Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Chapter Eleven: The Owned(Part One)



"You are a very confusing person, Belthor." Agnete paused. "B-E-L-T-H-O-R." She caught her mouth a moment later. "I'm sorry. I keep doing that-"

"Do it all you want," Belthor said. He held his staff as the snow fell lightly around them, where they stood at the edge of Greenhaven. "It's fine."

"Is it?" Agnete bit her lip, and Belthor idly wondered what it felt like. She looked human enough, but her un-Glamoured teeth were so pointy...

"Yes." Belthor clutched his books under his arm, glancing ahead into the snow. "Bit of a hike left for you."

"You did not have to accompany me to the edge of the village. I do not understand why you did." The girl frowned thoughtfully. "Are you attempting to instill a feeling of safety and comfort in me through your presence as we exit this human dwelling-place?"

"Um." Belthor parsed that over for a minute. "I...guess you could put it that way, sure."

"Oh." Agnete mused. "Is this part of your peoples' mating customs?"

"What?" Belthor jumped. Agnete didn't seem to notice.

"I recall my uncle telling me that human mating involved long walks," she said. "And nights spent camping in forests, possibly singing songs and playing music. It was always the stud human upon whom the impetus was placed to impress, while the mares were simply to look impressive. Do I look impressive?" She tilted her head.

Belthor tried to locate his thoughts. "I...um."

"I do not look impressive?" She seemed impassive.

"No, it's not that-"

"So I do?"

"No!" Belthor froze. "Wait! I mean..." He dropped his books. "Shoot!" He then dropped his staff when he bent to pick them up. "Come on!"

"Did I do this?" Agnete asked, blinking as Belthor felt around for his possessions in the cold and dark. He relocated his tomes and his staff with some difficulty. 

"I, um." He leaned on his staff, shivering. "This isn't a mating ritual. I have no interest in...mating...with you. None whatsoever, rest assured. That's just...no." He waved his hand and dropped his books again. "Oh, corn lizards!" He knelt to pick them up again.

"I have flustered you," Agnete observed. "You are easy to fluster." She paused for a moment, and Belthor, looking up, saw all the color in her rosy cheeks abruptly vanish. "Oh, no. I'm so, so sorry! What I said was offensive, wasn't it? I called you a stud and..." she twitched. "I'm sorry!"

"It's fine!" Belthor rose. "You're fine, you're very fine. I mean!" He ground his teeth. "Forget that. You know what I meant."

"I do?" Agnete blinked. "I mean, yes, I suppose I do." She bit her lip again. "I am very confused, Belthor."

"Okay. Well, so am I." He shifted his weight. "Girls confuse me on general principles."
"I am not a girl. That implies I am human."

"You being a human and you being not doesn't change that you're a girl and girls are scary," Belthor said. Agnete mused.

"Oh. Physical and sexual attractiveness-"

"Gods, no!" Belthor wanted to hit himself. "It's not that! I don't..." he sighed. "I'm overreacting."
"Yes. You are." Agnete eyed him. "It is amusing and somewhat enticing to watch you sputter."

"Well, I guess you're in luck," Belthor muttered. "I do a lot of that."

"I bet I can make you do it again," Agnete said, and Belthor blinked when he saw an actual gleam of joy in her eyes. 

"I...I'm not going to bet against it," he finally said. Agnete's face lit up.

"I am cold," she said, which was probably the most shocking statement she'd made so far. Belthor cried out when she plastered herself right up next to him and hooked his arm around her shoulders. "Embrace me and supply me with your excess warmth!"

"Um-" Belthor watched his staff fall from the arm that apparently was no longer his. "Well, I don't know that-"

"Sometimes when I sleep, I get cold," Agnete confessed, snickering as she almost certainly lied. "I would very much enjoy it if you spent the night with me to help keep the cold away."

"Wait!" Belthor cried out as Agnete hauled him two paces through the snow. "Agnete, that's a horrible idea-"

"Are you saying you do not wish to sleep with me?" she asked.

