Salem nodded in approval to Lilie’s suggestion. Sure he could go alone to the administration office and speak to them, but there was some form of comfort in having someone else come with you, just knowing there was someone there having your back. ”That would be nice thank you. Speaking of which...” Salem shot a sideways glance to his partner, Lucan, who was standing not too far off from the group, getting reprimanded it seemed, by professor Dracion. I suppose even a knight as high as him is still capable of being treated in such a way in a school setting. Surely it was an odd site to see. As Salem began to straighten out his shirt a bit, his glance moved over to Dracion who was now yelling at the lot of them to leave. [color-82ca9d]”Right, I suppose we shouldn’t actually be here huh? Cassandra was it? Don’t wander off too far, that sucker punch was more than you bargained for since you weren’t preparing to take it. I’ll have to check you out too to make sure there isn’t too much damage.”[/color] He gave the fire mage a wink and a smile, offering her an out in case she didn’t feel like sticking around her partner all day, after all who would? They lead separate lives and need not have to mingle.
With that Salem made his way over to Lucan. Nervousness began to well up inside of him with every step that he took. What if Lucan was the one responsible for taking all of his belongings? Some harsh punishment for getting into trouble on the night he missed, or perhaps its some sort of training Schtick, like with what Varis mentioned doing to Aaron at dinner. Or maybe it had nothing to do with the man, simply the school not allowing any foliage besides their own? That one made no sense as there was no mention of it before. Salem halted in his steps for a moment, thinking to himself in dread, What if this was all part of the investigation? Would they go so far as to take ALL of his supplies? It makes no sense His scents began to swirl up again, nerves kicking in and taking over as his steps were now more hurried, each one booming in his ears. ”Pardon me Dracion...mind if i speak to my partner in private? I’ll try to do so as we are leaving.” With that he went up to Lucan, gaze down as he softly said ”Do you have any idea why our dorm has been cleared out? All of my possessions have been lifted and there is nothing in my room...” His voice was soft, yet loud enough for a vampire to pick up and hear.
APPEARANCE Mitchell stands a hulking 6'7, though with a relatively lithe build, he manages not to look threatening. His slitted eyes are accompanied by a pair of long, hollow fangs and a forked tongue, all giving away his inhuman nature. His skin is ashen grey and decorated all over by a faint floral pattern, passable for a subtle tattoo. This is, however, a natural marking, much more vibrant in his snake form.
This form is roughly sixteen feet long (about the size of an average king cobra). He does retain his green eyes in this form, but otherwise, he is quite fancy.
He tends to dress comfortably, with jeans and hoodies making pretty frequent appearances. He likes to clean up with a dark dress shirt when he can, but he doesn't get the chance very often.
OCCUPATION Mitchell is new in town and unemployed. Anybody hiring?
HOW How did you come to know about Foxbridge?
PERSONALITY How do you act?
SMALL BIO How did you end up in Foxbridge? What keeps you there? DO you have any goals?
TRIVIA Optional, just in case you have anything you want the others to know?
Ethnicity ⚠️ Where you or your parents are originally from.
Nationality ⚠️ Where you have citizenship. ⚠️ People from all around the world are allowed a constant stay at Nox, if they are taken in, where strings are pulled.
Species ⚠️ You can go nuts here, but as a rule of thumb, avoid things that are too fantastical. ⚠️ I do not want to see dragons, cosmic horrors, or something from a level 40 page of a DnD monster manual.
Appearance ⚠️ What do you look like?
Personality ⚠️ Open your heart.
Notable Relations ⚠️ Who in your life means a lot to you?
Everyday Skills ⚠️ What are you good at, which doesn't involve shooting people?
Biography ⚠️ You don't need to go overboard. ⚠️ This is mainly here for you to have an idea of where your character comes from.
Fighting Style ⚠️ How do you prefer to kick ass?
Strengths ⚠️ Where do you shine in battle?
Weaknesses ⚠️ What flanks would you rather keep covered?
Equipment ⚠️ Nox offers a myriad of different weapons for use in combat.
Strengths ⚠️ What does your gift do?
Weaknesses/Limitations ⚠️ I want actual weaknesses, that are detrimental for your character, no excuses to make the sheet look balanced. ⚠️ I want a weakness for every strength.
Ugh, there it was, that if again. If he entered Varis’ service. The thought of surgery was far from comforting, but it was that if that gnawed at him most. For the moment, though, Aaron remembered what he told himself and pushed the thought to the back of his mind. He could brood over it later; in the meantime, Varis had apparently made his choice, and it was time for Aaron to accept the unpleasant reality of this ‘marking’ business. He eyed the tattoo shop warily as they stepped inside, casting aside his former optimism and simply hoping Varis’ taste in ‘adornments’ was at least less disturbing than his Lady’s.
Inside, the shop was clean and tidy, though the artwork plastered all over the walls did lend it a more relaxed feel. Aaron, of course, was anything but, the casual atmosphere doing nothing to quell his dread. The receptionist bade them to wait, but Varis clearly had no intention of obeying; Aaron was glad for the command to escort the other client out, if only because it gave him something to do. With an apologetic smile, he gestured for the mage at the counter to follow him, opening the door for him as he politely ushered him outside.
Aaron waited a moment for the door to close behind them before offering the mage a somewhat more sheepish grin. “Sorry about that, I hope we didn’t interrupt anything important.”
The mage blinked between Aaron, his scabbard and the tattoo shop for a moment, looking a little dazed. His hand still teased at his pocket, apparently still debating pulling out his phone. “O-oh, no problem,” he finally rushed out, accented by something like a laugh. He shot Aaron a nervous smile and offered a wave as he turned to leave, a partially completed sleeve tattoo on display. “Uh, have a good night!”
Aaron smiled and nodded as the other mage took off, ducking into the first door he reached. He re-entered the tattoo shop just in time for the receptionist to give him a weird look, glancing between him and her screen. Aaron had half a mind to make sure there wasn’t dirt on his shirt or something, but the receptionist seemed to catch her composure quickly, returning to her exchange with Varis. “Did Mr. Starag need to select an earring?”
“No, he does not. Just see that he gets through this as quickly as possible.” Varis might have almost sounded kind if not for his tone and clear impatience. He placed a box on the counter for the receptionist to appraise; Aaron guessed that the contents were those ‘adornments’ Varis had mentioned. The receptionist seemed satisfied, and Aaron was more than a little curious. He supposed he’d find out about them soon enough.
Varis snapped his fingers at him again, and it looked like he’d be free of the vampires for the rest of the evening. Aaron sat down where he was indicated, taking a moment to remove his scabbard from his hip and balance it against his knee, and set a quick alarm for 5:45am so he wouldn’t miss his 6am curfew. Roughly two hours to himself, minus however long this appointment took. Not bad, maybe he’d have time to see Salem after all. For the moment, though, he was more concerned with his appointment. The receptionist said ‘earring’, so that meant he was getting his ear pierced, right? Probably the right ear, since Varis apparently didn’t want to do his left. Just an ear piercing, that couldn’t be too bad. Surely it wouldn’t hurt much, though he wasn’t really concerned about the pain; it was just that something about poking holes in oneself and sticking jewelry in them always sent a shiver up his spine. But women got their ears pierced all the time, how bad could it be? Much better than those ones Lady Sinnenodel’s mages had had in their faces, or the one Vanessa had on her back. Right?
He was fighting a losing battle with his nerves when his watch and phone buzzed in tandem, his watch face displaying a phone call from “Mom”. His phone displayed a candid shot of a smiling older woman, with his same blue eyes and silvery blonde hair twisted into an elaborate braid. He was caught between perking up and sinking down at the sight, both happy to speak with her and dreading whatever she might ask. But it wouldn’t do to keep her waiting, so he quickly answered the call, speaking more brightly than he felt. “Hey mom, how are you feeling?”
“How is it that after all this time, that’s always how you answer my calls?” His mother demanded, though a quiet chuckle betrayed her amusement.
Aaron smiled, looking down at his lap. “Force of habit I suppose,” he replied. “How are things at home?”
“A little hectic since you left, but we’ve gotten all your duties straightened out,” his mother reported. Maybe it was mean-spirited, but Aaron couldn’t help but be smug that it took them some time to get his duties covered. “But how are you? You leave for the first time and don’t call for three nights, if I didn’t know better I’d think you were running away!”
Alicia Nilsson | 26 | Female | Swedish | Heterosexual
Personality Alicia is an overall upbeat individual. She loves to be around people, especially family, and loves to fill in whichever niche needs filling in a group. Mom friend? Sure! Party animal? If you need one, she's got you. Typically, though, she falls into the category of the glass-half-full type of girl who won't let you get yourself down, just as likely to sit and talk with you over a cup of something warm as she is to pull you out onto the dance floor so you'll lighten up a little. In a family gathering, she's usually the one trying to make her relatives smile and catching up as she stirs a pot of hot cocoa made the right way.
History Alicia was born in Stockholm, Sweden, every bit an upper-class urban child. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born, and she was left with her mother, a narcissistic woman with high expectations and a talent for pushing whichever buttons were necessary to get the result she wanted. Alicia grew up in the sort of home that looked like something out of a magazine, with the caveat that it was cold and eerily clean and you weren't supposed to speak too loudly. Her mother was harshly critical of everything, from the cut of her clothes to the packaging on her coffee, and nothing, not even Alicia, was safe from her cold, analyzing gaze.
Growing up, Alicia was expected to behave more or less like a small adult. Errors were met with swift and severe corrections, and nowhere was this more evident than in her study of the violin. Alicia's mother had been a violin player in her day, but had never been able to rise to the higher echelons of her craft; in an effort to experience that success again, she started Alicia on the violin as soon as she could hold one, and made sure her daughter would have the skill and opportunity she had been lacking. Alicia did become a skilled violinist over the years, but not from passion. Her mother made her practice until her fingers bled and sucked all the joy out of the violin; no, her drive was to earn some modicum of approval from her mother. She was becoming a recognized talent in her field, finally earning some pride from her mother, until it all came crashing down around her.
When she was thirteen, Alicia came down with meningitis. It was touch and go for a while, but she did pull through; unfortunately, not exactly in one piece. As a result of the infection, Alicia lost almost all of her hearing in both ears, and she was declared legally deaf. Her mother, thinking her dreams of having a renowned violinist for a daughter had been dashed, never got over it. She visited Alicia less and less as she recovered, and when the day came that Alicia was to be released from the hospital, her mother didn't come for her. The hospital tried to contact her, but they found all of her phone numbers disconnected; when they called her place of work, they were told she'd never worked there.
The hospital contacted child services, and a very distraught Alicia was placed in a foster home for disabled children. Fortunately the home was actually pleasant; the children were taken care of and treated well, and given education that would cater to their individual disabilities. Still, Alicia floated through like a ghost, just barely learning sign language but falling behind in her other studies. She developed severe separation anxiety and showed a great fear of being left alone; so much so they had to move her into a shared room with another girl just so she could sleep.
Unbeknownst to her, a kind couple had shown interest in adopting from the home, and she was fifteen when everything was settled and arrangements were made for her to join a new family. By and large it was a miracle, a disabled teenager with such anxieties being adopted, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith took every challenge in stride and enthusiastically pursued a more comfortable life for their new daughter.
It did take time, but Alicia warmed up to her new parents quite quickly, thriving under their love and support. They got her therapy and education, and before long she had caught up with her age group in the field of general education; by some miracle and a lot of hard work, she graduated high school right on time.
Her separation anxiety and fear of abandonment did improve, but never quite went away; she was still never comfortable being home alone or going places on her own. Luckily the Smiths were a large family (an environment in which Alicia thrived) with many siblings and hardly ever an empty house, but when the time came for her to go away to university, she struggled. In an effort to make the transition more tolerable, she was put on a list for a service animal and was paired with a young Dalmatian trained as a hearing-ear dog. She named him Schnitzel and he quickly became a constant companion. With his help, she was able to do her undergrad and even continue on to law school.
Nowadays, she works as a tax lawyer in a large firm, making good enough money that she can afford to take the two weeks' vacation every Christmas necessary for the family reunion. She'd never miss it for the world.
Thoughts on the Family Alicia adores her adopted parents and siblings and every new addition to the family that arrives. She's immensely grateful to her parents for all they've done for her and would do anything for them. Likewise, she loves her siblings and wants them to love her as well, and always put in an effort to get to know them on an intimate level and makes it clear that they can always come to her with their problems. She delights in the large family and makes every effort to attend any and all gatherings, as well as meeting up with her many siblings on her own if she can.
Thoughts on Christmas Christmas is Alicia's favourite time of year, the two-week cottage stay in particular. She especially loves the lights, seeing her siblings and their children, giving gifts and being in the buzz and bustle of a crowded cabin. It is bittersweet at times, however, as she dearly misses hearing Christmas music.
Other Alicia speaks mainly in American Sign Language; she can speak verbally, but her words come out muffled and odd and she doesn't like to do it often. She does, however, love to laugh. She can read lips to some extent, but it's a huge pain and she prefers sign language.
Alicia speaks and reads fluent Swedish and understands fluent English; she can speak some English verbally, but it's especially warped. She's also, of course, fluent in ASL.
If one wants Alicia's attention, she usually prefers them to come into her range of vision and flag her down that way, but in a crowd she doesn't mind a gentle tap on the shoulder. She doesn't like to be startled, though, so the people who know her have taken to stepping heavily as they approach so she can feel their footsteps, or even texting her before approaching so she's not caught off-guard.
Alicia can play piano, which she particularly enjoys because she can feel the vibrations when she really clangs away at it. She hasn't even looked at a violin since her illness.
Appearance: Standing a modest 5'6 and weighing 120 pounds, Alicia is a classic Nordic beauty, with clear pale skin, light blonde hair and a pair of water-blue eyes. She's slim and willowy, but not entirely shapeless; she doesn't have a whole lot going on in the hips or bust, but manages a feminine figure well enough.
When it comes to clothes, Alicia can dress it up or down depending on the circumstances, but always likes to keep it classy. She likes to look polished, nothing forgotten or overlooked. She keeps her nails neatly manicured and painted, wears just enough makeup not to look sloppy, and is never one to just let her hair do any old thing. She's not huge on trends, and instead likes to stick to tried-and-true classics, though she's not beyond at least looking at the latest styles. When she dresses down she still keeps everything coordinated, and when she dresses up, look out for a bombshell.
Personality: Alicia is an overall upbeat individual. She loves to be around people, especially family, and loves to fill in whichever niche needs filling in a group. Mom friend? Sure! Party animal? If you need one, she's got you. Typically, though, she falls into the category of the glass-half-full type of girl who won't let you get yourself down, just as likely to sit and talk with you over a cup of something warm as she is to pull you out onto the dance floor so you'll lighten up a little. In a family gathering, she's usually the one trying to make her relatives smile and catching up as she stirs a pot of hot cocoa made the right way.
For all her social aptitude, though, Alicia has a hard time being alone. She's been able to cope with it fairly well with the help of her therapy dog Balder, but she will always do her best to find company with friends or strangers alike. She sometimes worries about coming off as needy, but her friends and family members understand her issues with being alone; it's with new people that she gets a little nervous that she'll scare them away.
Biography: Alicia was born in Stockholm, Sweden, every bit an upper-class urban child. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born, and she was left with her mother, a narcissistic woman with high expectations and a talent for pushing whichever buttons were necessary to get the result she wanted. Alicia grew up in the sort of home that looked like something out of a magazine, with the caveat that it was cold and eerily clean and you weren't supposed to speak too loudly. Her mother was harshly critical of everything, from the cut of her clothes to the packaging on her coffee, and nothing, not even Alicia, was safe from her cold, analyzing gaze.
Growing up, Alicia was expected to behave more or less like a small adult. Errors were met with swift and severe corrections, and nowhere was this more evident than in her study of the violin. Alicia's mother had been a violin player in her day, but had never been able to rise to the higher echelons of her craft; in an effort to experience that success again, she started Alicia on the violin as soon as she could hold one, and made sure her daughter would have the skill and opportunity she had been lacking. Alicia did become a skilled violinist over the years, but not from passion. Her mother made her practice until her fingers bled and sucked all the joy out of the violin; no, her drive was to earn some modicum of approval from her mother. She was becoming a recognized talent in her field, finally earning some pride from her mother, until it all came crashing down around her.
When she was thirteen, Alicia came down with meningitis. It was touch and go for a while, but she did pull through; unfortunately, not exactly in one piece. As a result of the infection, Alicia lost almost all of her hearing in both ears, and she was declared legally deaf. Her mother, thinking her dreams of having a renowned violinist for a daughter had been dashed, never got over it. She visited Alicia less and less as she recovered, and when the day came that Alicia was to be released from the hospital, her mother didn't come for her. The hospital tried to contact her, but they found all of her phone numbers disconnected; when they called her place of work, they were told she'd never worked there.
With no other family to reach out to, the hospital contacted child services, and after a few stressful days a very distraught Alicia was placed in a foster home for disabled children. Fortunately the home was pleasant; the children were taken care of and treated well, and given education that would cater to their individual disabilities. Still, Alicia floated through like a ghost, just barely learning sign language but falling behind in her other studies. She developed severe separation anxiety and showed a great fear of being left alone, so much so that they had to move her into a shared room with another girl just so she could sleep.
Unbeknownst to her, a kind foreign couple had shown interest in adopting from the home, and she was fifteen when everything was settled and arrangements were made for her to join a new family in the suburban sprawl of Ottawa. By and large it was a miracle, a disabled teenager with such anxieties being adopted, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith took every challenge in stride and enthusiastically pursued a more comfortable life for their new daughter.
It did take time, but Alicia warmed up to her new parents fairly quickly, thriving with their love and support. They got her therapy and education, and before long she had caught up with her age group in the field of general education; by some miracle and a lot of hard work, she graduated high school right on time.
Her separation anxiety and fear of abandonment did improve, but never quite went away; she was still never comfortable being home alone or going places on her own. Luckily the Smiths were a large family (an environment in which Alicia thrived) with many siblings and hardly ever an empty house, but when the time came for her to go away to university, she struggled. In an effort to make the transition more tolerable, she was put on a list for a service animal and was eventually paired with a young Dalmatian trained as a therapy dog. She named him Balder and he quickly became a constant companion. With his help, she has been able to do her undergrad and even continue on to law school, with hopes of becoming a tax lawyer.
When it came to being Fragmented, Alicia didn't really think about it much. Throughout her life there always seemed to be something more pressing to worry about; impressing her birth mother, coping with her abandonment, keeping up with her education; it was all much more immediately important to her than sating that longing in her gut. The threat of becoming Lost always seemed distant, like news of a tragedy in a faraway country; sad to think about, sure, but detached and disconnected, and hard to really care about. But when a letter arrived inviting her to a week in luxury to find her other half, she took it as a sign that it was finally time to address that pull in her chest, and get that aspect of her life figured out so she could leave the troubles of her past behind for good and craft a bright, successful future.
Alicia communicates mainly in American Sign Language; she can speak verbally, but her words come out muffled and odd and she doesn't like to do it often. She does, however, love to laugh. She can read lips to some extent in Swedish, but it's a huge pain and she prefers sign language.
Alicia speaks and reads fluent Swedish and understands fluent English; she can speak a little bit of English verbally (namely "thank you", "medium double-double", and "hospital"), but it's especially warped. She's also, of course, fluent in ASL.
To communicate with hearing people who don't know sign language, Alicia has a text-to-speech app on her phone. It isn't perfect, but she uses it to transcribe what people say to her, and then types out her response. As a result, she's gotten very quick at typing with her thumbs.
If one wants Alicia's attention, she usually prefers them to come into her range of vision and flag her down that way, but in a crowd she doesn't mind a gentle tap on the shoulder. She doesn't like to be startled, though, so the people who know her have taken to stepping heavily as they approach so she can feel their footsteps, or even texting her before approaching so she's not caught off-guard.
Alicia's family is made up entirely of adopted siblings. Her parents couldn't have children of their own, but had the money and the will to adopt a whopping ten children at varying ages, many with disabilities or behavioural issues that other prospective families often found too much to bear. Every year around Christmas, the entire family (including Alicia's siblings' many children) gathers at a large cottage in Northern Ontario for two weeks, and Alicia wouldn't miss it for the world.
Alicia can play piano, which she particularly enjoys because she can feel the vibrations when she really clangs away at it. She hasn't even looked at a violin since her illness.
With tan skin and bright, slitted eyes, J'torha is a pretty classic specimen of the J tribe. He stands only a little over average height for a seeker male at 5'6" with a tail on the shorter end, straight with a slightly tapered tip. His blond hair is long and kept wound in several braids, all tied at the back of his head to keep them up and out of his way while still maintaining some movement and style. His left eye is gold while his right eye is crimson (a trait his tribe considered lucky) and alongside the eye marks characteristic of miqo'te males, he also adorns his face with light yellow paint, though he's been known to change it up in colour and motif depending on the occasion. He has two symmetrical scars, one on each cheek, and on his chin he sports a short goatee.
For clothing, J'torha likes to stand out. His dancer's gear usually scratches that itch, with its airy silhouette and red-and-gold theme to match his eyes, but he's also fond of a far-eastern outfit he managed to procure from a traveling merchant. However, he likes to think that he could make anything look good. Like most miqo'te, he doesn't like anything that restricts his movement.
ＰＥＲＳＯＮＡＬＩＴＹ Perhaps his greatest virtue and flaw all in one, J'torha isn't known to take things seriously. This has been of great benefit to him in the past, being that he doesn't usually suffer long from heartache or disappointment, and it's nearly impossible to get under his skin. However, his tendency to make light of any situation has blown up in his face once or twice in the past, although he still doesn't seem to have learned his lesson. He's laid-back, playful, and confident, bordering on cocky at times. J'torha is generally happiest when all eyes are on him, even at his own expense.
Like many of his kind, J'torha is drawn to wander, never staying put too long in one place. Perhaps this urge to move came from his nomadic upbringing, but a friend of his might suggest he's only traveling between fair maidens' beds. As a notorious flirt and a fair charmer, even J'torha would have to admit that such a theory isn't entirely baseless.
Beneath the flippant attitude and flirtatious remarks, however, J'torha is a genuinely kind soul, averse to doing harm unless he must. He does harbour an ambition to eventually amass a harem and start a tribe of his own, however, and as such his search for glory can make him short-sighted, sometimes blind to the consequences of his actions.
