I set my suitcase down and gave Ifrey a scratch on the head. The big, grey bird looked at me with a withering look, but took the scratches in spite of it. He hated broom travel, and if it was anything like last time, he would be mad for days.
“Well I’m sorry, Ifrey, but it’s still the best way to get here.”
He bit my finger. I cursed at the bird, and he stuck his beak up at me. Of course I had to go with a parrot for a familiar instead of a cat or a crow. That’s what you got for trying to be less of a stereotypical witch.
“He’s still temperamental, I see.”
The voice belonged to a man standing on the path to the Manor. Gabriel was a big, broad-shouldered guy, the organiser of the Moonlight Tournament; though he wasn’t averse to greeting participants at the door or doing housework.
“Hi Gabriel. Yeah, I’m considering buying a cat to play with him.” Ifrey bit my ear. “Ow, I’m kidding. Stop that.”
My grey friend settled down, but only after giving me a glare. Gabriel walked down to shake my hand.
“It’s good to see you, Genevieve. Introductions are in the drawing room as always. I’ll bring your luggage to your usual room. Should I take Ifrey as well?”
“Thanks, Gabe. And yes, by all means – take his highness to his perch.”
Gabriel hoisted the suitcase up and Ifrey flew to his shoulder, but only after sending me another angry glare. I made my way up the staircase after the two of them. There was always a sense of reverence to walking up these stairs, a feeling of awe. I felt the same walking up these steps as I had seven years ago; I had always known that this was what my life had been building up to.
I walked across the creaky floorboards of the entryway, straight to the drawing room where a small group of people were gathered. Isadora, with her bright, red hair and dangling earrings saw me first, and her face lit up in a smile. Next to her, her partner Orion sent me a small wave and ran a ghostly hand through his hair. Even though I knew he was a ghost now and had been for close to two years, it was still weird seeing him like that.
“So good of you to join us, Genevieve,” Isadora said. “Everyone, this is last year’s favourite and our reigning champion. Please, sit down.”
Muttered greetings reached me, and I strolled in to sit down by the only other person I knew. Celeste only peeked at me shortly, nodded, and settled back in her seat. Tall, blonde, and slim with flowing red robes and bright lipstick, she looked nothing like a head fairy hunter or a talented witch. People always thought she was vapid and she had used that perception of her to good effect before I started participating in the tournament.
I made myself comfortable in the sofa. Isadora and Orion were going over rules and regulations for the tournament to the newcomers, but I knew them by heart so I took this chance to ask something of Celeste that I had wondered about.
“Last year’s favourite,” I whispered, eyeing the others. “I’m not the council’s favourite to win this year?”
“Oh, you haven’t heard?” Celeste smirked at me, removing a lock of blonde hair from her face.
Every year, the Council picked someone they thought was most likely to win. They weren’t always right, as had been the case in my first year. I raised an eyebrow at Celeste.
“So, it’s you this year?”
“Goodness, no. That would be Tall, dark, and brooding over there.”
She made a gesture towards a man I hadn’t noticed before. He was, indeed, talk, dark, and looked out the window in a brooding manner. When he noticed my gaze on him, he glanced briefly and nodded, then continued pondering the landscape beyond the window.
Celeste whispered: “He’s from the Hazan family.”
I cocked my head. “As in Murad Hazan?”
Murad Hazan was, if not famous, then at least well-known. He was all-around talented, but most known in alchemical circles. He died some years ago.
“The very same family, but like I said – nobody’s heard of this one. Apparently he’s not after fame and fortune like the rest of them. And now he’s suddenly come to beat you.”
“We’ll see about that.”
So, I wasn’t the Council favourite this year. It wasn’t the first time, though I’d been a consistent favourite for the past five years.
“I think the tides are turning,” Celeste said. “Your dark reign is coming to an end, Thorne. After six years, the people will finally be liberated.”
I put a hand to my chest, gasping.
“Dark reign? I’ll have you know my reign is harsh, but fair.”
Celeste smiled. “Good to see you again.”
“Shall we do introductions?” Orion asked, once Gabriel had returned. Celeste and I stopped whispering to listen, as attention went to us first.
