Prince Lance of Almekia, heir to the throne of the most powerful country in Forsena, threw down his book and sighed deeply. "I don't like magic," he declared, staring down at the book as if he expected it to jump back up and attack him.
Irvin, his best friend and privileged playmate, looked up from his own studies to look at Lance. He fought down a sigh - Lance had been making frustrated noises almost since they'd come to the garden to study, and it was really starting to irritate him.
"Why not?" Irvin asked, trying not to sound too cross. His own text on Runic Interactions had been interesting but difficult; Lance's interruptions had ruined his concentration.
"It's too hard," Lance answered without hesitation, still staring at the book. "It's all these fancy words that I can't say, and they don't make any sense."
"Didn't Master Hiren teach you how to read it?" Irvin asked, standing up. He approached as Lance picked up the book, stole a glance at its pages as the prince flipped through it. The runes made perfect sense to him, although he didn't dare say that out loud. Lance might expect him to help him understand it, and frankly, Irvin didn't want to take the time to help someone who didn't like magic learn to cast it.
Lance didn't answer for a few moments, but the half-hearted guilt on his face made the answer unnecessary. It was as though he thought he should feel bad about it, but simply didn't care enough. "Well... I guess that he tried to tell me how to read it. But... well, he's just so boring. I couldn't concentrate."
Irvin nodded, although he strongly suspected that Lance had spent the entire time pretending to understand everything he'd been told just so that he could get away faster. He'd done that before - the old tutor was an old man with a very slow, deep, sleep-inducing voice, the sort that could suck the love of learning out of even the most enthusiastic student.
That didn't make it less infuriating, though. Irvin had been drilled from childhood in the meanings of all sorts of obscure magical words. He'd probably learned whatever Lance was trying to learn by the time he was five.
"I like fencing better," Lance continued, brightening as he spoke. "That's really exciting, and not as complicated either. D'you know what Esclados is showing me? He's teaching me how to fight with two swords at the same time." His voice swelled with pride. "Two swords, Irvin!"
"Is he?" Irvin's voice was as polite as he could force it to be. In reality he had no use for swordsmen - his father had called them meat shields, good only as a distraction for the enemy while the mages readied their spells. However many swords they carried, they'd burn just the same. Magic, now - that was real power.
"Yeah! Soon I'll be able to fight just like my father!" Lance grinned for a moment. But then he frowned and shook his head; his curly golden hair fell around his face in a chaotic mess. "But he said that I ought to learn how to use Fire magic too, like he can. I just don't get this, though. It's not like a real book, 'cuz the words just don't mean anything."
"They're not supposed to," Irvin answered shortly, without thinking. "You've got to learn to read them first. It's like any other language."
"Well, I guess that's true..." He trailed off, squinting more at the runes. "I don't know how anyone can read these, though. It's just... hard."
Then he went back to trying to stutter his way through one of the words. Irvin sat back on his own bench and tried to ignore him - he had something of his own to work on, and he didn't want to be goaded into helping Lance with something that he shouldn't have been learning anyway.
Despite what Lance might've believed, he was there for the calm, quiet atmosphere of the Royal Gardens, not the Prince's company. It was well-maintained, full of plants that had been brought from Iscalio at huge expense, and he could just hear the sound of a trickling fountain. It was peaceful, and usually very quiet. He always went there to study when he could.
Granted, Irvin still liked the valley of Fato better; he preferred the view of the mountains from below, and the slight chill in the air. He'd grown up there with his doting grandparents, both of whom had been mages for the Court in their youth. But now they were both dead, and his parents wished him to stay in Logres with them, to study under Master Gish himself. And then there was the Crown Prince... and it was unfair to say too much more against him. He and Lance had been friends once. They'd been playmates for longer than that - almost since Lance had been old enough to walk. Irvin was two years older than Lance, one of the very few children even near the Prince's age; King Heinguist had been very indulgent in encouraging the friendship between the two boys.
Irvin had enjoyed Lance's company once, and he knew that Lance enjoyed his. They'd been real friends once, when the world was simple and all that friendship really meant was that they enjoyed playing games together. But things had changed, somewhere along the line, and Irvin was wishing again and again that the Prince would just go away and let him read in peace. Lance, meanwhile, showed no signs of stopping his butchery of the magical words that Irvin knew so well.
The young mage finally gave up. He wasn't going to get anything else done. Listening to that was enough to drive him mad. "Wait, hold on." he said urgently, closing his own book and striding over to stand beside Lance, "You're trying to pronounce too much of the word. You'll never call up Fire if you don't learn to say it more quickly."
Lance looked up at him, his brow creased. "Pronounce too much? What do you mean? I'm just trying to sound them out -"
"Magic words aren't like normal words, Highness," Irvin interrupted. "How you say them depends on what you want to do with them. With Fire, you find the essence of the word and say it like you were trying to strike sparks from a tinder box." He sounded like his father, he thought momentarily, or like Master Gish. Yes, Irvin had made the same mistakes before - except that he'd been a little boy when he'd learned such basic spells.