"No! I mean, no!" Belthor winced. "It would be fine and fun and you're...you're gorgeous but, I mean, I don't...I'm not...that's not..." he swallowed. "Okay, you win. You got me."

"I like this game," she said, voice light. "I must remember to play it with you again."

"Do you have to?" Belthor paused to reclaim his staff. He glanced back at the village. "Why did I turn down Tori and Sam's offer to come with us?"

"You turned it down?" Agnete asked. "I am returning to my dwelling-place. I am the one who refused them."

"You didn't refuse me-"

"No." She eyed Belthor, and that gave him pause. "No, I did not."

He hesitated. "...no. No you didn't."

"No. I did not." She tilted her head.

"You...did not." He stood up a little straighter.

"I didn't." She appeared to muse as she approached two steps through the snow. Somehow, Belthor didn't feel cold anymore. His heart thundered.

"You...didn't..." he muttered. He glanced left and right, suddenly paranoid that Tori and Sam had followed them and were laughing from a distance. 

He didn't see Tori and Sam. But he did see-

"Agnete." He didn't realize how much like a gunshot that one word was until after the fact. "Agnete, is that..."

"What?" She jumped about two feet backward like a hare, face going white, then red. Belthor only barely noticed.

"That's...Yvette," he muttered, staring into the darkness at the figure watching them.

"Yvette?" Agnete asked. She turned, shouldering her bookbag. She frowned into the dark along with Belthor for a moment. "Yes. Yes, that is Yvette."

"Thank the gods." Belthor started forward. "Hey!" He waved his staff. "Yvette! It's us. Belthor and Agnete!"

She remained silent, her head bent downward like she was studying the snow. Belthor swallowed.

"Are you all right?" he asked, picking up the pace. Agnete fell into step behind him, and thoughtlessly Belthor passed her his books. She took them in silence, and with his free hand the initiate reached out for the waitress. "Yvette, it's freezing out here!"

Still she said nothing. Belthor stuck his staff in the snow less than three feet from her boots, and he leaned forward to examine her. "Yvette. You've been missing all day...are you hurt, or-"

She looked up, very sharply. Belthor jumped backward.

Her eyes were a solid olive green, with neither pupils nor irises to them.

"Gods!" Belthor clutched his staff. "Yvette, what happened to you?"

She let out a long, low breath, and even the mist from it seemed green. She twitched her arms, and Belthor gasped as he watched her produce a long, wicked knife from her belt.

"Give us your friend," Yvette ordered, her voice slow and slurred. She took a lumbering step forward.

"No!" Belthor planted himself between Agnete and Yvette, staff held in both hands. He pointed one end at the waitress. "What happened to you? What's going on with your eyes?"

"Wait." Agnete caught Belthor's shoulder. "Us?"

"Us," several more voices echoed. Belthor spun, and from the darkness he saw four more sets of glowing green eyes, on all sides. His heart thundered in an altogether different way as all four of them emerged into the faint light at the edge of town: women with weapons in hand, moving stiffly like undead. 

"Who are you?" Belthor asked. "One step closer and I'll use this." He held his staff up in plain sight. "You hear me? I'll...I'll tear you all apart! Back off!"

"Give us the Gifted one," Yvette ordered again. "Give her to us. The Owner wishes her brought before him."

"Over my dead body."

"Belthor-" Agnete dropped her bookbag in the snow. "Belthor, you can't-"

"Who are you?" he demanded. "You're not Yvette."

Yvette tilted her head. "My name was Yvette. I work at a diner in Greenhaven." She sucked in breath. "Now, I am Number Five. I am Owned." She raised her knife, and the other women ringing Belthor and Agnete did the same with their weapons. "The warning has been delivered. Run, son of Morse, or we will slay you where you stand."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Chapter Nine: The Witching Hour(Part Two)



"Sir," Belthor protested, as Master Protec held his wand up and glared. "Sir, I've done nothing to-"

"You've made a scene in Master Vignette's class and defied my orders as your teacher," Master Protec said. "If you continue to withhold information I have every right to demand of you, for the drow's-"

"Agnete."

