Power and Prestige – Sarah L. McConkie

HİGH MAGE GAİUS DARKWOOD, of Pemberley in Derbyshire, patted the withers of his horse as he exhaled and drew his eyes up to scrutinize his friend. “It is a universal truth that when a bachelor such as yourself purchases a longstanding vacant house with little natural draw —there must only be one reason.” Mage Blythesome’s horse twitched his sable ears and mane, as though in sympathy with its rider’s chastisement. “And that reason is?” smiled Mage Blythesome, impervious to Darkwood’s somber tone. Darkwood raised his eyebrows into a patronizing glance. “Naturally, so you may seek out someone to marry.” His voice drawled, unamused. Blythesome laughed, his head tipping back. “Come off it, Dark. My intention has nothing to do with marriage. It is a good place to put my money, and what’s the harm if it comes with the introduction to new, pretty faces? The grounds are lovely, the house is well built.” High Mage Darkwood scoffed and rubbed the neck of his ebony mount. The reverse rhetoric he employed hadn’t quite done its trick. But it would. He’d keep at it.

He couldn’t directly change Blythesome’s mind, but the power of persuasion ran thick in his blood, in his ley lines, in his heart. Blythesome would come around, eventually. “But you forget, Blythe, that this part of Hertfordshire has a dearth of power. You’d never know if someone even had abilities, for they would likely not manifest here.” Darkwood raised his eyebrows then tightened them shrewdly. Blythesome jumped down from his horse and smiled. “I shall never have as much magic as you my friend, nor am I quite so fastidious as to how I allay myself in its pursuit. The country has charmed me, and therefore, I shall remain.” He offered a cheery nod and walked toward the groom house. “No doubt off to obligatorily receive every magicless country father within a ten-mile radius,” Darkwood muttered as he galloped into the large trees behind them.

Maybe he’d find something in that forest. He had reason to believe—and strong evidence too, that whoever stole his relic had lately been close to Netherfield. “There are two exquisite pieces of news, my darlings, that I must tell you all!” cried Mistress Retton to her daughters in her drawing room. The plump older woman paid little attention to her outrageous volume or the unkempt wisps of grey hair that wriggled out of the few brown streaks of her bun. Cassia, the second of the three daughters, drew in her breath, habitually bracing herself against her mother’s antics. Mistress Retton waited until all eyes were on her, theatrically building the suspense. “Tell me, Mother, what it is,” cried Alyria, the youngest, silliest daughter, indulgently cocking one brow. “The very best news,” said Mistress Retton, rolling the ‘r’ for extra effect. She drew breath and stretched out her hands to begin, when suddenly the library room door swung open. The girls’ father, potbellied and white haired, walked across the room twirling his eyepiece, his nose barely venturing from his thick tome.

“Girls,” he drawled, nonchalantly turning toward Cassia, “did you hear, Netherfield Park is finally let? And by an eligible gentleman, a mage of power and fortune.” An audible gasp sprang from Alyria. Their mother gasped too, but quickly sent a glare toward her husband. Cassia watched her father in amusement, as her mother rose to her feet in a rage. “Master Retton! How you try my nerves! That is the most exciting piece of gossip I have had in years and you have stolen it right out from under me. Do you not understand how you vex me?” “I am quite sorry, madam,” he said evenly. Cassia knew too well how tense her parents’ marriage had always been. “Are you sharing news just now? Perhaps I should not divest myself of my other piece of information then. I would hate to interrupt.” “More news—surely what can he mean?” cried Alyria.

“Do ask him, Mother!” Cassia eyed her older sister, Gynelle, who sat with perfect posture, her golden hair curled, rosy mouth poised. She was the beauty of the family. She possessed a perfect temperament. There Gynelle sat, never ruffled, and never over the top. Her natural good humor was unparalleled, and a true blessing in this family. It wasn’t a true magical skill though, for none of Master Retton’s daughters possessed magical ability. Nor did his wife. “It can’t be more exciting than the rumors I know,” continued Alyria, ever loquacious, and now pulling on their silent father’s arm, “for the regiment will be stationed here in less than a month, according to Colonel Laine.” She finished this sentence with a snort of excitement. “Good heavens,” blew out Master Retton, shaking out the elbow Alyria had just relinquished.

“Then we shall have our hands full. Mage Blythesome, the new owner of Netherfield, is coming to the ball Saturday next.” Alyria looked as though she would swoon, and Cassia noticed Gynelle’s face even turn up into a slight smile. “And in a fortnight, we shall have the pleasure of receiving our cousin, Master Clovis, next in line to my entail.” Their father tucked his book under his arm and brushed his hands together. “That was my other piece of news. But if any of those beaux do not suit, I suppose after that you ladies can fall upon the regiment, if you have any sort of stamina.” At this point Mistress Retton grabbed Alyria’s hands and danced about, as if a young lady herself. Once she settled, she waved her handkerchief like a victorious battle flag. “Oooo, girls, what good fortune!” she cried.

