Gintario left without complaint. Jerryck’s vision returned to normal on its own. Perhaps life would normalize too. For a while. Surely it would take some time before anyone got word about the new test and come to Coraline Palace to try for the position. That dream was crushed when Masorno arrived just a few days later. He burst into the workroom, puffing and wheezing from his climb up the stairs before Jerryck had even bothered to check who had set off his alerting chimes. “I came as soon as I heard the good news!” Masorno exclaimed between gasps for air. “What good news?” “You finally agreed to finish your apprenticeship!” Masorno beamed. “All I have to do is impress a certain guard. I’ve taken enough leave of absence to stay for those two weeks and beyond, so I can still be here for the princess’s birthday gala next month. We can celebrate together! Oh, you should see how jealous Andreno was that I’ll be here for the gala and he won’t!” Jerryck marked the page in the book he’d been reading. “How did you get word of this so fast?” “Gintario and I are close friends.” Masorno plopped down on one of the stools, still drawing breath too fast. “He said it didn’t take as long to convince you as he feared, so he had some extra time available. He used some of it to pay me a visit.” “Did he tell you who has to approve your application?” “Who cares?” Masorno threw his hands up gleefully. “I can impress anyone I want. Gintario said it was just some elite guard. I can manage a mere guard.” “You think so?” “I know so.” Masorno leaned toward Jerryck. “You just point him out. I’ll get this taken care of immediately.” “Just to be fair, I should warn you—” Masorno sat straight and waved his hand negligently. “Don’t worry about it.” “All right,” Jerryck drawled slowly. No one could blame him for not trying. They went to General Heston’s office. Just as the last time Jerryck had looked for Tajor, he was on duty in the throne room during court. Just as last time, Heston asked, “Why do you need him?” “This is Masorno,” Jerryck introduced his guest. “The Shontese court magician,” Heston said. “I know who he is.” “He wants to apply to be my mentor.” “So he needs Tajor, not you. He can wait until after lunch.” “That’s perfect.” Masorno beamed, making his double chin stand out. “That will make it available for a larger audience without them being tied up in the formality of court.” “You might not want to make it a display,” Jerryck tried warning him again. “Ridiculous,” Masorno said with a snort. “This will be a chance for me to show off.” “This should be interesting,” Heston said. # Jerryck excused himself and left. Masorno followed him. Jerryck claimed duties to tend. Masorno insisted on accompanying and helping out. No matter where they went, or what excuse he was given, Masorno wouldn’t go away. And everywhere they went, he bragged about the display he planned to put on after lunch. Quite a few people said they would come and watch when he invited them. Each time, Jerryck grimaced in pity. By the time lunch ended, Masorno had generated quite an audience. Several of the more important visitors and staff clamored to come watch the test. Terrance responded by reopening the throne room for a second time that day. That accommodated the large crowd while still giving Masorno room to work. People arrived in the same finery they had worn for the morning’s session of court. Jerryck stared at them, utterly perplexed. Hadn’t they changed clothes just to eat? Why had they changed clothes again? That was a lot of extra effort just to stand around during a performance that was sure to turn into a humiliation. Of course, they didn’t know it would turn out that way. So perhaps they expected a good show. The last few people trickled in. The main doors were shut. Terrance stepped up to the marble dais where his throne rested with its gold filigrees and crimson cushions. He hadn’t changed clothes from lunch or put his crown back on. Too bad more people weren’t as sensible. Standing below and in front of him were General Heston and Tajor. Off to the side, by the banners and arms displays, stood the rest of the core staff. Jerryck wished he could join them, instead of standing right next to Masorno on the long carpet running up the middle of the room at the center of attention. Terrance raised his voice loud enough for the acoustics spell on the room to catch and amplify it, sending its echoes to the farthest corners and up to windows at the top of the two story high ceiling. “Welcome all, to this unusual occasion. Everyone knows the unique circumstances of Lord Jerryck’s credentials, or rather, the lack of them.” The crowd chuckled. There were so many people, it was like a low rumble washing over the floor. Terrance allowed them a moment of amusement. Then he held up his hands. The audience quieted, and he addressed them again. “It has been decided that he will take on a mentor who can prove himself to be one of the best in the practice. The court magician of Shontarra, Lord Masorno, is the first to take up this challenge. The judge is one of my elite guards. Lord Masorno, has Jerryck given you any warning about this man?” “No need for warning, Majesty.” Masorno’s smile stretched from ear to ear. “Bring forward this guard.” “He’s right here.” Terrance gestured to Tajor. Masorno’s smile grew taut, more like a grimace plastered on his face. His eyes bulged slightly. “Him?” “I did try to warn you,” Jerryck said. Masorno glanced at him. Then he stared at Tajor. His smile slipped off his face entirely. “That’s the man who still owes me an apology.” Tajor opened his mouth. Heston shook his head, so he closed it again. Masorno lifted his chin. “I want to hear what he has to say.” “I’ve informed him that he may not insult you until after your begin your demonstration,” Heston said. The smile crept back onto Masorno’s face. “He won’t think of any insults once I begin.” Tajor opened his mouth again, with the same result as before. Masorno cleared his throat, and