"-the drow's well-being as much as yours, I will see to it that your dreams of academia never get off the ground," Master Protec continued, barely noticing the interruption. "Don't defend her like this."

"Why shouldn't I?" Belthor asked.

"Because she's a drow," Master Protec said, sounding awfully aggrieved. "They drink blood, Belthor! They're witches practicing dark magic, and she'll turn on you the moment she has the chance! You're food to her, nothing more. We all are. I'm trying to protect my students - and her as well."

"What are you going to do?" Belthor asked. "Kill her?"

"Send her home," Master Protec replied. "It will protect all of us, and it will keep her from throwing her life away on a drow quest to slaughter wizards. That's all they care about, you know. You could stand to broaden your education before you defend a dark creature like this."

"She is a person," Belthor insisted. "Not a creature."

"She has near-human intelligence, I will admit that," Master Protec said, which made Belthor hiss. "But that simply makes her more dangerous. She does have a human's capacity for some things: malice, sadism, evil. But the things that really make us human - intelligence and discipline, respect for authority...she lacks those. To think she's as much a person as you and me, Belthor, shows your naïveté."

"You'll not get anything from me," Belthor said. "Not in a thousand years. Sir."

"I was afraid you'd say that." Master Protec took a breath. "I suggest you pack your bags, son of Morse-"

The door slammed open, the noise so loud Belthor jumped and dropped all his books. He clutched his staff, though, and he turned to see-

"Master Protec!" A staff thumped onto the carpet, and Belthor hurriedly moved out of the way as Master Kulkas barreled right up into his younger colleague's face.

"...good afternoon, Kulkas," the younger Master said. "Did we have an appointment?"

"We do now," Belthor's mentor said.

"I'm afraid my four-thirty is with-"

"Consider it canceled, by your own volition." Master Kulkas planted his staff in the carpet, where it stood balanced as always. "Belthor, you're free to leave. Take your books." He waved his hand, and all of the initiate's study materials rose and stacked themselves neatly in the air. "Let me sort this out."

"Thank you, sir. I'm leaving, sir." Belthor grabbed them and turned for the door, ducking his head as he went.

"Kulkas-"

"How dare you?"

Belthor was barely out the door before Protec's wand waved and it slammed behind him. There must have been a spell of silence on the study, because he didn't hear a thing more, and Master Kulkas' voice had been at dragon levels the instant before the latch clicked.

"Gods." Belthor leaned on his staff, breathing deeply. Hastel gave him an odd look as he passed in the hallway, and Belthor pulled himself together in response.

"I need dinner and a drink," he muttered to himself. He started off down the hall, shuddering. "I need a drink most of all."

***

Belthor scrambled into Dorm Six, then up the stairs and down the hall to his and Theron's quarters. He quickly tapped the lock with his staff, waited for the door to open by itself, and threw himself inside, pulling it shut behind him.

"Gods." He opened his bedroom door to throw his spellbooks on his bed, then leaned his staff by the door and scurried to the kitchen, kicking a fur coat to one side and a discarded knee-high boot to the other. He opened the mystic pantry and whipped out a large bottle of water, taking a cooling drink.

Belthor struggled to calm his frayed nerves.

"I'm not being kicked out," he told himself. "Master Kulkas is on it. He'll take care of it. I'm just...gods." He sank to a seat leaning on the wall. He pulled his sleeve back and examined Nerien's rune on his bicep.

It was steadily black. That calmed him down.

"You must approve," he finally muttered. "You'd tell me if I was going against what you wanted." He bowed his head. "Nerien, Lady of Health and Medicine, I pray to you. I know I am not worthy of your blessing, but..." he struggled to find words, before settling for his first thought "...but I need all the help I can get down here right now. And if you can give me even a little of it - you're a goddess, I'm sure you can give quite a lot, but I'm not asking for that. Just...whatever you think I'm worth."

