Guests both foreign and domestic flocked to Coraline Palace. Princess Nita’s fifteenth birthday fast approached, the birthday that would put her over the threshold from child to adult, the last one she would celebrate openly. Guest rooms filled in the palace, all over Kershet, and on country estates, as preparations went into full swing. More magicians came with the guests. None of them humiliated themselves nearly as bad as Masorno. All of them failed to impress Tajor. Jerryck did his best to stay out of everyone’s way. Despite that, people kept seeking him out. Could he enhance the flavor of this spice? Could he change the color of that table dressing? Could he temporarily make this decorative piece lighter so less people could lift it? Could he strengthen the ties on that wall hanging? Everyone ran around as if a pack of leshies had been let loose and allowed to run amok. Guests jockeyed for rooms. Every building filled to capacity, making prices soar. Tailors, jewelers, boutiques, and even souvenir shops sold wares so fast the products might have been carrion meat flung to dogs. When the big day arrived, Nita sequestered herself in her chambers, as noble traditions dictated. She had until noon to prepare. The ballroom filled. Guests mingled throughout the morning in anticipation of her entrance. Finally, her introductory music played and the herald announced her. She entered at the top of the stairway to the balcony above, and began her descent. A necklace that spread to drape over her shoulders matched her earrings and small tiara. Her dress, simply cut, was just long enough to brush the floor. Just like every other ball she had ever attended. Jerryck looked around at everyone else. For some reason, they all reacted differently than they ever had. Young women compared her hair, clothes, and jewelry to their own. All the young men’s eyes bulged and they practically drooled through open mouths. Older people whispered how much she looked like her mother. One person pointed out that no matter how much she looked like the late queen, she had her father’s eyes. Terrance glowed with pride as he met her at the bottom of the staircase. Following tradition, he dressed as formally as his father ever had, wearing all the trappings of his position. He took her hand to guide her last step down to the floor and said, “Welcome to the fist day of the rest of your life.” Everyone else echoed him. She beamed at them all. The young men goggled even more than before. With this birthday, she became an eligible woman. Even though most women waited until they were twenty before they married, no one would call her a girl after this. The traditions of commoners were much simpler. When a commoner reached the age of adulthood, people gave them gifts. If they could afford it, they had a feast. Then everyone got on with their workday. There was very little of the boring pomp and ritual that nobles insisted on. As much as Jerryck preferred the simplicity of commoner customs, he had learned not to say as much in as formal a setting as this. It never got him out of attending, as he used to hope for. All it ever did was upset people and earn him a scolding from Terrance or a tongue lashing from Nita. So he held his peace and let the events carry on around him. Terrance led Nita over to the luncheon tables, where servants had laid out finger foods in aesthetic displays. She sampled a bite of her first meal as an adult. She took her first sip of wine. Then her father swept her out onto the dance floor for the first dance of her adulthood. Throughout the afternoon, she followed tradition enough to share one dance with every unwed man in attendance. After that, she pointedly ignored them all. They eventually gave up trying to impress her. Instead, they divided their time between trying to catch the eyes of other young women, bragging to each other, dodging razing comments from their friends, and stuffing as much food as possible into their mouths. The young women grouped together to move back and forth around the ballroom in packs, like flocks of noisy, migrating geese. They giggled everywhere they went, especially if there was a young man nearby trying to impress them. They didn’t hide how they mocked other groups of girls, talking about how stupid they were, and how out of fashion they were, even though to Jerryck they looked and acted almost exactly the same. Servants kept the food and drink flowing. Musicians rotated in and out. Other entertainers performed between musical numbers and dances. The afternoon waned. Desserts, sweetmeats, and candies were set out about the time the sun set and the chandeliers were lit. When midnight finally rolled around, everyone under the age of fifteen was sent to bed. Nita was allowed to stay up. Another first. Before a quarter of an hour had passed, she yawned, and excused herself anyway. That meant any of the guests could also leave the party, even though the night was only half past. Jerryck took the opportunity to make his escape. With guests going to bed, some of the servants could also quit working. He snagged his pretty Leanne out of the kitchens and kept her all to himself for a few precious hours. She was much better company than anyone else in that entire crowd that had partied in the ballroom. # Normally after a large gala, the guests would linger for a week or two. This time, the weather scryers predicted the first of the autumn rains. Within two days, people packed up and left, trying to beat the weather. By the beginning of the next week, only three of the party guests remained. The pregnant wife of one of the northern premieres went into labor, so the couple stayed while Leanne took up her midwifing duties. The other guest was the highest ranking unwed man in Brend, who was not his father’s heir. Rumors flew. Some people swore the Processions had begun with this young man. Others swore they hadn’t, because noble heirs tended to wait until their twentieth birthday, not their fifteenth. The first group claimed that was the very reason