heard a voice, the sounds of nature were all she knew.”
The shadow girl was pulled along with her. a momentary tussle which had them both smiling.
The elemental child looked at the shadow girl, down at her thick boots. She lifted a foot and danced a step.
The shadow girl copied her.
They were soon dancing round the glade, spring flowing from their feet.
Birds sung and the trees whispered, the sound of dripping water under that.
The last of the snow was melting.
“From the day forward the shadow girl and the elemental child danced away the last day of winter together.”
The scene reset, winter snow and winds.
The elemental child and the shadow girl, this time the shadow was a bit older, her face stronger and her body taller.
The snow melted slowly and the sun shone down.
The scene reset. Winter again.
An elemental child and a shadow woman, her body certainly a woman this time. The first flush of youth was gone, replaced by a surer step and a more knowing gaze.
They danced, not like young children skipping but a more certain partnership.
Spring came in a rush, sharper. The scent of spring flowers drifted across me in the warm crisp air that flowed over me.
The scene reset.
The elemental child the same as always, the years left no mark on her. The trees grew taller and the moss around the pool spread into a verdant carpet. The shadow girl was a woman, heavy with child. Her steps were careful and solid.
They danced gently like a mothers love for her unborn child. soft but with such feeling behind it I could feel tears tugging at my eyes.
I took a sip of my drink to cover drying my eyes and idly wondered where our food was.
The scene drew my attention again with such a prolonged snapping. It was like rain on hot cobbles.
Trees shook off their winter clothes. The branches pulsed with life. The birds swooped in the sky above the forest, a few flew over the tables, one landed on Sophia’s hair, which made her laugh.
The scene reset.
The winter was harsh this time. Ice covered the trees, not just snow but solid ice thick and unmoving. The cold pervaded the room. Frost formed on our glasses. My hair crackled in the chill.
The elemental child stood on the icy surface of the frozen pool, her eyes fixed on the path that the shadow girl always came by. A sense of impatience came from her.
The shadow girl arrived. the years had passed, leaving lines, of many happy days and nights etched into her face. Her gait was slow and laboured, her walking stave carried most of her weight.
She collapsed in the centre of the glade, her skin turned a waxy shade. Her breath came in fits and starts.
The child looked on curious then rushed forward an expression of pain on her face. She knelt next to the shadow girl.
A pained smile slowly transformed into one of such peace that I could feel myself relaxing despite knowing the end was near.
The shadow girl’s chest rose no more.
For a long moment no sounds could be heard. The trees didn’t creak. The wind didn’t stir. The birds did not sing. The audience held their breath. A pregnant moment that couldn’t last.
The elemental child looked down at her friend, a single tear fell on to shadow girl.
“The elemental child had never seen death in one like her before.”
Flames spread from the tear, bright and soft. A rippling wash of fire.
And up rose the shadow girl as we had first seen her, her older self looking out of her eyes.
The girls danced, fast and hard like a summer storm with the same boundless energy. The trees grew buds and flowers sprung up in profusion. The ice melted in a torrent of water and a light rain fell. The sun shone down brightly. Birds sung in celebration.
“The elemental child and the shadow girl are there still, dancing, bringing spring to the whole world. Love and friendship changed their world.” The older man’s whisper carried through the room.
The scene faded into wisps and the lights came back up.
Sophia and Airis were staring at the stage, wide eyed and open mouthed.
Lyphia was looking at me.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s not how I remember it,” I said.
“It’s an old story. There are probably loads of different versions.”
“You don’t have to pick apart everything, just enjoy it. Oh, look dinner is coming.”
The server was indeed making his way to our table.
“Sorry for the delay. We didn’t want to interrupt the performance,” he said as he handed out our meals.
“It’s fine, the show was wonderful. I was wondering if I could speak to the players later. Would that be alright?”
“I believe so sir, I would have to check.” The young man looked over toward the players now empty chairs. “I will get back to you. Also your evening is on that gentleman over there.” He pointed, at the man who I’d had a little chat with earlier.
I raised my glass to him, he did the same and smiled broadly.
“Could you pass on my thanks to him please?” I asked the server.