He took a deep breath...and then a deep drink. Little by little, he was coming back to center.

That's when he saw Theron's door, and heard the creaking and crying he'd been too self-focused to notice until now.

"Oh. Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Belthor swore, as he took in the scattered ladies' clothes on the floor. "One coat...two...handbags..." He blinked as he examined more and more of the display. By his reckoning, there had to be three separate women in Theron's room with him. Well, presumably with him. Belthor idly reflected that he didn't see any evidence of his roommate's even being home.

"How?" Belthor wondered. "The physics of this confuse me."

He pushed himself to his feet. He hurried to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him quickly. It didn't help, as he could still hear the banging and moaning and...

"What's this?" Belthor paused as his foot hit something. He looked down, then frowned and picked up the package on the floor. "Someone sent me something?"

Hey, roc, read a string of ink on the side of the package. This was by the door when I got out this morning. Says it's for you. Thought I'd help, so I brought it in.

There was no signature, but Belthor didn't really need one to know who'd written it. He set the package on his bed, then tried to rip it open for a few fruitless moments, getting progressively more animated by the building sounds of climactic joy from the other side of the dorm.

"Enough." He shoved the package back, then reached out and picked up his staff. He leveled it and-

Rip! The thing opened, unfurling like flower petals. The initiate reached in and pulled out the little white card sitting on top of the package's contents.

"Yes!" a woman cried faintly, before all sound ceased. Belthor let out a breath, wondering if he was as happy as she was at the grand finale.

"Rosa's not exactly tropical, but neither are we far north," he read under his breath. "It was the warmest I could do in a city unaccustomed to cold. I hope it helps with the snow." He turned the card over, but the only signature on it was a stylized M.

Which was more than enough of a signature for him.

Belthor pulled a thick green coat up, and he tried it on. To his surprise, the measurements were, while imperfect, very close. And it was also very warm, and it didn't look at all foolish in his opinion. He admired himself in the mirror.

"I have to talk to her again soon," he muttered. "Have to thank her." He glanced at his books. "...I need a bag." He winced a moment later, almost hitting himself for even thinking of making requests of his patron like that. She wasn't a gift-giving machine-

Thump. Thump. First it was that, and then the moans were back. Belthor joined in, banging his head against his door.

I'm not getting any sleep tonight, he swore to himself, awash with sudden misery. Why can't Theron put a spell of silence over his hook-ups? Is this his way of bragging about his conquests? Making me listen?

Belthor slumped against the door. He glared up at the ceiling for a long moment, while he tried to decide whether to try and sleep, or...

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Chapter Nine: The Witching Hour(Part One)



"Son of Morse."

That summons came as Belthor was hurrying from his last class of the day. He paused in the hallway, books clutched under his arm while he tried not to lose all of them.

"Uh, Master..." he swore as he nearly dropped History of Magic on his foot. "Master Protec, sir."

He looked very young to be a master. Belthor supposed he was only in his forties, which seemed very old to him, but compared to the ages he suspected of Masters Kulkas and Vignette, it was on the early side. He leaned in the doorway to his study, and Belthor didn't like the sour look on his face. 

"A moment of your time?" he asked. Well, Belthor didn't suppose it was a request, but it sounded very polite. 

"Of course, sir." He turned to Tori and Sam, who'd been at his sides. "Excuse me. I'll see you tomorrow, unless you want to go for dinner?"

"Tomorrow." Tori eyed Master Protec. "Good-bye, Bel." She turned and hurried off down the corridor as Sam echoed her, the pair stealing glances over their shoulders as they went.

He himself thumped his way over to the study, Protec sliding out of his way at the last possible moment. Belthor's eyes flicked from green decorations to blue, to several large tomes with labels that made him think they were potion-books. A pair of cauldrons sat bubbling and hissing in the center of the study, every spilled drop coming to a halt a few inches above the ground and then flying back in. No flame burned under them, but Belthor felt the heat.

