Aaron raised his eyebrows at Salem’s question, a little surprised that that was the part of the greeting he’d stuck on. Well, it was as good a conversation starter as anything, he supposed.“Great. The guy whose family enslaved us.”
Aaron repeated Ralph’s words, making air quotes around them and leaning back a little in his seat. He shrugged, doing his best to laugh off that little flash of irritation. “I mean, I know I’m not all that well-versed in meeting new people, but I don’t think that’s meant to be a compliment.”
Salem stared at Aaron confused for a moment. He kept opening and closing his mouth, as if he was going to speak but would stop himself short of any words, finally leaning forward and saying “You are aware the Spellmans have never enslaved anyone right? And what does that have to do with why you think the TA dislikes you?”
Aaron stared at Salem for a second, equally confused, until it dawned on him that there had been a miscommunication and a laugh escaped him. “Oh, no, that’s what the TA said to me,”
he clarified, chuckling. “When he handed me my paper in the lineup. I suppose I should expect a little hostility, I know my family isn’t popular with everyone, but I wasn’t quite expecting it from someone working here.”
Salem flipped through his pad as Aaron spoke, making sure to give clues that he was
listening but also working on something else, writing out of Aaron's view ‘Paid off employees? Thinks school will be a breeze?’
He flipped back to another page, touching the crystal briefly and having it give off a soft glow with one hand as he drew it with the other. ”That's definitely not something I'd expect from an employee of the school, towards anyone. However, much like Varis, they are still students. I am curious though…”
Salem brightened the crystal up while it was underneath his face, giving him a gaunt under lighting. ”During Treaty Law will he be your Teacher...or Master.”
The glow dimmed back down as Salem passed the crystal to Aaron.
Aaron watched Salem as he drew, noting that his control seemed good if the crystal was any indication, though the question deflated him a bit. Was Salem making fun of him? What was the point of that? As much as he chided himself for it, this whole ‘Master’ business wasn’t exactly a comfortable topic. Aaron took the crystal, face falling a tick and humour dissipating as he slid it toward himself. “All signs point to ‘Master’,”
Aaron admitted, placing a hand on the crystal. He took a second to savour the feeling as the crystal made its connection with his magic, an uncanny sensation, but a pleasant one. The crystal began to glow much brighter than it had for Salem, bathing the table in pale golden light. “Truth be told, I’ve been forbidden from using his name,”
he continued quietly, watching the crystal absently as he let it dim and brighten slightly with his breathing. After a moment, he looked over to Salem. “Maybe keep that under your hat, though, if you wouldn’t mind.””That's rough buddy.”
Salem tried to mimic a line from a show he watched growing up. Though his guess was Aaron had never seen it. Clearing his throat for a moment before speaking again, "That's fine, I was just trying to...forewarn you...of how class may be for Treaty Law with him as our TA.”
Salem searched around for a brighter topic, Lilie? No, that would only end badly. His relationship with Varis was clearly out of the question, and they couldn't very well speak of last night here. ”So, when you don’t have a chunk of crystal before you, what do you use as a focus?”
Salem’s eyes kept looking down onto his pad, now on a new page as he began to illustrate something, to avert his gaze from the blinding light.
Aaron kept his eyes on the crystal, focusing on dimming the glow as much as he could before fizzling it out, then brightening it as much as he could without doing the same. “This,”
he replied to Salem’s question, holding out his left hand. The light from the crystal glittered off the ring on his finger, which itself was made from a pale yellow crystal with many facets cut into the surface. “It’s actually made from my Awakening crystal,”
he explained, finally taking his hand off the crystal and sliding it back to Salem. Hands now free, he patted the pommel of his sword, turning a bit in his seat so Salem could see it. “However, I’m also working on using Dawn as a focus as well. How about you?”
Before he reached for the crystal again, Salem held his hand up showing Aaron the back of his hand and forearm. He concentrated for a moment, making his tattoos glow an aetheric blue for a moment before dulling it back down and taking the crystal. ”My tattoos. Every Spellman mage gets them after their awakening if they're found to be a mage. We do, of course, have other focuses, but this is my main one.”
