A Magic University teaser tale: Tom took a deep breath of sweet spring air and enjoyed the feeling of the sun on his face. He exhaled slowly, savouring his current sense of freedom. If only he could make it last.
Snyder rode up beside him bearing a warm grin. His golden brown curls bounced atop his shoulders in rhythm with the movement of his horse, barely exposing the tips of his tiny horns.
They moved along at a leisurely gait. It was rare for Tom to not feel rushed.
“So will you tell me what sort of official business you have in Alma?” Snyder continued. “I still can’t imagine what would require this kind of trek, without entourage or your usual trappings. You have me intrigued.”
Truthfully Snyder had no objections at all to travelling alone with his friend for a change. Tom, when given liberty to act as he would without constant scrutiny, had a lust for life greater than most. He indulged in all of the best pleasures their surroundings could offer – the tastiest food, the headiest drink, the happiest of song and the fairest of women. It was all about play as long as his usual responsibilities did not rest upon his shoulders. Snyder had never had this much fun on his own. Tom’s camaraderie seemed priceless. He should have known better than to forget that everything had its price.
Tom gave him a smug look, his brown eyes sparkling with mischief.
“We are travelling to Alma for an interview,” the younger man replied.
Snyder laughed and cocked an eyebrow.
“What sort of interview would demand this kind of travel? I would expect the person being interviewed would make the journey to you, rather than expect any inconvenience on your part.”
Tom shook his head. “You have it backwards, my friend. We are the ones being interviewed, not doing the interviewing. It’s time you made good on the final obligations of your contract.”
Snyder stopped his horse abruptly. His normally jovial face fell, and his posture followed suit as he sagged in his saddle.
“W-we? What do you mean, ‘we’? If this is what I think it is, it should still only be a matter of ‘you’. I agreed to see this through, but…”
Tom frowned before interrupting his smaller companion. He was unaccustomed to people arguing with his choices, and he didn’t like it.
“This was the intent of our agreement. I want you there by my side during the Trials. That was what I meant by ‘see this through.’ There’s no option to watch from the sidelines. The only way to be there for me at the Admission Trials is to participate in them with me,” he insisted. “I sent in applications for both of us and we were sent the summons for the interview. I chose Alma because it’s far enough away from home that none will be the wiser. No one will be likely to recognize me here – or you either for that matter. If they accept us as candidates, we can remain in Alma until just before the Trials.”
“Nobody knows we’re here, do they? We’re effectively on the run. They’ll be looking for you and they’ll eventually catch up to us. What then?” Snyder was pale now and sweating, and not just from the heat of the day. “They already have enough to pin on me. I don’t need absconding with you added to the list.”
“They’ll have their Masters working their tracer spells, but I spent good money paying for blocker spells and decoy magic. It’ll run them in circles for some time. I’ve calculated the time it ought to buy us. It should be just enough to get us to Anthis for that illustrious day, with a day or two to spare, before everything unravels and they catch up to me. By that point, I’ll have had the opportunity to prove myself and the choice of what to do with my future will be mine,” Tom said with an air of authority. He was certain that everything would go as planned. Some would view it as confidence – others as arrogance.
“No, no, no. I can’t do this. Aside from the fact that I have absolutely no interest in learning Master magic, I don’t want to rob some honest aspiring Master of a desired elite seat. Unless I purposefully throw the Trials, I’m not likely to fail. I’m stronger than a typical novice or apprentice- I’ll slam my way through the Trials. If I don’t put in an earnest effort, it will be noticed. They watch for Renegades attempting to sabotage the Trials. I don’t want to cause bad blood, Tom. This specifically wasn’t part of our agreement. If you make me do this interview, that’s what I’ll throw. They won’t invite me to participate.”
Tom’s expression hardened. He was used to getting what he wanted, but he didn’t have the ability to force his will on Snyder at the moment. Coercion would have been effective at home in Seaforest – he had used it there before – but not here in Alma. He would have to use other tactics to manipulate circumstances.
“Well that was the impression you gave me. I’m depending on you. Considering the time and effort you invested in teaching me magic, I would think you would be anxious to see me succeed. You could go into the race strictly as a bard, and limit yourself to your bardic spells. That shouldn’t trigger any suspicion of sabotage from the Masters and if you managed to win on that basis, then the other candidates definitely didn’t deserve to win, did they?” Tom offered.
