When the pearlescent blue liquid fizzed, Able’s nose caught the faint fragrance of fresh bread before the froth ignited in an explosion. The young gnome flew back through the air into a pile of discarded paper. He coughed, ears ringing. Around him, sparkles of blue and pink burst and hissed.
Light bloomed in his peripheral vision and Able turned his throbbing head to see a taller, older gnome thrust the workshop door open, panic on her round face.
As fast as Able’s heart sank, the panic morphed into a mixture of anger and worry. In quick strides, his mother crossed the ruins of the glass beakers and most of the table and knelt next to him. Her lips moved and he made out, “Are you hurt?” as she prodded his arms and torso in brisk examination. Shaking his head, Able winced. The ringing in his ears increased with a rising pain and warm fluid trickled down the right side of his jaw.
Continuing to glare at him, his mother cradled the side of his face in one warm, callused hand. Her grey eyes closed and her lips moved in words he could not hear nor identify. She raised her other hand and snapped her fingers next to his ear.
The click returned sound with full force; Able jerked his head away at the sudden roar of atmosphere. The bleeding ceased, the pain lessening but not ceasing entirely.
“Able Kingsage,” his mother did not shout. Able’s stomach curdled at her quiet tone and he dropped his gaze. She turned his chin up to stare into his eyes. No glare remained, her expression now disappointed. “What have I told you about going into Gramfer’s workshop?”
“Good.” She raised him to his feet and released him. Though equal in height, Ulluna’s frame exhibited the hardness and lean musculature of constant training and hard exercise. Done up in a bun that allowed few curls to dance free on her brows, her hair gleamed auburn. Able’s patchy beard and shoulder length hair swung in waves of brown. Elements of his father, those, along with his emerald eyes.
Dusting her hands, Ulluna peered around at the debris. “We’d best clean this up before Gramfer comes back.” Slapping her hand down upon his wrist as he raised it, she shook her head. “No magic. Anything could react adversely.” She stabbed her finger at the bubbling pool of blue which was now morphing into feathers of bright green.
Sighing, Able obeyed.
The burst had not carried too far throughout the cluttered space. Gramfer Ziln’s workshop might have been host to daily explosions for all the scattered half-full containers, jumble of notes, and other arcane accoutrement spready willy-nilly. Light gleamed in from blued windows, enchanted to let in the sun but not allow visions of the interior out.
“Why are you not with Melchet? You are supposed to be studying mathematics today.” Ulluna righted two intact chairs and piled the remains of a third.
“He dismissed me early. He said I was learning quicker than he expected and I may enter the advanced class with the others…if you approve.” Able hesitated, watching his mother out of the corner of his eye. He realized he had paused in the act of picking up a chunk of broken glass covered in murky brown goo and hastily set it down.
Handing him a thick pair of gloves, Illuna frowned at him, though the corner of her mouth twitched in a ghost of a prideful smile. “It would certainly keep you out of trouble and far away from Gramfer. His workshop.” A wince flashed across her face as Able let out a whoop.
“Hurray!” Nearly dropping the assembled shards, Able danced a few steps. With a flourish, he tossed the debris into a nearby box of detritus. “Uh,” he paused and shuffled his feet. “I mean, thank you, ma’am. It, uh, does mean…Melchet said I’d need to catch up during the evenings-“
Ulluna tilted her chin down to fix him with a disapproving stare. “Meaning no time for sword drill, I suppose?” She turned away and reached out her broom to another pile of shattered glass. The clinks filled the silence as the straws guided the fragments of translucent gold, green, and red into an orderly pile.
“Mother, you yourself said I was to be a craftsman or engineer, not a warrior.”
Ulluna said nothing, guiding more shards to the heap.
“Besides, Frenny hits hard,” Able added with a scowl. His hip ached from the bruise he’d received the previous evening.
“Frenai has to hit hard.” Half to herself, Ulluna nodded. The lines near her eyes deepened as she raised her gaze to her only son and let a relieved smile out. “But you don’t.” She dropped the broom, crossed the distance, and caught him up in a fierce embrace.
“Is that a ‘yes?'” Able returned the hug, gasping slightly.