“As I mentioned this is Ms. Genevieve Thorne, our reigning champion, and Ms. Celeste Aura, a tournament veteran. Mr. Amin Hakim,” Orion pointed to the other man in the room, a guy with friendly eyes and black hair. He smiled and nodded to everyone enthusiastically before Orion pointed to the next person: A young redhead who was more subdued, but smiling as brightly. She had on a colourful dress, and a smattering of freckles decorated her face. “Ms. Cloris Autumn. And of course, this year’s council favourite: Mr. Nadir Hazan.”
Tall, dark, and brooding turned and gave a small bow of his head. I took a good look at him: his long hair was tied back with a few locks falling over his eyes. He was dressed in dark clothes, completing the brooding image. If it was part of his tactic, it wasn’t unheard of for the tournament: Present a strong, relatable personality that could lure in votes for the two voter disciplines. It always helped if you were a handsome man – the young, female witches liked that. He made only a curt bow as we all greeted him, and then turned away again. I wondered if the Council Favourite was as good at magic as he was at this act.
Orion told us that we could get to know the others while they prepared lunch, and then he drifted out through the wall. Isadora was about to follow him, but Gabriel steered her towards the door before she could connect with solid bricks.
Celeste went straight for Cloris and Amin. The brooding favourite darted out the door, so I followed her. We shook hands with the two newcomers and quizzed them about what they did and had done. He was a diviner and she had just graduated from St. Fréver’s; hardly the best magic academy, but they had a good reputation.
“I’m surprised to see a diviner participate,” Celeste said. “Generally, you don’t use direct magic in your profession.”
“Yes, we’re trying to change that,” Amin said. “We’re aware that divining is less magic intensive. And less studied than other disciplines.”
Not to mention: most people didn’t even believe divining was a real thing. It was, at best, unreliable and at worst a complete waste of time. I didn’t say that out loud, however tempted I was – Celeste wouldn’t approve.
“I meant no offense,” Celeste said. “I’m sure most diviners are apt at direct magic.”
Not likely. Once again, I didn’t say anything, and not only because Celeste shot me a warning look out of the corner of her eye. After all these years she still didn’t trust me to not be an idiot.
“None taken,” Amin said.
Cloris asked him about his duties, and I zoned out of the conversation. My mind drifted to the disciplines ahead, only shortly dwelling on the fact that they let a diviner participate.
Orion called us to lunch an hour later and the whole flock of witches sat down to eat. I ate quickly and voraciously, as always.
“This is so good,” Cloris said from another table, acting like a voice for the whole room. Murmurs of agreement went up around her.
“Thank you,” Orion said.
Dying and becoming a ghost hadn’t changed the fact that he was an excellent cook. He only needed Gabriel or Isadora for tasting. Despite the fact that he didn’t eat, he still joined us at the table, pushing around food on his plate. He said it made him feel more comfortable with the afterlife.
When choosing a seat, I had made a beeline for Nadir Hazan. He sat quietly, eating only little, and took the barrage of questions from me and Celeste with a stiff upper lip:
“Have you ever applied to be a contestant before?”
“Do you have associations with the council?”
“What academy did you go to?”
“Oh, you had a master, then?”
His answers remained short and just barely polite. As soon as he had finished his meal, he stood up and left with only a little bow and a complement to the cook. Amin looked over from his table.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing personal.”
I looked at him.
“Oh, I didn’t think so. It’s the spirit of the competition. He’s the favourite and I’m the champion. He wants to avoid me spying on him.”
“It’s nothing of the sort,” Amin assured me. “He’s like that with everyone – he’s brilliant with magic, but not so much with people. I think I’m the only person he’s talked to for any length of time in years.”
“So you know each other?” Cloris said.
Amin shrugged. “Only barely. I met him a few times while purchasing alchemy ingredients. He advised me not to buy mandrakes at a place in a small town back home. I did it anyway, and they were dreadful. I sought him out for advice after that, and whatever he says is always solid. I can’t say we’re friends, but he tolerates my company more than most, I should think.”
“So he’s fond of alchemy,” I said with a smile at Amin. “What about yourself?”
He laughed. “Hoping to gain an advantage over the competition?”
I shrugged. “Hardly, I have many advantages already. I’m only curious.”
“Genevieve’s greatest advantage is her modesty,” Celeste said, taking a sip of her drink.
I practically rolled away from the table; you couldn’t leave Orion’s meals without eating at least two slices of pie. I felt a bit sick as I walked up to my room, but it was worth it. And regardless, I wanted to do a practise round on the broom for tomorrow.