The door shut behind him.

"You like those?" Master Protec asked. Belthor blinked.

"I, uh. Sir, potion-making isn't one of my electives but Theron-"

"Ah, Theron." Master Protec smiled. "Theron's a good lad. He's got a master's mind for potions." He waved at the cauldrons. "That's what this is about, actually. He thinks he's more the master than me some days."

"Sir?"

"These are dragon's eye hypnotic potions," Master Protec said. "Full of ocular fluid and some other stuff. Theron's great, but he told me he'd thought of a better method for brewing the potion. So I set up a controlled test right here to prove him wrong." He shrugged. "I'm hoping he's right, personally: that means I get to put an extra point on his grade instead of take one off for violating curriculum."

"Sir." Belthor didn't really know what to say to that. He adjusted his books under his arm. "Is that somehow what this is about?"

"No." Master Protec crossed to his side of the desk laden with books, and he leaned on it with one hand, running his free fingers through black hair. "Master Vignette spoke to me about your little display yesterday."

"Sir, I just-"

"I know what happened," Master Protec said. "You're not a Master, Belthor. It's not your class." He shook his head. "Interesting, though, that you and the drow have a staff-sharing bond already."

The drow. Those two words were like gunshots in the stillness, and Belthor saw the glint in the Master's eye when they came out. In and of themselves, they were a message.

"She has a name, sir," Belthor said, trying very hard not to make his tone aggressive...and suspecting he'd failed. 

"Of course she does." Master Protec still showed no inclination to do anything with that knowledge. "How did you find out about her?"

"I..." Belthor shuffled his feet. "I spent a lot of time trying to get to know her before the incident in the village."

"So you knew before then?"

"No, I-"

"I don't see why you would spend your hard-won academic time attempting to build a bond with as odd a duck as Agnete unless you were aware what benefit it would provide you," Master Protec continued.

"Benefit?" Belthor demanded. "She was lonely and looked it! I wanted to help her fit in."

Master Protec blinked. "You...wanted to befriend a drow?"

"I didn't know she was a drow," Belthor grumbled, wondering uncharitable questions like how someone as dense as mountain rocks like this could be a Master in the first place. "She was just...you know, she seemed lonely, and she looked human enough, and..." He shrugged.

"Oh." Master Protec's face flashed with something that looked like amusement. "Say no more. I was fifteen once too." 

"No, it's not like that-"

"And that's what I would have said too." He slipped his wand back into his cloak, and it was only in that moment that Belthor realized he'd had the tool out for the entire conversation so far. "I understand you, son. And then the incident in the village? And you followed her?"

"Yes, sir." 

"And that's when you found out?"

"Yes, sir."

"So, you found where she's been staying?" Master Protec asked, brow furrowing.

"I...you don't know?" Belthor asked.

Master Protec seemed to weigh his words. "She...doesn't bunk on campus, I know that much. Her kind...something about warmth doesn't sit well with her sensibilities."

"So you don't," Belthor concluded.

"No," Master Protec admitted. "But you do."

"I..." Belthor took a breath. "I think I should like to speak with Agnete and Master Kulkas before saying anything."

"It's a question, Belthor. And a conversation with one Master is a conversation with all." Master Protec shrugged. "Master Kulkas is just as curious as I am. He actually told me to talk to you."
"He..." Belthor frowned. "He doesn't know?"

"No one does." Master Protec smiled. "Except you. You'd be doing all the Masters a favor."
Belthor was quiet for a long moment. "Sir, may I say something, with all due respect?"

"That depends on what it is," the Master replied. Belthor steeled his courage.

"You're a liar."

"Excuse me?" His eyes flashed. Belthor glared.

"Master Kulkas knows exactly where Agnete is. She and I discussed how he helped her settle in. You're using me to get around my mentor's silence on this topic, and I don't intend to play along."