J’torha was born in Central Thanalan, although growing up on the move made him comfortable calling all of Thanalan his home. His tribe, a nomadic pocket of the J tribe, was always moving, never staying in one place for more than a few days at a time. With a harem of about thirty and a handful of children at any given time, the true backbone of the tribe was their nunh, a strong and diligent male by the name of J’rukoh, who took up the uncommon mantle of leader with ease. J’torha saw how the women of his tribe respected (and even admired) the nunh, and came to idolize the position, if not the man himself. As many young male seekers do, J’torha came to see defeating his nunh and taking up the position himself as the ultimate accomplishment, and being the only tia in the tribe, set his sights on doing just that.
Of course, some are better suited to such endeavours than others, and J’torha always seemed to fall in the latter category. Ever a carefree child, he always had trouble taking things seriously, often showing off or making a game out of everything, getting himself into trouble more often than not. Despite being a fairly skilled hunter, J’torha was still generally outclassed by even his less skilled peers, as he never seemed to put as much effort into catching his quarry as he did into exploring and getting into mischief. His mission to become nunh was no different; in the infinite wisdom of youth, J’torha expected challenging J’rukoh to end as well as most of his other misadventures did, relying more on luck and confidence than raw skill.
His life was happy and calm until his fifteenth summer. J’torha was largely unaware of the conflict on the Carteneau Flats, but J’rukoh could sense an oncoming threat; when the nunh saw Dalamud falter, he wasted no time reacting, ushering his tribe directly south along unfamiliar routes from their position at the time in Northern Thanalan.
The journey south was undoubtedly the most difficult in the tribe’s history, with J’rukoh pushing them harder than they’d ever been pushed before. They moved continuously, stopping only long enough for the bare minimum of sleep and hunting along the way without halting. An adolescent at the time, J’torha was tasked (along with other adolescents) with keeping the tribe’s children occupied as their mothers hunted, to stave off panic and keep their spirits up even as they strained to cope with the backbreaking pace set out by J’rukoh.
Thanks to the nunh’s quick thinking, however, J’torha’s tribe made it as far as Minotaur’s Malm before the chaos of the 7th Umbral Calamity truly took hold. They waited out the carnage holed up in the canyon tunnel, eventually emerging, scared and hungry, to find that a different Thanalan awaited them. Shaken, as all of Eorzea was, by the destruction, the tribe regrouped with the U of Forgotten Springs for a time, doing all they could to repay their standoffish hosts before finally setting out again with the daunting task ahead of them of re-mapping their migratory routes to fit the altered landscape.
Thanks to their nomadic ways, the J of Thanalan recovered quicker than most after the Calamity, finding new routes across the desert and new hunting grounds to sustain themselves. Life continued on as normal as could be expected in the wake of disaster until J’torha reached his eighteenth summer, when he decided that it was time to make good on the promise he’d made himself as a child and take up what he believed to be his rightful place as nunh. Against the counsel of his sister, mother, tribemates and even the nunh himself, J’torha went through with his plan, to an unfortunate, yet predictable, result.
J’torha was wholly outmatched and soundly beaten; so easily defeated was he that J’rukoh was able to give him two identical scars, one on each cheek, as both a reminder of his folly and a warning not to act so foolishly again. Humiliated, J’torha knew he would never survive challenging J’rukoh a second time. His tribemates advised him to be grateful that he was spared death and move on, but he simply couldn’t bear the thought of remaining a tia forever; likewise, he knew amassing a harem of his own in Thanalan would be hopeless, at least until the fast-traveling news of his defeat passed out of memory. So, once his wounds had healed, J’torha decided to leave his tribe and strike out in search of new territory and enough glory to prove his worth as the nunh of his very own tribe.
Like anything, this again proved a daunting task. In the beginning, J’torha tried a number of ways to make a name for himself, but the slog of performing menial tasks for random townspeople as a freelance adventurer wasn’t exactly the stuff of songs, and was deathly boring to boot. But over the course of one such task, helping a Gridanian woman round up her class of children for a lesson in ritual dance, J’torha found a new calling. Rather than gil, the woman paid J’torha by teaching him the same dance she taught the children, and offhandedly commented that he was a natural at it. It struck a chord within him that nothing before it had touched; despite their penchant for song, his tribe had never practiced much dance, and he found himself falling in love with it.
Opting to take a hiatus from his mission, J’torha temporarily set out to learn every dance he could find, traveling all over the realm in his search. He was particularly captivated by the infamous dancing girls of Ul’dah, but for once, was less concerned with the supple curves of their bodies and more interested in the way they moved. Infatuated with their craft (lowly as some may have seen it) J’torha set out to learn from them; after some bargaining, some flirting, and a little begging, one such clique of dancers finally agreed to take him on, reasoning that in their line of work it was probably prudent to have a man on their side.
It didn’t take long for J’torha to come to love the busking life. Within a few moons he graduated from pseudo-bodyguard, to instrumentalist, and even up to performer in his own right, relishing every moment. The music, the movement, the joyful cheers of onlookers, it all easily eclipsed the meagre gil as reward for his performances - not that the attention of female admirers was anything to scoff at, either.
However, J’torha had never been good at staying in one place. Eventually he was struck with the itch to get moving and parted ways with his Ul’dahn group, setting out on his own again. It wasn’t long before he crossed paths with another, a woman from the Steppes who soon became a dear friend and traveling companion (not that she’d ever admit it out loud). They traveled together for six moons, traversing the realm and teaching each other about their respective cultures, until their paths diverged in Limsa Lominsa, and J’torha was on his own again.
J’torha would contribute the following events to some lingering good luck from his companion; not a day after she left Limsa did J’torha attend a performance by a troupe of foreign dancers, exhibiting styles and techniques that eclipsed his Ul’dahn partners’ skill by far. He threw every gil he could muster into their collection basket and sat at the pier that was their stage until two umbral cycles had passed. He was among a handful of enthusiastic onlookers who stuck around to gush at the performers as they packed up to move on, but as he spoke animatedly to the lead dancer, the troupe’s leader apparently saw something in him; when she asked, almost offhandedly, if he had any interest in learning their craft, J’torha’s “yes” flew out of his mouth before he even understood the question. The leader explained that their method of dance merged beauty and combat, and after he agreed to help the troupe spread their art in the hopes of bringing a measure of comfort to the still-recovering realm, they welcomed the weak-kneed and delighted seeker into their ranks.
J’torha studied his troupe’s deadly art of dance more fervently than any other undertaking of his life, working each day until his fingers bloodied his chakrams and his legs melted beneath him, all the while hungry for more. Several moons into his training, his leader and troupemates deemed him ready to fully adopt the true art of the Dancer, and gave him what is now his most treasured possession: his soul stone.
Imbued with the wisdom and skill of generations past, J’torha became a force to be reckoned with. His body seemed to know what to do without his mind ever sparing it a thought, and his performances could embolden his partners like no other skill he’d ever seen. Soon enough, the troupe leader decided that there was no more they could teach him, and bid him strike out and hone his newfound power with all of Eorzea for his stage. Swearing to uphold the troupe’s mission, J’torha agreed, and has been traversing the realm with newfound vigor, light of foot and bold of heart, ever since.
His favourite food is Shakshouka, a spicy foreign dish introduced to him by a dear friend from the steppes. He likes to eat it with flatbread. He’s fond of spicy dishes in general, but this one most of all because of the nostalgia it brings up.
Growing up, J’torha’s tribe was always on the move, though they always stopped, without exception, for meals. Rather than spacing out their meals, his tribe ate two meals each day; a small one in the afternoon when it was too hot to travel, and a large one in the evening. As a result, meal times are sacred to J’torha, and he’s accustomed to fasting and then eating a lot of food at once.
J’torha loves children, and is very good with them. His older sister J’delika claims this is because he’s an overgrown child himself.
J’torha holds his friends close, but isn’t too troubled by goodbyes. In the back of his mind, he’s confident that his and his friends’ paths will cross again.
He’s super good at making flower garlands.
Alongside his skill in dance, J’torha harbours love and skill in all things musical, including a great singing voice. His tribe did a lot of singing, but not much dancing to speak of. He knows songs from all over Eorzea.
He's a very social guy, and has friends all over Eorzea (as well as a number of enemies in the forms of spurned lovers and the angry spouses of said lovers)
Colour code CB3011
ＲＥＡＳＯＮ ＦＯＲ ＥＮＬＩＳＴＭＥＮＴ
Laughter and cheers echoed through the cool night air outside of Ul’dah proper, bouncing off the hulking city walls as a merry group of strangers took refuge from the crowds. J’torha was still a little lightheaded from the skin of wine being passed around, but that didn’t stop him from showing off.
“This time for sure,” he declared, to the great entertainment of the three taffeta-clad ladies at the top of the steps.
“Fifth time’s the charm,” drawled the lone midlander of the group, backed by the giggling of the two seeker girls who accompanied her. J’torha couldn’t remember if they were twins or just friends who looked really similar, but he wasn’t too worried about it either way.
“Five tries, those were your words,” J’torha called up, doing a few stretches mostly for show. “And then your five gil are mine.”
The midlander scoffed, but looked on in interest just the same, tossing her gil up and down in what J’torha could only assume was rapt anticipation. Thankful for the wine that dulled the throbbing in his shin and elbow from his previous attempts, he took a few quick breaths; on the third he jumped, propelling himself backwards over the bottom flight of steps. Bringing his knees up to carry his momentum, he caught his first touch on his hands on the middle step, bending at the elbow and kicking up his legs to bounce back up again. This time he actually managed to bring his feet down in time and landed the handspring at the bottom landing, skipping backward on the sandy stone to catch his balance but managing to stay upright.
He held his position with knees bent and arms out for a moment to let the world stop spinning before straightening up, tail curling with pride. When he was sure his company had seen the spectacle, he jumped up to pump his fists in the air with a triumphant, “Ha!”
The ladies at the top broke into applause, laughing and cheering all at once at the man’s antics.
“Incredible!” called the seeker girl with the red earrings, hopping in place.
“And you’re in one piece!” her sister (possibly her friend) added, in a tone that J’torha chose to interpret as amazement rather than smugness.
J’torha gave the women a theatrical, exaggerated bow from the bottom of the steps, and only barely straightened up in time to catch the glimmer of gil flying down towards him. He managed to catch four of the pieces, scrambling hither and yon as the midlander girl made no effort to make it easy for him, but stumbled when he reached too far for the fifth, tumbling into a cackling heap on his rump.
Musical laughter cascaded down the steps to meet him, and J’torha let himself fall back, sprawled wide on the warm sand as laughter quaked in his own chest. His chuckles eventually faded to long, worn-out breaths as he stared up at the glimmering Ul’dahn night sky, a wide - if not still just a touch inebriated - smile still splitting his face.
“Just like a man to fall asleep in the middle of the fun,” the midlander girl teased, probably sore at losing her gil to such an extraordinary performance.
J’torha raised one arm as far as the elbow and lazily waved the thought away. “If this is how hard you drive your men, then they deserve the rest,” he called back, chuckling at his own joke as he let his hand fall. After another long look at the sky, though, he did pull himself to his feet, a heaviness of the limbs creeping in to replace the giddiness of drink.
He was upright just in time to see another few figures step through the Gate of the Sultana and saunter up to the ladies he was treating. “If the kitten down there can't keep up with you, then I'm sure you'll be more than satisfied with me.”
J’torha’s ears perked up to listen better, and the midlander girl gave the newcomer the sort of half-hearted chuckle that only comes out (as he knew from experience) when a woman wants to end a conversation. “I’m happy here, thank you,” she told him curtly.
“Come on, gorgeous,” the stranger drawled, stepping closer. “I can pay, if that’s what you’re after…”
J’torha started up the steps, tail twitching with irritation. Meanwhile, the midlander girl was having none of it, tossing her hair and turning away. “You can’t afford me.”
As she tried to walk away, the man - either a tall midlander or a short highlander, from this distance J’torha couldn’t tell which - followed her, catching up to her in two long strides and reaching out to roughly grab her by the arm. “Listen you little—”
The chakram flew before J’torha even realized he’d drawn it, flying true to its mark and colliding with the stranger’s wrist all the way from a flight and a half of stairs below. The man cried out and stumbled back, clutching his bleeding wrist as the chakram returned to J’torha’s outstretched hand. He bounded up the last few steps to the woman’s side, ears flattening menacingly. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Get going before I give you a matching set!” J’torha threatened, gesturing with his chakram to the man’s injured wrist.
The man and his companions, miners by the look of them, didn’t need to be told twice; the injured one scrambled to his feet and away, grumbling something angry and unintelligible under his breath while his two companions in tow carried on about how a woman wasn’t worth a fight in this heat.
J’torha glared at their backs until they’d faded back into the crowd inside the gate, then turned back around to find the seeker girls fussing over the midlander’s arm as the woman herself tried to quell their concerns.
“Are you alright?” J’torha asked.
The midlander rolled her eyes. “Please,” she sighed, “how fragile do you think I am?”
J’torha’s smile returned at the reassurance and he visibly relaxed, though the midlander’s friends seemed worried. She paid them no mind, however, instead placing a hand on her hip and looking J’torha up and down. “But… thank you, adventurer.”
J’torha’s brow furrowed, and he shook his head, uncharacteristically humble. “Oh, I’m not an adventurer,” he clarified.
The midlander raised an eyebrow, giving J’torha another long look before shrugging. “Maybe you should be.”
Eyebrows shooting up, J’torha had no time to reply before the midlander and her two friends took their leave back into the city proper, responding to J’torha’s plea for their names with only a chorus of giggles before they, too, melded into the crowd. J’torha followed them as far as the arch of the gate, watching the sway of their hips as they left, until he was alone again.
Staring wistfully after where the trio had disappeared, he leaned against the cool stone of the gate, only to hear the crinkle of dry parchment under his shoulder. When he looked to see what he’d touched, J’torha found a leaflet haphazardly pasted to the wall, advertising a free company called “The Blessed Twelve” to adventurers young and old. He examined the poster for a moment, glancing between it and the spot where the trio had gone. The gears in his head started spinning.
"I guess I just have a thing for long legs." "I guess I just have a thing for long legs." "I guess I just have a thing for long legs." "I guess I just have a thing for long legs." "I guess I just have a thing for long legs."
Interacting with: each other like giant nerd children
Lilie gave the princess an enthusiastic wave, somewhat invigorated. Once she was addressed, she gave Aaron a sheepish grin, having fully anticipated a well earned 'I told you so' in response. Instead, he moved on, asking about Salem.
"I'm not sure what time exactly," She admitted. "When I saw his schedule, it said it was at the library. He said it was one of his...punishments for what happened." She frowned as she spoke, shifting in her seat slightly.
Aaron’s brow furrowed at Lilie’s mention of ‘what happened’—right, he remembered Salem mentioning that he’d told her his side of the story—but he shrugged her concern away. “I wouldn’t call this a punishment,” he replied casually, “it’s just etiquette training. Besides, he’ll need it if he’s been assigned to that Astorio Count.”
A flash of irritation hit Aaron again at the mention, though his thoughts turned to Salem’s reassignment. He hadn’t really thought much about it when they were talking to the Princess, but it made a lot more sense out of Lucan’s cryptic disappearance. He made a mental note of the change to report to Varis later, and took a breath to banish the pang of guilt that came with it. Visibly brightening (in expression, anyway), he extended his hand to Lilie, giving her a smile. “In any case, why don’t we go wait for him? I think there’s a courtyard outside of the library, we can meet him when he’s done.”
Lilie looked at Aaron's hand, then up at him, a little confused. It lasted about two seconds before she would take his hand, assuming that was probably what was proper. Right, she should probably take the princess's advice and ask for some pointers, she didn't have a clue on what was right and wrong. She gave Aaron an appreciative smile as he helped her to her feet, nodding at his suggestion. Her smile faltered slightly when he mentioned the Astorio, her heart breaking slightly as she remembered how crushed Salem looked when he found out.
"Good idea! Maybe I should ask for some lessons, too," She tried to stay light on the subject as they began to walk. "I'm clueless on everything. My brother told me that there's this thing some vampires do where they all bite your neck when they feed, but apparently they can drink from anywhere." She huffed slightly at the misinformation, rubbed her neck where Mariette had bitten her. "It felt so weird."
Aaron’s heart went out to Lilie. After all, if he was having such a hard time adjusting coming from the world of aristocracy, then to a human-born girl like Lilie, it all must seem impossible. But he couldn’t help but smile at her; for whatever reason, she was cute when she was irritated.
His own hand went to his neck when Lilie rubbed hers, brushing past his new earring as it went. “Definitely weird,” he concurred, remembering how dazed he’d been after tonight’s feeding, and subsequently suppressing a groan at the reprimand he’d gotten because of it. Pleasant as the sensation of feeding might have been, Aaron was going to have to find a way around it if he didn’t want to be bumbling around like a fool every time Varis fed. He looked back to Lilie, a little concerned. “Not bad though, I hope?”
"I guess it's not bad after that first burn," Lilie did concede that much as she looked back up at Aaron. Something glinting caught her attention as her eyes followed the swinging. She leaned forward a little as she tried to see what it was, catching a glimpse of the silver earring. Her mouth formed a small 'o' as she was distracted by the earring, though her expression brightened. She didn't know he had his ears pierced. "Was that what you had to do after class?" She asked him, gesturing to his earring.
Aaron’s eyebrows shot up when Lilie mentioned his earring, hand flying up to it as soon as she motioned to it. He could feel a blush burning his ears, and apparently the earring had already started weaving itself into his hair. Excellent.
“Oh, yes,” he replied hesitantly, doing his best to separate the earring from his hair with some difficulty. “Or, well, I had to shower and change and Master had to feed first, but—”
Stepping in front of Aaron to stop him from going any further, Lilie reached up on tiptoe and gently batted away his hands. Hearing him say 'master' again gave her such an uneasy feeling, but that wasn't important right now. "Here, let me help," She said, her fingers expertly pulling the caught hairs off the silver without any breaking. Once they were free, she would gently brush his hair behind his ear and away from the earring so that it wouldn't get tangled again. She took a few seconds to really look at it as she backed up, noticing the crest engraved. Nobility through and through--she had never seen that kind of dedication to anyone's house before.
Deciding to inquire about it, Lilie motioned towards his earring. "Is that your family's crest?" She asked him.
Aaron was confused when Lilie stopped him, but stooped a little once he realized what she was doing, so that she wouldn’t have to reach up quite as high. He had to fight to keep an idiotic smile off his face, even if Lilie tucking his hair behind his ear put butterflies in his stomach. He smiled as he straightened once Lilie was done, taking a breath to thank her before she cut him off with a question.
Heat rushed back to his ears at the mention of the crest, and this time a little blush even coloured his cheekbones. Though he cursed himself for being so childish, he couldn’t help it; he’d been marked like some kind of draught animal, and now his suspicion was confirmed that other people would notice, too.
His hand returned to his newly-uncovered earring, and he ran his fingers over the face of the pendant, feeling the pattern of the Sinnenodel adders imprinted on the surface. “Oh, no, it’s… actually my Master’s crest,” he replied awkwardly, glancing away and inwardly shouting at himself to get it together. He cleared his throat. “House Sinnenodel, I mean. You’ll probably see it on the mailbox the next time you go by.” He forced himself to drop his hand and at least try to pretend he wasn’t embarrassed, even if he couldn’t quite meet Lilie’s eye.
Oh, that made more sense. Lilie nodded in understanding, looking at the earring briefly. She reached up and flicked it playfully, watching it swing. It was an interesting choice all things considered; the emerald and silver went well together. Very elegant, and it matched Aaron's personality. She ignored the feeling in her stomach when he repeated what he called his vampire, choosing to focus on him instead.
"Very cool," She commented, her hand batting her own teardrop earring as she tucked a stray hair behind her ear. "I like it."
Aaron’s eyes widened. She thought it was cool? She didn’t even seem a little weirded out! He felt immediately better, straightening up a little taller and letting himself bask in that tiny bit of praise. “Thank you,” he told her sincerely, smiling, “I actually have a stud version too, for when I’m training. That way it won’t get caught on anything.” That’s what he thought it was for, anyway.
He tapped his pommel for emphasis, and was reminded of something. “Oh, but if you’re interested in my family crest, it’s right here,” he added, turning so that Lilie could see his scabbard. The hilt bore a large imprint of the Noila crest, a raven clutching a ruby burned expertly into the leather, but he gestured past it and nearer the tip where a smaller crest was similarly burned in, a rampant stag with a crown around its neck.
Lilie looked where Aaron indicated in genuine interest. She felt bad that she hadn't noticed it the first time, only recognizing the Noila crest. She admired it for a moment, finding it curious that his family would be represented by a stag. At least, that was her assumption anyway, since it was obvious that the crown represented the royal family.
"I feel like it should be bigger," She commented as they resumed their walk. "Serving the royal family is good and all, but that doesn't erase where you come from."
Aaron glanced down to Lilie in genuine surprise. Erase where he came from? As far as he was concerned, serving the royal family was where he came from. Not only that, but until now it had also been his greatest ambition. But that was to be brooded over another time.
Instead, he simply shrugged. “Humility runs in my family,” he replied, sending Lilie a cheeky grin, “and besides, my family is proud to serve the Noilas. After all, my grandfather bending the knee to King Geoffrey was what got the Treaty signed, and who knows what would have happened if not for that.”
His grin turned sheepish, though, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Although, since coming here I’ve noticed that not everyone seems to see it that way.”
Lilie bit her lip as she tried to suppress her giggle. He was so devoted! Not that she could blame him, she was sure that if she grew up around Princess Ryner she would be in the same boat. She gave him a more neutral expression as she couldn't who might not completely agree, although the first person that popped into her head was Max. His comment was the result of that, though she couldn't say for sure if that was who Aaron meant.
"Like…" She left it vague, hoping to get an answer.
Aaron tugged on his ear. He probably shouldn't sow discontent among his new friends, should he? “Well, you should have seen this TA in my and Salem’s Affinity Mastery class. Called me just about every name except my own.” He chuckled, if not a little awkwardly. “He clearly didn't like me or my family. Called us ‘the ones who enslaved us’ or something.”
Lilie’s eyes widened in shock. That was so rude! She was offended on Aaron's behalf, huffing out a breath. "I can't believe that!" She exclaimed in disbelief, crossing her arms. "The nerve of some people...and that's just so wrong on so many levels that it's just--hmph! No one should talk to you like that."
After a few seconds of huffing some more, she shook her head before speaking again. "And how did your class with Salem go otherwise?" She asked, frowning.
Lilie’s indignation was sincerely adorable, likely boosted by the fact that she was speaking in Aaron’s defence. He couldn’t stop his grin until she asked about the rest of the class, and Aaron inwardly groaned.