the Processions had begun. The sooner someone was selected, the more time Terrance had to train the young man for the throne, making sure he was fit before he married Nita at twenty. Which was ridiculous. Terrance had always stated that Nita would take his place, not some future son-in-law. Why didn’t people take him at his word? Jerryck received a summons to the next weekly staff meeting. He usually found any excuse necessary to skip them. So when Terrance specifically summoned him for one, he had no choice. He debated trying to sit in the back, until Heston glared at him. He went to the dais and slipped into his seat as unobtrusively as possible. There was a paper laying on the table, turned over so the writing faced down. Every seat for the core staff had some sort of paper except Terrance, Nita, and Lalven. Some people were handed papers as they entered: Head Medic Kellos, the theater director, the stable master, and the head chef, among many others. Most of the members of the core staff entered one by one and took their seats. Chamberlain Malk looked at the Priad’s empty seat and asked, “Where’s Lalven?” “With Terrance,” Heston answered. He had a whole stack of papers at his seat, not just one. He hadn’t hesitated to delve into them. “I’m surprised he’s not already here telling us how to proceed,” Malk said. “You’ve got more of a surprise than that coming,” Heston said. Terrance entered with Nita. All conversation in the room stopped. A few more people darted in behind him and quickly took seats with the general staff. Terrance strode up to the dais and dropped another stack of papers down on the table with a short snap while Nita slipped behind it to take her seat. “We have a lot to go over, so let’s get started,” Terrance began. All heads turned to Lalven’s empty chair. Terrance said, “I have released Lalven from my employ. He has a letter of severance from me, and a letter of recommendation to assist him in finding employment elsewhere. He is currently putting his affairs in order, and has one week to vacate Coraline Palace.” Collective gasps went around the room. Terrance waited for a few moments. When the cacophony rose instead of dying down, he held up his hands for quiet. When everyone complied, he said, “When I turned fifteen, my father restructured the staff to mesh with me. I’m doing the same for my daughter.” One of the older secondary advisers stood, the gesture for requesting permission to speak. Terrance nodded at him. The adviser said, “Majesty, is this wise? Your father did that because he was old. He didn’t know how much longer he would be alive, how long you would have to learn to take his place. You’re not old. You should have many, many years before your daughter marries and her husband takes your place.” Terrance narrowed his eyes at the man. “I will say this one last time: My daughter will take my place. No one else.” “The law says that anyone on the throne must have the capacity to produce a legitimate heir. That means marriage. And what she inherits will go to her husband.” “I just terminated Lalven’s employment because he couldn’t accept that Nita will rule from the throne,” Terrance said. He stood still as a statue, his knuckles whitening where he clasped his hands in front of himself. “If you wish the same treatment, by all means, continue to dispute the issue.” The whispering started back up. The old secondary adviser sat down, his jaw set. Jerryck rested his chin on his palm, hand over his mouth, covering his smile. Finally, Terrance was putting this matter permanently to rest. People could stop going on about it. One of the steward’s assistants rose. Terrance nodded at him. The man said, “What of the rumors that the Processions have started?” “Lalven began the Processions without my permission,” Terrance said. “Since no Processions have ever ceased without an engagement, they will continue. Which is unfortunate. It automatically disqualifies any of the young men visiting in the next few years. I had intended to wait until she was twenty. For now, she will be spending her time adjusting to her new, adult responsibilities. She’ll have no time to be hostess to guests. “Now, enough of that.” Terrance unclasped his hands to casually wave the matter aside. “On to better things. You each have been handed documentation concerning this restructuring. While Lalven is the only person terminated at this point in time, others of you will retire. All those currently in the positions you held when my father restructured for me, you are in that category. If you wish, and if approved, there is the likelihood that you will stay on the staff in an advisory capacity to the position you’re vacating.” Papers rustled louder than the previous whispers as everyone looked at their documentation. Terrance raised his voice over the noise. “Any of you not listed as retiring may have that option. If you feel incompatible with Nita, if you feel you’ll be too old by the time she ascends the throne, or anything else, document your reason. Bring it to me. We’ll discuss it.” Jerryck’s paper said that if he tried to put in a resignation, it would be denied. Farther down it instructed him to acquire an apprentice. That was the issue Terrance addressed next. “Once we complete the restructuring, all of you in lead positions will take on an apprentice, if you don’t already have one. If you have a particular individual in mind for that position, but they’re not yet fifteen, you may slate them for future apprenticeship.” That made it easy for Jerryck. He could slate his nephew. That way he wouldn’t have to take on any of the candidates the other magicians had pushed at him. He could probably start teaching the boy right away. Heldavio had taught Jerryck right away, even though he hadn’t been fifteen. Actually, shortly after Terrance had turned fifteen was when Heldavio had slated Jerryck for apprenticeship. He had gone to the village where Jerryck grew up and brought him and Kendra to live at the palace. It must have been due to the restructuring Terrance had