|Cover by Fiona Jayde|
Glittering gemstone crystals lay heaped several feet high in the center.
A queen’s ransom.
“Has this test been explained to you?” asked an elderly adept.
Caitlyn pointed at the table. “Something about the crystals?”
Bradana closed her eyes for a moment, brow furrowed as if she had a headache. Opening her eyes to glare at Caitlyn, the princess said, “We’re wasting our time here. Apparently we fielded a team of Searchers who must have been drunk or addled.” She took a goblet from one of the pages and sipped the ruby beverage delicately, keeping her eyes on Caitlyn.
Ylain frowned, the expression ill suiting her sweet, placid face. “She’s here, she deserves her chance to show us what she can do.”
“Thank you, your highness,” Caitlyn said.
Nodding, the younger princess leaned forward on her chair. “You must use your power to levitate the crystals and cast them on the altar sands, making a picture for us. Any picture will do. We discern from how the crystals respond to your will and what you do with them where your talents manifest. Then we know how best to train you for our mutual benefit.”
“Searchers should have explained all this to her,” Bradana said, rubbing her forehead before draining the wine from her goblet and slamming the cup down. “We waste time, sister. There’s an entire room full of more likely applicants waiting.”
Ylain kept talking, as if she was accustomed to ignoring complaints from Bradana. “Your power must fit into the harmonious composition the Witch Queen uses to cast her spells or it isn’t worth our time to work with you.”
Pleased to see her hands weren’t trembling, Caitlyn rested her fingertips lightly on the table’s rim. “Thank you for the explanation, your highness. I’ll do my best.” The unexpected test was going to be a problem no one foresaw at home when the plans were laid. Caitlyn’s power spoke to and worked through the energies of living things. Suppressing a shudder, she ran one hand through the closest haphazard stack of faceted gemstones. Cold, dead, no spark of life. They might as well be pebbles in the road for all the use they were to her. The sparkling stones were primarily in red and purple hues although she noticed some flashes of green and yellow. Those maybe she could influence.
“We don’t have all day to await your pleasure, bumpkin.” Bradana’s voice was icy and several of her ladies in waiting tittered behind their fans.
Closing her eyes, Caitlyn visualized a flower garden, with purple iris and red roses, lush green grass underfoot and golden sunlight illuminating the entire scene. The best I can do with this material. Holding the picture of the garden in the center of her mind’s eye, she opened her physical eyes and stared at the pile of gems. As if there’d been a mild earthquake, vibrations ran through the gleaming heap. The stones slipped apart from each other, rising to float an inch or two above the table. She held them suspended with her power and attempted to move them as a group from the table to the waiting altar sand a few feet away. The mass of gems flowed sluggishly through the air, stones dropping out here and there, crashing on the floor as she failed to maintain her hold on all of them. Caitlyn’s whole body felt rigid, stress thrumming in her nerves and pounding behind her temples as she battled self-doubt and fear of failure. Never before had the use of magic been an ordeal.
The door creaked open and then crashed shut behind her, the unexpected noise making her flinch. All the stones fell to the ground in a rainbow shower accompanied by discordant musical notes.
To keep herself from falling, Caitlyn locked her knees and slumped against the table, nausea rising in her gut. Have she failed so early in her quest? What thrice damned servant of the Shadow interrupted me?
The new arrival was the Witch Queen herself, walking to the empty throne, flanked by ladies in waiting and guards, trailed by the shapeshifter. “I’ve come to watch your trial, woman from Ordlathus,” she said.
“Too late, sister, she failed most spectacularly. As might have been foretold.” Bradana’s face bore a look of satisfaction like a cat who’d devoured a succulent songbird.
The triumph on the princess’s face spurred Caitlyn to protest. “I—I was distracted by the slamming of the door, your majesty.”
Scowling, Bradana shook a finger at her. “A true adept, even untrained, would never be taken off task by noise. You failed.” She handed the empty goblet to the smirking captain, who refilled it to the brim from a nearby carafe.
“I wasn’t finished.” Caitlyn dug her nails into the varnished wood under her hands. Her mission couldn’t end in this dismal fashion – there was too much at stake for Ordlathus. She opened her mouth to beg for a second chance but Princess Ylain was already speaking for her.
“She was in the middle of moving the crystals after all. I propose we let her complete the effort and then we’ll know beyond a doubt.” Nibbling at a frosted pink pastry, the royal brushed crumbs from her lap.
“Fair enough.” Apparently the Witch Queen was pleased to agree. She sat on the throne, her guards and ladies arranging themselves in a grouping according to rank. Caitlyn couldn’t help but notice the shapeshifter stayed aloof from the group, leaning against the wall, a bit removed from where the Queen sat. He crossed his arms as if bored.
Queen Margred inclined her head regally. “You may take a moment to gather yourself, before you start again.”
“Thank you, your majesty.” Caitlyn half curtseyed and then shut her eyes, trying to calm her mind and body before calling the energies she’d been harnessing. Magic doesn’t flow without both in harmony. If only so much didn’t depend on this one ridiculous task. Staring at the jumbled crystals all over the floor place was depressing, threatening to bring tears to her eyes. The gems were on the table, in the sand, on the bare floor. She visualized a straw broom sweeping them together and the crystals obligingly moved into a heap, all on the floor. Encouraged, she commanded the stones to rise into the air, which they did, in twos and threes, until all had united and become a swirling kaleidoscope. Caitlyn tried to hold them while focusing on the garden picture she’d attempted to create. The next step was to separate and rearrange the different colors. Closing her eyes to diagram the picture she was creating, she heard stones falling to the floor again. Forcing herself to draw a deep, calming breath, she took comfort in the fact she only had to do a good enough job to pass. Commanding the stones to create her picture, she willed them to go and imitate her favorite flowers from Ordlathus. Needing to see the pattern, she opened her eyes, only to be confronted by a misshapen mess, colors in the wrong places.
At least the crystals were still moving. She clung to a tiny flicker of hope. Caitlyn was at the edge of losing the spell, the picture was nowhere near complete, when suddenly she was jolted by a wild, nearly uncontrollable energy adding itself to hers. The surge lasted for a heartbeat. She hung onto the new magic, channeled the unruly power, wove it firmly into her own pattern. The extra boost was enough to shake the picture into a recognizable, fairly well done portrait of a spring garden.
The final stone, an iridescent green, slipped with a clinking sound into its spot as the tip of an iris leaf.