“Well, our class seemed to be more experienced mages, so we both got the hang of the exercise pretty quick. I’ve done the crystal exercise before, and Salem grasped it really fast.” He started off innocently enough, though as they neared the library courtyard he remembered Salem’s warning in that very class. Withholding things drew a wedge between people, and Salem wouldn't see anyone hurt Lilie. Just as before, hurting her was the last thing Aaron wanted to do, even if he didn’t agree that a little lying by omission was the thing to do it. But he figured he owed it to Salem to be honest with Lilie, egged on in no small part by the guilt he was still fighting over spying on the man.
Aaron led Lilie to a table by the fountain, pulling out a chair for her out of habit. “He did mention that you two talked this evening before class,” he continued, waiting for Lilie to take her seat before taking his own with a slightly embarrassed sigh. “I don't suppose he told you that he and I don't quite see eye to eye on some matters?”
Once again temporarily distracted by Aaron's mannerisms, Lilie decided to take the seat so the guy wouldn't be left standing. Such a gentleman, he was making her feel like she was actually someone important. At the mention of Salem she couldn't help but keep her frown, shifting slightly in her seat.
"He did mention that," She admitted. "He invited me to his dorm and we talked about a lot of stuff; Princess Nox, Lucan, the arrest…and some good things, too."
She paused for a moment, wondering if she should ask what actually happened. Her mind seemed to be made up as she continued, "Salem also told me his side of what went down last night at the dinner," That much she could confess. If Aaron didn't want to tell her anything, she couldn't really expect anything otherwise. They got along great, yeah, but she didn't think she had earned his trust just yet. Just because she clung to him didn't mean he was obligated to do the same.
Aaron nodded at his hands, where he folded them on the tabletop. Just as Salem had told him, though he wasn’t sure why he expected to hear any different. “What did he tell you about last night?” he asked, hoping he wouldn’t have to delve into any more than was necessary.
"He talked about how sudden it was, and how he thought that something weird happened to him," Lilie said. "Someone went into his head, and he ended up saying a lot of things that he didn't mean. He was accused of things and now he's cut off from his family and they even changed his vampire." She looked at Aaron worriedly, her hands fidgeting slightly in her lap. "He also mentioned that your...master...wasn't happy with how you acted, either." Uttering the word made her shudder slightly; even just saying it like that was hard. Her heart was beating against her chest at the thought, a sudden unease gripping her.
"Are you okay?" She suddenly asked, somewhat alarmed. "That's not normal, is it? Is he--is your vampire making you call him that?"
Aaron nodded along as Lilie spoke. She misunderstood a bit, but that made sense, seeing as she heard it all second-hand. And, if he were being honest, Aaron didn’t entirely understand everything that happened either. But of course, the conversation came back to him and Varis. His eyebrows shot up at Lilie’s concern, however. It was touching, but also unexpected, although Aaron wasn’t really sure why.
Nonetheless, he nodded. “I’m fine, there’s no need to worry about me,” he assured Lilie, offering her an appreciative smile before his expression grew more shy. “And yes, he is. Whether or not that’s ‘normal’ depends on the family you belong to, but after my performance last night, he apparently deemed it appropriate for the time being.” He tried to come off as casually as he could, but that didn’t stop him from spinning his ring.
He took a breath, not wanting to scare Lilie with a lot of doom and gloom. “Like I said to Salem, though; that’s just one less thing to remember, right?” He forced a small chuckle, but grew a little more serious again. “But yeah, that’s actually what I wanted to speak to Princess Ryner about. I was apologizing for how I acted.”
He sighed. “For her part, Her Highness was very gracious. And to spare you the details, I acted without thinking and suffered the consequences. I thought I was better trained than that, but I know now that I have a lot to work on.” He offered Lilie an apologetic look. “I’m sorry if this whole… ‘master’ business makes you uncomfortable. I understand why it might. I can do my best to avoid it when we’re together, but I do have orders to follow, and I hope you’ll understand why I’d like to try to follow them more closely this time.”
Lilie listened carefully, but a lot of what Aaron said seemed to do little to assure her. This was to be expected, or at least that was the impression she got. He didn't seem too phased by calling his vampire 'master' even though the thought of it bothered her. Just like she thought, everyone else fell into place. No matter how nice or mean, servitude was expected.
This was his life now--and hers, too.
She stayed quiet for a second, unsure if she should admit that she didn't quite understand. Still, she gave him a short, thoughtful nod. "Well...you still have me and--" Her optimistic thought was quickly extinguished as she almost said Salem's name, deflating slightly. "--and we're friends, so we should look out for one another. Even as servants we still have rights, and we're..." she trailed off as she tried to think of what she could say.
"I think that if your...vampire is like that, and you're okay with it, then...that's good, right?" She tried to stay positive.
Aaron’s expression softened as Lilie got out her halting response, a pang of sympathy hitting him. She really was a fish out of water here, that much was painfully clear, and it was obvious that she cared deeply for the people around her, even those she just met. It really was touching, but a grim thought passed through the back of Aaron’s mind that Lilie might not know just how few rights she actually had.
Lilie’s attempt at positivity was appreciated, and Aaron conjured up a soft smile for her. “I’ll admit that it’s not really something I’m used to,” he clarified, loath for Lilie to think he was weird but also not wanting to worry her by laying bare his discomfort, “but I’m sure in time, I’ll adjust. And it seems like a more or less temporary thing anyway. I’ll be fine.”
He spared a glance at the library building, suppressing a shudder before turning back to Lilie. “I just hope we can say the same about Salem. The Astorios have a nasty reputation, and… well, you got a taste of it firsthand.” He gestured to Lilie before letting his hand drop on the table. “I hope Her Highness is right in that he’ll learn to conform to his Count’s expectations. In the meantime, you and I seem to be all he’s got. We should do our best to be there for him.” It was the least he could do while he wasn’t spilling Salem’s secrets to Varis, after all.
The white haired girl nodded once again, perking up as Aaron finished her thought. It was just the third day, she was probably overthinking it. Not one to stay negative for too long, instead she drummed her fingers on the table as she inspected Aaron for a second. He didn't look like he was physically hurt, at least, so she would have to take his word when it came to being okay. After a few seconds she did return his smile with one of her own, clapping her hands together.
"We should!" She agreed happily. "And I know just the way to start! A housewarming party for all the noble mages in the cul-de-sac," She told him excitedly. "Remember Cassandra from lunch? She's the mage in the Marivaldi dorm. So you, me, Salem, and her should at least get to know each other a little. I already gave her a heads up that we should all get together." She took out her phone, opening up a blank note page.
"I was thinking a picnic would be nice. We can do it before classes," She brainstormed as she started jotting down a few things, her phone responding with each letter she touched. "I can make food for everyone, too. Maybe we can grab a table around here, or host it on the front lawn of the Eve dorm."
Aaron brightened up as Lilie did, her excitement as infectious as it was stunning. “That sounds like a great idea,” he agreed, running a quick mental inventory. If he could finish his lines early and avoid further punishments, he could probably attend; he might even be able to convince Varis on the grounds that this would be a good step in befriending Salem, as he’d been ordered. “I can probably make it, I think,” he continued, “as long as your Countess would be alright with you hosting it outside your dorm, anyway.”
The scoff came out without a second thought with Lilie dismissing Aaron's concern with a wave of her free hand. "It's my dorm, too," She said, scrolling through some meal ideas. "No point in looking for permission from someone who's avoiding me, anyway. I haven't seen the Countess since last night."
Oooh, that was a bad sign. Lilie really didn’t know what she was involved with at all, did she? Aaron very nearly blurted out that no, it wasn’t her dorm, it was her Countess’ dorm and she was merely living in it, but stopped himself. Lilie’s attitude clearly stemmed from ignorance rather than rebelliousness, and he was nervous that giving her the kind of wake-up call that he thought was necessary would freak her out. Sure, she would have to learn eventually, but… couldn’t he spare her feelings for now?
“Well, keep in mind that vampires can be pretty territorial,” he offered uneasily, tugging on his left ear. Hopefully this was a gentler way to get his point across. “Especially nobles. You should probably run it by your Countess just in case; you don’t want to accidentally offend her and get in trouble.”
Lilie looked up from her phone as Aaron spoke, her eyes wide. She hadn't really considered that now that he mentioned it. Her gaze dropped to her phone for a moment as she thought about it. He did have a point, she was sure if Mariette chose to throw a party she would have liked to be informed, too. Conceding to Aaron's suggestion, Lilie continued looking for ideas for a second before looking back up at him.
"You're probably right," She let out a small sigh, perching her chin in her hand. "I already got in trouble last night. Even though Princess Ryner said it was okay, I should probably try to get along with Mari--the Countess better." She remembered Salem's advice about trust and let out another sigh.
"I made a really bad impression last night," She muttered, her shoulders slumping slightly. "Her Highness said it was better to listen to Princess Nox, but...I just don't know how to act around them." She stared at something in the distance, eyes unfocused.
Aaron’s eyebrows shot up. “Come again?” he questioned, mind racing. “When were you around Princess Nox?”
Lilie turned her gaze to Aaron, a little confused. "Last night," She said. "I thought I told you when I texted you."
“You left out the detail of meeting her,” Aaron shot back, a disbelieving chuckle escaping him as he spoke. “No wonder you were freaked out!”
His chuckle morphed into a laugh for a moment until he composed himself again, shaking his head. “What happened that you think you made a bad impression? If I may ask.”
Sitting up slightly, Lilie played with the end of her ponytail for a moment. "Well, there was this truck, and all these people were swarmed around the Marivaldi dorm," She started, hands releasing her ponytail as she started gesturing. "I saw your teacher, Lucan, and Princess Nox was there, too. Apparently they had arrested someone, and that vampire--um, I don't know her name--wanted to know what was going on. Mariette and I--Countess Mariette and I went outside, and then Princess Nox yelled at us about some stuff that I didn't understand. A...snake? The Marivaldi's possessions had been taken--or was that Sinnenodel--no, that can't be right," She tried to accurately remember what it was that Princess Nox spoke of, although she couldn't quite remember off the top of her head.
Giving up after a moment, Lilie continued, "I don't know, I didn't really understand anything she was saying. What I do remember was that she told all of us to go back to our dorms. So I did...and left the countess behind," The thought actually embarrassed her now that she thought about it, and she hung her head in shame. "Mariette was not happy about that and let me know, too. I told Princess Ryner about it before you came, and she assured me that the princess's word comes before anyone else's so I don't think I'm in trouble, but...my vampire wasn't happy."
Aaron blinked a few times as Lilie finished her story, taking a moment to try and make sense of the events in his mind. “I see…” he murmured absently, tapping his fingers on the table for a moment before he perked up. “Well, Her Highness was right. Unless you’re getting an order directly from the Lord of your house himself - which in your house isn’t really something you need to worry about - Princess Nox’s orders would eclipse your Countess. Especially in matters of defense, like what happened last night.”
He gave her a smile he hoped was reassuring. “Your Countess wouldn’t be able to legally punish you for that, so I wouldn’t worry too much. But it is important that you know what she expects of you.” His expression grew serious. “She hasn’t spoken to you at all since then? Are you sure it isn’t just a coincidence? After all, it’s only barely been one night.”
Aaron meant well, but his words resulted in an exasperated Lilie throwing her arms up. "I've been trying to see what's expected of me, but if it isn't a weird giggle or a 'do what you want' or--these Eve vampires are all crazy!" She was animated as she spoke, waving her hands around. "I'm telling you, this house is full of weirdos, every time a new one comes in, they're crazier than the last one."
After her little outburst, she took in a deep breath, exhaling a small giggle. "Okay, that's a little mean, but it is frustrating," She looked at Aaron fondly. "I'm sorry, I'm spending all this time complaining. You're gonna get tired of me soon if all I do is whine all the time."
Aaron frowned throughout Lilie’s spiel, but he could definitely empathize with her. Uncertainty always killed him, and so far deciphering Varis’ expectations had felt like being trapped in a dark room, hoping that the next thing he touched was a candle and not a mousetrap.
Nonetheless, he couldn’t help but chuckle at Lilie’s display, though he did lower his voice. “Maybe keep your voice down though, it’s not usually wise to badmouth your own house,” he warned, hunching down a little for emphasis. After a moment, he straightened up, speaking once more at a normal volume and offering Lilie a smile. He was tempted to reach out and take her hand, but refrained. That was probably improper.
“And don’t worry, I’m not getting tired of you,” he assured her sincerely, “I can definitely see why you’re frustrated. It seems like you’ve had a run of bad luck. Hopefully you and your Countess can come to an understanding.”
Lilie gave Aaron a sincere, appreciative smile. "You're so sweet, thank you," She said, happily returning to her phone. She was really going to have to be more careful, anytime she talked about vampires she just got depressed. Still, she sincerely appreciated Aaron's advice in this uncertain time.
Suddenly rising from her seat and dropping her bag onto her chair, she snatched her phone as she hurried over to Aaron's side. "I think I'm going to take the princess's advice and cling to you for as long as you'll have me," She teased him as she squeezed herself onto his lap, brushing her bangs with her fingers as she readied herself for a selfie with him. Leaning back against him, she raised her phone as she got ready.
Aaron’s heart barely had the chance to leap at Lilie’s comment before it just about exploded altogether when she wormed her way onto his lap, getting ready to take a selfie. He had to shake his hair out from behind his ear to hide the blush that coloured it, but his stomach brimmed with butterflies as he tried to figure out what to do with his hands. Should he leave them by his sides? Hug her? He settled on placing his hand on Lilie’s waist, in the same spot he would a dance partner, figuring that was probably appropriate without him seeming entirely rigid. Smiling for the picture was all too easy, and it didn’t fade even after Lilie took the picture.
“Are you going to send that to someone?” he asked, chuckling. It was more of an expression of delight than amusement, but either way he couldn’t quite hold his laughter in.
Lilie admired the picture for a second before she decided to upload it, looking back at Aaron. "I'm gonna post this, but I can send it to you if you want," She replied, her fingers already working as her Instagram popped up on her phone. "Wow, I don't even have to put a filter for this, the lightning is just perfect." She mused.
Aaron grinned proudly; he’d always been told he was photogenic, though he attributed it to his magic rather than his looks. “Yeah, if you could send it to me I’d appreciate it,” he said, though he quickly followed up with, “Like Her Highness said, I’m sure my family back home would like to see what I’m up to.”
He was surprised when Lilie stayed on his lap to post her photo, but didn’t complain, instead watching as she opened her Instagram. He didn’t have instagram, but he made a mental note of Lilie’s username nonetheless. Lily-with-an-i-e. It was charming in a funny way.
He caught a glimpse at the clock on her phone as he watched. “Salem should probably be done soon,” he commented, pointing at the time.
"Oh, wow, time flies when you're having fun," Lilie commented, hopping off of Aaron's lap as she grabbed her backpack. "Let's get going, then!"
ＮＡＭＥ Katatada Sui (Kata for short, Sui Katatada among other Far Easterners) ＲＡＣＥ Au Ra ＣＬＡＮ Raen ＢＩＲＴＨＰＬＡＣＥ Sui-no-Sato ＯＣＣＵＰＡＴＩＯＮ Bookkeeper ＡＰＰＥＡＲＡＮＣＥ In-game screenshots are okay, fanart is fine. If using anything else, try to make sure it blends in with the FFXIV aestethic (which leans more towards traditional fantasy as opposed to modern fantasy) ＰＥＲＳＯＮＡＬＩＴＹ This can be brief if you'd like, something that gives a brief idea on what your character is like ＢＩＯＧＲＡＰＨＹ The Calamity changed the land and countless people's lives. How did it affect yours? You can be as detailed or brief as you would like, if there are any secrets or hidden pasts please make sure to PM me! ＯＴＨＥＲ
Aaron nodded to Salem and the three of them set off where they vaguely remembered Sariel’s tour taking them before. As they began to walk, though, Aaron simply shrugged.
“He didn’t want anything very interesting,” he replied casually. “He just wasn’t sure where to go for dorm inquiries. Turns out he got reassigned as well.” Aaron glanced over to Salem.
Lilie's curiosity got the better of her, looking between both Aaron and Salem as they walked. "Max, too? It's like a game of musical chairs," She noted. "How did you know he got reassigned?"
Aaron raised his eyebrows. “Oh, because his new master is friends with mine,” he clarified matter-of-factly, though a shiver did worm its way up his spine. “And judging by tonight, it looks like we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”
Salem tried not to grimace as Aaron said the word master once more, this time referring to another vampire. True he understood how it must be hard to break years of beatings, but it was a bit sad to watch any spec of self worth dwindle each day in him. "Who's his new partner? Perhaps he can arrange a play date to allow him to come to the picnic?" Salem said poking fun at how Aaron made it sound like they were children to Varis and this new Vampire.
Now it was Aaron’s turn to try not to grimace: something about childish language always turned him off, and Salem’s little jab rubbed him the wrong way just as Max’s had on the phone. “Eris Samael,” he replied flatly, clearly unamused. “The one who burst into Treaty Law, remember?”
Lilie barely contained her squeal of excitement, her hands flying to her mouth in an effort to muffle it. All that came out was a short sound, but her excitement came out in other ways. She was practically jumping in place, hands waving around excitedly. She couldn't believe it, Eris Samael was part of her group! Well no, Max was, but they were basically a pair, right? Did that mean she would see him? What if he came to their study sessions? Could she actually talk to him? What if they got to talk?!
"Are you sure?!" Lilie asked, eyes wide as she prayed for a good answer. Before getting a response, she continued, "I loved him in Sunset, he was so dreamy! I don't care what anyone says, he and Samantha Russell had way more chemistry than him and Rosaline Blackdale! The way he holds himself, the way he holds her hand, that little wink of his—it's all so perfect! He's so much hotter than Julius Moraine, I don't even know why people bother comparing the two when it's so easy to see which one of them dominates the polls!"
Salem glanced over at Aaron, giving him a look that could only be read as retained laughter. He let Lillie have her moment if it meant her happiness and a distraction from his current predicament. "Can't say that I know this Eris Samael. Or at least I haven't seen his films. Maybe we can have a sleepover or something one night and you can show me your favorite films of him."
"Yes!!! That's such a good idea!" Lilie jumped on the chance. "We could all get together and watch The Blood War!"
Aaron winced at Lilie’s squeal, that grimace from before threatening to sneak to the surface once again. He’d seen some of Eris’ films too, but he had never understood this infatuation with celebrities. Then again, perhaps growing up under the roof of royalty just dulled him to star power. He could conclude, though, that despite Eris being nice enough so far, Lilie might have a different opinion of the vampire if she spent a few minutes alone with him.
At the mention of The Blood War, however, Aaron couldn’t help but burst out a laugh. “You know what, I might actually take you up on that,” he told Lilie, chuckling. “That movie is hilarious.”
"Wh—" Lilie's bubble of joy popped at Aaron's words, her jaw dropping. "What? No, it's a historical drama about the events leading to the formation of the treaty!"
Aaron could only laugh a little more, despite himself. Once he composed himself a little more, he shook his head. “It’s definitely a drama, but I wouldn’t exactly call it historical.” He sighed, smiling as he remembered his mother’s live commentary when he’d watched the film with her for the first time. “Definitely a fun watch, though. Especially in my family!”
Salem went to go place his hand on his chin, a slight movement reminding him of the cuts and making him think better of it. He hummed a thoughtful hmm as Aaron spoke. "I suppose I could see some similarities between you and Eris Samael. Perhaps your lineage is much like you and thus easily shown through him."
The grin was all but slapped off Aaron’s face, and his gaze snapped over to Salem with brow furrowed. “What on earth makes you say that?” He asked, desperately hoping that Salem was referring to the fact that they were both blond and not implying that they at all behaved the same.
"Well your looks for starters. Blonde hair, fair skin, similar build. Really it's a perfect cast." Salem neglected to mention how they both have an air of arrogance to them, they are both flashy in their own regards, and each clearly thinks too highly of themselves. However Aaron's tone and gaze told him that he shouldnt reveal such details lest he gain his rancor.
Aaron squinted at Salem for a moment, not buying a word of it. They had, what, blond hair in common? Even so, even that detail was slightly off. Eris Samael being a “perfect cast” for Landar Starag himself was almost laughable. His performance was excellent, that much Aaron would freely admit, but the closest detail he shared with the Starag patriarch were the artificially blue contacts he’d been coerced into wearing for the part.
“You did see that painting of my grandfather at Her Highness’ manor, right?” he questioned, a hint of sharp sarcasm sneaking into his voice. “Mr. Samael put on an admirable show, but he’s not exactly a stand-in for the man himself.”
"I was a bit distracted by the vague rules, body modified vampire, creepy blind woman and oh yes her highness herself, to pay too much attention to the portraits that lay on the wall. I'll have to pay closer attention when I'm there next break." Salem's tone was as friendly as ever, yet carried a hint of annoyance at the other mage’s denial at the obvious.
The mere mention of Vanessa made Aaron’s skin crawl, but turning the conversation to the next break and Salem’s planned castle stay was (thankfully) enough to push her from his mind. He shook his head, though a wry smirk did curl his lip. Salem would have a hell of a time if he tried to convince the other Starags that Eris was in any way comparable to any Starag, and the very thought of three tiny blonde women laughing the idea out of the room was enough to lift Aaron’s spirits again. “Whatever you say,” he conceded smugly, shrugging. “You’ll have plenty of source material available when you get there.”
There was a brief silence as the reality of that statement sank in, and somewhat of a somber mood fell over the group again. Aaron spun his ring, wondering if now was a better time to repeat his offer from the night before, or if he should even repeat it at all. But he’d been ordered to get close to Salem, and the plant mage was clearly struggling despite his outward demeanour, so surely at least it couldn’t hurt?
“Speaking of which,” Aaron added more quietly, looking over Lilie’s head to Salem. He debated pulling Salem aside, or waiting until later, but Lilie already knew about Salem’s investigation, and Salem had only reacted poorly to any attempt at discretion, so he decided to come out with it. “My offer from last night is still open. There might be something I can do to ease your family’s minds throughout this whole… process, if you’ll let me.”
Salem's eyebrow arched at Aaron's daring proposal. How many times did someone have to reject him for him to understand what it meant? Or was he the type to have never been rejected and believes he will inevitably get his way if he asks enough. Regardless of the answer Salem would hear his proposal to see what the mage had in mind. "What were you thinking?" His voice was flat and devoid of any hope.