spoke so loud he didn’t need the acoustics spell. “Your Majesty, lords, ladies, everyone gathered. I am Lord Masorno, the man chosen by Prince Sanbralio, the Esteemed Leader of Shontarra, to be his court magician. I was assistant to the Shontese court magician before me, until it was deemed that I would do a superior job.” “Can I say something now?” Tajor asked. “Say what you wish,” Masorno said. “You’re stupid.” A few titters rippled through the crowd. Masorno’s smile slipped again. “You have no cause to call me childish names.” “Absolutely I do.” Tajor held up one finger. “First of all, why should the opinions of other people impress me?” He added a second finger to the first. “And how do you know you got the job because you would do it better? Did the prince put that in writing? Or do you just claim that because it makes you feel superior?” “I was also the first apprentice Old Heldavio ever taught,” Masorno said. “So you were the person he made the most mistakes with?” Tajor cocked his head to one side. The crowd giggled. “I thought it was commonly known that a teacher practices on their first student because they don’t know what they’re doing as much as with later students. And what does all this have to do with your skills? Are you trying to talk everyone to death?” “Disrespect!” Masorno drew himself up and threw his shoulders back. “You’re as rude as the first time I met you!” “You think I was put in this position to be polite? Or to critique?” Tajor’s gray eyes glittered with amused mischief. Never a good sign. “If you don’t like this, do you really wish to proceed?” Masorno pursed his lips. He looked at Jerryck. Then he puffed out his chest and said to Tajor, “Jerryck is worth putting up with a few moments of your impertinence.” Tajor smirked. “Then how about you show what you can do?” “I’m going to summon an elemental,” Masorno announced with the same volume he had first used. “Are you going to say it?” Tajor asked. “Or do it?” Masorno gave Tajor an icy look. Then he held up his arms in front of himself, squeezing his eyes shut in concentration. Jerryck’s skin prickled with gathering energy. Most of it concentrated around Masorno’s hands, just as Old Heldavio had taught all his apprentices to do at the beginning of every spell. The amount of power fluctuated, expanding and contracting, until it eventually stabilized into the correct amount needed to summon and control a small elemental. Masorno muttered the initiating words of the spell so quietly that no one else could hear, another technique Old Heldavio had taught. He drew it out. As quiet as he was, he spoke so slowly he had to be pronouncing each word meticulously. He shaped the power, weaving it intricately. Then he began drawing substance in the form of air. A breeze rustled through the throne room as the spell sucked air into the space around Masorno’s hands. Excited whispers broke out as people’s clothing and hair rustled. This spell was utilized so rarely, Jerryck doubted any of them had ever seen an elemental outside of pictures in books. And here they were, witnessing the entire process. A treat even for a magician. The last time Jerryck had witnessed this had been at a convention, the first one after Old Heldavio died and Jerryck took up his job. The Gathering put on a performance to show how dangerous things could get when people stepped outside their guidelines and rules. A lot of people told Jerryck the performance was for his benefit, to encourage him to get his license. At the time, he couldn’t believe they would go to all that trouble just for one person. Now? He should have listened and taken more precautions. The shape of the elemental’s body took form, hovering just above Masorno’s upturned palms. The insides filled, swirling round and round like a tornado’s funnel cloud in miniature. Crude arms broke off the sides as the wild energy of the thing pushed against the controls Masorno exerted on it. Its eyes and mouth opened, mere slits where the swirling air left voids. Completed, it stood about four inches tall. Masorno held it up, turning around for all to see. The crowd burst into cheering applause. Masorno shifted the elemental to one palm, swept out his other arm, and gave them a low bow. His smile was plastered back on his face, despite the sweat that now dripped down his temples and jowls from the effort he had just exerted. “That’s it?” Tajor wrinkled his nose in scorn. The crowd silenced, stunned shock now on their faces. “This is impressive work.” Masorno wheezed from the energy spent. “You spoke untrue.” Tajor sneered. “You didn’t really summon it like you said.” “Yes I did.” Masorno held the creature up. “Don’t tell me I didn’t summon what you can see with your own eyes.” “I see what has the appearance of an elemental,” Tajor said. “Yet the evidence of a true elemental is lacking. You created a body out of air and wind, but it’s just a golem, under your complete control. A puppet. It can’t move if you don’t make it move. It has no mind. No will. So either you lied, or you incorrectly identified your own spell. Which are you? A liar? Or an incompetent?” “You saw the effort I put into this!” Masorno stuck out his chin, his jowls wobbling. Tajor smirked. “Are you evading the question?” “You posed the question in a way that any answer just makes me look bad.” “So evasion is acceptable if you don’t like facing truth?” “What truth?” Masorno’s voice resonated through the large chamber loud enough that the accoustics spell actually dampened it, rather than amplifying. “That I created an elemental? By the faces of the audience I’d say I impressed everyone here!” “Except the one person you intended to.” Masorno held the elemental up higher. “You saw the effort I put into this!” “And yet it’s so small.” “That’s your problem?” Masorno’s eyes bulged. More energy gathered. “Then I’ll make it bigger!” Would Masorno be able to control something bigger? He was already straining. Jerryck expanded his aura, gently stroking the edge of the