“Everyone is talking about your meeting with the archmage,” Lukas said, his lips barely moving and his eyes fixed on a book. The library around them thrummed with late night activity; boys too lazy to complete their projects earlier, as well as boys who had nothing better to do than hang around bothering people, crowded the tables.
Of the forty or so mages in Casimir’s age group, Lukas had been the only one who seemed interested in actual friendship. Cliques always formed within the first few years, based on talent or brutishness, but Casimir had never been welcome in any of those; the boys with talent hated that he was better than them, and the abusive, aggressive boys didn’t interest him. Lukas sat alone in lectures and at meals those first few years, and he flushed and bolted when any of the boys Casimir hated tried to speak with him—which Casimir took as a good sign. He remembered wandering over to sit with Lukas at dinner one night at nine years old, on a whim—and ever since, the two had stuck together. Neither delved too deeply into their families or home life, which suited both of them just fine.
“There’s not much to say about it,” Casimir murmured back. He thumbed through a volume, keenly aware of the library keeper’s eyes boring into the back of his head.
“What happened?” Lukas asked.
“Just some vague posturing by the archmage. He thinks I’m getting too creative.”
“Was it that spell you taught me?”
“Yeah. Among other things.”
Lukas glanced up at him, frowning. Like Casimir, he had the old blood look—a sharp jaw, dark hair, blue eyes, and a lean, lithe build. Still, Casimir easily dwarfed him by six inches, even at sixteen.
“Are you worried?” Lukas asked.
Casimir exhaled a laugh, his gaze fixed on his book. Sufos endalion manom alir. Fire ever scorches ice. The rudimentary combination weaved itself into most fire spells, even those with no intention to melt merely ice. Casimir had always found himself with a particular affinity for fire, though he took greater interest in less destructive enchantments.
“The archmage threatened me, then decided we would forget the conversation entirely,” he said. “So I don’t think I have much to worry about.”
“The keeper won’t take his eyes off what you’re doing. I doubt you’ll find many more opportunities to sneak books.”
“Luckily there are only two months left until graduation,” Casimir said. “And once we’re all scattered throughout the east, the archmage can’t keep his eye on me anymore.”
Lukas’s mouth twisted in dark look, but he said nothing. Casimir liked that about him.
“Will you go home, then?” Casimir asked.
Lukas shrugged. “Probably not. I don’t think my mother has much interest in seeing me—she has a new boyfriend, and this one likes to cause pain. I heard the court mage in Bucori is looking to retire, though. I might go see the prince.”
“That would be quite an accomplishment,” Casimir said. Lukas stared at him, as if he expected him to say something harsh. “I think you could get it.”
“With your talent for potions? Absolutely. It’s always some sort of crop crisis in the Spine, rather than war. That’s what you prefer, isn’t it?”
“My battle skills aren’t quite as developed as yours.”
“Dominik is a bit odd, but he’s not an asshole,” Casimir said. “I think it would suit you.”
Lukas smiled a little before returning his attention to his homework. “I thought I might have to fight you for it.”
Casimir chuckled. “No. I’m going home.”
“Why? I’ve never gotten the impression you much cared for it.”
“Well, not for most of it. But I care about Valtteri.”
Lukas shook his head. “It’s really awful, the rumors I’m hearing. Of course the assholes from illusion won’t shut up about it, hoping it’ll get back to you.”
“You’d think after all these years they’d realize how hard it is to get a rise out of me.”
“It’s not true, is it?” he asked quietly.
“When Valtteri talks to me, it’s the last thing he wants to discuss,” Casimir said. “But if my father thinks it’s true, that would nearly guarantee it a lie, to me. He’s always wanted Regan on the throne instead of Valtteri. Valtteri is kind and deliberate, but Regan is an idiot who needs to be controlled. My father would hate to be surpassed.”
“Well, in any case, I’m sure Valtteri will be glad to have you home.”
“If I can make it two more months without mysteriously disappearing,” Casimir said. He glanced over his shoulder, and the keeper quickly averted his eyes. When he flicked them back, Casimir made a rude gesture.