Though his voice didn’t quite betray it, Aaron had a hunch that Salem would be suspicious of him no matter what he did. Of course, given his own orders, maybe that was warranted, but that didn’t make it any less exhausting to talk to Salem when the man seemed to carry this air of superiority just because he was raised differently.
Maybe Aaron was more irritated than he thought.
Taking a breath to calm himself, Aaron’s tone was sincere when he spoke next. “I can write a letter to your family to tell them you’re well and inform them of the investigation. That way at least they’ll know you’re okay and have some idea what’s going on, instead of worrying themselves sick over radio silence.”
Salem's brow furrowed a bit as he heard the proposal, something someone raised with a silver spoon would suggest. Not that he wasn't raised with one himself, but at least he could see the severity of this idea. "So all you mean to do is write a letter on my behalf?" He asked feigning curiosity.
Aaron nodded. “Coming from me, no one should bat an eye, and when they check it for anything suspicious—which they will, by the way—they’ll find nothing but a letter on behalf of a friend.” He gave Salem a serious look. “I can even inform Princess Ryner about it, if you’d like. If so, any investigator would be hard-pressed to see it as anything but innocent.”
"That's...not a bad idea...is what I would say if it was anything but. However I fear that you doing so, Starag or not, would be viewed as impeding in the investigation and would only cause for it to take longer or a darker turn. I do appreciate your concern and want for help but I can't agree to what it is you're asking of me. However what you do on your spare time is not up to me nor does it require my approval." Salem hoped that Aaron would catch the hint he was throwing, but didn't fully know if the mage spoke in such subtleties.
Lilie looked between the two, quietly listening. It tore her heart to know Salem wouldn't be able to see his family, and she thought Aaron's offer was so touching. She was surprised Salem rejected it, though at that point she did walk ahead a little, turning around and walking backwards so she could face them.
"But that's what friends are for!" Lilie insisted, breaking her silence.
Aaron nearly rolled his eyes at Salem’s remark. True, fair enough, it was probably prudent to err on the conservative side when it came to accepting help while under investigation, but he didn’t seem to realize just how much weight the Starag name could carry in a situation like this. He never really had much reason to use it until now, but Aaron was sure that he could make it work to Salem’s benefit if he would only let him. But he was insistent, and as far as Aaron was concerned, there was nothing to do but accept his answer.
Lilie’s interjection made Aaron’s expression soften, some of his lingering spite melting away. He offered her an appreciative smile, and looked over to Salem. “If you’d rather I not, then I won’t,” he assured him, “but the offer is open if you change your mind.”
Lilie gave Aaron a look of disapproval, wagging her finger at him. "No, you're going to do it," She informed him plainly. "Salem can't ask, so I will. It'll be a favor from me." She cleared her throat as she tried to give herself a more uppity expression. "If you would be so kind as to inform the Spellman family, we would be utterly grateful." Her tone could have been mistaken for a mocking one, her words drawn out and delivered stiffly in what she assumed was a noble tone.
Brows knitted together, Aaron shot Lilie an utterly confused look. Was everyone just picking on him tonight?! He was briefly overwhelmed with an urge to veer off and head back to his dorm, but even that was out of the question if what Max told him was true. Besides, without a key it wasn’t like he could get in anyway.
Good grief, this night was testing his composure. Luckily it had been bred into him strong, and with a breath Aaron gathered himself again, even if his reply came out a little stuttery. “I— Lilie, I’m not going to contact his family if he doesn’t want me to,” he tried to reason.
"But I want you to," Lilie replied in earnest.
Aaron heaved a sigh. He would never understand humans.
Or, human-raised mages anyway. The urge to clap his hand to his forehead was strong, but for Lilie’s sake he refrained. “I do too!” he defended instead, gesturing to Salem. “Talk to him! He’s the one who won’t let me.”
Lilie frowned at Aaron's response, a little confused, but she gave Aaron a sincere, pleading look. "But you should do it anyway. You're a good person, and you're doing a really nice thing for a friend. If it was the other way around, I know Salem would do the same for you," She gently prodded Aaron, clasping her hands together. "Would you send it? Pretty please? For me?"
"She's not wrong. If it was me I'd go behind you and do it anyways. It's what friends do. But once again, what you do on your spare time is none of my business. If you write a note to my family telling them you've befriended me and that I am safe and you were concerned about the fact that I am incapable of reaching them, well I couldn't stop you because that is your prerogative." Man was Aaron dense.
Aaron glanced between Lilie and Salem as they spoke, confusion and frustration only mounting as they went on with what sounded to him like utter nonsense. So they were telling him that after Salem saying no, he should go behind his back and do the thing anyway, because that’s “what friends do”, and that Salem would betray him just the same if the tables were turned, and that all somehow… was a good thing.
As much as he wanted to groan out his frustrations, he kept his anguish inside for the sake of politesse as he struggled to grasp this concept that seemed so natural to these two. He was a good person if he blatantly went against someone’s wishes and behind their back to help them? Sure, maybe the intent was fine, but if Salem wanted the help, wouldn’t it have been so much simpler if he said yes? Yet here he was, all but begging Aaron to go against what he’d been told. Shouldn’t an hour with Count Julian bloodying up his knuckles have demonstrated to him why Starags weren’t particularly good at disobedience? And how on earth was he meant to procure Salem’s family’s contact information if Salem wouldn’t outwardly cooperate?
He was silent as they approached the infirmary until he finally let out a breath. “Whatever you say,” he conceded again, sounding defeated as he opened the infirmary door for his companions.
Salem let out a light hum as he spoke to no one in particular, more close to speaking aloud to himself. "I wonder if Princess Ryner has information on family members and emergency contacts. I believe I recall filling out a form and having added my mother as the emergency contact. No doubt that she would be a source of wisdom if ever I lost her number or my phone." Salem walked past Aaron, thanking him for holding the door as he went in.
Lilie watched Salem, waiting for a second before placing herself between Aaron and the entrance. "Did you get the hint?" She whispered.
Aaron glared a hole into the back of Salem’s head as he passed. He thought humiliation was Varis’ forte, but apparently it was a more common tool outside the castle than Aaron realized. Mocking a man for being unfamiliar with backwards human customs; what a way to cry for help.
Raising an eyebrow at Lilie, he couldn’t bring himself to give her a snippy reply, and simply closed his eyes and nodded. “I think so, yeah.”
She beamed up at him, taking his arm with hers as she pulled him along. "I knew you were a good person," She told him happily, dragging him along with her into the clinic.
Salem's eyes wandered around as he took in the sights, noticing a cluster of plants by the windows that when mixed together helped to create a potion to alleviate pain. His gaze moved on over towards the mage and the book she was reading, though its title remained hidden by the table it lay on. Salem knocked on the door as he stood by it, using his second knuckles to knock three times to catch the mages attention.
“Come in, come in. I’ll take it it isn’t an emergency.” The woman’s voice carried with practiced ease, waving them to approach her desk. “What are you doing at the infirmary then?”
"No emergency. I just need some gauze bandages to wrap my hands in." Salem held them up, knuckles towards the woman to show her the damage. "That and if you could spare a few cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol to clean and sterilize the wound as well. I run a clinic outside of here before I attended so I won't keep you from your book."
“Oh dear. Rough day at the Arena? Unarmed combat isn’t usually the first subject but the Arena Master like to changes things sometimes.” The woman clicked her tongue sympathetically as she stood, stepping over to a few cabinets and pulling out the requested items. She returned to her chair, taking care of the wounds herself. “It’s my job and it’s a slow day. The book isn’t going anywhere so just relax.” She said as she began dressing his wounds. “Who are your friends here? Did they need medical attention or are they just moral support?”
Salem sat down in front of her and laid his hands on the table. Chuckling slightly as she asked about Lillie and Aaron. "That's Aaron Starag and Lillie...huh, I don't know her last name… Well they met me after class to hang out but were concerned for my wounds and thus we ended up here before going about planning a picnic."
Lilie waved at the receptionist, finally releasing Aaron. "It's Dionne, by the way," She told Salem with a small nudge. "And yeah, we're both friends offering moral support."
“Isn’t that sweet. It’s nice to meet everyone.” The mage cooed as she finished cleaning one hand and started bandaging it. “How has everyone’s first day been? I know the transition can be hard. Doubly so for some.” She asked as she switched hands.
"It's been an experience I won't soon forget," Salem said as he winced through the burn if the alcohol. "I had no idea that school could be so...eventful in just a short few days. I suppose it's good that today has been slow for you though, wouldn't want to see too many students here so early."
Lilie frowned at the question, rubbing her sore arm. How was she supposed to respond to that? She gave the mage a small shrug, trying not to look too down. She forced herself to perk up, nodding in agreement with Salem.
"Yeah, really eventful!" She forced a smile, though after a few seconds she dropped it and replaced it with a real smile. "It's a good thing I made some friends! Not really sure what I would have done otherwise…"
“Friends are what will get you through the rough times. That and willow bark tea for the hangovers of course.” She chuckled as she patted Salem’s bandaged hand gently. “Was there anything else I can help you with today?”
"I don't suppose there is. Thank you once again for your hospitality and what you do for this school." Salem stood up and gave the woman a bow, turning back to Lillie and Aaron as he headed towards the door. "Shall we?"
Aaron was content to stay quiet as the other two chatted with the nurse, taking a moment to enter Lilie’s last name into her contact when she mentioned it. Dionne… it was delicate, feminine. It suited her well, he decided. He watched on as the nurse cleaned and bandaged Salem’s hands, letting his mind wander. If the consensus was that he should send word to Salem’s family, then he’d need to speak to Princess Ryner again; he wasn’t fond of bothering her twice in the span of a night, but he was sure she’d be understanding of his request. He’d also need to inform Varis—wait, he should ask permission, it’d come across more favourably that way—and arrange for the letter to be examined sooner rather than later. There was a small, spiteful part of him that wanted to forego the whole plan after Salem’s mockery, but he pushed that impulse aside. He had a duty to get close to Salem whether he wanted to or not, and hopefully the vitriol could be written off as frayed nerves from a difficult night with Count Julian. Aaron made a few mental notes to take care of everything and came back to his senses as the nurse finished her job, perking up when he was addressed.
“Indeed!” he replied brightly, though he did check his watch. Good grief, 5:10am already? “I have some time before I need to head back, where would the two of you like to go?”
Lilie scratched her cheek as she tried to think. Her eyelids felt a little heavy, but she ignored it as she thought of an idea. “I know! We should check to see if Salem’s stuff made it to the dorms,” She suggested. “We’re all neighbors, too, so it’ll be easy to point out where each of us live so we all know for the future.”
Aaron hadn’t quite been expecting that, but it made as much sense as anything else. He wasn’t fond of the idea of setting foot on a noble’s property without permission—man, Salem belonging to an Astorio would take some getting used to—but at least he’d be close to his own dorm when his curfew rolled around. “Good idea,” he replied to Lilie, before turning to Salem. “Do you have a key?”
Salem thought back onto his interaction with the student housing representative and realized he hadn't received a key to his dorm. His lips curled down into a worried frown as he thought about how to enter his new abode. "Now that you mention it I don't. Maybe the front door will simply be unlocked or perhaps the student housing building could provide me with one?"
Lilie opened her mouth and then closed it. Right, the move meant Salem probably didn’t have a key. “Then let’s go get one!” She cheerfully said.
Tilting his head in thought for a moment, Aaron wondered if Salem’s dorm might indeed be unlocked. Or, accessible anyway. On the first night the keys had been in the mailboxes, would they risk that after dorms were meant to be claimed?
“A groundskeeper let me into my dorm last night after dinner, but they were expecting me,” Aaron commented absently. “Lilie has the right idea, you might as well go visit the housing office and be sure about it.”
"May as well. I was just going to attempt the door or a window, but housing sounds like a much easier way to go about it. Who knows maybe we'll run into Max and can invite him over as well. Need to build that repertoire for treaty law after all."
Salem’s hair was noticeably messier than usual. Typically either let down or tied into a bun, his hair was in a state that almost appeared as if he had fallen asleep while in the midst of getting ready, a sloppy bun drooping low and with many strays breaking free of the band. The light in the crystal was erratic, a very dim and pale green hue struggling to stay lit within its crystalline chamber and flickering like a flame against a harsh wind. His golden rimmed glasses barely hid the dark bags now beginning to form underneath his eyes as they slipped further and further down his nose with every bob of his head while he fought to stay awake in class. He tried to create a pattern with his light, doing all he could to keep his mind on the task at hand, only for the light to quiver slightly before going out. Frustration ran rampant in his voice as he released his hands from the medium and crossed his arms. “You try. Stupid exercise.”
Though he was still as well-kept as usual, hair and clothes neat and proper as always, Aaron wasn't faring much better. Under his neatly combed hair, his eyes were dull and distant, rimmed with dark circles and set into an unusually pallid face. His notebook had several lines of meaningless swirls instead of his regular notes, doodled mindlessly and interspersed with a few unconscious repetitions of the lines he'd been writing every evening for the past week.
Salem's little outburst shook him back to reality, eyes feeling sandy as he blinked a few times at his study partner. “... Maybe a break, instead,” he suggested quietly, sliding the crystal away from him. Truth be told, he didn't have the energy or the patience for another repetition of the same dull exercise either. Instead, he peered at Salem curiously, squinting. “Are you alright? You look unwell.”
"Speak for yourself Starag." Salem's tone was pointed as he snapped at the blonde light mage, the anger and frustration in his face slowly melting away as he realized how he was acting. He began to rub the bridge of his nose and corner of his eyes as he slowly exhaled. Saying softly, "Sorry...I haven't been getting much sleep lately...I guess the lack of it has gotten me a bit more tense than usual...maybe a break is a good idea for now."
“...yeah,” Aaron nodded, pretty accustomed to Salem’s vitriol by now. He turned back to his notebook, wrinkling his nose distastefully at the line repetitions he hadn’t noticed until then, and eventually his curiosity got the better of him. He studied Salem for a moment, leaning forward on the table, before he finally spoke again.
“I haven’t been sleeping much either,” he admitted, more out of an attempt to get Salem to open up than to admit his own troubles. Not that it wasn’t true, though. “What’s keeping you up?”
Salem leaned forward onto the table, his eyes darted left and right to make sure no one was listening or eavesdropping before he continued whispering. "I've been having these weird dreams lately...it’s making it hard to tell what parts are real...or not." He pulled out a small leatherbound notebook with a wrapped thong. Undoing the wrap and opening it up towards a page as he slid it towards Aaron. "It’s been the same dream over and over again."
Brow furrowed, Aaron slid the notebook over to him and began to read, having to squint to get his tired eyes to focus. But as he pored over the contents, and the bits and pieces started fitting together, his eyes widened. His pulse quickened, face pale, hands nearly shaking as he turned the last page, finding he knew the rest before he even read it.
It was his dream, down to the last detail.
“This is your dream?” Aaron practically whirled on Salem, his hissed whisper sounding more like a demand than a question. There was an urgency in his voice, born of desperation, and he held the notebook to the table as if it could fly away at any second. He glanced between it and Salem, at the notes, the names, dates, even sketches of the same dungeon, the same manor he’d come to know so well, a ball of dread forming alongside strange hope in his chest. “Are you absolutely sure?”
Salem could hardly focus on Aaron as he began to read his journal. The outline of the mage become fuzzy as he began to slip in and out of consciousness, the threat of sleep looming over him. Aaron's voice snapped him back as he asked a ridiculously stupid question. Salem placed his hand upon his chin as he pretended to think. "Hmmm...now that you mention it...I don't think that was my dre- of course it was my dream. Why else would I say so?" Salem snatched the book out of Aaron's hands in a fit of frustration and snapped it closed. "If you're going to act like a dullard then never mind it…"
Aaron prided himself on his restraint, and he had to practice it then, when the urge to wrest the book from Salem’s grip and smack him with it nearly took him over. Instead, he threw up the hand that had been holding the book in frustration, grateful that Varis hadn’t arrived yet to observe them.
“Oh, wake the hell up for a second Salem,” Aaron growled irritably, leaning in so they wouldn’t be overheard. “I don’t have the patience for your childishness tonight. I’m asking because I’ve been having the same damn dream.”
"Maybe lead with that next time instead of asking a stupid question. I don't have time for all your cryptic bullshit and trying to read your every move, you saw the book and read the pages so obviously I was sure. All that aside though...why are we sharing the same dream about Lilie’s partner’s house?"
“Pardon me, in my line of work we don’t usually throw around details that make us look insane.” Aaron snapped, before falling heavily back against his chair. He rolled his neck, blinking several times and sighing. Fatigue was really wearing away at his patience.
“And that’s a fantastic question. I don’t know if I should be relieved or even more terrified.” He ran a hand down his face. “Besides, the Eve in the dream isn’t any Eve I’ve ever heard of. That’s not to say she doesn’t exist, but it definitely complicates things.” He gestured at the book. “I thought it was nonsense - extremely specific nonsense, mind you - born of sudden change and anxiety, but now I’m a whole lot more concerned.”
Salem pulled out his phone, not wanting to speak what he was about to say next. Typing out to Aaron, At dinner they mentioned a delayed use of mind magic when they were speaking of the Red Hand. What’re the chances that your house’s mistress implanted false memories or dreams in us while probing our minds? But...why would she?
Aaron eyed the message for a moment, turning it over in his mind. Now there was an idea. They both had their memories sifted through; could it be that Lady Sinnenodel’s mages left something behind when they were done?
I don’t really know anything about mind magic, but that seems like it could be possible, he typed out his reply in the same note, I don’t know why she’d do such a thing, but she’s not the easiest Council member to predict, so I suppose it could be anything.
He slid the phone back for Salem to read, and continued verbally. “I was just going to keep it to myself and hope it went away, honestly, but now that it’s definitely more than coincidence…” Aaron paused for a moment, ready to abort his plan, but his desperation for answers got the better of him. “Well, why don’t we research it? See if anything in it has any basis in reality, or if it’s all just some game?”
"Couldn't hurt to try. I was planning on doing so anyways, this way we can split the load at least. I wanted to look into the magic that we saw and see if anything turns up, as well as rare forms of magic. Figure you can look into the house and perhaps with it any old accents or more unknown ones seeing as I've never heard that accent before now. Anything else I might he missing?" Salem began to write down into his journal his proposed plan of attack, a note to remind him of his work so that he didn’t falter.
Aaron nodded. “I'll also put in a request to the archives and see if they have records of any buildings resembling the one in the dream. I'll look deeper into the Eves as well; maybe I just missed someone.” He seriously doubted it, but he'd entertain anything if it meant finding answers. “The royal library is more likely than anywhere to have that information. I doubt you'll have access to it on the break, but I’ll have no issue getting in and researching.”
He tapped Salem’s notebook. “Your dynamic with your partner confuses me, but if you think you can, see if Count Astorio knows anything about that Eve name. Noble families are endlessly interwoven, you never know what you'll find out.”
"He's certainly...a character. Much better than Varis… even if he tosses people he’s just met, but we have an… understanding. Best to leave it at that while we are in public. I'll make sure to ask him about that name though, think the school’s library will have anything on hearing voices in the wind?" Salem chuckled at the idea of it but any lead is a good lead and he wanted to find one fast.
Aaron really wasn't sure what to think about that, but he nodded nonetheless, moving on to the topic of magic. “If that's magic, then probably. If you're going to find information on magic anywhere, you'll find it here. If not… I have no idea.”
He sat back in his chair, massaging the bridge of his nose with his eyes closed for a moment. He opened them just in time for his favourite TA to pass by, and exchanged murderous glares with Ralph until he was gone.
He leaned back over to Salem, voice low. “But maybe that's enough discussion for one class,” He suggested. The vampires would probably be coming in soon anyway.
"Agreed, there's too many prying ears here to be able to speak freely. Perhaps we can continue this discussion another time in a more private setting. Hopefully if we figure this out then we can finally gain a good days sleep after all. Especially since I have to wake up for my daily dosage of sunlight for two hours a day."
“Hey, I'm waking up two hours early too,” Aaron remarked in surprise, before practically biting his tongue off as he realized what that line of inquiry would lead to. “Not for sunlight, though, just… I'm busy.” Smooth. Fatigue was apparently making him stupid. “Here’s hoping we can get this all out of the way.”
Aaron had been anticipating his report all night, passing each moment leading up to it flip-flopping between excitement and agony. He was positively fixated on his conversation with Salem in Affinity Mastery, both comforted and horrified by the idea that he was somehow sharing a nightmare detail-by-detail with someone else. He’d been speculating as to why all night, preoccupied—resulting in him earning a particularly harsh glare from his Spell Theory instructor when he had to be called upon twice for an answer—but what consumed him was how he would explain it all to Varis. It was a huge find, one he was sure the Count would want to know, but what would happen when Varis learned his own mage experienced the same thing? If the nightmares were related to having their minds read by his Lady’s mages, that was one thing, but if it was in any way related to the accusations leveled against Salem, it could mean decidedly bad things for him.
Try as he might to convince himself that it was all just exhaustion making him paranoid, Aaron worried nonetheless—something he was quickly becoming an expert at. He just barely collected himself enough to get out a passable apology letter (mercifully, it was the last one) but, aside from the clear signs of fatigue in his features, Aaron was practiced at keeping his anxieties hidden. He got through the bulk of his report without incident, all accompanied by a written version as usual, until he finally couldn’t stall any longer.
Varis listened to the mage at his feet as he relaxed on the couch, his book sitting neatly in his lap with a solid red bookmark sporting a green stripe on top marking his spot. His fingers drummed absently on the book as the boy prattled on and on about all the information he’d collected. Varis would admit the boy took to subterfuge easily and if even half the things he’d learned about Light mages was true, he would only become a more formidable weapon in Varis’s arsenal. That is, if the boy didn’t break first. Fatigue marred his features already and purchasing the boy some concealer at the very least had crossed his mind. Weakness wafted off him and that would put both of them in danger if it continue outside of the Princess’ protection. Varis leaned forward and grabbed the boy’s chin, inspecting him with a judgemental frown.
“And when are you dealing with these? If you choose not to sleep for some inane reason, at least have the sense to cover up the evidence. As it is, I find it unacceptable you aren’t sleeping but we’ll order concealer for future incidents.” Varis traced the circles under Aaron’s eyes as he considered the boy’s skin tone. “So what are you working on that is depriving you of sleep, boy?”
Aaron paused in his report to patiently comply, letting Varis turn and touch his face with little reaction. It still wasn’t his favourite thing in the world, but at the moment it was pretty low on his list of concerns. He had to suppress a groan at the question, though; Varis had a talent for drawing out his anxieties, that was certain.