"So dramatic! You are fifteen." Master Protec looked more amused than angry, which surprised Belthor. He'd expected another black mark. "All I want is to know where the students attending my school stay when they're not under my nose. And Agnete's lodgings are my concern by that logic - though I imagine she lives a ratty elf-hovel in the trees, covered in ice. Little better than an outhouse."

"She doesn't live in an outhouse," Belthor snapped. "It's a rather nice..." he trailed off as he saw Master Protec watching him expectantly.

He's insulting her now to get a reaction, he realized. He's trying to bait me into defending her and giving him the information he needs in the process

"Sir, I don't think it would be right for me to tell you anything without speaking to Master Kulkas and Agnete first," Belthor continued. "A secret that isn't mine, isn't mine to tell."

Master Protec frowned. "I'm ordering you as your teacher."

"And I'm refusing. Respectfully."

The Master leaned down and opened one of his drawers. Belthor waited for a moment, heart pounding as he wondered exactly what the consequence of his refusal would be. 

"You know, I admire your values," Master Protec said. Belthor wished he could set his books down, but he didn't dare clear a space on the teacher's desk without prompting. He rather suspected the lack of such an invitation - or one to sit - was in and of itself a tactic. "I think your decision is misplaced, but I still can admire the courage behind it."

"Thank you, sir." Belthor hoped that would be enough to get him out of Master Protec's office with an academic future to look forward to. 

"Do you know what this is?" Master Protec rose, and Belthor eyed the short wooden rod in his hand.
"That's a wand," he confirmed, wondering when this became a lesson.

"Yes." The teacher turned it over in his hands. "It's not mine, nor any of my students'. Every Master has an unpaired one in his or her desk."

"Why, sir?" Belthor asked.

"Well, so we can award them to students who go above and beyond the call - who prove their worthiness to study the advanced classes here." Master Protec flipped the wand and caught it left-handed. "I'm very impressed by your values, Belthor."

"Sir, I just arrived at the school not two months ago-"

"And others have advanced even quicker," Master Protec said. "All you have to do is provide the service to the school I've asked for, and that's that. This is yours."

Belthor stared. His jaw actually slipped open a little. "Just...like that?"

"Just like that," Master Protec agreed cheerfully. "And you know what we all say: any who hold a wand are welcome here above challenge from their peers. No matter what the...circumstances under which you acquire it, none but a Master can object to your receiving a wand. I'm sure they'll all see things my way when I explain what service you've given me."

Belthor swallowed. "Sir..."

"Tell me where the drow makes her home," Master Protec ordered, "and this is yours."

Belthor eyed the wand, the world tilting around him. His throat felt very dry. He swallowed again.
"Sir..." He let out a long breath. "A secret that isn't mine, isn't mine to tell."

Master Protec eyed him for a long moment, his expression falling. He very deliberately pulled the wand back and put it in its drawer.

"You remind me very much of another student in this school," he said, eyes cold. "One who gave my father no end of trouble and mouth, who went against the will of the Masters and forged his own path, discarding all the rules he didn't like along the way. You'd do well to not turn out as much of an aficionado of the Dark as he did."

"...Aficionado of the Dark?" Belthor asked with a frown.

"Your defiance and adherence to your principles, while admirable, will get you nowhere," Master Protec said. He reached into his coat, and Belthor clutched his staff tighter when he saw the Master's hand come out wrapped around his wand. "You're going to tell me where the drow lives if you want to continue your education here."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Chapter Eight: The Difference Between Rules and Suggestions(Part Two)



"Master Vignette?" Belthor asked, as the woman skidded to a halt before him, eyes crackling with fury. He swallowed as she looked from him to Agnete.

"What are you doing?" she demanded. Belthor blinked.

"Agnete doesn't have a staff, so I was letting her borrow mine-"

"You were letting her borrow your staff?" Master Vignette demanded. She glared down at Belthor. "Your identity as a wizard? And you let her borrow it?"

"She doesn't have one of her own!" Belthor met her gaze, trying not to flinch. "She deserves the chance to practice."