magic, monitoring in a way that Masorno wouldn’t watch for. Magic poured into the elemental. The breeze picked back up as the body of the thing sucked in more air. It got to about a foot in height. Masorno set it on the floor and took two steps back. As it continued to grow, the airflow picked up speed and strength. Women put hands on their pinned hair, keeping it in place. Men tugged at their clothing as it was ruffled and disturbed. The elemental reached the height of the average man, and continued growing. The airflow turned into a gale. Masorno panted and wheezed. His entire aura flared around the spell, struggling to engulf it, to keep it controlled. Parts of it spread too thin. Even if the elemental didn’t have a mind or will of its own, it could still pose a danger. That much concentrated wind would violently whip around if it broke free. Even in as large a space as the throne room. Wall hangings would tear from their places. Light fixtures would rip from their anchors and fall into the crowd. The crystal and glass decorations would smash into shards to fly around as sharp as daggers. People would be knocked off their feet, thrown against each other, hurled against the walls, all while flying debris pummeled them. It was against protocol for one magician to step into another’s spell without invitation. To remain professional, Jerryck should allow the slip, then help clean up afterward. He clenched his fists, monitoring. Masorno still poured energy into the magic, either ignoring or unaware of the potential disaster. The elemental reached twice his height. His aura stretched taut. A stream of wind slipped through the thinnest part, and shot through the crowd. It knocked a few people off their feet. They laughed nervously as the gust dissipated. A second one slipped through. Then a third. Masorno shut off the flow of energy. Too late. His chest heaved, gulping breaths. His eyes showed while all around. His hands stretched out, fingers splayed, his aura around the elemental splitting like tearing cloth. Another burst of air shot out. This time, it whipped right to where Terrance stood in front of his throne. Jerryck threw up a magic barrier in front of his king to act as a shield. Then he lunged out an arm of aura and snagged the spear of air, batting it up where it could spread out harmlessly around the ceiling. Forget protocols. People were in danger. He spread his aura to cover the growing gaps around the elemental. He oozed his magic inside of Masorno’s, taking control. “No!” Masorno shrieked breathlessly, his aura feebly pushing against Jerryck’s. “It’s mine!” “Not if you can’t control it.” Jerryck got a firm grip on the elemental and wrested it away, jerking Masorno to his knees. The force of the magic slammed against Jerryck, nearly knocking him prone. He braced himself, concentrating on protecting Terrance and everyone else. The focus tapped into his well of strength. He funneled all the air of the body upward, squeezing and pushing from below. It raised up, higher and higher, until it was level with the windows lining the top of the room near the ceiling. There, he opened one side of his control. The air exploded out. It’s force shattered the windows, spraying glass outward. Jerryck let go, allowing all of it to blow out that window and escape up into the clouds far above. The weather and the outside environment would take care of the rest. His aura snapped back around his body, stunning him. Spent, suddenly short of breath, he sank to his knees, putting him eye to eye with Masorno. “And you thought to mentor him?” Tajor laughed. “From what I just witnessed, it ought to go the other way around. Jerryck should mentor you!” “You sabotaged me!” Masorno pointed at Jerryck, his voice and his finger both shaking. “You lost control!” Jerryck said. “You interfered!” Masorno struggled to his feet. “That’s why I lost control. You messed it up.” “If you weren’t losing control before he took over,” Tajor said, “Then why were gusts of wind slipping away from you and shooting through the crowd?” Terrance asked, “Did he impress you as someone highly skilled?” Tajor laughed. “No.” “Judgment is rendered,” Terrance announced. “This is unfair!” Masorno screamed. “You agreed to the stipulation,” Terrance said. “And I don’t like guests yelling at my staff, especially not lords on my core staff, like Jerryck. Consider yourself dismissed.” People took that as a signal the show was ended. The large main doors opened and the throng spilled out. Masorno watched everyone go with clenched teeth and fists. Jerryck got back to his feet, used one of the many side exits to avoid as many people as he could, and went back up his tower to pick up the book he had abandoned that morning. Before long, the kids were released from their afternoon class. Zev came and interrupted Jerryck’s reading. He asked so many questions about the event in the throne room that Jerryck gave up trying to learn anything from his book. The chimes rang that meant someone had entered the tower. Then Masorno shouted up the stairs, his voice carried all the way up with magic. “Jerryck! I know you’re up there! You and I are about to have some words. You better cut the attitude and straighten out! Right now!” Zev bounced on the stool he’d taken. “Is that him?” “Stay here.” Jerryck told his nephew before the boy bounced out to see who was yelling. He descended the stairs just enough to see Masorno. “I’ll have you know,” Masorno talked quieter now, “I’ll see this decision overturned.” “You want a second go at Tajor?” Jerryck asked. “That was my first thought. It would have been much easier on you. But your king refused my appeal. Wouldn’t even hear me out. He insists that the judgment is final and cannot be changed or amended. So, unless you agree right here, right now, to forgo all this foolishness and finish your apprenticeship with me, I’ll be forced to take this all the way to the Gathering of Seats.” “Good luck with that.” Jerryck started back up the stairs.