Having seen how Aaron took the exercise, and thinking back to other training hed done, Salem decided the best test of this control would indeed be to match it with one’s breathing. After all, magic should be as natural as breathing to a mage. Salem let out a long drawn out breath through his mouth. The light dimming gradually with each bit of air that escaped his lungs. After a moment’s pause, he inhaled slowly through his nose, the light beginning to gradually brighten up. He repeated this twice more before letting Aaron have a go.
Watching Salem use the crystal, Aaron found himself impressed with his control. Then again, he recalled Lady Sinnenodel’s mage saying that Salem was 21, so he supposed it made sense for someone three years out of their Awakening - he realized he was almost three years out too, good lord how time could fly - to have had some measure of training.
Taking the crystal back, he put his hand on it again, watching as it glowed, casting light over the table once more. Like before, he took a moment to really feel
the flow of magic between himself and the crystal. It was a circular flow, through him and the crystal and back again; if he simply let the channel be and didn’t try to stem it, the glow was steady, its brightness similar to the lightbulb in a lamp. Slower this time, he inhaled, holding the magic back in his own body much like his breath. He could feel the crystal tug a little more insistently as the glow faded, the flow of magic trying to reach equilibrium once more, but held on, forcing the glow dimmer and dimmer until it was barely there. The anticipation of the magic he was holding back felt very much like pulling the tempo in an orchestral piece, everything in him anticipating when that energy would at last be released and the rhythm would pick up again.
Carefully, be began to exhale, gradually loosening his ‘grip’ on the flow of magic as he did so. He let the glow slowly go back to its former brightness, feeling the circulation reach equilibrium again, and then began to push, the crystal brightening as he did. Now he could feel resistance in the other direction, the glow of the crystal growing uncomfortably bright. He pushed it as far as he could, right up until he could feel that any more would blow the connection, and finally released his hold, letting the glow go back to normal before taking his hand off and snuffing it out completely. “It’s been a while since I’ve done this,”
he told Salem, leaning back in his seat and taking another breath, smiling. Something about working with magic always put him at ease, a happy calm washing over him. “How about you? What sort of training did you have before now?”
Salem continued to scribble into his pad while Aaron used the focus. His glance only looking up during the periods of dim lighting. Once the connection stopped and the light was no longer present, he placed his pencil down with a small clatter as he closed his pad so that Aaron couldn't see what he was working on. As Salem continued his breathing exercises he responded "I assume you're referring to my magical training as opposed to medicinal? It was a lot of meditation. Breathing exercises, Tai Chi, and feeling the magic flowing within me. As I said, I have these tattoos which act as my focus, and when we would practice-”
Salem removed his hand from the crystal and pressed both of his palms together, almost as if praying (not that he, nor anyone knew what that was), "- the goal was to control to flow of our energy within ourselves. I must say, it's easier to do these breathing ones you've got me doing.”
Once both palms were together, a glow could be seen on Salem’s right shoulder. It flowed downwards to his bicep, then forearm, and then from his right hand onto his left, finding its way to his left shoulder before breaking the connection. ”It was just a lot of breathing, meditation, and Tai Chi to help with natural flow.”
he reiterated, placing his hand back onto the crystal.
Aaron watched Salem’s demonstration, paying rapt attention to the glow of his tattoos as it traveled over his arms. He listened absently, more focused on the demonstration until it was done. By the sounds of it, Salem’s training had been… well, it was a little hard for Aaron to place it in comparison to his own. He’d definitely done a lot of breathing, but he hadn’t been sure if that was a typical technique or if Sariel had used it because he was already used to controlling his breathing from his combat training. He’d never heard of Tai Chi, though, and Sariel had only attempted meditating once before realizing that he wasn’t exactly skilled in the art of sitting still. Magic training had been marginally less painful than combat training or his other education, notably lacking swords and rods and buckets of pebbles, but he’d still managed to hurt himself a few times at first, so eager to start casting that he’d tried to use magic before he’d actually fully connected with his casting focus. That had always been the way for him, though; ever since childhood, he never could quite grasp his boundaries until he felt the consequences of crossing them. But he never did make the same mistake twice. “I see it was effective,”
he commented, though he paused to watch Salem go back to the crystal. “And that’s your family tradition? Are you all self-taught?” ”I don't understand your question. We are taught by the generations before us, we pass down our knowledge like legacies and ensure that the next generation will be able to take the pasts lessons and adapt them to the ever changing world in the same way that the we must all adapt to fit the future.”