"This is my class, son of Morse," Master Vignette snapped. "You don't get to make those decisions by yourself. Take your staff back."

"But-"

"Belthor," Agnete whispered. "Just take your staff back..."

 Master Vignette's eyes lingered on her, and Belthor noted the way her fingers were tight on her own. He reflected on Kulkas' words about the other Masters' suspicions.

It was really that moment when Belthor made his decision. 

"No." He crossed his arms. "I've practiced this drill for weeks now. Agnete hasn't had the chance to do it once. She deserves that chance."

"I'm her teacher and not you," Master Vignette said. She slammed her staff on the ground. "I say she-"

"Doesn't deserve the chance?" Belthor asked.

"That's not what I-"

"She's a student. She's here to learn staff-work, isn't she?" 

"Don't interrupt me!" Master Vignette's eyes flashed. Someone tapped Belthor's shoulder.

"Just take it back," Agnete pleaded. She offered Belthor the long black rod it had taken him so much to earn. "It's not mine. It's yours."

"Why shouldn't she be able to borrow one of her friends' staffs to practice with?" Belthor asked. "Any good reason I'm not aware of?"

"She..." Master Vignette's eyes narrowed, as if the wizard was finally putting together that the student defending Agnete might know more about her than she suspected. "She can't make magic with it. It's not hers."

"Why not?" Belthor demanded. "The staff isn't a part of me. The staff isn't my identity as a wizard. It's a stick. It's a tool."

Master Vignette sighed. "The staff is far more than a mere stick. Why do you think Agnete wasn't simply given one when she arrived here?"

"I can think of a few reasons," Belthor snapped, which probably wasn't his wisest decision.

"That's a black mark on your record." Master Vignette scowled. "Show respect for your Masters, son of Morse."

"What are you talking about?" Tori asked. The Master turned, and Belthor's friend shook her head in confusion. "She can't...make magic with a staff? Why?"

"Isn't that what a staff does?" Sam asked. "Make a wizard's desires become spells?"

"But Agnete does not have a staff," Master Vignette said. Belthor blinked.

"And?" he asked. "I thought the whole thing here was I gave her mine."

"Yes, but she can't use it," Master Vignette snapped. She looked around at the class and their glassy eyes. She sighed. "Very well. A lesson on staff-bonds it is."

"Staff-bonds?" Agnete asked, sounding very lost.

"When a staff is won by a wizard, and given to them, there is a ceremony," Master Vignette said. "Surely you all remember it?"

"Yes," Hastel said. "Belthor?"

"Um." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I was off healing someone's gunshot wounds."

"Oh." Master Vignette's lip seemed to curl at that, like the idea that Belthor skipped his own naming ceremony as Master Kulkas' apprentice was proof he wasn't fit to attend the Grand School. "Hastel?"

"At the ceremony, your Master gives you the staff," the younger Greenhaven brother said. "They bind the staff to you with an incantations so it may only serve the one who is truly your Master's apprentice. That's how come another student can't simply take the staff from the one who passed the trials and become apprentice that way." 

Master Vignette turned to Belthor. "The staff will only serve the one whom it was given to, ever - and not another soul." She glowered at Agnete. "That's why she cannot cast spells with your staff, son of Morse."

"But..." Agnete ground down as Master Vignette's gaze turned to her.

"Yes?" she asked, the word heavy with irritation. "You'll get your staff in time, Agnete-"

"But I did cast a spell with it!" the girl protested. "I lifted the rock!"

"She did," Belthor swore. "I was right here-"

"It's true," Hastel growled. "I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it, but..."

For the first time, Belthor had the unique privilege of seeing a Master completely speechless.

"...this is a joke," she muttered. "Hastel, Agnete...this is a joke of impossible proportions."

"It's not!" Agnete's eyes flashed. She lowered the staff, and Belthor hissed as he saw Master Vignette lift hers off the ground as if she expected a wizard's duel right there in the courtyard. But all the redhead did was level the black rod at one of Belthor's spellbooks, and she twitched the end up with a frown of concentration.