“Very well Sir. Please enjoy your meal.” He hurried off.
I looked around the table at the others.
Sophia and Airis were still smiling. Lyphia was looking towards the man who had paid for our evening. She turned back to me with a question on her face.
“Later,” I said softly before tucking into my dinner.
for a long while we ate in silence, the only sounds were simple things. comments on the food. a few small giggles between Airis and Sophia at stuff I could only look on befuddled by.
The evening wound down to a close slowly. the server came to take our plates and to inform me the leader of the players would speak to me.
I nodded my thanks to him and excused myself from the table.
At the back of the room were the players. their dull clothes didn’t fit the common image of player they looked pale and drawn. Even that short show must have been an incredible drain on knacks, they weren’t known for their fine control or skill. Most knack work was brute force. Farming, building, that sort of thing. Even cooking didn’t require much delicacy in handling compared to what these guys had done.
The older man was leaning back heavily against the bar, a glass of something in his hand. his blue eyes glowed dimly in the well lit room. that was another thing I hadn’t noticed before. his rough face was lined and tanned, he looked more like a farmer than a performer, not that I had much experience with performers.
“Sir Mage I’ve heard a lot about you recently,” he said. His voice didn’t carry this time. I found myself leaning in to hear him over the light music that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
“Have you? I wanted to speak to you about your performance.”
“I have, not all of it sweetness and light I’ll have you know, but it seems your heart is in the right place which makes for a nice change, better than that fellow you ‘resolved’ earlier.” he took a long pull on his drink before continuing. “What did you think of our little folk show your might Mageness?”
I would have had to be a fool to miss the mocking in his tone although I couldn’t tell if it was aimed at me or at himself.
“I loved it, I heard the story as a child, and I was curious about the end.”
A smile curved his lips then as he seemed to take a long while to consider his reply.
“Well the gods honest truth is, I’ve heard many different versions, this one is my favourite though. its old, so very old. It felt like the one that we should do tonight.” he shrugged as if it was nothing, but he seemed perturbed by it.
“Oh I’ve just realised I don’t know your name?”
“Leon De Grean, I know yours Mage Tristan Sodden.”
“I have a proposal for you. If you are willing to hear me out.”
“Make it quick, me and mine are tired, such performances take a lot out of a fellow.”
“I have an apprentice, neither of us know much daydreamer magic. And I had hopes that I could arrange a deal with you, patronage in exchange for some tutelage for her.”
“You don’t know me, I could be a thief or a child abuser or anything. Yet you offer a young girl into my care?” he seemed genuinely shocked.
“You know me though, you know what happened to a man who harmed her. I also know that players don’t have the best of reputations, travelling from place to place without family. But that doesn’t worry me. I know you have skills you could teach her, not just skills but you have a wider view of the world than I can show her.”
He reached back and pushed himself off the bar. he stood before me, his head raised high.
“Sir, may I take some time to consider this? I’m weary and would like a night’s rest before I give an answer.” Pride and something else was in his tone, a hesitant caution maybe.
“Of course, just come by the academy any time tomorrow someone will know how to find me. We can discuss terms and whatever else you want then.” I said with a smile.
“Very well, excuse me I must see to my trope.” Leon said before turning and signalling his group all of whom had been listening intently to our exchange.
I walked back to my table, everyone had finished.
“Are we all done?” I asked while standing.
“Yep” Sophia nodded, her smile was bright but tired.
Lyphia stood and came to hold my hand.
The kids stood and joined us, and we left, we received a few nods from the staff and patrons on our way out.
Back at our apartment, the children got ready for bed. I found myself at the table looking at the letter still in its envelope.
“Who is it from?” Lyphia asked from behind me, she had just gone to check that Sophia had washed.
“I don’t know, I’ve not looked yet.”
“Well whatever it is it can wait until morning. Its been a long day and I want you all to myself tonight.” I could hear the smile in her voice.
I put the letter back on the table and turned to her. she had unbound her hair, it fell in long ribbons of red around her face, her smile was wicked, so wicked in fact I felt my mouth dry.
“Come along, my mage. I have work for you to do,” she took my hand and led me to my room.