Salem looked around the room for a moment, watching as some students couldn't quite get their focuses to work properly, a few fizzling out from too much exposure, and then looked back at Aaron. ”Care to try something? Clearly we have control beyond those of our peers, how's about putting yours against mine. See whose magic can stay in control over this focus?”
Aaron shrugged, leaning back in his seat. “I was more wondering if you’ve always been taught by your own family, or if anyone had ever gone to a school like this one. My family were all taught by royal tutors, of course, but since we tend to have unique affinities rather than all sharing one, we can’t usually teach each other much more than basic control.”
He looked around as Salem did, interested to see that many of their classmates were having some difficulty. He supposed that made sense, though. Most of these students were probably fresh out of their Awakenings; he was willing to bet that for a lot of them, this was their first time using their magic. Salem’s suggestion brought a grin to his face, though. The crystal exercise was
getting old, and he had to admit, he’d always been competitive. “Sounds like a fun challenge,”
he agreed, sitting a little more upright. “I’d make a wager, but I’m afraid I don’t have anything to bet with.”
He set his elbow on the table, poising his hand near the crystal, not unlike preparing for an arm wrestling match. “When you’re ready.”
Salem leaned back thinking on what Aaron had said. A wager sounded interesting, though he wasn't much of a betting man. What would they even wager? Salem didn't have access to anything outside of the school, that's when a thought dawned on him. ”A wager then, your noble training versus my family traditions. The forfeit for this is…”
Salem leaned in close and whispered to Aaron, "The loser must be forthright about everything for a week. No hiding details, no misleading sentences, and no lying or avoiding subjects. Deal?”
Aaron quirked a brow, considering the proposal and letting his hand fall to drum his fingers against the table. A week of honesty, hm? That had the possibility to end poorly for him, considering Salem asked the right questions. But on the other hand, he could get a lot out of Salem if he won. Maybe determine if he really was
a rebel. Of course, perhaps it was naive just to take a man’s word that he’d be honest. And why did Salem want his honesty so badly anyway?
Despite his questions, Aaron found himself grinning. He didn’t usually make bad bets, but… this wasn’t too bad of one, now was it? “Deal,”
he replied, holding out his hand to shake on it.
Salem smiled at Aaron's good gesture and held out his hand. Either the Starag mage was very cocky, or he truly had nothing to hide and all his sneaky business with Lilie and this girl in the mines was simply a mistake or misunderstanding. Once they shook on the deal Salem held his hand near the crystal as Aaron had done previously.
Both men touched the crystal at once; immediately it lit up, shining brightly from a quick burst put in by Aaron, met in intensity (if not brightness) by Salem’s glow in return. Soon the green of Salem’s magic started to overtake the gold of Aaron’s, but just just as the advantage became clear, Aaron’s magic pushed back, gaining the upper hand. Salem would not be outdone, however, and rose to the challenge; soon it looked like the two were evenly matched. They grappled like that for a moment, neither ceding to the other and intensity mounting, until both glows rose to an uncomfortable brightness. There was a flash, green or gold one could not tell, and the crystal fizzled out, going dark without revealing a winner.
Aaron fell back against his seat, letting his hand fall to the table and breathing a little heavier. Despite his new exhaustion, though, he couldn't help but laugh, a little giddy from the thrill of it all. “A draw,”
he said finally, almost disbelieving.
It was strange, the feeling Salem had as Aaron's magic began to overtake the crystal. He could feel
his magic, its intensity, as if he was feeling a part of Aaron's soul. However, Salem knew that this was a bet he couldn't lose, he needed to win this, for Lilie. She deserved to know the truth about what transpired at dinner. In a bright flash it all ended. A draw… Salem couldn't believe it. He'd be sweating if it wasn't for the cold in the room keeping his temperature low. A long, deep exhalation flew out of his lips as he heard Aaron chuckling to himself. ”It would appear it is.”