“Fitful days, Master,” Aaron went with the safe option. “I can't place the reason, perhaps the recent changes. With your permission, I’ll visit the infirmary tomorrow and see if they have anything that can help me sleep without impacting my performance.”
Varis considered the idea briefly before releasing Aaron and leaning back again, his hand returning to the book. “Very well. Make sure you receive an updated copy of your medical records if the prescribe anything and give them to me for review before you take anything.” Varis opened his book and glanced at Aaron once more time. “Was there more for the evening boy or are you ready to be dismissed?”
Aaron nodded at the order before continuing. “One more pertinent point, Master. Tangentially related, in fact. It turns out Mr. Spellman has been having trouble sleeping as well. Apparently, he's plagued by a recurring nightmare.”
He took a second to get his thoughts in order, and swallow the guilt that somehow still lingered over selling out his ‘friend’. “He tells me that every day since the first night of classes he's had the same dream. He sees through the eyes of a young girl trapped in a cell, suffering horrid abuse until she's rescued by a vampiress. He says she fears ‘ghosts’ and voices and has been trapped for longer than she can count. But most notably, the name of the girl and the saviour both come up in the dream. He says the girl is Ellmare, and the woman rescuing her is Yvaine Eve.”
He paused to let the name sink in. “He took diligent notes about the dream and showed them to me. I can provide more detail if desired.” It wasn't as if he needed Salem's notes to tell Varis everything there was about the dream. He knew it all by heart; he saw the same things and felt the same terror Salem did, every time he fell asleep.
Varis closed his book slowly as the boy explained this… nightmare. Most of it Varis could disregard. The Spellman worked with odd concoction and things that could easily alter his perceptions. Varis would have doubted this whole issue’s validity if it hadn’t been for an Eve he’d ever heard of. He cocked his head with a thoughtful frown as he searched his memory for a “Yvaine Eve”. He’d never heard of one and Varis had spent decades researching the bloodlines of all the Houses.
“I’m tempted to write it off as a fever dream induced by some fumes or injection the boy tested on himself. Ellmare? Who in their right mind names anyone Ellmare? No, I’m quite concerned about this Yvaine Eve. How is Spellman reacting to this nightmare? Has he pursued any information on subject or does he have a plan to research it further?” Varis demand. “Submit the dream’s entirety in writing. I would like to review it in more detail but I’ve never heard of an Yvaine Eve.”
Aaron nodded again. “I’ll have a transcript ready for tomorrow’s report. I’d like to confirm the finer details first,” he lied. He'd have it for tomorrow’s report, yes, but he didn't need to consult Salem to write out every fine detail of the dream. Of course, it would be suspicious if he remembered everything. “Fortunately, that shouldn't be a problem. I agreed to help him research the details of his dream, so he won't find it odd if I go looking for specifics. I even offered to check the royal library during his stay at the castle over first break.”
That Varis didn't know the Eve’s name either was a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Aaron was relieved, since it meant he wasn't just forgetting someone; on the other, it only added to the mystery of it all.
“Salem is clearly suffering from the nightmares and lack of sleep, both physically and mentally,” he continued, “it consumes his waking hours as well as sleeping. He seems to be worried about separating the dream and reality; I assume he's either preoccupied with figuring it out, or it simply haunts him.” He shook his head. “I would have suspected adjusting to life under Astorio rule to be the culprit of such a traumatic dream, but as you say, Master, the names are what perplex me. Without any expertise on the subject, I'd expect an Astorio name to come up if that were the case, not an Eve.”
“You took the initiative to offer your services to assist Mr. Spellman?” Varis’ eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Is this because you’ve become friends with the boy or you’re interested in the situation yourself? Either way, I’m interested in this missing Eve he’s conjured up. If it turns out to be nothing but a false lead, I’ll have your information reported to the medical staff as a hallucination and let the investigation do what it will with that information.” Varis hummed thoughtfully for a moment.
“Do you have a plan on how to go about this already with him?”
“I’ll admit it’s partly morbid fascination, but otherwise this could be an excellent opportunity to gain his trust,” Aaron lied, mostly. “He thinks I’m some kind of blind, heartless thrall, so perhaps going out of my way to help him will open him up a little.” That much might be true, though it was far from Aaron’s foremost motivation. “As well… well, if there’s anything sinister behind it, I’d like to know. He will be spending two weeks in the castle; I’d rather not take chances.”
To the point of a plan, Aaron made a mental list. “Beyond me checking the royal library, Salem wants to research any magic that matches hearing voices, and see what he can glean from his master. Count Astorio is young, but one never knows which secrets lie where.” He counted the strategies off on his fingers. “Ms. Dionne’s mistress is all but absent, so she doesn’t seem like much help, but I also floated the idea of sending in an archival request for any buildings that vaguely match the description in the dream.” Aarom dropped his hand. “They may seem like great lengths for the makings of a fever dream, but I think it brought Salem comfort for someone to take his dream so seriously.”
"Congratulations, boy. You've managed to exceed my expectations." Varis' customary frown softened, still not a smile but lacking the usual disappointment he looked at Aaron with. "Continue to assist however Spellman requires. For now, I'll mark down that you've earned a free night for your efforts. Good job."
Aaron’s eyes widened a touch, the familiar joy of praise cautiously rising in him at the news. “Thank you, Master,” he insisted, sincerely humbled and surprised at the same time.
Varis picked up his book again and flipped it open, looking up at Aaron for a second. "Is there anything else or does that conclude your report? If there is nothing else, you are dismissed for the rest of the morning."
“That is everything, Master,” Aaron confirmed, some enthusiasm still in his voice. He rose gratefully to his feet, bowed, and retired to his room after adding, “Have a pleasant morning.”
Aaron’s letter, nestled in a cocoon of various business letters for Varis, instructed the mage to find his way to a picnic area set just outside the Academy grounds. The night was warmer than usual, an unusual heat wave late in the season catching most people unaware, but the gentle breeze off the ocean helped alleviate it. The campus at this time was rather still. Older students didn’t have the same slow start that the first years did and those not currently in class were likely in their dorms or the library studying. A few guards made the rounds, nodding at passing students or conversing with them as they accompanied them to their destinations. This faded away quickly enough as trees rose up around the path but floating orbs of various colors marked the way, though plain white alternated with them to make an easily visible line.
The woods grew brighter as the path continued, until the trees opened to a swarm of bright white orbs dancing in a clearing. In the center, various tables were scattered about but a gaunt man sat on one of them. His hair was tied neatly behind his head, face sunken and thin, but a smile sat on his lips as he spun the orbs lazily around him. He put several more in the air every few seconds until he pulled them all together into one and let it hover above him, replicating perfect sunlight.
Though he wished the breeze was a little cooler, Aaron had to admit that the walk to his first solo Affinity Mastery class was nice, the fresh forest air helping him a little to clear his head. Fatigue from almost a week of nigh-sleepless days was starting to get to him, as the circles beginning to appear under his eyes would attest, but the prospect of moving forward in his affinity training was more than enough to put a little spring back in his step as he followed the path to the forest.
The little orbs along the path brought a smile to Aaron’s face as he followed them - he couldn’t help it, magic always got him excited - but what really impressed him was what he found when he made it to the clearing. A man, presumably his instructor, sitting in the midst of a veritable constellation of white orbs of light, before bringing them all together to bathe the clearing in… sunlight!
Aaron took a moment to observe before he stepped into the clearing, a smile on his lips as he examined the man’s creation. It was sunlight alright; not just light with the same hue, but genuine sunlight. He couldn’t explain exactly how he knew, but there was no doubt about it. And while he might have been raised nocturnal, he would never turn down the chance to spend a few minutes in the sun.
“Beautiful,” Aaron commented, finally entering the clearing, though he stopped a bit of a distance from his instructor.
“That which is rare always is.” The man sighed, the little orb of sunlight shrinking and hovering over his shoulder as he hopped off the table. He winced as what sounded like every joint in his body cracked with the movement but he smiled at Aaron still. “I think I’m getting old now.” He deadpanned with a shake of his head.
“Professor Russel Daun, Mr. Starag. I’ll be heading your affinity training for the next four years. Hopefully we get along or this is going to be a rough one.” Russell chuckled and made his way to Aaron, clapping him on the shoulder. “Most of the students have a small file with some information on their situation but I didn’t receive one for you, probably because royal secrets and all that, so forgive me for not knowing your level yet. Would you mind providing a demonstration of what you’ve learned?”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Aaron replied, giving Professor Daun a courteous bow purely out of habit and promptly being surprised when the man clasped his shoulder. He smiled at the professor as he spoke, feeling a little more at ease than he normally did around instructors, though he suspected it had something to do with that delightful little ball of sunshine hovering over the man’s shoulder.
At the mention of a demonstration, Aaron was snapped out of his reverie. “Oh, of course,” he replied hastily, looking around the clearing to see what he was working with. The night was dark but for the moon and the ball of light hovering near Professor Daun, but that would probably be enough for what he needed.
Taking a few steps back so he had some room, Aaron closed his eyes for a moment and drew a deep breath, concentrating on the flow of magic within him—something he’d actually caught on to indirectly through Salem. The ebb and flow was comfortable, familiar; a welcome respite from… well, everything.
His ring began to glow pale yellow, and when he opened his eyes, the same glow had claimed them, too. Holding his hands out in front of him, he reached out with his magic, calling the light from the orb to him. Much like his demonstration on orientation night, a beam of light formed between his palms, reflecting back and forth as if between mirrors and growing brighter by the second. But where he’d let the light escape on orientation night, this time Aaron held on to it more deftly; when it grew uncomfortably bright (for anyone who wasn’t a light mage, that is) Aaron pulled his hands abruptly apart, pulling the light like softened glass into a thin beam. At once it started moving, almost too fast to follow, bouncing between all ten of his fingertips like a pinball before sailing past his hand, only to loop around and return to his opposite palm where it exploded in a flash.
“I could already concentrate existing light when I arrived here,” Aaron explained, blinking the glow from his eyes. “Ever since, I’ve been working on refining my manipulation, slowing the light down and getting some more precise directional control. Keeping up with it, even slowed down, has proved a challenge, but my reflexes are starting to catch up.” He smiled, though he was all business a moment later as he perched a hand on his pommel. “I’ve also experienced a bit of involuntary glowing in situations of extreme stress, but it’s easily controlled by removing my focus.” He held up his ring for the professor to see.
He sighed, tugging on his left ear. “Creating my own light, however, still eludes me.”
“And it probably will for a while. Everything takes time, Mr. Starag.” Russell chuckled, returning to his seat once more as he gave Aaron a thoughtful look. “Tell me, what do you plan to achieve with your magic? Light magic dictates a substance which directs the lives of every creature, from human to vampire and everything in between. It tells us what our world looks like, what color is, what is around us and gives us the chance to react to it. Despite what many people think, there is more to light than meets the eye.” He chuckled a little at the joke before his thoughtful expression returned.
“So Mr. Starag. What do you expect to get out of this affinity?”
Aaron nodded. Patience; it wasn't always his strong suit when magic was involved, but he needed to exercise it nonetheless. The professor’s question gave him pause, however, but not for want of an answer; it was true, on the surface light may have seemed a rather weak affinity when compared to the power to shake the earth or set the air on fire, but just as Aaron had discovered soon after his Awakening, the possibilities were vastly more powerful than what met the eye. He had notebooks back home filled to bursting with every way he could imagine light being harnessed; with the proper training he could control what people saw, weave vast and perfect illusions or make things disappear completely. He remembered reading about light mages who could see around corners and in 360 degrees, see incredible distances, create entities of light and see through their eyes like proxies, even travel huge distances in seconds by “riding” light. He even remembered giddily imagining how he could become an ideal bodyguard to his charge, capable of shielding a vampire from sunlight in the middle of the day and wielding his own sunlight against any vampiric attacker.
And he was sure there were yet dozens, if not more, possibilities he hadn't thought of, and the prospect of so much out there to learn and wield made him positively giddy. His tired eyes shone with rare excitement and determination when finally he met the professor’s gaze again with his answer. “Everything there is.”
“Ambitious.” Russell chuckled from his seat on the table. “But what else would we expect from the best of us. Very well, Mr. Starag. Let’s see where we should start. That was an excellent self analysis. Let us work on that control some more. Once we’ve seen you can direct your light for longer, we’ll move onto creating images. I doubt you’ll have too much difficulty reaching that by the end of the semester though if you put some extra effort, we may be able to get you to animating them properly as well. Nothing particularly complex, likely something simple like a flag or a spinning orb, but exciting nonetheless. For now however…” Russell expanded the light on his shoulder, brightening the area a bit and then several large hoops of light appeared around them.
“We’ll be running an obstacle course for a little while. We’ll work on shrinking the rings and then adding movement while you guide a small ball of light through them. For now, let’s get a bundle of light and then stop it all together.” Russell held out his hands like Aaron, mimicking his technique but he cupped his hands together. He didn’t fully close them but left a gap large enough for Aaron to see. The light bent in onto itself, following the curve of his palms until it separated from him and hovered in a small ball between them. The light followed itself round and round, like a dog chasing its tail. “For now, let’s make a stable orb of concentrated light. Once you can create your own, this will be far simpler but we get to do it the fun way for a bit. The first step to controlling the light is stabilizing. Light doesn’t like to change directions over and over again and you’ll find it incredibly draining to do so without outside help. So what you do is guide the light into a circuit and keep it there. All you have to do is wrap your magic in a loose circle and the light will follow it happily. So, condense the light like usual and then use your magic to provide a track and the light will keep to it. Go ahead and try.”
Feeling a little more proud of himself than was probably warranted, Aaron’s face broke into a smile at Professor Daun’s praise. He took straight to his task, though. The professor seemed to think he could make significant strides in one semester and he wasn't about to prove the man wrong.
Professor Daun’s solution to the problem of directing light was almost too elegant; frankly, Aaron was surprised he hadn't thought of it himself. He was so preoccupied with learning to reflect light that he never considered curving it. Light wasn't fond of curving, true, but that was where magic came in.
Cupping his hands as Professor Daun had (leaving enough room for light to enter to be concentrated in the first place), Aaron called to mind that mind-numbingly repetitive crystal exercise from their classroom sessions. He knew well how the flow of magic through his body felt, and he'd done something similar with the current when he made his orb move around within the crystal. Doing his best to keep his breathing even - breath control was helpful, but he couldn't use that crutch forever - he focused on the space between his hands. He called the light there easily enough, but rather than focusing on bouncing it back and forth, he focused on letting his magic loop between his palms before returning to him. He did this for a few seconds, concentrating on the feeling, and when his eyes opened again (glowing solid yellow as always) he had a little ball of light between his hands.
His eyes widened, and in his excitement he almost lost his focus altogether; there it was! An orb! Spinning! Or, well, it felt like spinning. There was no visible cue, but he could feel the light following his magic's path, like a leaf caught in a whirlwind.
“Wow,” Aaron gasped, despite himself. He looked excitedly with pupil-less eyes from his hands to the teacher and back again, beaming. “You're right, it's much more malleable with a path to follow, isn't it?”
“Good job Aaron!” Russell praised him, nodding at the orb in Aaron’s hand. “Much of light magic works on this principle. Most people believe we bend light but really we just politely ask it to change its direction and suggest it stays moving that way. Making demands of your affinity will only slow your progress; we are the ones going against the natural order and we ought to show respect as we ask it to change a course several millennia in the making.”
“Now we’ll remove our hands slowly. Try and keep your magic from following. Maintaining its size is the key lesson here because we want to remove your reliance on the physical to guide your magic. I don’t expect you to manage it right away but this is an easy exercise you can perform anywhere if you have some free time.” Russell pulled his hands away from the orb slowly, dropping them once they reached shoulder width. The orb of light hovered exactly where Russell left it as if suspended on a string.
“Let’s see you try now.” Russell opened the floor for Aaron to demonstrate how well he could control his light orb.
More encouraged than he expected to be over a little bit of praise, Aaron nodded and turned his attention back to the orb between his hands, subsisting much more easily than his usual methods of directing light. Focusing on maintaining his ‘current’, he slowly began to draw his hands apart; the orb did grow the first few tries, expanding into something like a ring as his little cyclone of magic expanded with the movement, and each time he reset his position, staring into the light with more determination than the last.
After about ten tries in rapid succession, Aaron was able to move his hands about a foot apart while maintaining his orb’s original size, though it did shudder a bit now and then. He tried not to get too excited lest it interrupt his flow, and instead decided to talk his way through the process as a means to temper himself.
“I'm still feeling an urge to coordinate physical efforts with magical ones,” he explained, eyes still trained stubbornly on the orb. He took a deep breath in an attempt to loosen up a bit, but the orb shuddered as he did, and he went back to shallow breathing to compensate. “As I separate my hands the tension is moving to my belly and chest.” It was as if he was trying to squeeze a large ball, the muscles in his chest and arms tensing even as his hands drew apart, and his abdomen tensing as well with the effort. “Is that normal?”
“It is.” Russell’s orb winked out as he gave Aaron a reassuring smile. “Your body is trying to compensate for the lack of your normal methods. Take a few deep breaths and relax yourself. If your light goes out, start from the beginning and take it slowly. It may help if you move in tandem with your breathing, slow and deep breaths in while your hands are still and long, control exhales while your hands are separating.”
Aaron nodded and tried again with Professor Daun’s methods. It seemed to work a bit better from the start - though Aaron was used to breath control, so that might have been part of it - though it still took several tries before he got much consistency. The rest of the class was spent on that exercise, Aaron putting in several attempts and the Professor intermittently offering advice, until Aaron could consistently get his hands shoulder-width apart before the light started shuddering.
The last attempt was shakier than the rest, and finally Aaron let his hands drop and his light wink out, spent but smiling. “That’s more demanding than you’d think, isn’t it?” he chuckled, voice breathy with exertion. He glanced at his watch; class was almost over anyway. He was actually impressed he’d lasted this long, seeing as he hadn’t had a solid day’s sleep since the first night of classes.
“It’s a little like using a muscle that you rarely use.” Russell agreed, hopping off the table with another wince and started leading Aaron down the path back to campus. “But with time, magic will be as instinctive as breathing. Did you have any questions about today’s lessons?”
Accompanying the professor down the path, Aaron shook his head. “I don't think so; you've explained this very well,” he replied, though he did think of something as they came up to the mouth of the path. “Although, is there anything else I should keep in mind as I practice on my own?”
“What else should you keep in mind? Lets see.” Russell frowned thoughtfully for a moment. “Well, you seem like someone who pushes themselves to achieve so remember in everything to take a break. It won’t come all at once and just like a muscle, overuse might do more harm than good. Keep a conscious focus on your breathing and consciously practice. Don’t let your mind wander, even when you think you’ve mastered a basic, otherwise you may develop poor habits that will catch you up in your advanced lessons. Other than that, I think you’re on the right path Aaron.” The Professor clapped him on the shoulder again and grinned.
Grinning back, Aaron nodded, holding his hand out for the professor to shake. “Thank you very much professor, I'll keep those things in mind. I look forward to our next lesson.”
Sprinkled throughout the Academy campus were picnic tables, lone or in groups of two or three, placed a good distance from the various paths criss-crossing the campus and usually provided with lights if students wanted to use them for studying. Some of them had shrubs and other flora nearby to offer a bit of atmosphere and privacy, and some were simply out in the open, their occupants visible to anyone walking by.
It was one of those that Aaron occupied all on his own, taking advantage of the space to spread a few texts and notebooks around as he got in a few precious minutes of study time. Despite the occasional problem of the wind turning his pages or sending his notes flying away, he’d taken to using the picnic tables as his main venue for studying; the fountain courtyard never had space, Varis was rarely home during the night to grant him access to the dorm, the dining hall was too loud and crowded, and the stir that seemed to accompany him ever since his public apology made studying in the library too distracting. But even though people could see him sitting there as they walked by, his affinity meant he could read his notes just fine without turning the light on, so to them, he was just a vague figure in the darkness. And even if they were looking at him, no one ever approached him.
Perhaps ostracization had its advantages.
Besides, the wind wasn’t a concern of his tonight. The air was very still for an autumn night, the usual rustling of trees in the breeze replaced by a chorus of crickets picking up for the fall. Considering what had been keeping him up the past several days, Aaron certainly wasn’t complaining about the lack of wind; the crickets were a welcome change. A few murmurs reached him here and there from the surrounding paths, likely more buzzing about the Arena being closed by royal instruction the night before, but while they did occasionally jar him from his focus, they were quiet enough that Aaron could (mostly) ignore them.
In fact, he had finally - whether through practice or fatigue - gotten himself to focus, largely deaf to the world as he drafted yet another set of Treaty Law notes to be passed on to Lilie when a jab to his side made him shoot out of his seat. He whirled around, hand on Dawn’s handle when an armoured hand grasped his sword arm and a man growled a warning he didn’t quite catch, stopped from subduing him only by a female voice.
“Oh, come now, that’s a tad extreme.”
A small, thin hand grasped the man’s forearm. The man, a dark-haired guard in Noila colours, complied quickly, releasing Aaron’s arm and stepping back with a muttered apology. The arm belonged to a short, slight woman draped in a thickly woven cape shawl, with silver-streaked blonde hair twisted into a low bun and blue—
Aaron’s shocked expression fell in an instant, replaced immediately by a wide smile as a disbelieving laugh escaped him. His mother laughed too, leaning over a bit with the force of it, but barely had time to stand up straight before Aaron collected her in a hug, lifting her several inches up off the ground and turning before he released her. “You didn’t tell me you were going to be here!”
“I wanted to surprise you!” his mother retorted, still chuckling. “And by the looks of it, I succeeded! You must learn to relax, sweetheart.”
Aaron cocked an eyebrow. “How can I relax with the threat of sneaky fire mages ambushing me at any moment?” he joked, voice edged with mock indignation. Shaking his head, he gestured for his mother to sit, taking a seat himself and turning to face her. He assumed she was here on business with the Princess, likely related to the closure of the Arena, but a lifetime of classified comings and goings numbed him to the curiosity, and he knew better than to ask. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better now that I can finally lay eyes on you,” Ella replied, taking one of Aaron’s hands in both of hers. She did frown, though. “Although, could you turn on the light? Not all of us can see in the dark, you know.”
Aaron started reaching for the light, but got a better idea. “I’ll do you one better,” he replied mischievously, smirking as he cupped his hands in front of him. He closed his eyes for a moment and drew a long breath, and soon a little orb of white light had formed between his hands, staying in place even as he separated them. When he opened his eyes, they were blank and glowing as they always did when he practiced magic, but the unsettling look was offset by a smile.