“I’m going to turn in,” he told Lukas, when the keeper had flushed crimson and disappeared behind a shelf. “Your translation of that spell is wrong, by the way—loaona means luminous, but also obscure. In this context it’s shadowing your movements rather than illuminating your path forward.”
“I hate illusion,” Lukas said miserably. He scratched out the few notes he had scribbled onto a length of parchment. “Thanks. See you in the morning?”
“At breakfast,” Casimir agreed. “If not, I’m obviously dead in the snow somewhere.”
Casimir had just shut himself within his room—furs covered a stone bed slab with a thin mattress, and haphazard piles of books littered the floor, along with five or six candles, all half burnt—when a knock came at the door. A ten year old boy stood on the other side, holding a piece of folded parchment in one shaking hand.
“This just came for you,” the boy squeaked.
Casimir plucked the message from his hand, recognizing Valtteri’s script. “Thanks.” The boy continued to linger, so Casimir raised an eyebrow. “Anything else?”
“Would you sponsor me to tend the gardens?” he blurted.
The gardens on the first floor of the college contained all manner of plants used in potion-crafting: poisonous flowers, carnivorous trees, and sneaky shrubs that would shower you in coma-inducing pollen if you brushed against them the wrong way. Once young mages reached the age of ten, the archmage deemed them capable of entering the gardens, but only if they earned their keep by caring for the plants. Almost exclusively, the boys who discovered a particular strength in potions asked to tend the gardens, and the mages who brewed potions comprised a clique of their own; if this one asked Casimir to sponsor him—Casimir had little interest in potions, beyond the basics—it meant he couldn’t get an older student in potions to vouch for him.
“Are you strong in potions?” Casimir asked.
The boy shook his head. “No. I don’t even really like it. But my father said I have to work in the gardens.”
“Your father is still in the picture, then?”
“Yes. My mother was a thrall.”
“Ah,” Casimir said. “If you don’t like potions, though, working in the gardens won’t help you any.”
“I like enchanting, but he says it’s a soft pursuit.”
Casimir snorted. “He sounds like a delight. Look, if I sponsor you, it would be my liability if you get injured or die in there. Your father will come hunting me down as if I killed you myself. Why don’t you just tell him no one would sponsor you?”
“He’ll be angry,” the boy said. “And he’s not very good at dealing with anger.”
Casimir frowned. “If you work in there for the next two months, and it doesn’t take, you can request to be put in reserve next year, you know. They never tell anyone it’s an option, but I’ve seen people do it in my year.”
The boy perked up. “Do they ever use the reserves?”
“No. It’s too high in demand, to work in there.” Casimir looked him over. “I suppose I can sponsor you, but you have to promise you’ll quit after this year. And be careful.”
He nodded emphatically. “Yes, I swear I will.”
“Then let the archmage know he can speak to me on your behalf,” Casimir said. “Remember, too—there are ways around the things you’re forced to do. You just have to be clever about it.” He gave the boy the kindest smile he could muster. “Thanks for the message.”
The boy bounded away, beaming; Casimir turned to the message from Valtteri.
Passing through Bucori, it read. If you can get out of the college tonight, come by Glass Bottom Brewery before midnight.
Casimir tossed the letter atop his bed and grabbed his cloak immediately. Wind still howled outside the college, but the snow had lightened from earlier; the blizzard appeared to be blowing itself out at last.
He borrowed a horse from the stables, sure-footed enough to navigate the icy roads. The mage college rested just below the peak of the highest mountain in the kingdom; a thin stone bridge arched over a crevasse glowing with eerily emanating magelight. Behind him, a few windows flickered with candlelight, but otherwise, the austere college might have been deserted. Blowing snow soon hid the clearing from view entirely.
Casimir rode into Bucori just as guards emerged to close the city gates for the night. Only one man would remain on duty to allow travelers to depart, but none would be admitted within the city until morning. Casimir guessed midnight had come and gone, but he knew Valtteri would still be waiting for him.