Snyder sighed and started his horse forward again. Tom followed suit.
“It’s the principal behind it,” his mentor said. “I don’t think it’s ethical to vie for something you don’t want. I won’t be a dog in a manger.”
“Well, I’m not sure whether I’ll accept if I make it into the top three. I’m in this as much to see if I can win as I am for the opportunity that comes with placing top three. Are you trying to suggest I’m not ethical?” There was a veiled threat to Tom’s words. He knew that Snyder didn’t dare suggest such a thing. Considering his background, the half-satyr had no right to pass judgement.
“But it’s different – there’s still a possibility that you’ll take an offered seat. I know I won’t. I’ll feel like I’m cheating,” Snyder insisted.
They were nearing one of the nicer inns in the city. Tom glanced over his shoulder at his mentor.
“I’m tired, hungry and thirsty. Let’s stop here for the night and get rested. Once we’re a little more relaxed, we can discuss this like civilized men. I have a proposal that may prove to be entertaining as well as allow us to settle this once and for all.”
All talk of the interviews and the Trials were set aside as Tom and Snyder stabled their horses, secured a room and found themselves a quiet table in the corner. Tom refused to start any talk until they were both on their second drink. The room was abuzz with chaos and activity, but none of it was directed at them. That made Tom even happier. He perched on his chair, leaning into its hard back wearing a broad smile.
“I’m no one here,” he breathed before taking another swig of his drink. “It’s nice.”
“So what do you propose,” Snyder asked. He was feeling a little giddy, the alcohol and general fatigue going to his head. “How do we get around this impasse?”
“A wager – you challenge me in some way, something you assess to be terribly difficult but not impossible. It needs to be something where I have displayed some skill in the past.”
“Well then, it ought to be something involving a woman. That would appear to be your forte,” the smaller man snorted. “I truly believe you could charm the undergarments off of a vestal acolyte with your smooth talk.”
“Fine – a bet about charming a lady. You make the rules, so you can choose whom and how,” Tom said, playing along confidently, without blinking an eye. “If I succeed, you give the interview tomorrow your all, and if they accept, you attend the Trials as a willing bardic participant.”
“And if you fail?” Snyder demanded. “What do I earn for being the winner of this wager?”
Tom was fully aware what the half-satyr wanted.
“Your contract is fulfilled. You are free to go about your business, your identity and your whereabouts remain our secret, and I’ll even throw in a bonus honorarium, a sizeable one so you can start a new life somewhere else.”
Tom knew that once they noticed in Seaforest that he and Snyder were gone, they would start investigating his companion. It meant that for his own sake, Snyder should not return when this Mgic University business was done. As far as Tom was concerned, this was the final test of his teaching anyway. They were done with each other one way or another.
Another sip of the liquor that continued to fog Snyder’s brain and he was starting to think that the wager sounded fair, but not fair enough. This was no common man’s tavern. The clientele here had wealth and showed it. In his average man’s clothing, Snyder looked like a derelict surrounded by high society grandeur. They would not be swayed by Tom’s flashy garb or noble grooming. Those things would not differentiate him from the other men present. No, what would allow Tom to win a lady over was his charming devil’s tongue, and if that failed him, he could resort to magic. None of his spells were illegal in Alma, unlike Seaforest. Snyder had to remove those tools, as a stipulation.
“I’ll agree to your wager on three conditions: one – no spells, since I could capture the heart of any lady here by that means myself, two – as you mentioned, I get to choose your target, and I can guarantee you, I’ll be particular…” The half-satyr was grinning now, his eyes bright with mirth and alcohol.
“You don’t get to speak a word – or sing one, either.”
That last condition threw Tom a little. That was one of the things he would normally rely on. Sweet seductive words, sincere flattery, a romantic ballad to stir her heart, they were all methods of winning a woman’s fondness.
“So if I manage to lure the lady of your choice up those stairs without spells and without uttering a word to her, you’ll do as I ask regarding the Trials?” The younger man presented the situation as if he did not expect to fail, despite the obstacles that Snyder had thrown his way. “The prize will be twofold for me.”
“If you succeed, yes,” Snyder conceded. “But if you fail, you either go on to the Trials without me or return home alone, without argument.”