Ella smiled back and clapped quietly, beaming. “Beautiful!” She exclaimed proudly, “Not even a month at school and already improving so much.”
Aaron chuckled bashfully, nodding as he let the light wink out. “Can’t quite move them yet, but it's definitely more efficient than bouncing light all over the place.” He reached to turn the proper light on, washing the picnic table in a soft yellow glow.
“Progress is progress, Sunshine,” Ella replied, sighing happily. “I’m just so glad to see you. Now, you must tell me everything.”
“Oh no,” Aaron teased, leaning an elbow on the picnic table. “You tell me how you managed to sneak up on me like that. I’m starting to think Clara is rubbing off on you.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “Please, I taught Clara everything she knows. She just never learned to pick her battles.” She laughed, a musical sound, though it was interrupted by a short burst of coughs at the end. Aaron looked concerned, but Ella waved him away, drawing a handkerchief from a hidden pocket somewhere in her skirt. She took a second to collect herself and clear her throat before she continued. “I told those two to keep quiet, though. Stars only know they’d have ruined the surprise with their big mouths.”
Aaron smiled warmly, eyes softening as he listened. He hadn’t been away from home all that long, but bantering like this with his mother again was like food for his soul. “Yeah, I’m amazed they listened.”
“They always listen to me,” Ella stated proudly. “But they’re old news. I’m here to hear about you. How are your classes? Have you been making friends? And who is this mysterious partner you’ve kept so hidden?”
Aaron grinned bashfully, glancing down at his hands. He supposed this night had been a long time coming. Honestly, he was astounded that it took her this long to outright ask. She'd been exceedingly patient with his beating around the bush and question-dodging, but he supposed there was a part of him that hoped he'd be able to make it to the break before he had to break the news.
“The classes are interesting!” he replied, his enthusiasm just a little forced. “You wouldn’t believe the size of them, though. My Spell Theory class probably has fifty students in it, and Treaty Law probably triple that.” Aaron shook his head. “I’ve adjusted pretty smoothly, luckily, but it is just bizarre.”
Ella looked just as confused at the arrangement as Aaron had been at first. “Well, at least Treaty Law shouldn’t be a problem for you,” she offered.
“True,” Aaron quirked his head. Varis was harsh, but even he couldn’t seem to find much fault in his knowledge of the Treaty. “You’d be surprised how many mages don’t know anything about the Treaty, though. And then some of them even actively disdain it! Such as… well, I’m sure you heard about Mr. Spellman.”
“Indeed I did,” Ella replied, folding her hands on her lap. She hid it well, but there was definitely an air of distaste surrounding the topic. Of course, she had decades more practice in subtlety than her son did, and shifted the topic with ease. “I was much more interested to hear that Her Majesty herself appointed you as his guardian.” A smirk found her features, and her voice swelled with pride. “It isn’t often a mage as young as you is assigned a duty of such importance.”
“Oh, Mom,” Aaron’s ears flushed a little, and he waved the idea away. “Don’t inflate my head now, Salem is more of a hazard to himself than anyone else.”
Ella shook her head. “Don’t get complacent. Anyone facing his accusations could be a threat, let alone when they’re inside the castle.” She straightened pridefully, prompting Aaron to do the same, but softened. “But I, for one, will sleep soundly knowing who’s in charge of keeping him in check.”
Aaron smiled bashfully. “Thank you, Mom.”
Ella smiled warmly, but moved right along. “Of course, I hope Mr. Spellman isn’t the only… acquaintance you’ve made,” she pressed.
Aaron smirked, shaking his head and inadvertently tangling his earring in his hair again. “No, actually I’ve made a few,” he assured her, pulling absently at his earring to dislodge it. “There’s Max, a metal mage whose company I enjoy almost exclusively because he hates it so much, but also Lilie, a water mage and quite a fenc—”
“Hang on dear, I’m sorry,” Ella interrupted, standing. She stood, moving Aaron’s hand and carefully disentangling the earring from his hair, much like Lilie had on the first night he got it. Aaron pulled away slightly, but didn’t have the heart to stop her.
“I don’t know what you’ve got stuck in…” she trailed off as the metallic glint of the earring shone from under his hair, disentangling it fully and examining the pendant for a moment as Aaron practically shrunk in embarrassment. Every explanation that came to mind died in his throat as her silence seemed to stretch forever, and he knew it was useless. The truth was right there in her hands; there was nothing more he could say.
“...I did think it strange that Her Highness didn’t tell me,” Ella finally admitted, almost to herself. “And… I can only assume this earring wasn’t a personal fashion choice.”
Aaron shook his head solemnly, though he did his best to hide his shame. “No, mother.”
Ella nodded, retaking her seat. She regarded her son silently for a moment, Aaron’s gut twisting all the while as he awaited the worst, before she spoke again.
“I think it suits you,” she stated, as casually as if she were talking about a new tie and not a new Noble alliance.
Aaron’s brow furrowed. “The… earring?”
“Well, yes, for a start. You definitely wear it better than Clara would with that chicken neck of hers.” She chuckled, and even Aaron was forced to crack a smile, before she got sincere again. “But beyond that, serving an esteemed Noble House definitely becomes you, Sunshine.”
“A Noble House,” Aaron pointed out, some of his disappointment leaking through, “but not the royal House.”
“You hold your tongue,” Ella reprimanded him, though there was no malice to it. “The Sinnenodels are a respected and powerful family, and I won’t hear you besmirching your new House. You know better than that.” She gave him a pointed look. “And recall that it was Her Highness Princess Ryner herself who put you in their care in the first place, and I won’t have you disrespecting her decision. I’m sure she could think of no one better for the task.” She straightened up, satisfied that her point was made. “Now, tell me about your new charge.”
Aaron dropped his head as he was reprimanded, nodding. His mother was right, of course she was. It was petty and disgraceful to talk about his new House like they were something to be ashamed of, not to mention disrespectful to Ryner herself. He’d never heard his mother say anything so glowing about the “snakes” of House Sinnenodel before, and he knew she couldn’t be pleased, but she was right; he was raised to for one job, and now it was time to do it.
“It’s Count Varis Sinnenodel,” Aaron replied, moving on to the question at hand. “He’s from a lesser branch of the family, but is also their—my Lady’s current favourite.”
“Ah yes, the young Count,” Ella nodded knowingly. “I’ve had the… well, admittedly not the pleasure, but the opportunity to meet him on several occasions, though I’d be sincerely surprised if he cared to remember me. He and Her Highness are intimate business partners, as I’m sure you know by now.”
Aaron nodded. “And he’s the current heir to House Sinnenodel, not to mention their Council seat. Should anything happen to Her Excellency, of course.”
“Indeed.” Ella smirked. “And you’re his mage. It’s really quite an honour.”
Aaron shrugged, though he had to grin. “Well, his ‘newest show mage,’ technically,” he admitted, “but yes, I suppose it is.”
Ella scoffed. “My dear, not that you wouldn’t make an excellent show mage, but I’d be amazed to see a shrewd Count like Varis waste your talents on just that.”
Aaron wasn’t so sure. “Maybe, but…” He sighed. “I’ll admit, as a whole, he doesn’t seem too impressed with me.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “That family has made disapproval into an art form. I would be much more concerned if he was impressed with you.” She laid a reassuring hand on Aaron’s forearm and offered him a smile, taking in the fatigue on his face for a moment. “Their methods are different than ours, yes. But whatever trials he has in store for you, I have no doubt you’ll overcome them.”
Aaron laid his hand on hers, expression softening. “You think so?”
Ella smiled. “I know so,” she stated matter-of-factly, her grin growing mischievous. “I know for a fact I raised a son who would settle for nothing less. Mark my words; you’ll be promoted from show mage to majordomo in no time.”
Knowing Varis so far, Aaron was hesitant to hope, but he couldn’t help but smile. Practical or not, majordomo was pretty much his dream job, and… well, things had been looking up a little lately. Was it so impractical for him to set his goals high? “Well… truth be told, I did manage to impress him recently. He even rewarded me with a free night.”
“A free night?” Ella grinned cleverly. “How interesting! And how do you plan to spend it?”
“Aside from sleeping?” Aaron chuckled. “Well, I was actually going to request the first night of the Revel.”
Ella nodded, thinking for a moment. “This year’s theme is ‘masquerade,’ isn’t it?”
“Yes, and I hear there will be a formal masquerade ball here on campus and everything,” Aaron confirmed. He grinned. “I’m actually pretty excited for it.”
Ella nodded again, and a wry smirk came to her lips. “It sounds wonderful, Sunshine,” she beamed. “But what will you wear? I know you didn’t pack anything that wouldn’t fit in at home.”
Aaron’s brow furrowed for a moment, before he had to laugh. “I suppose I didn’t really think of that.” He’d look ridiculous at the Revel in a classic suit and tie; it was a holiday for extravagance, after all.
Ella laughed as well, shaking her head and patting her son’s leg. “Don’t you worry about that,” she assured him. “I’ll have something sent for you.”
Aaron smiled, though the two were interrupted by the guard that had accompanied Ella, who had been standing to the side the entire time. “Madam Starag, I must—”
“You must nothing,” Ella snapped, “I don’t see my son in weeks and you’re rushing me? Her Highness will be fine another few minutes, not to mention quite displeased if she hears you cut off a meeting between me and my son.”
Aaron stopped her, holding out a hand and looking apologetically to the guard. “It’s fine, Mom,” he told her gently, glancing at his watch. “You know, it’s almost my curfew time anyway. I should be going.” He stood and helped his mother gently to her feet, who seemed unimpressed, but didn’t protest.
“Fair enough,” she sighed, opening her arms. Aaron stooped to hug her, though he refrained from holding her the extra moment he wanted.
“It was really nice to see you,” he told her as he released her, stooping to kiss her on the cheek.
“Likewise, my dear.” Ella smiled up at him. “Take care of yourself, Sunshine.”
“You too, Mom.” Aaron smiled down at her, and nodded to the guard, who escorted his (somewhat displeased) mother away after some final goodbyes. Aaron watched her go, feeling like a weight had been lifted off his chest. She wasn’t ashamed of him, wasn’t horrified at his new allegiance, nothing. He’d been building up the reveal in his mind for nothing; he knew she wasn’t fond of the Sinnenodels, but she clearly didn’t think he was a failure, and now that it was all out in the open, he could breathe a little easier. No more hiding possibly the biggest aspect of his life from his family, no more sneaking around the subject, everything was fine.
Still, he was glad she hadn’t asked why he wasn’t sleeping.
Campus was quieter than normal on the last Saturday before the Revel, most students squared away in the library or their dorms, catching up on whatever schoolwork or chores they needed to get done so their partying could go uninterrupted. It was a shame, though; the moon was low in the sky, making way for the stars to shine brighter than normal, and the heat wave that had blown over the campus had finally broken free, leaving the air crisp with a pleasant pre-autumn chill.
Of course, Aaron wasn’t outside to enjoy it either. He was tucked away underneath the Arena in the practice room he’d reserved for him and Max, with an extra request to have anything metal that could be removed, removed. Dawn was safely tucked away in its scabbard back at his dorm, too, and instead the practice room had been outfitted with two wooden practice swords, balanced with stone weights rather than lead. Aaron himself was also looking different than usual, his normal, formal style foregone in favour of a pair of sweatpants, a t-shirt, and sneakers. His long Sinnenodel earring had been replaced with its practice stud counterpart, the crest clearly visible what with his hair tied tightly to his head in three braids, joined at the back with pins. Nothing sticking out, nothing to be grabbed.
Aside from the clothes, though, Aaron still wasn’t quite looking like himself. He went through the motions of limbering up his joints as he waited for Max, sure, but his usual enthusiasm for training was subdued, to say the least. The dark circles that had been gradually forming under his eyes the past two weeks were out in full force, and while he was hoping some exercise would help clear his head, he couldn’t deny that he was a little disappointed that a rare respite from schoolwork, chores and punishments would be spent trading blows with Max rather than trying to catch up on a few minutes of sleep.
Max sauntered into the room nonchalantly, right on time despite his apparent disdain for having to be present. He looked as unkempt as he usually did, despite Eris’ best efforts, but his scowl was reigned in enough to almost pass for a neutral expression. He took a brief moment to inspect Aaron, then looked away with a roll of his eyes. Oooh, Retriever looked serious. This was going to be a pain, he could already tell.
“So, how’s this work?” Was Maxwell Alderman too petty to bother with even saying hello to his little arranged playmate? Yes, yes he was. “We whack each other over the head a few times and then show off our bruises to the vampies? Or am I gonna get a wonderful lesson in royal swordplay that I can show off to all my friends?” He kept his tone unenthusiastic and fairly level, letting the context spell out the sarcasm for him.
Aaron was just surprised Max showed up on time, truth be told. He ignored Max’s quip for a moment in favour of giving him an up-and-down look, inspecting his clothes. He honestly couldn’t tell if Max had dressed any differently for training - he looked like he just rolled out of bed most nights anyway - but he supposed it would do.
Foregoing pleasantries, as he’d become used to on their little vampire-mandated playdates, Aaron simply picked up the two wooden swords on the floor next to him, tossing one without warning to Max. “Something in between, I bet,” he replied, critically eyeing Max’s posture. “I know I probably already asked you this, but have you really not done any kind of combat training before?”
Max carelessly held out a hand as the sword came flying at him, then let out a derisive snort as it clattered to the floor uselessly. That was weird, normally he could still move those. At least, the ones they used in Self Defense. He let out a second, more lighthearted snort as he bent down to pick the practice weapon up, weighing it in his hand experimentally.
“D’you custom order these or something? I hope you’re not scared of me or anything.” Max taunted idly before flashing a shit-eating grin that would probably make even Eris jealous of its potency. That, or the Retriever was calling him a cheater. Which was valid, he guessed. “And no, other than the stuff we went over in class, I don’t know anything about this. Unless, like, video games count, but…” Max shrugged.
“Apparently I’m not the first one to think a metal mage might be tempted to cheat in a swordfight,” Aaron replied, returning Max’s shrug. “Besides, it’s your arms Eris wants you flexing, not your magic.”
He gestured for Max to raise his sword, and gave his posture another critical look when he’d done so. Was that how characters held swords in video games, then?
“Well, luckily the basics of swordplay are pretty idiot-proof,” Aaron continued, pacing around Max and whacking him with his own sword wherever his stance was lacking. “And if ten-year-old me could pick up the basics, so can you.” Once Max was in something that more resembled an actual ready stance, Aaron circled back in front of him, but stood at rest, sword at his side. “Alright, hit me.”
“Y’know you can just tell me what to change instead of smacking me, right? I’m not deaf.” Max hissed out, gripping the weapon with both hands. Aaron was probably wise for taking all the metal out of the room; a couple more rounds of this crap and Max would be throwing whole weapon racks around out of spite. He drew back the sword for a fairly uncreative diagonal “slash” across the torso, throwing his weight into it. The power was there, but the entire ordeal was blatantly telegraphed.
Max’s slash was met with a rather simple parry of Aaron’s sword, his blade sliding down the other (sadly without the characteristic shing of metal against metal) and carrying the power behind it sailing past Aaron, where he used the momentum to turn and slam his own blade across Max’s back. It probably wouldn’t bruise, but a piece of wood bouncing off the spine was rarely pleasant.
“You’re dead.” Aaron stated flatly. “And I hope your sensibilities weren’t too damaged by a few whacks, or you’ll find this whole ‘combat’ thing a little taxing.” He gestured for Max to raise his weapon again. “You’re too slow. Don’t show your opponent what you’re about to do. And if you run at them like a bull every time, you’ll end up having your power used against you. Always have a plan in case your hit doesn’t land. Try again.”
Max groaned and lifted his sword as instructed, sticking with his two-handed approach. It wasn’t like he’d have much finesse regardless of how he was holding the weapon, so he might as well stick to something that had a bit more power behind it.
“Question, am I allowed to just deck you?” He was only half-kidding. Fists were fairly intuitive, he figured he couldn’t get that wrong too. Then again, he thought swords were fairly intuitive but Aaron seemed to feel the need to prove him wrong. Max didn’t give Aaron a chance to respond before he was coming at him again, drawing his weapon back to the side for what looked like another uninspired horizontal swing across the gut. He tilted the sword downward as he swung, aiming for the legs in an attempt to be a bit more slick in his approach; though he fully expected to just get whacked in his undefended face for the effort.
Max was partially right: Aaron caught his sword with a two-handed downward block, stopping his momentum outright rather than redirecting it. Bringing both swords up, Aaron twisted Max on his leading foot, putting him off balance to a point where a sweep of his own leg sent him unceremoniously to the floor, where Aaron poked the tip of his blade into Max’s stomach.
“Dead. Leg shots are too risky at your level. Your opponent will gain the upper hand,” Aaron explained simply. He had to admit, even if the circumstances were taxing and Max was the student, it was kind of fun to be the one instructing for once. He had tens of thousands of ‘deaths’ under his belt; it felt kinda good to be the one dealing them out for a change.
Returning his blade to his side, he looked at Max on the ground for a moment, before his face finally split into a grin. “You’re welcome to deck me if you think you can do it,” he chuckled, tossing his sword to the floor for effect. “Or you could charge an unarmed man, if that’s more your speed.”
Max groaned again. He was expecting to lose the altercation, not end up on his ass. While he was tempted to just try to tackle the other boy, he had the feeling there was some nasty surprise waiting for him if he tried it so obviously. He decided to just flick his sword to smack at Aaron’s ankle before standing up.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re gonna armbar me or something, right?” Figures that they trained the prize pet to do everything. Max stepped back into his ready stance, idly waving the practice blade around while he waited for Aaron to pick his own back up. “So where should I be aiming?”
“I really don’t think a punch from you would require an armbar, but that’d be your prerogative,” Aaron chuckled, raising an eyebrow at the little ankle tap but otherwise picking his sword back up without delay.
The question, though, was a little difficult to answer. Truthfully, there were a million places where he should be aiming, but they were all dependent on a multitude of different contexts that no one on earth had time to explain in full. Aaron had learned through trial and error, attacking and ‘dying’ hundreds and hundreds of times over years of training until he learned the difference between what worked and what didn’t; how exactly could he explain what was essentially instinct to him by now?
“I would say aim for your opponent’s weak points, but you’ll have a hard time recognizing them at this stage,” he decided, moving into an actual two-handed ready stance with the tip of his sword trained toward the floor. “You’ll find that what looks like an opening often isn’t one. It all comes with practice. Try again.”
So, in other words, Retriever was a total hack. Figures. Not that Max could really blame him; combat was too fluid for Aaron to just give him a one-size-fits-all checklist to follow.
“You know you suck at this, right?” Max muttered as he once again stepped in for a swing, though he hesitated before going for anything aggressive. Feints were out; he wasn’t fast enough to actually misdirect Aaron or manage to score a real hit in the window he’d created even if he could. Ideally, he’d exploit an opening in an extended melee, but he couldn’t even get to that point if he kept getting pretend-killed on the second swing.
Max played it as safe as possible, going for a swipe across Aaron’s torso again, though he didn’t throw his weight into it this time; keeping the majority of his weight on his back leg so he’d be able to - in theory - easily step away from any counters.
At least Max learned from his mistakes, but of course, it was far from perfect. Aaron couldn’t fairly expect perfection anyway, but it didn’t stop him from having a bit of fun with the leeway he was given.
Max’s swing was well telegraphed, and clearly weaker than his previous attempts, more of a true slash than a heavy chop. Aaron didn’t bother parrying with his sword, instead stepping back and raising his left arm, catching the blow on his forearm before whacking the blade down and lunging forward with his own, sending the tip far past Max’s side in a simulation of being run through and tapping his hip with it. It certainly wasn’t an optimal reply to a slash, but it was a fun little teaching moment.
“I may have a useless arm now, but you’re still dead,” Aaron explained, straightening up. He held up his sword. “A longsword is not a baseball bat. You can use it one or two-handed, depending on your situation. It’s actually very versatile.”
He held his sword in both hands, mimicking a diagonal downward chop, similar to what Max had done the first time. “A two-handed grip gives you more power. If you think you’re safe to do so, you can cut off limbs with a good two-handed swing, or easily kill someone with a chop to the shoulder or the side.” He demonstrated as he spoke, before switching to a one-handed grip.
“A one-handed grip gives you more reach, a few more options, but less power.” Aaron swung the sword in several directions, showing how it could be manipulated with movements of the elbow and wrist. “It leaves your free hand open and doesn’t rely on throwing your weight behind it. Better for weaker strikes like slashes and lunges, and less predictable.”
He straightened up when he finished, sword back at his side. “As for me sucking, you can direct your complaints to House Bordeleaux if you want, but they’re not known for being receptive to criticism from mortals,” he smirked, imagining the look on Lucan’s father’s face if a mage even dared tell him his shoe was untied.
Max let his sword hang lazily at his side as he listened to the explanation. He already knew that, but what was he supposed to do with a free hand? Slap Aaron across the face? Flip him off? Catch his sword like an overpowered cartoon character? Well, Max had a few practical ideas, but none that would work in this specific scenario.
“Hmmph. They’re lucky, I can’t even pronounce Border-lows, so I guess they’re getting spared from my complaints for now.” Max paced idly, eyeing Aaron up and down with a narrowed gaze as he caught his breath. He didn’t really need to win - he wasn’t that motivated here - but he did want to hurt the light mage somehow, if for nothing else than his pride.
Going for another surprise blow out of spite, he shot forward explosively from his otherwise casual stance, sword low as he made a swipe for Aaron’s shoulder with his free hand in an attempt to grip the other mage’s shirt while he aggressively thrusted the tip of his pretend sword toward Aaron’s stomach in a gutting motion.
Aaron widened his stance on instinct as soon as Max moved, lowering himself a bit and bracing for an impact. When Max made contact, Aaron immediately grabbed his wrist, twisting it to force him to drop the sword while his other arm came up to hook under Max’s shoulder. Pulling the other mage tight to him, in one smooth motion Aaron wedged his hip under Max’s back leg and dipped to grab the front, pulling it up from under him and slamming the mage to the floor on his back.
“What did you expect to accomplish with that?” Aaron questioned after a few breaths, dropping Max’s ankle. He wasn’t entirely displeased, though; he hadn’t been expecting Max to move that fast for him of all people.
Max let out a cough, apparently having been winded from getting smacked into the floor unexpectedly. He took a minute to catch his breath before responding, which gave Aaron a nice bit of buffer time to let Max cool off.