Glass Bottom Brewery sat wedged between a bakery and an old blacksmith’s quarters. Bucori rose with the elevation of the mountain, meaning most building’s roofs met the walls of their neighbor. The castle, and seat of the princedom, glowed down on the city from the peak. Casimir trotted along a freshly plowed cobblestone road.
In the brewery, the rowdiest of the crowd had already stumbled home to pass out drunk, leaving a group of hopeful prostitutes and a few men from Valtteri’s legion. Valtteri spotted Casimir immediately and abandoned his men; the girls across the room perked up when he stood, then frowned as he made for Casimir.
His brother looked a bit like him, though his features had a kindness to them Casimir could never quite manage. Three years older than Casimir, Valtteri stood tall, lean, and muscular, a true and talented swordsman; his handsome face and striking blue eyes should have afforded him more luck with women than he managed, in all honesty, but it never seemed to work out quite like that. The two men embraced, and Valtteri stepped back, shaking his head.
“Gods, I always forget how tall you are,” he said. “Taller than me, already.”
“If I keep growing, I’ll likely die, if it makes you feel better,” Casimir said. “There are a few recorded cases of that disease in the library at the college.”
Valtteri exhaled a laugh and tipped his head to a table in a secluded corner. The owner of the pub brought them both flagons of ale, along with a fresh loaf of bread.
“How are things?” Valtteri asked, when Casimir had taken a drink.
“I could ask you the same,” Casimir replied.
Valtteri rolled his eyes, his expression dark. “Well, besides the idiot king?”
“How incredibly bold of you, Valtteri.”
“I’m serious. Half the realm hates him, and the other half can’t be bothered to have an opinion on anything. It’s been three years, and the situation keeps getting worse. He had to call up Southern Arm forces because half his legions in the north are starving.”
“Alistair must understand how little control he’ll have if he doesn’t take care of his people.”
“He expects the princes to do it for him, and to be fair, they have,” Valtteri said. “Not to mention, any unrest in the north is basically useless. They don’t have the strength to fight him even if they weren’t starving, and here and the Southern Arm—they won’t do anything until it’s nearly too late. Judging by father’s stance.”
“He’s always been one to wait until all the options present themselves,” Casimir said. “Three years is a short time to rule a kingdom.”
“But enough to start the process of destroying it.”
Casimir watched him over the top of his glass. “I get the sense you’re frustrated by other things, too.”
Valtteri glanced at his men, though they’d taken the abandonment of their captain as leave to hit on the lagging prostitutes. “How far has it spread?”
“Some of the wankers in the college talk about it, trying to get a rise out of me.”
“Fuck,” he exhaled. “Did you know that little asshole in the Forest Realm has been spreading it, too? What’s his name—Weston? Fucking fourteen year old kid spreading the rumor like he’s ever been inside a woman before, much less seen a cunt.”
Casimir laughed. “I hadn’t heard that. I am sorry, Valtteri. You don’t have any support from father, I assume.”
“Of course not,” he spat. “He’s taken it as his grand opportunity to push Regan forward. And the girl who started it is holding out in hopes she can marry him instead.”
“Father wouldn’t stand for that, no matter how much it would humiliate you. The girl admitted she’ll fuck someone out of wedlock, which makes her unworthy of his heir.”
“He hasn’t sent her away yet,” Valtteri said. “It’s been two years. I thought it would be over by now.”
“It’s not true, at least,” Casimir said. “And you’ll find a woman with whom it won’t matter. Someday.”
“There have been two girls father must have paid to throw themselves at me,” Valtteri said, his voice barely a murmur. “I couldn’t do it with them, either.”
“Because you knew. When father and his ridiculous expectations aren’t in the picture, you’ll perform just fine, I’m sure.”
Valtteri took a long pull of his drink before thumping the mug back onto the table. “In any case, there’s nothing I can do now.”
“Just know you’re not alone,” Casimir said. “I know how humiliating it must be.”
Valtteri met his eyes briefly in acknowledgement. “We’re headed to the southern reaches of the Spine. Alistair is having trouble keeping the peace down there, too, and Prince Dominik doesn’t care to provide his own men in feats of military strength.”