Up went the book, hanging slightly open, pages rustling in the wind.

"You..." Master Vignette whirled on Belthor, and his eyes widened. "This is because you were not paired with your staff. You missed the ceremony-"

"The ceremony happened," Belthor protested. "I wasn't there because the ceremony wasn't for me-"
"What?" Master Vignette demanded, her face paling still further. 

"Vivian won the contest," Belthor explained. "I...I took the staff from her to help stop a death cult of psychotics from starting the next Iron Sea War."

"You...took...a staff that had been paired with another acolyte," Master Vignette repeated dubiously. "You just...took it?"

"Yes."

"And it worked for you?"

"Yes."

"Didn't you know that was impossible?" she demanded. Belthor shrugged.

"Um...no?" He swallowed as he saw fire back in her eyes. "Master Kulkas did a private ceremony with me after he changed his mind. So I'm paired with it now, I guess-"

Master Vignette let out a long, low moan, like she had just been reminded of her age-old archenemy. "Kulkas," she intoned, drawing out the vowels as if the word was a howl of despair. "That still doesn't...how did you know it would work for Agnete instead of-"

"I didn't know about this pairing thing at the time," Belthor said. "When we first practiced, I thought-"

"You've done this before?" Master Vignette demanded, face pale. "You gave her a staff and set her to work with it before today?"

"Why shouldn't I have?" Belthor demanded again. "I was helping my friend-"

"You didn't realize what you were doing was impossible?" Master Vignette asked. The entire class stared on in something akin to awe.

"...no," Belthor muttered. "Agnete?" Wordlessly, she shook her head too.

"Somehow," Master Vignette said in a tone that suggested she'd filled out her yearly quota of surprises, "you two have formed a staff-sharing bond after knowing each other for five weeks. That's the kind of connection that takes trained wizards a lifetime to create, with those they are closest to. And you made it work because you hadn't a clue it wouldn't."

Belthor glanced to Agnete. Deliberately, he put a hand on her shoulder. "She's my friend. Friends help each other. If she needs to borrow my staff to learn, then that's what I intend to let her do."

"You'll do nothing of the sort," Master Vignette said.

"Why?" Sam this time, and Belthor saw a calculating light in his eyes. "Isn't this a staff class?"

"Well, yes," Master Vignette said. "But-"

"Then shouldn't Agnete actually practice with a staff?" Tori tilted her head. "Doesn't it defeat the point of a staff class if she can't?"

"But she doesn't have one-"

"Clearly she can use Belthor's," Sam pointed out. "I mean, that's a plus for you, isn't it? Now you can teach all of your students, without leaving anyone out."

Murmurs of agreement ran through the class. Belthor reflected that he must not have been the only one nursing second thoughts about seeing Agnete lonely on the edge of the courtyard...even as he saw Hastel cross his arms and scowl. 

"Yes, but she...should have the opportunity to earn her own staff," Master Vignette said, recovering a bit of her decorum. "I don't think I can allow this-"

"So you don't want to actually teach your students?" Belthor asked...mainly because he saw Tori taking in breath, and he'd already earned a black mark and she hadn't. 

"You need to watch your mouth, son of Morse, or you'll find yourself with another black mark...and a punishment detail to go along with it." She glared at him. "Of course I want to teach my students. That's why I'm a Master."

"Then Agnete borrowing my staff is a win for everyone," Belthor said. He allowed himself a little smile. "Isn't it?"

Master Vignette glared at him, her eyes full of anger she couldn't express. Belthor resigned himself to some difficult classes ahead, even as he reveled in the little victory - both of them knew the other knew the truth about Agnete, but neither could come out and say it...which meant Master Vignette only had one response.

"Yes," she finally said. "It is." 

Somehow, Belthor didn't think it coincidental that he and Agnete were promptly inundated in staff-lore essay homework.

But it didn't matter, because the next time he passed Master Kulkas in the hall, his mentor gave him a very pleased smile and even a wink.