“I was gonna gut you… Or something. Fuck.” Max picked himself up off the floor enough to roll over on his side and prop himself up slightly with his elbow. “Don’t lie, that would’ve worked on a guy who didn’t know how to flip people and you know it.” He made a lazy grab for his sword, though he didn’t look too keen on continuing. At least not right at the moment. “Next time you’re getting a handicap. I get five swords and you get, like… half of one.”
He finally rolled back into a sitting position, letting out an irritated huff. Blind trial and error wasn’t helpful, but he didn’t know anyone else that knew how to use a sword. Except Count Astronomy, he guessed, but he figured he’d be even worse than Aaron, and if he wasn’t; Max didn’t want to give that absolute monster a pass to beat the shit out of him under any circumstances.
“Fuck, indeed,” Aaron repeated, watching Max compose himself with a hint of a smirk. “The first time I tried to surprise-attack my instructor, I had the good sense to go at him from behind.” He chuckled at the memory. “I got kicked square in the chest. By a vampire. I swear I thought my heart had stopped.” He left out the part where he’d burst out laughing at the end of it all. A story for another time. “He did break a rib, though. I think. Hard to remember, honestly.”
As Max worked on getting air back in his body, Aaron sauntered over to the edge of the room, picking up both swords on the way and leaning them against a rack before taking a seat on a bench.
“It’s a tough way to learn but it works. I usually find you learn a lesson better when it hurts for a few nights,” he eventually said, more to the room than to Max in particular. “Although that was after ten years of throwing myself at my teachers for hours every night until I got it right. I’m not sure you have that kind of time.” He smirked, leaning over to look at Max. “I’m sure Eris could pay for a proper teacher, if you’d swallow your pride and ask. Maybe they’ll give you a handicap.”
“I would rather eat this practice sword right here than ask Eric for a favor. A favor for the thing he’s making me do in the first place, at that.” Max let out another huff. “Besides, our little playdate schedule is still fixed regardless. What else would we do? Talk about the weather?”
As much as he hated small talk, small talk with the Retriever was somehow even worse. He was too sheltered to talk about anything except vampires and magic with, which Max pointedly didn’t want to think about when he didn’t have to. Not that getting his ass kicked was much better, but at least he could pretend it was useful for him.
“I would honestly lay down on that safety mat and spend the rest of our lovely get-together sleeping if I didn’t think you’d write things on my face while I did it,” Aaron replied dryly, leaning back against the wall and running a hand down his face. He let out a long breath, almost two weeks’ worth of sleepless days clearly audible as he did. Aaron didn’t drop his prim and proper attitude all that much, and wasn’t usually fond of doing it in front of people by a long shot, but out of everyone he knew, Max was the one he cared the least about seeing him a little haggard. A nap on the practice mat definitely sounded appealing, but Varis would know he was slacking if he came home with dicks drawn all over his face.
Rubbing his eyes for a moment, he forced himself to open them, though he stayed sat back against the wall. “So, I don’t know… how’s Treaty Law going? I’m sure you’re fond of your little study group.”
Max let out an amused snort at the prospect of doodling all over Aaron, but quickly transitioned into feigned offense. “Drawing on your face? I’m hurt. It’s like you don’t know me at all. If you did, you’d know I never keep a pen on me.” He slumped back into a neutral demeanor, flopping down on his back on the mat. “Treaty Law sucks, your friends suck, Count Cinnamon sucks, and that class is the biggest waste of time on my schedule. What about you, why do you look like shit all of a sudden?”
In truth, Max really hadn’t paid enough attention to notice anything with off with Aaron initially, but all the talk of napping had tipped him off a bit. The cause was fairly self-evident, but Max always did like the latest inane gossip on his third-or-fourth-least favorite vampire. Cinnamon probably ran out of doors to confiscate for bad behavior and moved on to the bed.
Aaron let out a half-hearted chuckle at the pen quip, but otherwise simply let his head fall back against the wall, inwardly rolling his eyes at Max’s contempt for learning the laws that governed every aspect of his life. He would almost have been flattered when Max asked (in his own acidic way) how he was doing, if he wasn’t pretty sure the other mage would write down his troubles in a journal somewhere for future use in insults.
Besides, what exactly was he meant to say? Confess the horrors he bore witness to every time Eris spent the day in the Sinnenodel dorm? Drop the moral weight of feeding the details of his supposed friends’ personal life to Varis every night? Or perhaps tell him all about the cryptic recurring nightmares that had been plaguing him ever since the first night of classes. Max already thought he was an idiot and a pain, he didn’t need rumours floating around that he was crazy, too.
“Aside from getting up two hours earlier than I otherwise would to write lines and periodically sleeping on the patio?” Aaron questioned sardonically, “Just treasure every day you get without Eris around, and remember that whenever he isn’t at your dorm, he’s over at mine.” He chuckled bitterly. “Sleep just isn’t usually in the cards for me.”
Sleeping on the patio? Damn, Varis really just confiscated the whole house, didn’t he? “And I thank you for your sacrifice. It’s so quiet without him around,” And, conversely, he had the strangest feeling the Sinnenodel dorm got very loud. Eris just gave off that vibe. Disgusting. “Buy some earplugs, pretend they’re wrestling, I dunno.” He didn’t really know what Eris did when he was hanging out with Cinnamon, but it had to be something other than disappointing their respective fathers, right? Normally he would’ve assumed there was frequent pantslessness from Aaron’s tone, but knowing Eris, he could very well just be pestering the hell out of the mage in a fully-clothed way too.
“You’d think that interferes with blood quality. Cinnamon’s not very good at food prep, is he? At the very least, how fast it replenishes. Anemia probably sucks for both parties.” Max was just throwing out excuses at this point, whether Aaron took them or not was on him. Truly, he was such a generous soul.
Aaron chuckled darkly at Max’s suggestions. Earplugs would have been great, but without money of his own he’d need to beg Varis for them and there was no way the Count would let him get off so easily. Like with everything, he was expected to adjust. Besides, somehow Eris’ occasional stays at the Sinnenodel dorm were the least of his sleep problems.
At the blood quality comment, Aaron shrugged. “He only feeds from me about once a week, if that,” he admitted, leaving out the part where the reason for it was that Varis apparently got too drunk off his blood to conveniently drink it every evening. “Truth be told I almost miss it; the rush helps me relax, if you can believe it.” Some nights it was the only relaxation he got, but he was already sharing more of a sob story than he was accustomed to and Aaron had no interest in delving any deeper into his own life.
“And what about you? You seem to be… adjusting.”
“Eric drinks out of my crotch.” Blunt. Straightforward. No shame. Okay, a little shame. But, like, more of a denouncement of Eris than an admission of personal shame. “Other than that, he’s like a nagging manager. I think he just emulates his agent,” Max put on a horrible Eris impression before continuing, “Maximillian, eat a nice diet; Maxibald, make sure you walk the dog; Maxie Number Two, go on a playdate with Sunny. Magic’s coming along, that’s all I really care about. Leeches do what they will and mages suffer what they must. Apparently.” His voice took a bit of a harsher tone toward the end, but he still looked rather passive should Aaron get a glance of his face.
Aaron shrugged, if not a little pained. Drinking from the femoral artery sounded like more trouble than it was worth in his opinion - honestly, who had the time? - but he didn’t doubt that that would be how Eris went about things. The rest brought something resembling a chuckle out of him, especially at the impression; sure, femoral artery sounded awful, but for the rest of Max’s life to be so lax, it seemed like a fair enough trade.
He did feel for Max, though. He could put up a snarky front all he wanted, but anyone could tell the transition had been hard on him. And how couldn’t it? He’d been torn from relative freedom and thrown unceremoniously into a world of servants and masters that he seemed to only be beginning to understand, never to go back to the life he knew before. Aaron was hesitant to give him too much credit, rude bastard that he was, but that little bite in his voice really said it all.
“That seems to be the way of things,” he replied absently. He’d spare Max the speeches he usually gave Salem about the importance of the world order and how their sacrifice was for the benefit of mankind at large; he knew he wasn’t convincing Max any time soon. But Max, at least, wasn’t speaking radical reform to power and all but begging for a swift separation from his head, so Aaron could live with a little constant chafing.
“Affinity progress, that’s good. You’ll be an expert chair-thrower in no time,” Aaron continued, though he lost the energy to try and keep the tone light the minute he started. He sighed, looking over to Max on the floor. “And I know you’re not exactly hanging on my every word, but for what it’s worth, you’re doing pretty good.” He’d let Max figure out what he meant by that.
“Gee, thanks,” Max replied in a deadpan. He would’ve gone with an actual quip there, but Retriever sounded like he was trying to be genuine, so Max might as well take what he could get. Not that he thought it meant much. What would Aaron of all people be praising him for? Being a good little lapdog? The other mage might as well have just insulted him.
“And that’s some tough talk for a guy whose whole affinity can be outclassed by a flashlight.” Chair-thrower, pssh. He was a chair-destroyer at the very least. What were light mages good for? Aside from melting leeches, which was admirable, but he knew Aaron would never have the balls for that kind of thing.
“Talk to me in a year or so when you won’t be able to tell between reality and illusion,” Aaron shot back, matching Max’s tone. Although, his really didn’t hold much malice. Harsh as he was, it was kind of hard to take Max’s insults seriously. “Could be fun, though. Seeing you walk into invisible poles would definitely make my day a little brighter.”
“I can think of about ten different counters to that. The first of which being, I dunno, stand still? Not impressing me here.” Max sat back up and worked his way lethargically to his feet. As much as he enjoyed a theoretical pissing match about stuff they may or may not be able to do, going back to his dorm sounded like a good time too. Aaron clearly wanted a nap, assuming Cinnamon would let him have one, at least. “Are we done here or is there a time limit we need to hit? You’re clearly out of it and I clearly suck.”
At this rate, he really was going to have to ask Eris for a tutor. How tiresome. Maybe he could try fighting on his own terms (read: magically flailing fifteen weapons) to make up for his lack of skills, but faulty fundamentals were a serious liability in any field. Otherwise he’d be stuck asking that leech who ran Self-Defense, but that guy seemed just as eager to beat people up as Aaron was.
Aaron leaned over enough to rummage through his bag and pull out his watch. “It’s been… long enough, I think,” he conceded, standing and collecting his things. He didn’t despise Max’s company as much as Max despised his - truth be told, he almost enjoyed it - but he felt about as passionate about their little ‘hangouts’ as Max did.
“I can clean up here, just… no, yeah, that’s fine,” Aaron finally concluded. If Max was as winded as he seemed and went home to Eris that way, both vampires would probably be satisfied that their mages’ time was well spent. Looking back up to Max, Aaron shrugged, gesturing to the practice swords. “Let me know if you want to do this again, so I can book the room. Otherwise I suppose it’ll be back to invigorating small talk.”
“We’ll see what happens,” Max offered in response. It was a step above ‘Don’t push your luck’, but not by much. Maybe once he had a working skillset down and wasn’t just getting beat up for the fun of it. “I was serious though. Next time, I’m getting five swords and you’re getting a broken one.”
Max idly made his way to the door, lagging a bit as he glanced back, “You sure you don’t want any help cleaning up?” It wasn’t like there was much to clean up, it was just two swords. Still, he felt like it was polite to ask.
“Yeah, we’ll see if you do any better with five,” Aaron chuckled, bending to pick up his bag and placing it on the bench. Max’s question surprised him though, and the shock of hearing Max be polite to a mage made him hesitate a second before shaking his head, waving Max’s concern away. “No, don’t worry about it. I won’t be long anyway. Thank you, though.”
“Uh-huh.” Max threw a dismissive wave behind himself as he turned away and headed out the door. He pulled out his phone and flipped to the front camera. Yeah, he looked fucked up enough. Maybe he could show off a bruise or two to really impress Eris. He deliberately ran a hand through his bangs to tussle them even more and trudged back to his dorm.
Aaron waved back, more out of reflex than anything, and watched until the door had closed behind Max and he could no longer hear his footsteps. Letting his bag drop from his shoulder, he let out a sigh, reaching up to untie the braids holding his hair to his head. Truth be told, he hoped Max would want to do something like this again; between schoolwork, household responsibilities, punishments, and a steady increase in the duties Varis assigned him, Aaron was losing out on more and more of the training time he was used to. And since he was accustomed to using exercise to unwind, the lack of training was really starting to gnaw at him. Well, that and about a hundred other things.
Once he had the swords ready for return and the safety mat cleaned, Aaron pulled out his phone and opened his calendar app, scrolling to the entry for his practice room time, flicking the light off as he did. He still had about half an hour; maybe he could get a little sleep before he was expected back.
The chill never seemed to fade, the tattered rags wrapped around the shivering frame. They were clothes once but its been… The marks on the wall suggested more moons than she could count. She could only count to ten and there were tens of tens of tens of tens of marks cut into the wall. She couldn’t remember anymore which ones were hers. She couldn’t remember which flakes of blood spilt and dried from her split and broken skin. She shivered again, pressing back against the frigid cobblestone as the heavy footfalls and harsh, muttered words bounced around the cell. She may not know what they’re saying but she knew when it sounded like that, nothing good would come of it. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes.
It’s a boy!
The harvest this year-
Oh please Ma, stop it plea-
You are a worthless so-
And the banks are all as-
The girl slapped her hands over her ears and screamed. The chilling cut of the wind through the barred slits at the top of the cell went unnoticed as the ghosts came back. She couldn’t handle them. Some of them were nice, some of them were mean. Most were scary and terrifying and she didn’t want to hear them anymore. Her fingers found the familiar grooves, pressing and cutting into her skin until blood dripped freely, as she curled in further on herself to get away from the ghosts. Mama said it wasn’t real, Papa told her to ignore them. But she couldn’t. They wouldn’t leave her alone. They always found her, no matter where she hid. Mama and Papa said they wouldn’t find her here, said she’d be safe. They dropped her off, promises to bring her toys and candies and proper blankets and new clothes.
She hadn’t seen them since.
The voices faded as the cell door slammed open, She felt herself thrown across the room, eyes still shut tight as pain seared across her shoulder and another hoarse scream tore from her throat. She heard the tell-tale sound of the belt rustling, the folding the did right before it started, and yelling in that horrible thick accent. She knew better than to struggle, to try and hide somewhere, or run through the open cell door. She’d tried everything she could. Those times, she’d be lucky if they only broke one bone. So now she just sat, eyes screwed shut, and waiting for the leather to cut into her until the man was satisfied.
That noise was different. It wasn’t the snap of the belt as the man watched the bruises and red lines and broken skin. It wasn’t the snap from his fingers when he had the others drag her out afterwards. Screaming came after, a slew of horrible words he only used at her when she caught him in the groin the first time he tried to touch her. Another snap and the screaming got louder, the clank of the belt’s buckle confusing her as it hit the ground. She still kept her eyes stubbornly shut. It wasn’t the first time he tricked her. It couldn’t be trusted.
But the screaming stopped. It was sudden and the silence weighed heavily. She peeked one eye open and scampered back along the wall. A woman knelt where she once was, wrapped in beautiful furs and sadness dripping red from her eyes. She gave a reassuring smile and sat, staying silent. A bag the girl hadn’t noticed before was slid towards her. The two stared at each other for several long minutes before the scent of warm bread floated out of the bag. With hesitant movements, the girl flipped open the flap of the bag and recoiled again, expecting another trick. Instead, the aroma of food wafted out of another small package nestled on top of a bundle of black fur.
“Eat up, little one. The bad men can’t hurt you anymore.” The woman’s voice carried easily, a warm amusement permeating each word. The girl reached forward hesitantly, snatching up the food and scrambling back. The heat of warm food, real food, seeped into her fingers and the quiet hunger that she’d grown used to roared to life and she ate as eagerly as a starved animal. She wasn’t sure what it was, soft meat melting on her tongue wrapped in fresh bread, but her stomach rumbled pleased. The food was gone far too quickly and she was left licking the tangy sauce desperately off her finger tips. She sniffed hopefully at the first bag but found nothing else but fur.
“It’s a coat. It’ll keep you warm for now.” The woman’s voice caught her attention and this time, the girl looked past the danger of a new person. The woman was heavier than she’d seen anyone before. Not that she’d seen more than rail thin. She looked… healthy. Like she ate regularly, like she had a home, somewhere to go back and sleep without worrying about bad men and belts and ghosts. The woman nodded her head towards the bag again and this time, the girl snatched the fur coat out of the bag and slipped herself into it. It was so… soft and still just a little warm from the food. The girl just petted it for a moment, staring in awe at what she wore, before the tears started.
The dam broke. All the pain, all the suffering, came out in silent sobs that wracked her entire frame as she broke down at the simple kindness the strange woman afforded. She felt the woman bundle her up in her arms and the girl clung desperately as the woman stood, desperate to believe this strange woman cared enough for her to save her, to take her away from this cold wretched place. The woman murmured strange words comfortingly into the girl’s ear, a sound almost like a musical wind flowing from her lips while she rocked the little girl through her pain.
“Would you like to come home with me, Ellmare?” The woman whispered and the girl could only nod where her face was buried in the luxurious coat, her hold tightening in case it was another trick. Pleased laughter rang out around her but the girl flinched. The wind had risen again and that was when the ghosts like to play. She curled in as much as she could, ready to hear horrible things.
“Don’t worry, my Ellmare. The voices can’t reach you here.” The woman whispered soothingly as they stepped out of her cell. The girl peeked over the woman’s shoulder when the voices never came. The wind stayed steady, whistling through the desolate building and plucking eagerly at the pair like a child excited to play, but true to her word, the ghosts never came. The ghosts never came.
“Ghosts?” She whispered fearfully, looking around as they walked. She hadn’t seen the outside for a long time. The stone corridors they walked, the short flight of stairs down to the ground floor, the gaping exit that made her feel like the building was eating her when she first arrived all changed so much while she was here. Carpeting and paintings and chairs she didn’t remember were abundant but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She was tired.
“Those voices aren’t ghosts, my Ellmare. They are voices. The wind picks them up and carries them for those who know how to listen. But only if you’re very special.” The woman murmured as she stepped out the front doors. The dirt trail the girl remembered was gone, replaced with similar cobbled stone as the inside. “And you are very special. I can teach you how to listen only when you want. And when you are afraid and scared, I’ll be there to chase away all the monsters in the dark. Does that sound good?”
The girl nodded. She felt so so tired. A man, balding with a salt and pepper beard and an axe much larger than himself in hand, fell in step with the pair. The girl tensed and the exhaustion vanished, replaced with terror again. She said she chased the bad men away. Why was there a man here? Was she lied to? Was she… The girl struggled against the woman’s hold instinctively. Above her, the woman shot the man a murderous look. The man only shrugged and continued onwards, stepping up to the driver’s seat on the carriage waiting at the end of the drive.
“It’s okay, my Ellmare. You’re safe with me. He won’t touch you without my permission and he will never have it unless you give it to me.” She cooed into the girl’s ear, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “You’re safe with me. Just sleep and we can talk when you wake.” The girl nodded off as she relaxed once more, the faint click of the carriage door closing starling her but the woman holding her opened the curtains so the girl could see outside whenever she wanted. The starry night sky shimmered softly through the glass and sleep called sweetly to her.
“Name?” Was all she could get out, her eyes already fluttering shut. Another pleased chuckle rang through the space as fingers slid comfortingly through her hair.
Aaron woke with a start, not quite crying out, but close enough to it. His legs were tangled up in bedsheets, his duvet long gone, and his body was covered in a cold sweat. His mouth was dry, his throat sore and hoarse, as if the screams he loosed through the little girl’s mouth in his dream had been let out in reality as well. But he knew he must have stayed quiet. Varis surely would have chastised him otherwise.
He allowed himself a moment to get his breathing to slow before reaching for a large glass of water on his nightstand, wincing at the first few painful swallows as he downed the whole thing before returning for his phone. The darkness split as the screen came to life, showing a wallpaper image of Noila forest at the castle and the time. 12:45pm. Same as every day.
With fingers still unsteady from panic, Aaron put his phone to sleep and tossed it to the bed, letting his body fall back to the mattress with a huff. Even though the dream ended on something like a hopeful note, it still took a few minutes after waking for the fear to subside. Images from it flashed through his head in a set pattern, his flawed mortal brain playing a highlight reel of the most disturbing moments until they no longer frightened him, heart rate finally slowing as the images finally dissolved away. Only to begin it all anew the next day.
Day after day after day, without fail, ever since the start of classes. How many times was it now? Aaron didn’t care to figure it out; he could count when he got back up in the evening.
Adrenaline eventually gave way to exhaustion and the heat of panic left with it, soon replaced by a chill Aaron had grown familiar with. It always reminded him of the chill in the dream, the cold that seeped into the very marrow of his bones as if it was a part of him, but he pushed that thought away. It would haunt him later, sure - that and everything else about the dream - but he didn’t need to give it any more time than it already got to fester.
With a muted groan he rolled to the side of the bed and retrieved his duvet, throwing it haphazardly over himself and doing his best to settle back down. He did most of it for shame’s sake; though nights and nights’ worth of compounded fatigue weighed heavily on him, he knew he wouldn’t fall back asleep for some time.
At first he thought it was a comfort that Salem was suffering the same nightmares too, but it was soon clear that it only brought up more questions. The lingering guilt of betraying Salem’s confidence to Varis - senseless as Aaron tried to convince himself it was - also twisted stomach, but not more than the thought that whatever thin tie Salem’s nightmares might have to what happened at dinner might be tied to him as well.
And then there was the dream itself: The memories of pain so vivid Aaron almost believed he himself had lived through them; the dank, foul air of a cell he knew every inch of, without ever having seen it; a deep, familiar hunger Aaron could swear he felt even now; and below it all, an all-pervasive terror he knew intimately, but had never experienced himself.
That wasn’t even to mention the names. Even the first time the nightmare had struck him, before it returned day after day and before he knew he wasn’t alone in suffering it, Aaron was suspicious of it because or the names. Ellmare. Yvaine Eve. Not once before had his dreams ever featured names he didn’t know (nor did they often feature names at all), and for one of those names to be an Eve? An Eve whose name he’d never heard before? It didn’t sit well, to say the least.
Try as he might to push it from his mind, though, Aaron’s thoughts always returned to the litany of horrors he lived every time he tried to sleep. It haunted him in his waking hours, anytime there was a lull that allowed his mind to wander—and he had had enough. His responsibilities were only multiplying and his instruction only advancing, and he was struggling to keep up with it all. Recent nights found him so exhausted he had trouble reading, and other people were starting to notice the dark circles under his eyes. Something had to be done. If he couldn’t find reprieve from the nightmare itself, he had to at least find some answers.