“Why did you stop to see me?”
He sighed. “Honestly, just for a friendly face. My men respect me, at least, so it could be worse. But I wanted to be sure you were still coming home this summer, too.”
“Of course,” Casimir said. “I wouldn’t leave you in the midst of that.”
“I promise I’ll spend more time in the city this summer than I ever have before. I hate to take you from anything like traveling the world now that you’ll be a proper mage, though.”
“I have two years until I have to go back. A few months in Reziva won’t keep me from discovering my style.”
Valtteri’s eyes drifted to his men; they paired off with a prostitute each and snuck to the upper levels of the brewery to utilize their rooms without a backwards glance. Casimir watched a profound sadness flit across Valtteri’s face and felt it, too, as if it belonged to him. It had been so long since Casimir encountered a woman, outside of service in a pub, that he hardly knew what to say; and somehow, his utter lack of consideration for women seemed reckless, wrong, if it meant he couldn’t help Valtteri.
“I know this is difficult now, but father won’t succeed in taking the princedom from you,” Casimir said. “It’s against the laws of the realm to pass to any but the firstborn.”
“Alistair has so little regard for the laws, I hate to say I think you’re wrong,” Valtteri replied. “Do you think father would consider letting you stay as court mage? I have a mind to ask him.”
Casimir muffled his bark of a laugh. “By the gods, Valtteri, that’s a good joke. You don’t get enough credit.”
“Fuck off,” he said, his expression much lighter. “You’re probably not good enough for father anyway. He’s been asking the mage to make pain potions for him. But I don’t think he’s actually in pain.”
Casimir raised his eyebrows. “Now that’s interesting. I’ll have to think about sabotaging him when I’m back.”
“He’s bringing in some girl around your age as a ward,” he said. “Probably meant for Eamon, but you never know. Maybe she’ll like you.”
“You’re the only one who likes me, Valtteri. How’s mother?”
“Worse,” he said. “She hardly comes out of her rooms unless it’s to go to the gardens. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Has the mage tried anything with her?”
“Herbal remedies and the like. Nothing’s worked, and father has completely lost patience.”
“She won’t accept help from me, if that’s your angle.”
Valtteri frowned. “I know she hasn’t been the best with you—”
“The best? She hardly looks at me without bursting into tears.”
“Cas, she’s going to end it herself if someone doesn’t help her.”
Casimir finished the last sips of his drink before setting aside his mug and lacing his hands together. “And I suppose I should be horrified at the thought of that.”
“She’s your mother, Casimir.”
“In name only. Never in behavior.”
Valtteri grimaced. “Cas, please—I’m not asking you to come home just for that. But when you see her…”
“Valtteri, you know how I feel about her. You think the thought of her suffering is enough to sway me?”
He drummed his fingers on the table. “Gods, Cas, I never realized how cold you are.”
“Incredibly,” he said. “Manipulative, too. I taught a boy how to circumvent the rules for tending the gardens earlier.”
“Stop,” Valtteri said. “I know it’s just an act.”
He loosed a laugh. “When will you break down and tell someone how much pain you’re in? You can’t bury yourself in books forever.”
“Probably about the time you stand up to father.”
Valtteri never took Casimir’s insults personally, which explained part of the reason they could get along so well, since Casimir rarely meant them.
“Just think about it,” Valtteri said gently. “It’s probably about time I let you get back.”
“I’m sure the archmage will renew his threat to throw me out of the order if I don’t show up before sunrise.”
Valtteri opened his mouth, then smiled and laughed. “Gods, I don’t even want to know. Write me in a few days, will you?”
“Yeah,” Casimir said, standing from the table. They embraced once more. “And Valtteri—father isn’t watching over you while you lead troops around for Alistair, you know. Maybe you should consider making a pass at a woman while you have the freedom to do it on your own terms.”
Valtteri looked him up and down contemplatively. “Maybe you should consider making a pass at any woman at all. I’m starting to worry about you.”
Casimir grinned. “Oh, fuck off.”