“Gynelle, you are the eldest, and by far the prettiest, so you must have Mage Blythesome, with his handsome house and powerful lineage. I hear everything he touches turns to gold.” Gynelle demurred pleasantly on the settee, but Cassia couldn’t help but roll her eyes. She hadn’t been around too many men with true power and magical ability; this was too much. Her mother was generally apt to embrace the preposterous. Turned things to gold? Impossible. Her silly, magicless mother was granted the title of mistress only upon her marriage to their father. Master Retton did have magic—any book he read he could recall verbatim, and he really could have become one of the best scholars in the land. He had once confided to Cassia why he had chosen the magicless woman as his spouse. He had married her because he wanted her father’s large book collection, and although he now enjoyed a library of nearly a thousand books, it had come at the price of a very trying, frivolous wife.

He had told Cassia just how much he regretted such a decision, claiming his magic had made him greedy and cluttered his mind. Since such a recounting, Cassia had distrusted all magic. Alyria and Mistress Retton had been whispering together for several minutes, and Master Retton had long since passed through the room back to his study. Trying to include Cassia, Mistress Retton raised her voice. “Cassia, you ought to go for a man of the militia. They won’t mind that you are plain and have no natural magical ability. No, officers don’t care a thing for magical power. And, fair Gynelle, your beauty and temperament won’t be lost on Mage Blythesome! Oh I dare say, Alyria, one of the very best officers will fall in love with you once they’ve seen you dance!” Cassia then beheld the natural smotherings and flutterings that existed between the youngest daughter and their mother when overly excited. Rapturous clapping and abundant hugs threatened to squash Cassia and Gynelle into oblivion, or at least push them out toward the garden. Cassia clamped her eyes shut, sought escape, and abandoned her embroidery.

“I must seek some fresh air,” Cassia declared. “Gynelle, tell me you’ll join?” “Most readily,” cried the eldest sister, trying for a pleasant smile toward their mother, and the two left the suffocating drawing room. “Still,” said Cassia a week later, as Gynelle had her stays tightened by their maid, “I don’t understand the real fuss. If Mage Blythesome isn’t levitating when he arrives, I’ll be sorely disappointed.” “My goodness…” said Gynelle, smoothing down the sides of her gown as the maid buttoned it, “Don’t be quite so dramatic.” She really did have the best figure in the family, and her dress had an amazing effect. “They say that it’s much more hidden than that. A mage doesn’t wear a sign around his neck, by any means.” “I am half certain Mother thinks he does.” “Never mind Mother,” said Gynelle with a soft smile.

An hour later, with light dresses and perfectly falling curls, the two eldest girls descended to meet their mother and Alyria. “Oh Gynelle, you are a picture,” cried Mistress Retton. Her eyes scanned from Gynelle to Cassia and the admiration there fell several degrees. “Cassia will be there to support you in your day of triumph.” She bestowed a conciliatory pat on Cassia’s gloved hand. “If Mage Blythesome isn’t smitten by the dinner dance, I’ll eat my hat!” Master Retton handed his daughters and wife into the carriage as the chittering from their mother continued. After the short ride the family alighted from the carriage, Cassia last, as she hung on her father’s arm. “How is he really, Father?” she whispered into his ear. “Truthfully,” he said, looking around and for once employing a genuine, unaffected tone, “he’s much more normal and respectable than I had hoped for.” “Even…despite his magical abilities?” Cassia studied her father’s grey eyes.

He huffed and dropped his tone. “You know I find it fortunate that not too many men with magical abilities have made their way to Meryton, for you and I know the dangers of magic obscuring our judgement,” he squeezed her hand. “but, Blythesome seems tolerable.” “You’d think it favorable—you’d like it—if Gynelle…” Cassia smiled at her father. “I would approve, yes,” he said. “Though anyone who jumps to those conclusions before meeting the man is daft.” He shot a withering look toward his wife. “People should take marriage seriously.” Cassia nodded, trying to forget about her parents’ strained relationship as the two walked together through the threshold and into the assembly hall. It was a familiar scene to Cassia: the large, white walled room with brown, woodcased windows, and a hall leading to where the refreshments were being served.

She also recognized everyone in the room. No Mage in sight. Immediately Mistress Retton found Magess Lywin, her nearest neighbor. Almost instantly the two gossips huddled near the punch and whispered much too loudly for Cassia’s liking. Gynelle came to her sister and pulled her over to Miss Cidel Lywin, the Lywin’s oldest daughter, who was telling all of the news. “Mage Blythesome hasn’t arrived yet but I’m sure you’ve heard about his abilities?” “Oh Cidel, not you too!” said Cassia. “My father swears Blythesome hinted of it himself in their first meeting.” “Perhaps one of us should ask him, if he does choose to come,” said Cassia. No sooner had she finished, than the sound of the large wooden door shut and two tall men stood in the arched entranceway. Cassia and Gynelle exchanged a glance as Cidel huddled toward them and whispered.