mentioned. “All personnel,” Terrance was saying, “already serving or new, including apprentices, must meet Nita’s approval.” “Me?” Nita put her hand on her chest, and murmurs went around the room again. “Yes,” Terrance told her. “You need to approve if they’re going to mesh with you.” The meeting went on with other details while Jerryck tried not to look too bored. Nita was assigned her own office. Anyone looking for an apprentice had to submit a written request to her for approval. Anyone retiring could submit suggestions for their replacement to her. It might be nice to have an apprentice, someone to help with mundane chores. Plenty of non-magical tasks fell under Jerryck’s responsibilities. Keeping the supplies organized, grinding herbs and powders, researching recipes and methods, keeping tabs on the status of other magicians in the country, taking requests from palace residents, greeting visiting magic-users. Wait. If people no longer believed Jerryck was looking for an apprentice, he couldn’t use that as an excuse to look for an unknown magic-user. When Terrance dismissed the general staff and the remainder of the core staff went into the small council chamber, Terrance must have noticed Jerryck’s mood. He asked, “What’s wrong?” “When I started looking for an unknown magic-user, I told everyone I was looking for an apprentice,” Jerryck said. He sat at the table and stared at his hand on the flawless surface. “If I already have one, I can’t be looking.” “We’ll address that update first then.” Terrance sat in his chair at the head of the table for once, instead of standing through the meeting. “Heston, if you please.” Heston remained standing. “That group of foreigners Andreno is associated with… We have lead on their possible location. There’s an old, abandoned castle on the border between the Larksen and Shana districts. They may have taken up residence there.” “Larkeshan Castle,” Jerryck said. Everyone turned to look at him. But it was his job to know about things like this. So rather than try and deflect the attention, he carried on. “It’s cursed.” “I know,” Heston said. “So do the locals.” “They better know,” Jerryck said. “Because they have to maintain it anyway. If it ever falls, so will both those districts, unless they’ve come back together as one. That’s the only thing that will break that curse.” “If they have to maintain it,” Nita said, “then why wouldn’t they have people living there to do so.” “Because anyone living there also falls under the curse,” Jerryck said. “Whatever they endeavor they pursue will ultimately fail.” “Would that cause the locals to resist talking about someone taking up residence?” Heston asked. “How should I know why people do what they do?” Jerryck threw his hands up. “People confuse me. Someone lives there now?” “According to rumors just outside the immediate local vicinity,” Heston said. “There’s a village a few miles away from it…” Jerryck interrupted him. “That’s where they have their festival every few years when both the districts get together to make any repairs that are needed.” “They toss distractions to anyone asking about current residents in the castle and refuse to talk about it,” Heston said. “No matter how many people swear its now occupied.” “By foreigners?” Chamberlain Malk steepled his fingers. “From where? Since when?” “Working on that,” Heston said. “So far, I have very little information. Most of this rumored group have fair features, like people in the Chemwanitz. But their language is strange, guttural. And they have odd, magical devices that no one has ever seen anything like before.” Jerryck sat forward. “Magic devices?” “Can you think of anyone who works with magic on mechanical devices?” Heston asked him. “Hmm…” Jerryck pulled on his lower lip, mentally going over different magicians and their areas of expertise. “No one immediately comes to mind. The Gathering of Seats frowns on mixing mechanics and spells. The closest I’ve seen to that type of magic is alchemists, or some of the magic-users of south of the Ahnjwat Sea.” Malk frowned. “I thought they worked more with demons that far south.” “They do.” Jerryck nodded. “But some of them also work with magic on mechanical devices. I met one man who had a spell on a cheap metal slug that made it light up and glow if you spun it on its side and—” “Understood,” Heston interrupted him. “So it could be someone from there, if it weren’t for the fair features these people are supposed to have. You can’t think of anyone with fair features who does this type of magic?” “The only fair featured people I know of are from the mountains and the northern tundra,” Jerryck said. “The mountains use shamanism, which focuses on the magic from the land. The people from the tundra rely on totems, animal magic. No mechanical spells for either of them.” “What’s the likelihood,” Terrance said, “that whoever tainted the water is the same person putting these spells on mechanical items?” “Different kinds of magic,” Jerryck replied, shaking his head. “You do different kinds of magic,” Heston said. “Every kind of magic I do is affected by every other type of magic I have the ability to do,” Jerryck tried to explain. “For instance, I work best with elements and manipulations. When I do healings, a lot of times I end up manipulating the water that’s carried inside a person’s body to help. The taint poured into the river was a perversion of almost pure elemental magic. Putting spells on mechanical devices is something altogether different. And I didn’t get any sense in the river of the kind of effect that type of magical ability would create.” “So possibly we’re looking at two different magic-users?” Terrance asked. “Harder to hide more than one person,” Heston said. “And you have very little information on this group,” Terrance said. “Which supports my statement,” Heston replied. “If that group has more than one magic-user, it makes it more likely we’d have more information about them.” “Get more information,” Terrance said. Heston nodded once. The meeting moved on.