A small guffaw taking over him. ”I suppose neither of us need to fulfill the forfeit then.”“Good to see the favorite snack is still human.”
Ralph said as he approached the table, clapping slowly and clearly unimpressed. “That was a pathetic attempt at the wrong exercise. Just because you sold the rest of us off for your benefit, doesn't mean you can snub our lessons. Do it right or don't bother at all.”
Ralph turned from Aaron to Salem, regarding him for a long moment.“Don't let his cocky attitude ruin you. His control needs work. He's blinding half the class as it is. He could learn a thing or two from you.”
Ralph waved his hand towards the crystal. “Go on. Let me see how you're doing.”
Salem now saw what Aaron was speaking about earlier. He was unsure on if he should speak up or keep his head low, after all the last time he spoke up he lost everything. ”Of course.”
he said in a low voice. He took a deep breath in and then exhaled it slowly through his mouth, regulating his breathing before beginning to exercise once more. Salem reached for the crystal, eyes closed and concentrating on the feeling of his magic flowing within him, inhale through the nose, it would ebb creating a dim green glow, contrary to before. Exhale slowly, the magic would flow, brightening and glowing a luminescent green, inhale ebb, exhale flow. This continued for 5 cycles until he finally stopped and looked towards the TA. “Whoopie, a natural.”
Ralph deadpanned. “Don’t let it go to your ego. Continue working on it and then try varying the speed of the change. You're up next, turncoat. Let's see if the grass is greener on the other side.”
Ralph’s arrival robbed Aaron of that little bit of joy that always followed practicing magic, that flash of anger from before quickly rising to take its place. He was better trained than to talk back, of course, opting instead to burn a hole into the side of Ralph’s head with a glare as Salem did his demonstration.
When it was his turn, he set his hand on the crystal, it coming to life just as it had before, in a steady, lampike glow. He was a little tired from his little match with Salem, sure, but irritation had always had a way of invigorating him. Instead of tempering the glow, though, he held it for a moment, looking back up to Ralph. “Is this what you mean by ‘blinding half the class’?”
He asked, only slightly condescendingly. “Yes just like that. Considering you're brighter than everyone else, it means you pump out more magic naturally. Also means you'll exhaust yourself with bigger spells if you don't get it under control.”
Ralph scoffed. “Apparently, being a blood traitor didn't pay off too much now did it. Now come on, let's go.”
That little jab very nearly made Aaron’s magic spike, but fortunately, unbeknownst to Ralph
, he did have more control than that. He had to admit, though; it was satisfying to see that Ralph didn't seem to know what he was talking about. “Forgive me, but I don't think I'll exhaust myself doing this,”
he commented dryly, taking in a breath. The glow dimmed as he did, all the way down as he'd done before, before it spiked back up with his exhale, reaching a far more uncomfortable brightness. Well, to anyone else’s eyes, anyway. “I'll exhaust myself doing this...”
he added, pushing up to the edge and holding the glow at its peak brightness for a second before letting it blow out with a flash, looking back up to Ralph expectantly. “...But that's not where my equilibrium lies.” “Okay, mark you down for delusions of grandeur. Try working on that upper limit. Maybe spend some time with us plebs; might teach you a thing or two.”
Ralph said, dismissing Aaron's display. “I'll expect some improvement when I come back around, turncoat.”
Ralph moved to the next table and the area warmed up again.”That just happened.”
Salem watched in almost disbelief. It's true that Aaron's light was brighter than all the rest but did that truly mean that he didn't have good control? ”I'm sorry about that, maybe this will cheer you up?”
Salem ripped out a page from his notepad that he had been scribbling on the whole class. It had an illustrated sketch of Aaron using the crystal, the glow from it given him almost angelic tones. He slid the image face down to Aaron, both wanting to look away embarrassed as well as see his reaction to the image.
Aaron glared at Ralph as he left. “Don’t worry about that,”
he reassured Salem, only looking back over once Ralph had diverted his attention first. “If I didn't have control I would never--oh,”
he interrupted himself when he finally looked down to see that Salem had handed him something, sliding the paper toward him and turning it over.
