The mages arrived after a few minutes – evidently they’d been warned of their arrival in advance. The oldest was a woman with white hair tied in a tight chignon. She wore black trousers and a blue mantle atop a white woolen shirt. The headmage, surely. She had no symbolic gear to expose her rank, but there was a prickle along Toikem’s fingers. He knew she was strong.
Aside the headmage walked a man of fifty, much less imposing in Toikem’s eye. Behind them, about seven or eight unruly apprentices followed, talking, laughing and mocking. The man tried to silence them but only earned a few seconds of calm.
Toikem felt a twinge of discomfort when they started exposing the content of his saddlebags. He hadn’t been that bothered when the seneschal did so, because he couldn’t know exactly what he was looking at and how some of those things were obtained. The fifty year-old man stopped when he opened a black little purse and looked inside with a frown. He stared for some time, trying to make sense of it and the headmage soon came to his rescue.
“Woodmen’s claws and teeth,” she said out loud. The apprentices’ chatter faded quickly. The white-haired woman took out a piece from the purse and passed it amongst the students without asking for permission.
Kayla glared at her.
“What are those?” the other mage asked. He had a big reddish spike in his hand.
“They are catalysts, Professor,” Toikem humbly answered.
“Oh? What are they made of?” The mage knocked on it with his knuckles, trying to make sense of the sound.
“Copper,” Toikem replied.
A few students laughed at the simplicity of the answer. Contrary to popular belief, most mages weren’t erudite. They did not try to amass knowledge in every discipline. However, most people knew what copper looked like. A bit ashamed, the man lowered his head and put back the nail in the saddlebag.
The headmage stared at Toikem for an instant after she glanced at the spike. He nodded to confirm her suspicions and she nodded back in acknowledgement. Few people in this world knew what was embedded in the metal of these nails.
Artifacts, herbs, vials, weapons, spare scraps… Everything they carried with them was identified, named and presented to the students. Even the breed of their horses was discussed. When they were finished, even the reeve that had ordered the search had a weary look on his face.
“Some of these could be hurtful,” the headmage concluded out loud, “but they are necessary to their trade.” She made a gesture towards the entrance. “They should be welcomed in the Imperial palace.” Then, the white-haired woman walked up to Toikem and smiled at him. “My name is Nell Aubevent.”
“Headmage,” he replied with a bow.
“You were well taught, Toikem. When the Duke of Vertcol recommended you and your sister,” she saluted Kayla at that instant, “I wasn’t convinced. But you seem to be well prepared. Did you complete your apprenticeship?”
Toikem did not know how to answer the question. He had received a very thorough instruction but he had never been properly examined. In fact, there had never been a mention of him becoming a mage or anything of the sort. He was still trying to find a way to explain his situation using only a few words when Aubevent spoke again.
“I would be delighted to learn what you know about imprecations. This is a field of study often neglected but I believe our current situation demonstrates its importance. The domestics will show you to the laboratory if you ever accept this invitation.”
He bowed down again when she took her leave and received an amused look from his sister.
“Isn’t she a wee bit too young for you?” Kayla whispered to him.
Toikem pursed up his lips but did not reply. He usually liked his sister’s wits, but the woman he had just met was an important mage, a wise woman who had shown interest in his own craft. What he wanted now was to be proud, not to laugh about it and pretend she was flirting with him rather than complimenting him.
He realized what Kayla had been telling him for two months now. He had been grimmer than usual, and it had only worsened with time. During their travel from Blue Tower to the palace, they had barely spoken. Every night, when they camped, Kayla had talked to Aleander while he was trying to sleep. He finally pinpointed why he had so much trouble being open. There was something he wanted to say and that he couldn’t – something that made everything else sound irrelevant.