Gabriel had left my suitcase and the angry ball of grey feathers that glared at me when I entered. I gave his head a little scratch anyway and received another bite for my efforts.
“It’s not my fault they don’t have a teleportation route set up,” I said to him, waving my aching finger. “At least I didn’t put you in the suitcase. I will next time, you know.”
He squawked and turned his back on me. His highness really would have liked if they had set up teleportation anchors all the way here just for him. Honestly, I wouldn’t have used it even if they had done that – it was much better to warm up the broom for the race. Now that I summoned it again and ran my hand over the handle, I could still feel the humming after the long trip here. Teleportation spells were great and all, but there was nothing quite like using brooms. They were living and breathing, working in symbiosis with their rider.
My broom already hummed with excitement for the coming practise round, so I wasted no time in going outside.
Throughout the house, the other contestants were preparing for the days ahead. Celeste had a heavy alchemical tome in her lap and was already looking frazzled as she wrestled with her least favourite discipline. Cloris Autumn practiced what looked like transformation, based on her gestures. She occasionally whispered with Amin, who had had a large tome of his own; another alchemy lexicon.
Nadir Hazan was nowhere to be seen, until I went outside and found him standing by the road. He looked like he was ready for broom riding as well.
“If it isn’t this year’s council favourite,” I said as I neared him.
He turned, a flash of panic lighting up his eyes before he saw that it was just me. Then he was straight back to staring out into nothing.
“Genevieve,” I corrected him. “Are you going to take a turn as well?”
I Smiled at him. “A little race?”
“Come on,” I said. “If you beat me, I’ll give you a few tips. I have won the broom race six years in a row, after all.”
“All right.” He fiddled with a loose thread in his sleeve. “Which route?”
“I’m thinking the one for tomorrow. Do you have it memorised?”
We summoned our brooms, and I studied him while getting my own ready. It looked like he knew what he was doing. His posture was good, if a little stiff, he had a firm grip that wasn’t too firm, and the broom looked well-kept; all hints to why the Council chose him. It would be interesting to see him in action.
“Ready?” Another nod. “In that case, I’m counting down from three.” Nod. “Three…”
Our eyes met, but then I turned my gaze to the road.
I cleared my mind of everything but the broom.
My broom soared ahead of Hazan’s. The wind howled in my ears and whipped my hair. I made a soft turn down the next stretch of the road, making good time ahead of him. I knew this road like the back of my hand and I sped up and slowed down almost without thinking.
Hazan was right behind me, though, and he almost overtook until we made it to a sharp turn. He had to slow down to avoid storming off the road, while I took the corner with no problem and stormed ahead. I sped up to max, taking the rest of the lap with ease.
By the time I made it back, he was several seconds behind. He joined me and gave me another of his little nods.
“Very well done,” he said.
“Thanks. You’re not so bad yourself.”
We sent away our brooms and made our way back to the house. He held the door open to me.
“Your turns are too sharp,” I told him when we were back in the house.
He cocked his head. “Oh?”
“It was very close. Whenever you see a bend in the road, you should slow down ahead of time. It’ll lose you speed, but in the end you’ll gain when your opponents have to slow down in the turn.”
“Thank you, but I lost.”
“It was close,” I said.
He bowed at me.
“In that case, thank you, Genevieve.”
“Nadir,” he corrected, something like a smile on his face. “Thank you for the race.”
I watched him make his way up the staircase to the bedrooms. Celeste came out of the drawing room.
“Is he any good?” She motioned to Nadir.
“Better than you?”
“He almost beat me.”
Celeste laughed like an evil witch from a fairy tale. “Queen of darkness, your end is nigh.”
“I said almost.”
Hi all! Welcome to the story proper 🙂 It’s so weird to finally be publishing this after working on it all alone for so long. The process has been so different as well – like I said after the prologue, the title was different until the day before I even posted that, and this chapter was renamed today – my old names just don’t seem to want to stick for this one. It’s an all around strange experience, but I hope you enjoy this and that you’ll receive my characters well – they’re such darlings to me, I don’t even know how others would receive them by now. Anyway, thanks a lot for reading and have an awesome weekend!
Bonus: That image of Ifrey the parrot being a total sass master was supposed to just be a fun bonus pic, but then I liked it so much I threw it in.