There was no doubt there. Was it overconfidence? Conceit? Or was Tom masterful enough to pull off the ultimate seduction. The young man had good looks on his side but what woman in her right mind would respond to the advances of a man who said nothing? The fact that Tom did not seem fazed by his task convinced Snyder he had to up the stakes and make the game more challenging.
His eyes searched the room. There was no example of easy prey. All of the women present carried themselves with some decorum. None of them were falling down drunk as one might expect in a traditional tavern. There were no whores or gold-diggers amongst the socialites, from what he could see. And while some of the women were accompanied by men, he did not note any wedding rings on any hands. A proper married noblewoman would not be frequenting the barroom of an inn, even accompanied by her husband. Those who were here were available, and perhaps hoping to mingle with men their parents would deem appropriate marriage material – nothing too easy, but also nobody who would be guaranteed to give Tom the cold shoulder either.
Then she entered. She was far more beautiful than any of the women already present, her lush chestnut curls were piled high upon her head, just a few wisps escaping to tease at the nape of her neck. Her cool violet-eyed stare swept the room and she lifted her elegantly formed chin in distaste, wearing her stunning beauty and steely haughtiness like a shielding cloak. There was no sense of fun or receptiveness in the manner she carried her perfect form through the room, only well-practiced grace and an air of entitlement. From the way she was dressed it was obvious that she came from money; her travelling gown was crafted from the finest of royal blue silk, tailored to hug her curvaceous form like a second skin. Her corseted bodice was studded with gold beads and seed pearls, ornamented in all the right places. Every man in the room held his breath when she entered, only turning away again once she dismissed them with her hard relentless gaze.
“Her,” Snyder insisted, feeling as though he had won already. “It has to be her.”
Tom had been watching the woman from the moment she had appeared, and he wore a very subtle smile.
“A fine choice,” he remarked, tilting his head and sipping the last of his drink. “I think I would have made the attempt for her even without our wager – without the handicap as well, of course. It will be well worth the effort, even if I fail.”
Another notch on his womanizing friend’s belt should he succeed, Snyder thought. He had lost count of how many that would be since leaving Feltrey, and all of them beautiful enough to resist his advances at first. Tom enjoyed a challenge.
The awe-inspiring newcomer settled at a vacant table far away from the barroom door but close to the stairs, as her porter registered her at the inn and carried her baggage to her room. She sat unaccompanied and waited for the serving girl to take her order.
“Ah, you made a faulty choice, my friend,” Tom said, relaxing back into his chair. “She may seem impenetrable on the outside, but most women that empty yearn for something to fill the hollows within, even if it is only temporary pleasure. She needs an excuse to laugh, a reason to feel alive. This game is already won – you’ll see.”
Rising quietly, Tom went around the room, plucking things from various tables that had been abandoned by patrons done with their drinks or their meal. He also paused and whispered something to the barman, palming him some gold. The barman grinned heartily and Tom patted him on the back as if they were old friends. Snyder wished he knew what his companion was plotting. He was already regretting that he had agreed to the wager. He really was watching a master at work.
Tom then approached the lady’s table, but he did not sit with her or interact with her in any way. He instead took a chair at the table next to hers, positioning his seat so that they were almost shoulder to shoulder. Then, he waited.
She tried ignoring Tom at first, but his position just barely intruded upon her personal space. She was also distracted by the fact that he played with a gold coin, flipping it back and forth along his fingers, a bardic sleight-of-hand trick that Snyder had taught him. It did not involve any spells, just nimble fingers, so it was well within the rules of the game. Snyder cursed internally. She was pretending not to notice, but he could see her watching Tom out of the corner of her eye.
Drawing her attention was his first objective, and Tom had succeeded at that. Once she was looking at him she would notice that he was dressed as someone of comparable status, and he was appealing to the eye. Snyder detected a glimmer of interest in her otherwise unyielding stare and he cursed again. She found Tom’s bold yet discerning approach stimulating.
When Tom was absolutely certain that she was focussed upon him, he switched over to a different trick, making the tapered candlestick and holder that he had hidden up his sleeve seem to appear out of thin air. If he had been permitted magic, he would have ignited it by spell, but having to be more resourceful than that, he leaned over and lit it from the candle that already burned in front of her. He then placed his candle beside hers, so that they flickered side by side. In response to this, the lady cracked her first smile, ever so slight.