His eyes widened slightly at what he saw, and he stared for a moment. Salem had drawn him using the crystal, in shocking detail despite how quickly he must have done it. It was impressive to say the very least, not to mention flattering, and for a moment Aaron simply looked at it, a little amazed. What do you even say to that?“That's incredible,”
he remarked finally, smiling despite himself. “You’re very talented, thank you.”
He chuckled a bit, tapping the drawing. “But what are you doing wasting your talent on me?””It's not a waste, typically I use it to help with recipes, or information on certain plant life and what not. It helps to have an illustration of a Conium maculatum rather than just hoping that someone knows what it looks like to avoid it.”
Salem looked towards the crystal and then back at Aaron, speaking shyly as he began to smell a hint of post rain weather, chamomile tea, and the scent of an old book. ”I don’t mean to sound rude but...have you...have you tried to change the brightness?”
Aaron quirked a brow at Salem’s sudden shyness, noticing the scent of wood polish and rosin. “Oh, this?”
He clarified, placing his hand back on the crystal and letting it glow at its regular brightness for a moment before releasing it again.
He shrugged, leaning back in his seat. “I’m a Light mage,”
he explained simply, “It was like that on my Awakening day too. I suppose it might be possible to adjust the brightness beyond just altering the flow of magic, but Sariel never seemed too concerned. As far as I know, for my affinity, this is normal.”
He didn't seem too concerned. “I can tell when I'm overdoing it, and I know I wasn't, so I'm inclined to think it's just an aesthetic difference.”
He let out a laugh, though it was a little cold as his eyes fell briefly on Ralph across the room. “I think he was just looking for someone to pick on, honestly. Either that or he doesn't know what he's talking about.”
He sighed, tearing his eyes away and back to Salem and letting his anger subside. Without it, he began to notice that he was feeling a little spent, the exercises and his little match with Salem catching up to him. “Anyway, yes, it looks like neither of us is bound to honesty for the week,”
he continued, shrugging again. “Though, I see no reason to use that as an excuse to lie, right? No need.”
He laughed a little, eyeing Salem with a touch of humour coming back. “We get enough subterfuge with the nobles without lying amongst ourselves, don't you think?” ”I suppose so, but he is going to return to our table and check on our progress. So I figured I would ask to see if it was actually possible.”
Salem thought on the words Aaron had said, There's no need to Lie, there's enough subterfuge with the nobles. But wasn't he a noble? A Starag of the Noilas now passed to the Sinnenodels. Two Noble families, twice the subterfuge.
Salem placed his hand onto the crystal once more to continue the exercises, taking into account what Ralph said about changing the intervals. He began to breathe rhythmically but faster, like a pregnant woman given birth. The exercise alone was straining, having not been used to such rapid changes, on top of the exhaustion from his wager. After a few breaths Salem stopped, tiredness taking over as he laid back into his chair. ”That was not fun.”
Salem tried to sit up, using his elbows to keep him upright against the table. ”It’s not just the presence of lies Aaron, it's the absence of truth. I spoke to Lilie, she seemed to think dinner was a delight last night.”“Why don’t you take a break,”
Aaron suggested, noticing Salem’s exhaustion. His next words gave him pause though, Aaron lifting a hand to tug at his ear. So Salem had
gotten ahold of Lilie. After a moment he sighed again, looking to Salem a little bashfully. “I didn’t want to scare her,”
he reasoned, inwardly groaning. Briefly he rubbed his hand across his neck, before forcing his hand to drop once more into his lap, not wanting to linger on the memory. He lowered his voice, less than excited at the prospect of anyone - especially Ralph - hearing him.“Besides, I was embarrassed, okay?”
He admitted, perfectly sincere. “I trained my whole life for this only to utterly fail on night one. If possible, I’d rather not advertise that.”
He gave Salem a sidelong look, suddenly a little concerned. “Why, what did you tell her?” ”Everything.”
Salem gave out a tired and weak chuckle as he waved his hand lazily in the air. ”I'm kidding of course. I told her everything that pertained to me. I left out your half of the story, as it's not mine to tell. Only mentioning that you and I had varying opinions, one we both said we'd work on together as opposed to animosity. But I'll warn you Aaron.”
Salem's voice entered extremely hushed tones as he leaned towards Aaron. ”Withholding such things tends to drive a wedge between people, Lilie seems very pure and unsure of herself and I will not see you hurt her.”