Newly determined, Aaron rolled over and grabbed his phone, opening his email app and writing a spur-of-the-moment message to the only person he could think of who could help.
Your Royal Highness,
My sincerest apologies for bothering you at this hour, but if I fail to make this request now I might lose the courage to make it. I would request an audience - or, ‘appointment’ now I suppose - at your earliest convenience, if you’d have me.
Forgive my boldness, but I don’t know where else to turn.
Faithfully yours, Aaron Starag
Aaron received a letter during his first class the next night, a glossy envelope stamped with the school’s seal. His appointment with Ryner had been set for the lunch period that night and urged that he not miss it due to a tight travelling schedule. A few students side eyed him after the apology incident last week. The muttering around him, or the sudden silences when he entered a room, faded away after a couple of nights but a larger wedge was clearly forming between him and the main student body.
To his credit, Aaron paid the looks no mind. It was more than a little embarrassing, and a trifle upsetting even (not that he’d ever admit it) to be looked at like some kind of freak, but that particular night, after fifteen straight days of impossible sleep and haunted waking hours, he was beyond caring. Besides, maybe tonight they were only looking at him because he looked like some kind of ghost with his pallid complexion and dark, sunken circles under his eyes. The reason didn’t matter much; he had more pressing concerns.
He stopped to splash some cold water on his face before his meeting time with the Princess, having to enlist the help of a campus guard to find his way to her office. After he dismissed the guard with his thanks, he paused outside her door to straighten his tie and flatten his lapel; a routine that had become deeply ingrained habit from his early teen years. He knocked properly and awaited the Princess’ summons before entering the office with a customary bow.
Ryner’s office on campus matched her home office, down to the very rug on the floor. Bookshelves flanked the room but where the fireplace was, only another bookshelf and two windows overlooking the campus behind her. Ryner sat at the desk with a pen gliding across paper, a beautiful paper bouquet set in a glass vase on her desk, but she looked up at Aaron’s entrance, the focused frown on her face softening into a fond smile that quickly morphed into concern as she took in his appearance. She put the pen down and nodded at one of the chairs across from her. Ryner took a moment to put away a few books on the shelf behind her and then gave Aaron her full attention. A small platter of fruits, cheese, and vegetables sat on a small side table between the chairs.
“I couldn’t get you in any sooner than lunch this evening or I would have, Aaron. Your message gave me quite a fright when I was handed it this evening but I was assured if it was life or death, you would have had the good sense to wake me up. Though now seeing you in person, I’m not sure why I allowed myself to be persuaded against my original concerns.” Ryner gestured at the platter. “And since I interrupted your lunch, I made sure to have something ready for you. Not the greatest selection but I won’t see you go hungry if we run into your next class. Come sit and tell me what is weighing so heavily on you, Aaron.”
Aaron barely had time to get his bow out of the way before Princess Ryner was ushering him into a chair; he certainly wouldn’t protest, though, sitting gratefully with an amused glance at the bouquet on the desk. “I see Lilie got to you, too, Your Highness,” he half-joked, gesturing at the flowers. “Sadly Master replaced mine, but he replaced it with lavender, so… there’s that.”
Fatigue played a lot of dirty tricks on him, it seemed, crashing his train of thought completely half the times he tried to put together a sentence. And it clearly wasn’t only him who noticed; Ryner’s concern was at once heartwarming and saddening, Aaron both touched and suddenly feeling terrible for disturbing her so badly.
“You’re very kind, Your Highness, thank you,” Aaron began, referring both to the food she provided and her haste in arranging the appointment. “And I’m terribly sorry, the last thing I wanted to do was frighten you.” He offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but it didn’t last very long. He knew she could see his distress etched into his features clear as day; there was no use hiding it.
“But, I won’t delay,” he resolved, though he did take a moment and a long, tired breath to figure out exactly how to breach the issue.
“Well, to be frank, I’ve been experiencing a rash of nightmares since the first night of classes,” he finally admitted, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Or, rather, one nightmare, recurring. It’s been interrupting my sleep for fifteen days and tormenting my waking hours as well. Nothing the infirmary gave me helped me sleep through it, and, well…” he gestured to himself, chuckling helplessly. “You see the result.”
“But of course I’d never bother you for something as trivial as nightmares,” he added quickly, mortified at the very thought. “No, the reason I went to you - and no one else - is, well…” he was losing his train of thought again, though be it fatigue or shame, he wasn’t sure. “I have… reason to believe there might be more to it than bad dreams.”
“Aaron.” Ryner stood and made her way around her desk, settling in the chair next to Aaron. “I know you hold yourself to high expectations and those are certainly a result of your training as a Starag but if you are struggling or upset, you will always find sanctuary with me. Regardless of where you are, your health and happiness is always a priority to me so don’t be so hard on yourself for seeking help. Even if it is as trivial as nightmares.” Ryner smiled warmly at Aaron.
“Now, you said you had reason to believe it may be more than bad dreams? Tell me what you’ve learned and I’ll see if I can shed some light on this mystery.”
The Princess’ insistence was a great comfort, and it felt better than Aaron would like to admit to have someone so occupied with his personal wellbeing, even though he felt it was undeserved. He dropped his head and nodded in concession, offering a small, more sincere smile as his thanks before moving on to the more pressing topic.
“That’s just the thing, Your Highness; I haven’t learned anything.” Exasperation born of frustration edged his voice as he sat more upright, leaning one arm on the arm of his chair and turning to the Princess. “Let me go back.”
“This nightmare I’ve been having is identical every day, and always wakes me at 12:45pm, no exceptions,” he began. “I see through the eyes of a young girl who’s been subjected to unspeakable abuse, trapped in a cold cell for who knows how long, and hearing voices. I have her memories, I feel what she feels, and it is agonizing.” He physically grimaced at the thought. “Someone comes for her, a man with a thick accent and a belt, and she prepares herself for more abuse, until a woman - a vampiress in a fur coat - kills the man and rescues her. She gives her food and a coat, takes her from her cell and out of the manor she’s in and loads her in a carriage, telling her the man accompanying them won’t hurt her. She tells the girl she’ll take her to live with her, and teach her to selectively listen to the voices. The girl finally feels some measure safer, falls asleep, and then…” Aaron’s tired eyes were distant, glossed over and focused far away. “Then I wake up.”
He stared another second or two before he came back to his senses, blinking and shaking his head before refocusing on the Princess. “The strangest part is, there are names in this dream. I don’t remember ever having dreamt names before. The vampiress knows the girl’s name - Ellmare - and right before Ellmare falls asleep, the vampiress introduces herself. As Yvaine Eve.” He studied the Princess’ face, almost desperately, for any sign of recognition. “Do you recognize that name at all, Your Highness?”
It was subtle but the motion was there. Ryner tensed as Aaron spoke that name: Yvaine Eve. Memories welled up unbidden as Aaron’s story trailed off and the Princess looked past Aaron as she contemplated how to respond. She started more than once but eventually she did, setting back into her chair with a sigh. “I certainly do not doubt the validity of your nightmare. Not with First tongue rolling out of your mouth. Ellmare isn’t a name, it’s a word. As we’ve come to understand, it translates to that which falls from the moon. We think, more casually, it translates to moonlight. Perhaps it was a term of endearment or a suggestion of purpose for this ability this girl had. Do you remember more about these voices specifically? Some time when they would occur or a triggering condition?”
Aaron leaned forward in concern as a myriad of emotions flashed behind the Princess’ eyes, worry clear on his face. Had he dredged up something unpleasant? He was still concerned when she finally got her words together, though his brow furrowed in confusion. First Tongue? Moonlight? So it wasn’t a name, but Aaron had no idea why First Tongue would be floating around in his head either. It was an ancient language, and one he’d never learned. But Yvaine Eve had to be a name… right?
Well, that was what he was here to find out. “Hmm…” he hummed in thought, running back over the well-trodden sequence of the dream once more to see if there was a pattern to the voices. “They came… with the wind…” he murmured, lost in thought another moment before he nodded more certainly. “They came with the wind, except when she was with Yvaine. Then the wind still blew, but the voices stayed quiet, and Ellmare was surprised. Relieved.” Aaron nodded to himself again, but snapped his fingers suddenly, remembering another detail.
“Yvaine said the voices were carried on the wind, for those who knew how to listen,” he added quickly, looking back to the Princess hopefully. “Those who were… she said ‘very special.’ And she said that she could teach Ellmare to listen only when she wanted. Is that what you mean?”
"Words on the wind? That sounds similar to Divination magic. If I recall, it's a tertiary affinity of Air. Which would explain why she heard them on the wind and why she was being treated that way.." Sadness overcame Ryner as she sighed again and smiled apologetically. "Unfortunately, this does leave us in a bit of a predicament. Given that you are seeing these visions, I believe you deserve the truth. It is a heavy one. Do you think you can handle it Aaron?"
Why she was being treated that way? What? Aaron had heard no such thing, of divining mages being treated purposefully poorly. Hell, he'd heard divination recommended to students struggling to find their affinity. But the Princess seemed to think it made sense, so Aaron wasn't sure what to think.
As if she could read his mind, though, Princess Ryner was offering the truth. A wave of relief washed over him at the same time a new anxiety struck; to know that he was not being plagued by utter nonsense both comforted and terrified him. For all he knew she was going to decry him as mad, but whatever heavy truth she was withholding… he had to know.
“Your Highness, these nightmares have been tormenting me day and night without reprieve. When I'm not tossing and turning and living them, I'm obsessing over them. It's consuming me.” Try as he might to keep his voice even, there was desperation in it. “Whatever the truth may be… I don't think I can go on without it.”
"If it will ease your days, then I shall tell you. History tells us magic arose shortly before the blood wars, an unrefined tool in the hands of those not yet prepared to wield it. History tells us that is why the Treaty was formed, to protect both races because neither one was strong enough to stand against the Lycans. But those of us who’ve lived this long know that to be false." Ryner stood, pacing as she spoke softly. "Magic and those who command it have existed longer than it has been recorded. It was misunderstood, feared, ignored and those who worked with it were universally reviled by the human race. They were seen as freaks, as monsters. And so they were killed, caged, and silenced. In fact, the things they would do to mages back then have inspired several Astorio punishments." Ryner paused and looked at Aaron with tired eyes.
"So we hid the truth. A decade into the Treaty's existence, we saw a fundamental power shift that threatened our society. Mages wanted revenge, Aaron. For all the years of pain and suffering, they cried out for their pound of flesh. Back then, mages and humans mingled regularly as humans do with each other. But we were on the brink of a civil war." Ryner sighed again. "So I rewrote history. A small group of us came together and cut out the worst pain any race suffered at the hands of another and took away the plight of the mages altogether. We silenced those who spoke against it, removed the content from schools and public forums. Two centuries later and no one but the vampires remembered the beatings, the executions, the abuse of the magically inclined at the hands of those without it and peace ruled." Ryner spread her hands and shrugged. "I don't know why you are having these visions but that should shed a little clarity on your situation."
Aaron listened carefully, slowly sinking into the back of the chair as Ryner gave her explanation. He twined his hands together, spinning his ring as he so often did, and as the Princess finished, his eyes fell to meet them. He was silent for a moment, mulling over a gruesome hidden history until he finally took a breath and spoke.
“...And peace ruled,” he repeated, pausing another long moment before nodding, apparently satisfied. He turned to the Princess. “We mortals are deeply flawed and jealous beings, Your Highness. I'm not surprised we were at each other’s throats, or that it took an immortal intervention to put a stop to it.”
He took a deep breath. “So, you believe these are not just nightmares, but visions? From… from the past?”
"You've never displayed an affinity for this before so I'm hesitant to call them visions but considering there isn't any immediate alternative, I am willing to consider it. The only question would be why are you getting them?" Ryner took her seat beside Aaron, a thoughtful frown on her face again. "I'll admit I am not a magical scholar so my input on the matter may be rather limited. If you're interested, I could spend some time looking into it. While I'm sure recommending you to one of our staff would be beneficial, the information I just gave you is… privileged information."
“Yes, the why of it is much of what’s been preoccupying me for the past two weeks,” Aaron concurred. “If you think it worth looking into, Your Highness, then I would welcome anything you could come up with. And, of course, your information is safe with me. It won’t leave this room.” He assured her with a faint smile, but it fell soon after.
“Speaking of, though, I think it’s prudent to tell you that I am not the only one experiencing this… whatever it is,” he forced out, rubbing a hand down his face in agitation. “Mr. Spellman gets them too, down to the last detail.”
Agitation turned to full-on disgust in himself as Aaron leaned forward once more, burying his face in his hands. “And I’ve done a most reprehensible thing, Your Highness,” he lamented into his hands, guilt and exhaustion very briefly overriding his training before he pulled himself together again and sat up. “I reported that fact to Master - as I’d been told - but I didn’t tell him I also got the nightmares. And when he asked me why I wasn’t sleeping, I lied.” He massaged the bridge of his nose for a moment, eyes squeezed shut as guilt and fear took hold of him. “I worried it would implicate me in Salem’s investigation if we were both known to be experiencing identical, cryptic nightmares, so I did the cowardly thing and lied. And now with a real possibility that there could be more to this, I fear that my mistake might prove even graver than I thought.”
“These are strange circumstances, Aaron. I for one do not hold your actions against you. You’ve been faced with something unknown, have taken initiative to seek help, and have protected confidential information. Varis does not have the authority to know what you do so you’ve inadvertently protected the State, the Council, and me by withholding what you know. Take solace in that.” Ryner reached out and took one of his hands, warming herself up to match him.
“Considering your dream contains confidential information, its contents are now under the protection of the Council and its authorities. You and Salem, as affected members of the occurrence, have the right to pursue what you need within reason. It is also, unfortunately, now your responsibility to safeguard that information, through force, duplicity, or any other means the situation demands.” Ryner spun this tale as quickly as she could, lying once again with the ease of a vampire far older than she wished to be. If she gave him the responsibility, perhaps he wouldn’t be so overwhelmed with guilt for something that was in his best interests. If Varis discovered the truth of the situation, things would spiral downhill far quicker than she was prepared to handle. “Moving forward, I will give you the information you are allowed to pass on to Varis, if I find any. That should keep his concerns allayed until another more pressing issue rears its head. Everyone knows his Lady is quite capable of keeping him busy.”
“But for the safety of our society, we must keep the peace. Stars know what Varis would do with the information you have now. Can you do that for me, Aaron?” Ryner pleaded. If he said no, Ryner would have to handle it another way and it would set them back centuries. Again. Putting Varis in contact with Yvaine would ruin everything and even though Ryner didn’t know where she was now, the damn brat would probably be able to sniff her out once he put two and two together.
Aaron paid rapt attention to the Princess as she spoke, the knot in his gut gradually unwinding. So, entirely by accident, he'd made the right choice; though, that still left the matter of what he had told Varis.
“Of course I can, Your Highness,” he breathed when she was finished, still a little stunned by the magnitude of the situation even as his reply came automatically. “You know me, I would never betray you or the Council.”
“But that brings us to another important point,” he added gravely, that lingering bit of fear flaring back up. “When I told Master that Salem was having a recurring nightmare, I told him the content of the dream as well, in great detail. He knows everything I knew about the dream at that time; the names, the voices, everything I saw. I gave it to him under the guise that Salem had confessed it all to me. He couldn't make any more sense of it than I could, but he mentioned he'd look into it, and report it to the infirmary as a hallucination on Salem’s part if he couldn't find anything. Does him having those details pose a risk? Is there anything I can do to mitigate it? If I had known, I would never…” He trailed off, eyes falling to Ryner’s hand on his as his mind raced once more through every worst-case scenario he could think of.
“You had no idea what was happening. You did exactly as you were supposed to with the information you had.” Ryner said reassuringly. “While I cannot change the past, I can do a considerable amount to change the future. Messing with Varis’ plans is an enjoyable pastime of mine. I should thank you. You’ve given me all the more reason to focus on it more. The Sinnenodel heir will be my responsibility on this. The only thing you have to do is ensure as little of the truth falls into Varis’ hands as possible and I’ll be supporting you the entire way.” She patted his hand.
Letting out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding, Aaron nodded, a wave of true relief accompanied by new exhaustion washing over him at last. Things were fine. Or, as fine as they could have been, given the circumstances. That was more than he’d let himself hope for lately, and he would take reassurance wherever he could get it.
The mention of messing with Varis brought a smirk to his lips. “I shouldn't laugh,” he chuckled, doing a poor job of it. “But thank you, Your Highness. Rest assured I will do everything in my power to keep this quiet. If I can help it, I'll see to it that Salem stays in the dark as well. Stars only know what he’d do with this information, thinking the way he does.”
Ryner chuckled and couldn’t help herself from reaching over and ruffling his hair affectionately. No matter how he grew, she wasn’t quite sure she could let herself believe he wasn’t still the little boy running around causing mischief at the castle. Ryner still thought of Ella like that too and there had been more than one time Ryner caught herself surprised at the girl- No, the woman’s- age. All her mages were growing up faster than she could keep up with and it never grew easier when it came time to use them as she needed.
“There’s the Aaron I like to see. Maybe now you’ll get some rest. And eat since someone has left their food woefully unattended.” Ryner glanced pointedly at the platter between them. “While you eat, tell me how your meeting with your mother went. I haven’t had the chance to ask her. I wanted her to rest for a little while after our business last week.”
The hair ruffling made Aaron smile despite himself, memories of the many times she’d done the same thing when he was younger bubbling to the surface; most of them from before he’d surpassed her in height. Of course, that hadn’t really stopped her either. His grin turned bashful at the mention of food and he obeyed, taking a few pieces of cheese and fruit from the platter. Eating had been a struggle as of late with his stomach knotted up as it was, but relief did bring back some of his hunger, and he couldn’t very well decline an offering from royalty.
“She would tell you to stop treating her like she’s made of glass, Your Highness,” he pointed out at the mention of his mother, voice tinted with fond amusement. “But I thank you for your concern. Do you know she snuck up on me in the middle of campus? She didn’t tell me she’d be around and told Dora and Clara to keep quiet, wanting to surprise me. In the state I was in, I nearly pulled my sword on her; that poor campus guard got quite the fright.” He chuckled, shaking his head and eating a bit more before continuing. “It was really nice to see her, though, sneaky as she is. I was glad to see her well. I had been worrying a bit over how she’d respond to my new… position, but she took it much better than I anticipated.” Relief, once again, rang clear in his voice. “I got a lot off my chest.”
"At least we know where you got it from." Ryner laughed, satisfied with Aaron eating and returned to her desk. "I'm glad she managed to see you. I thought it odd she didn't want me to call you here but I see it was just your family’s penchant for mischief. I know she’s been worrying about you since she left so hopefully this will give her some peace of mind. I know she hates it but I can’t help but fret over her.” Ryner frowned but shook it away, instead focusing on the paper bouquet.
“Lilie really is such a sweet girl, isn’t she? I was surprised to receive them but pleased nevertheless. However, I’ve never received a bouquet of paper flowers so I’m quite sure what an appropriate gift would be. If they were regular flowers, I’d send a note or a card or something but these took time and skill to make. I feel like something so simple would be in poor taste. Do you have any ideas Aaron?” Ryner asked as she admired them. “You said she got some for you as well? What did you give her?”
Turning his attention to the bouquet as Ryner did, Aaron sighed, nodding his agreement. “I’ve never seen anything like them before,” he admitted, admiring the paper flowers for a moment. He always loved the Noila blue and gold, but he didn’t usually notice just how nicely the colours complimented each other. Lilie’s handiwork really made them shine.
“She held a little picnic for all the mages serving Noble vampires, and invited our… acquaintance, Maxwell Alderman, as well. She and Salem share a Treaty Law study group with him,” Aaron explained. “She made everyone a bouquet as a favour, each in their House’s colours - save for Max, of course.” He shrugged. “I had no idea what to give her either, so I asked her, but she insisted it wasn’t necessary and she was just glad to have people to give them to. Eventually I had to concede.” He chuckled.
“I’ve been making her notes for Treaty Law, though. She seems to be having a hard time adjusting to a nocturnal schedule and apparently that class happens right around the time she starts to crash, so she ends up missing material sometimes.” He grinned, spinning his ring and shrugging again. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, Your Highness, that I don’t really need to take notes for that class, but I tell her they’re my notes that she can borrow so she doesn’t feel like she’s burdening me. She’s very sweet that way.” Under his hair, his ears got a little redder.
He stared down at his ring for a moment, pondering over what might be an appropriate gift for the Princess to send her; unlike him, he knew Ryner would not take no for an answer. “Still, I doubt she’d reject a return gift from you, Your Highness. I might have an idea.” He thought another moment, considering what Lilie might enjoy that she didn’t already have, until he figured it out, tapping the arm of his chair. “She wears lavender perfume, so I bet she’d like some lavender flowers,” he offered matter-of-factly. “Maybe not cut ones - she mentioned being apprehensive that her partner might not want fresh flowers in the house - but perhaps you could have the groundskeeper send her some lavender that she could plant? She seems to take an interest in gardening; she asks Salem about plants all the time.”
Ryner nodded at the suggestion, taking a quick note on it to remember. “Excellent idea, Aaron. I’ll have it sent as quickly as possible. And of course, I’ll mention a certain light mage helped me decide. It would be rude not to credit the proper person after all.” Ryner smiled innocently. “I’m sure someone that sweet would love to thank the person who gave her a garden.” She chuckled and made another note with a smile.
“Now I do unfortunately have to attend a meeting with a few instructors. I want to come back to a clean plate however.” She said pointedly. “Was there anything else you needed before I left?”
“Oh, Your Highness, that's not necessary,” Aaron tried to reason, knowing full well Ryner wouldn't let him be as modest as he'd like. He couldn't help but smile, though. He didn't need thanks for something as simple as recommending a gift, but he knew if the roles were reversed, he'd do the same thing.
“No, Your Highness, I've gotten all I needed off my chest.” Aaron stood as Ryner prepared to leave, despite knowing she wanted him to remain a little longer, and offered her a courteous bow. “I am honoured and humbled that you took the time to listen to me. Really,” he dropped his formal tone for a second to get his point across. “Thank you.”
“Anything for you, Aaron.” Ryner beamed at him. “And now onto a less pleasant crowd. Enjoy the rest of your night.” Ryner swept past him, her warm smile vanishing as she squared her shoulders and a look of neutral indifference took over her face. Rarely did she wear it but when she expected a discussion to be unpleasant, she had little issue wielding it against those who upset her. She was out in a moment and the doors shut softly behind her.