Lance looked at the page, doubtfully, then back at him. It was clear that if Irvin gave him another moment, he'd start complaining about magic again. Irvin decided that it would be best to demonstrate; at least that might stop the griping for a while. "Look, your Highness, let me say one of the words for you. Then you'll know how it's supposed to sound."
The young Prince grinned. "Thanks, Irvin. I'd like that."
Irvin squelched his own bitterness. Of course he was having difficulty with magic - he was unschooled. And it wasn't that he was stupid, he reminded himself. He'd probably catch on to this quickly, like he did everything else; that was one thing that Irvin envied about him, more than his title or his eventual claim to the throne.
But the anger still burned in his mind, as hot as any fire. It stubbornly resisted any attempts to explain it away. So Irvin just forced it back and concentrated on the impromptu lesson. "You have to say it quickly, without trying to make it into a tongue twister. Like this." He stretched out his right arm, palm up. "Fieras-va!" he snapped out, making the word as short and as quick as he could manage. Instantly a ball of white-hot flame burst into existence, hovering just above his outstretched hand. It flickered madly, bathing the garden in its light, for a moment; then Irvin relaxed his concentration and clenched a fist, and it vanished.
Lance stared at it the whole time, his green eyes wide. The book fell from his hand, as if he'd forgotten that he was holding it in his amazement. "Wow!"
"It's easy," Irvin said, waving aside a small cloud of silvery smoke. He tried to keep the edge out of his voice, but he was sure that at least a bit of it seeped through. "I learned that word when I was just a kid."
"That's amazing!" Lance didn't seem to have heard. "Here, lemme try it!"
He stretched out his arm, holding his own palm up, cupping his fingers slightly. "Fieras-va!" he repeated, except that his pronunciation was sloppy - still too slow, still trying to add too many superfluous syllables. But it sufficed, if barely. The flame that materialized above Lance's palm was orange in color and not nearly so bright, but it appeared all the same.
It seemed only half-done to Irvin. He remembered his father berating him for such similarily shoddy work before, years ago. But he didn't dare to say as much, since Lance was so utterly enchanted by it. The flame was reflected in his wide, bright eyes, and his mouth was open in amazement. Instead, he started offering advice, although his heart really wasn't in it. "Concentrate on the fire," he instructed. "If you're distracted, it'll fade away."
Lance grinned. "This is great! So this is how mages fight, huh?"
"Not exactly, Highness. It's more complicated than that. You'd have to know how to propel it towards its target, and how to keep it from diffusing away before it gets that far." He frowned slightly. "But I guess that they'll teach you the words for that spell too, eventually."
They were teaching Lance as if he were a baby - not telling him the meanings of the words, but just repeating the sounds and assuring him that if he made the right ones at the right moments he'd be fine. There was a subtle beauty in the language of magic, and yet people like the Prince were just aping it for their little parlor tricks. Still... they did the same thing with other Knights, and always had. He knew that. Not everyone was suited for actually learning the language, after all; even if Lance had tried, he probably wouldn't have been able to. He wasn't entirely sure why it was only bothering him now -
"Ah... Prince Lance... young Master Irvin...." Both boys turned quickly to face the source of the interruption, trying to hide their surprise. The flame in Lance's hand flickered, although it didn't quite fade away - Irvin had to admit that his ability to keep it from dying completely was impressive, considering that Lance was really less than a neophyte in the magical arts.
It was another one of the palace servants, an older man wearing the usual red and gold tunic and hose of the Royal house. He smiled, showing deep lines around his face; he was obviously an extremely jolly man, despite his severe appearance. He was, if Irvin's memory served, one of Lance's favorite personal servants. "His Royal Majesty requests your presence at the High Table for supper, Prince Lance." He bowed as he spoke, then looked back at the prince with twinkling gray eyes.
"Oh, yeah... is it time for dinner already?" Lance laughed easily. "I'd almost forgotten to look at the time. Hey, Alfonse, look at this!" He moved his hand in a circle, watched as the flame danced along with it. "Look what I learned to do today!"
The man laughed. "Ah, so you've been taught to summon fire! Most impressive, Prince Lance. Your father should be pleased."
Irvin shuddered, although he did his best not to show it. Lance, as always, was oblivious to his reaction and continued to talk. "Irvin helped me learn it. If he hadn't helped me I might've had to work a little harder."
"Excellent. young Master Irvin." The man addressed him directly - something that Lance's servants only rarely did. He was always beside Lance, always spoken to in the same breath as the Prince. "Already you serve our young Prince well. You'll make a fine Court Wizard someday!"