Aaron raised an eyebrow at Salem’s remark, grateful he hadn’t said too much, but a little confused with his warning. Hurt her? Aaron could have laughed out loud. The last
thing he wanted to do was hurt Lilie. He’d only known the girl for barely a night, and already he found himself looking forward to seeing her again. “Believe me, I don’t want that either,”
he told Salem, leaning in and matching his tone before returning to his former position. “I just… I don’t see any reason to burden her with my problems. Her or anyone else.”
He let out a breath, letting a little wave of fatigue wash over him before he made himself perk up. “Besides, I can handle it. I got thrown off by…”
he paused a moment, swallowing his pride, “...by Master’s methods, but I’m sure I’ll be fine once I catch on.”
He regarded Salem for another moment, mulling over his words and his apparent urgency. “Was there anything else weighing on you, or was that it?”
He asked genuinely, glad for the opportunity to clear things up.
Salem thought for a moment and decided if there was ever a time to clear the air it was now. ”I heard a rumor...that you sent a girl to the mines.”
There was a small pause as he searched Aaron's face for any sort of reaction. ”I need to know the truth. I heard there was an arrest last night while we were out and I know it was done by Lucan, whom you hold close it seems. I need to know what happened. Was it another defenseless mage like me who is now under the scrutiny of a family just for potentially mispeaking? Although if i'm being honest with myself, I still believe what I had said the other night. It's just too coincidental.”
He spoke low, making sure no one near them could hear the conversation, much like Aaron, Salem didn’t need his dirty laundry aired out.“What?!”
Aaron didn’t bother hiding his shock, though he kept his voice a hushed whisper. There was a rumour going around that he’d somehow sent someone to the mines? “That’s ridiculous,”
he dismissed the idea immediately, caught between laughing and having a miniature crisis. How many other people had heard this rumour? How had he managed to tarnish his family’s reputation this quickly?“Salem, I don’t have that kind of power,”
he explained, scoffing at the idea. “Lucan follows orders from the crown, I couldn’t coerce him even if I wanted to. I--ohh…”
Suddenly it dawned on him what Salem was talking about. An arrest involving Lucan, of a mage… He recalled Lilie mentioning something like that, and he’d seen the boards on the Marivaldi dorm for himself. Combined with what Varis had said at dinner…“That must have been the Marivaldi mage,”
he concluded, almost to himself. “Remember, how they said at dinner that someone managed to infiltrate the Academy?”
He lowered his voice even further, loath to start some kind of rumour or panic.
Salem watched as Aaron seemed to go through several stages of emotion. It was clear that the accusation offended him yet as to why it did he was unsure. Could it be it was false? Or was there truth to it and he was upset to get caught. ”Again I feel that was a cover to shift the blame off of you know who. But seeing as how I was the only one to get probed”
Salem was racking his brain searching for answer but only coming up with more questions. ”Why would the queen even invite Lucan if she had ordered him elsewhere? It makes no sense. None of this makes sense Aaron.”
Salem voice was still low, as he held the crystal, continuing to brighten and dim it but now somewhat sporadically with his emotions, attempting to make it seem like idle chatter as they practiced.“I don't know,”
Aaron hissed, still unsettled from the accusation. “I don't know, it's nobility, nothing ever makes sense, no one ever tells you anything, you just keep your head down and do what you're told and try not to ask questions.”
It just about fell out of his mouth, his frustration growing apparent. It was a lesson he'd learned well growing up, to concern himself with doing his job and turn a deaf ear to the rumours. So many flew in Noila castle, it would be impossible to keep up with them anyway.
Salem read Aaron's tone loud and clear. Sitting back into his seat again and keeping silent. He opened up his pad once more and picked up his pencil, using the tip to point towards the crystal before jotting things down. ”You...may want to practice. Get that brightness in check and all.”
His tone was almost defeated, sad, like a child who had just been reprimanded by his father.
Aaron's face feel a tick, but he took the hint, letting his eyes fall to the crystal again. “Yeah, we just have to be careful,”
he murmured, setting to the exercise again and hoping Salem would understand what he meant.