“The jovial looking one, with auburn hair, is our Mage Blythesome.” Instantly he wasn’t the one that worried Cassia. “And the one with the dark hair and serious eyes?” Her critical gaze didn’t trust the haughty aura that seemed to spill off of Blythesome’s friend. “That…is High Mage Gaius Darkwood, of Pemberley in Derbyshire. Ten thousand pounds per annum, and his home sits on one of the strongest ley lines in the country. They say he draws much power from it. His magic power lies in business; apparently he is one of the most persuasive negotiators in the country. He has amassed quite a fortune, just like his father before him. But Blythesome…that is true ability, true power.” Cassia thought she watched Mage Blythesome survey the room and land his gaze on them—or on Gynelle, most likely.

“What do you mean?” asked Gynelle, clearly entranced as she held the man’s gaze across the room. The red-headed, tall Blythesome smiled widely toward them. His friend, however, looked like he might burn the room down with his disapproving scowl. Cidel Lywin continued her whisper. “It is well known that he can turn things into gold. Although it is rumored he is not completely skilled at it, or that it somehow has its limits —” “I see,” said Cassia. Magical abilities abounded in the higher classes. Anciently, she knew, Merlin had bestowed his powers on his friends. Once it started, everyone tried to be his friend, resulting in various, though sometimes diluted forms of magical powers. Still the people of higher ranks would be taught as children to hone their powers and then could come before court to showcase their abilities and earn the title of high mage, mage, or master depending on one’s level of ability.

Infrequently, someone might be bestowed an honorary title, like Master Lywin, without any real magical ability, after doing a great favor to the crown or by marriage. Cassia pursed her mouth recalling all of these ranks. She had heard of the great, powerful people in London and Bath and the north country, people who toyed with water, weather, crops—but power to turn things to gold? Preposterous. Cassia dismissed Cidel’s words. Like herself, Cidel had no natural abilities. Where Cassia dismissed such grandeur, though, her friend craved it. Within ten minutes the entire room buzzed with different tales. Cassia believed none of them. Mistress Retton could not leave her girls alone once her target had arrived, and soon Master Retton was introducing his three daughters to Mage Blythesome and his stoic friend. “And may I ask the eldest Miss Retton for a dance,” said Mage Blythesome with a smile, as soon as the introductions were made.

Cassia had been watching him during the whole of the interaction—his face always came back to her sister. “I would be delighted,” Gynelle answered, if not loudly, quickly enough that Cassia thought her sister might be truly excited. Halfway through the evening Cassia found herself without a partner, having danced with two officers and even Mage Blythesome once. Now she shared a bench in the corner next to Cidel, who was also partner-less, on account of the lack of gentlemen. The two most hunted men in the room stood in front of them, with their backs at an angle from the girls, perusing the dance floor. Blythesome’s face glowed with perspiration, and he had only left his set to cajole his friend. “Now Dark, don’t be so austere! There are quite a few young ladies without partners. I must coerce you to join us.” High Mage Darksome let out a gust of air, as though in disbelief. “ You are coming to coerce me? You ought to know it will never work.

I didn’t come to Netherfield to dance.” He clicked his tongue and shook his head. “You, my friend, stood up with the only young woman with magical abilities in the room.” Magical abilities? What could he mean? Sure, Gynelle had a naturally good temperament…but she wasn’t magical. How could he know what magic existed? And how could he be so fastidious? To not interact with anyone who did not prove magical—he’d have to forego acquaintances with everyone in Meryton. This part of Hertfordshire boasted no mages of any sort. “She did not hint of any ability to me,” Blythesome beamed, “but I feel like she just must be magical. Regardless, I say she’s lovely.” Blythesome’s profile smiled and nodded eagerly, “Her youngest sister, they say, is a skilled dancer, so if for no other reason, you ought to ask her…” “Good heavens, have you heard her speak? When someone opens their mouth and inserts their foot, even if it is a light, dancing foot, I cannot abide such nonsense.” It was a harsh sentiment, but it did contain some truth.

Blythesome smiled, undeterred. “There is the middle daughter. Master Lywin informed me she is a heb, having no power, like his own children. Notwithstanding, I danced with her already and a quicker wit or more pleasant girl you won’t find anywhere.” Cassia stifled a wince as the pompous man stole a glance over his shoulder in her direction and then faced his head forward, with a lowered tone. “Oh Blythe. She is neither powerful enough, handsome enough, nor witty enough to tempt me. You waste your smiles. Go bestow them elsewhere.” Cassia’s voice caught in her throat.

How dare he. The air around her felt cold and oppressive suddenly, despite the warm ballroom. Cidel looked away swiftly and clenched her skirt. She had heard it too, then.

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