"Thank you, Sir," Irvin answered formally - too formal, he realized, and too cold for accepting a compliment. He hoped desperately that no one would notice.
"Well, c'mon, Irvin." Lance started to close his fist, then jerked his fingers back out as the heat from the fire reached them. Irvin felt a twinge of satisfaction - ill-felt, he knew, and unbidden - as Lance studied the fire, then looked away from it and closed his eyes. It faded, having lost the mental strength that it was feeding on. Obviously Lance had thought that just closing his fist would make it fade... "It's time for dinner. I bet they're making my favorite again tonight," he continued happily.
"Perhaps, Highness," Irvin said with more false politeness. Of course they'd have one of Lance's many favorites. They were never without at least one of them - roast fowl with gooseberry stuffing, or a side of beef with garlic and a certain exquisite sauce that he couldn't define, or any number of rich dishes. And then, of course, some beloved treat for desert. It was a wonder that Lance hadn't grown terribly fat. Irvin had liked some of the food at first, for his part, but he'd overindulged in it once too often; he'd lost his taste for it.
"Ah, come now, Prince Lance," the old man said gently. "His Highness is waiting for you."
The two of them walked out of the garden. Normally Irvin would've been a step behind them, but instead... instead he watched them as they walked away, watched the golden boy of Almekia walk off without as much as a glance over his shoulder. Why should he? He'd take it for granted that Irvin was with him; he always had. They'd be halfway to the dining hall before they noticed he was gone, if they ever did -
And suddenly he had a flash of insight - he knew what the old servant had seen when he'd come to fetch the two of them for the evening meal. He'd seen Lance first, shining with triumph and pride, with the half-formed ball of orange fire floating in his palm. Then - and only then - had he seen Irvin, standing beside him, an insignificant robed figure with his plain brown hair and his lackluster blue eyes. Standing at Lance's right hand, guiding him through the incantations... standing in his shadow.
He clenched both of his fists, tried to will himself to relax... but it wasn't easy. Not only had he been born under one of the Rune Signs, but he'd been studying magic almost since he'd been old enough to speak. He'd learned all sorts of secrets, difficult languages, things that those babyish magic users wouldn't possibly understand. Had he done all of that just to stand in someone else's shadow?
No, he refused to accept it. Not even the knowledge that he'd be the right hand of a King someday would make that tolerable. He didn't want to be overshadowed by someone like Lance. He wanted to be something on his own, a great wizard in his own right...
As he fumed, something suddenly caught his eye - the tiny ink-stained parchment book of magical words, still sitting where Lance had dropped it. He stared down at it, the pages opened to some random page of Ice runes, the covers bent back. For a moment, he was tempted to throw the thing across the garden and be done with it. But as he picked it up, an even better idea occurred to him. He quickly carried the book to a hidden corner of the garden, a place that he sometimes liked to go when he really wanted to be alone. A quick look around reassured him that no one was watching - and if anyone did sense the release of magical energy, they'd assume that someone was just practicing their magic. It would hardly take any power at all. He put the book down, opened and page-down, in the middle of the flagstones that paved part of the corner - keeping it away from nearby branches.
He extended his arm, palm out and facing the book. "Fieras-va," he muttered, and then as the flame built, he uttered another sharp syllable that didn't sound much like a word at all. The flame burst away from his hand, shooting straight for the book.
It struck it dead-on - his aim had been perfect, and the fire hadn't even grazed any limbs or vines. There wouldn't even be a scorch mark, not against the dark stones. While some books of magic had special enchantments laid upon them to stop such attacks, this one had no such augmentation; it burned just the same as any other book. Irvin watched it as it burned to ashes, then muttered a quick word to scatter them.
Lance wouldn't miss it for days. He'd forget all about magic until the day before he had to go to the tutor again - then he'd scramble through the garden and bother all of the servants, trying to find it in time to memorize whatever words he'd been asked to memorize. He'd ask Irvin too, and Irvin would just tell him that the last time he'd seen it was in the garden. Eventually, though, he'd give up, and would just have to beg the tutor for another book... which he'd get, of course. Lance always seemed to get exactly what he wanted. It wasn't fair.
Still, it would be satisfying to watch him scramble around for it... and Irvin didn't feel any real guilt about what he'd done. He was only trying to correct the old tutor's mistake, wasn't he? Lance wasn't ready to learn magic yet, as far as he was concerned. He never should've been given the book in the first place.
Someday, he thought, he'd find some way out of the gilded prison that was his destiny. He wouldn't stand at Lance's right hand. In fact - he smiled at the thought - maybe he'd find a way to outshine Prince Lance himself, someday.
Still smiling - and not caring if anyone saw, for he'd be all but invisible again as soon as he walked back into Lance's shadow - he turned and walked away, back to the castle.
Brigandine is copyrighted by Altus and Heartyrobin, 1998.