The yearly spectacle of fools, otherwise known as the trial of the apprentice, was about to begin. Princess Stardell watched the three who stood by the wall waiting to be called forward. They didn't look promising, but this wasn't a surprise. The King had been looking for an apprentice for years now and the only spectacle so far had been how spectacularly bad the applicants had proven to be.
Silence filled the hall as the king gave the signal and the three mages stepped forward. The king gave a nod that showed neither pleasure nor hope. No surprise there, Princess Stardell thought. The High Mage Lien wanted desperately to retire before he was too old to enjoy his last summers at a fishing pond, but she feared it wasn't going to happen. He stood to Stardell's left, looking bleak.
Stardell thought she might slip away early from the show. Unfortunately the Queen, who always seemed to know what her daughter was thinking, gave her that raised eyebrow stare so Stardell stopped inching her way towards the curtain. Mother had a magic all her own and Stardell knew better than to cross it. Huron, the Crown Prince, had volunteered to visit Great Aunt Princess Agatha this month, which only went to prove how excruciatingly boring this could be.
At least this year they were quicker to get to the magic than usual. For once the applicants seemed to have taken the king at his word about wanting this to be over before nightfall.
The first mage was much as she expected, except maybe she had a worse temperament than usual. The woman stomped up to the place of honor and faced the king with a brief, almost impolite bow. She was short, stocky and possibly older than Lien himself.
She also nearly killed them all when she called up her 'tame' firestorm. Lien, who stood next to Stardell, sighed and gave a twitch of his fingers, putting the magic back into the shape of a ball, balanced on the woman's hand.
"Yes! See, Great King, what devastation I could wreak upon your enemies."
"Yes, quite . . . astounding," King Milden said, wiping a bit of ash from his lap. Stardell looked up and saw scorch marks on the ceiling. That was a new one. No one had actually done damage to the palace before.
The woman bowed again and stalked back to her place in line. She looked smug.
"Delusional," Lien sighed. Stardell nodded agreement.
The next person called up a gargoyle, and the creature promptly killed the mage. Lien sent it back home with an apology and some gold.
The last of the group had seemed rather a non-entity to Stardell. Tall, lanky and probably not much out of his teens, he didn't seem like someone the eastern realm would send for the annual competition. He nearly tripped on his robe as he crossed to the place of honor. He did give the king a very nice bow and even repeated it for the queen, which was unexpected. Most people tended to ignore the outsider, the foreign woman who had married the king for dynastic reasons.
Stardell noted how he smiled as he lifted his hands.
He cast magic that spun, swelled and circled into a vision of light. Music came with it; bells and drums and the sounds of birds and rain so that for a few brief moments, Stardell -- and everyone else in the room -- seemed to have been transported to somewhere, well, magical.
All too soon the colors swirled and stars brightened and disappeared as the magic swept back to his hand and disappeared again.
He gave bows again to the king and queen, and then started to turn away.
"That was . . . astonishing," the king said. The boy stopped and looked back, startled. "Whatever made you decide to do something so creative?"
"We aren't at war," he replied, his voice soft. He had a nice border accent. "We haven't been for over a decade. I don't think magic should only be used for destruction. Surely creation is as important." He moved his hand and a butterfly made of light lifted from his palm and fluttered around the room before it spread outward into a starry sky that filled the ceiling. She wasn't the only one who made appreciative sounds.
"And what good is it, eh?" the woman mage demanded. "Can't stop a ravening horde with pretty lights and music!"
The fool lifted her hand and brought up fire again, which got out of control in the next breath, but the boy simply waved a hand and destroyed the fire even faster than Lien could react.
"Well. My," the older mage mumbled.
The king glanced over at Lien.
"Oh yes. Absolutely," Lien said with several nods of his head so that his gray hair all but bounced on his shoulders. "And I want to know how you synchronized the music with the lights, young man. Do you have luggage with you? Come along, come along. Best to get you settled in right away --"
"Pardon?" the boy said, looking from king to Lien and back again.
"It would be polite to say he's been accepted, you know," the queen said with a laugh.
"I didn't -- I never expected --" he said, startled and clearly disbelieving. Stardell found that she rather liked him.
"Welcome to the palace," the king said and stood, going over to take the startled boy's hand. "Thank you for saving me from another year of this madness. Lien would like to speak with you now. I'm sure you'll both have plenty to discuss."
Lien came over and took the boy by the arm, already asking questions faster than the new apprentice could answer. The poor guy looked startled and half lost. Stardell decided she'd just go along with the two and help out. At least he looked like someone interesting to know.
She suspected life was going to get a bit more interesting at the palace.
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