Snyder bit his lip in frustration. Tom was using the novelty of his situation to his advantage, rather than allowing it to hinder him. That was the difficulty of trying to play against someone who had been trained in strategic thinking since birth. They could turn your own tactics against you.
With a single hand gesture to signify his intent, and an acknowledging nod from the lady, Tom slipped agilely into the seat across from her. He had an audience now; all eyes in the room were watching his every move. He gave the lady a warm smile and she reciprocated with something a little more enthusiastic than she had offered before. She did not blush or avert her eyes the way some women might, however. She continued to gaze at him defiantly.
Tom began to play once more with the coin, accelerating the difficulty of the tricks by pulling out a second and third coin to join the first. The lady began to speak but the moment she did so, Tom snatched the coins from the air and touched a finger to his lips, gently demanding silence. She gave him a quizzical look, and a third smile, before nodding once more. She was enjoying this very non-threatening encounter. It offered whimsy without forcing her to lose her composure.
The hand flourishes were fanciful and between cycles Tom tossed a coin high into the air. Snyder noticed movement from the barman and with the second high coin toss, the server approached their table with a drink-laden tray. He held out the tray with Tom’s third toss so that the coin landed on it. Tom took the drinks, placing one before himself and the other before the lady, and then dropped the other two coins on the tray. The barman bowed and moved away.
Snyder ordered another drink himself and watched morosely as Tom and the lady sat merely looking at one another, the lovely woman fingering the stem of her glass. Her cheeks and lips were flushed now and her eyes eager. She was impressed with Tom’s display.
Their food arrived and they ate in silence, exchanging playful glances. Tom had managed to not only grab her attention and steal the privilege of her company, but they were now dining together without uttering a word. Snyder was dumfounded, and Tom was now the envy of every man there.
When there meal was done, Tom followed up with another sleight-of-hand, presenting the lady with a rose than he had whisked off of one of the tables. Snyder was puzzled as to why there was only one. He had seen Tom gather at least three of the flowers in passing. The woman took the offered flower in delicate fingers and lifted it to her nose to sample its perfume. Snyder wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw her bat her enchanting violet eyes. He definitely noticed her curl a single tress around her finger, a truly flirtatious gesture.
This was not the last of his student’s clever tricks. Tom next serenaded her with a song. He did not sing – Snyder had made it clear that was against the rules. He offered instead a whistled tune, a sweet ballad trilled to her harmoniously. She sighed, and Snyder watched her tense form relax. Tom had struck a chord with the warm-hearted girl hidden within the cold-skinned woman. She was now, for all intents and purposes, his.
The game had not been won just yet. There was still one last requirement. The woman had to willingly follow Tom up to his room. He could not manhandle her to get her there, nor could he openly express this desire by speaking the invitation. He had made a valiant effort, but Snyder believed that this was the moment where the tables would turn back in his favour.
Tom rose to his feet, something held cautiously between his closed hands. He gave the woman a gallant bow and then walked away. Snyder thought his companion was conceding defeat, until he noticed what had become of the other roses that Tom had gathered. As he slowly started up the stairs toward his room, without looking back at the lady, he trailed rose petals along his path – a silent proposition.
The woman was hesitant and Snyder thought for one brief moment that she would resist Tom’s final gesture, but apparently Tom needed neither spells nor words to lure in such pretty prey. Getting to her feet, she followed after Tom with careful steps and an air of mischief to her otherwise placid demeanour.
Snyder groaned and dropped his head onto the surface of the table. Tom was a man blessed with incredible talent.
“Another drink?” the barman offered. “Yours is almost empty.”
Snyder shook his head without lifting it.
“No, this will have to be my last,” he mumbled. “I have an interview for the Magic University Admission Trials and I’m going to need a clear head for that. I’ll be expected to perform at my best.”
When the barman had left, Snyder straightened to an upright position and glanced up the stairs. Neither Tom nor the lady had come down again. Snyder looked over at his glass with a heavy sigh. He would have to milk what was left. He had a feeling it would be some time before he would be welcome to return to his room. It would be Tom’s alone until he was done with fulfilling his proposition.