Holding him at arm’s length, Ulluna frowned at him once more. “You will study hard, junge. If I find out you’ve been skipping class, it’s back to sword lessons. Only this time it won’t be with your sister.” She squeezed his shoulders in warning. “It will be with me.”
A mix of fear and relief crossed Able’s face and he nodded.
“Go and tell Melchet. I’ll finish cleaning up here.” Her scowl faded away into a warm smile and Ulluna ruffled his hair. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and bounded out the door. She made no movement toward the broom, instead leaning on the work table. Her smile twisted into a smirk and she picked up a glass bottle. With a casual flick, she tossed it at a stool in the corner.
A started yelp sounded. The bottle froze in midair and then floated down. An older gnome appeared. Rising from the stool, he waggled the bottle at her. “Young lady, what was that for? And how did you know I was here?”
“You deserved it.” A hint of iron flashed in her eyes, her jaw working. “Lock your workshop next time.”
Ziln Kingsage, Father-in-law to Ulluna Kingsage and Gramfer to Able, twitched back the sleeves of his rich blue robes. Unlike the green eyes of his grandson, his glittered beneath whispy bangs of pure white. “Oh, but I did, Ulluna.” He clapped his wrinkly hands, letting out a high cackle. “And he still got in.”
Eyes slitting, Ulluna crossed her arms. “You made it easy to break, didn’t you?”
Gaze softening, Ziln brushed his knees with gnarled fingers. “I did lock my workshop hoping he would be clever enough to get in, so…” the old gnome fought a grin, “Perhaps that eased my usual security precautions? A little?”
“He could have died, you stupid-“
Ziln raised a finger. “Do not think I am so foolish as to leave dangerous things laying about. All it made was noise and produced medium force.” He gestured to the etchings carved into every edge of every workspace. “The runes dampened and dispelled any lethality.” Dropping his hand, her father-in-law drew his eyebrows together, continuing to study her. “But there is more than just his safety that you’re worried about, isn’t there?”
“He knows enough magic. Teach him no more.”
“No more, old one,” Ulluna insisted. “A Kingsage already guards the king. Able need not learn more.”
“Ulluna, the boy has talent in magic.” Ziln raised his voice to cut off her protest. “And he possesses no talent in arms. Frenai has complained about him and, as you said, he will be a craftsman or engineer.”
“Frenai is a Kingsage. She guards the King. Our line no longer needs to reserve a servant this generation, Ziln,” Ulluna slammed a fist into the nearby table, leaning forward. “Let my son grow up without any more war or battle magic.”
“Frenai,” Ziln corrected her, crossing his arms, chin jutting out. “is also a Brandstone. She is young and newly married. Bren Brandstone will desire heirs. Who will guard the king while the Brandstones are away? Prinelle? She’s a Tumbelly. Who knows where Tumbelly will want to move next? Merchant husbands move anywhere. Besides, she has four children already. That leaves Sunsear-“
The quiet pain contrasted with the previous consternation in Ulluna’s voice and Ziln obeyed, falling silent. After a respectful pause, he cleared his throat. “Our forebears swore an oath, Ulluna. For that, we were given our name. A name from the king.” Spreading his hands, he sighed. “In exchange, we stand between the king and his enemies. We are the wall of blade or maul,” he gestured to the leather bracers upon her forearms. “We are the shield of the arcane.” His hand tapped the pearl-tipped wand at his belt. His gaze turned toward the door through which his grandson had left. “We are the well of intellect.”
Rising, the old gnome approached Ulluna. Taking up her callused hands in his weathered ones, Ziln squeezed. “I know your hope, Ulluna. Believe me, I hoped before Ricard died in the service of the king and I hope even now.”
At the mention of her husband’s name, Ulluna found an interesting scuff in the floor and studied it. It blurred and she blinked hard. “Hope is nice. Even late hope.”
“Quite.” A note of excitement entered his voice. “And there may be a way to protect the king far better than any Kingsage ever will or ever has. And no more Kingsages would suffer wound or ending in his service.”
Raising her head, Ulluna stared at him. The edges of her eyes threatened tears, accentuating the desperation within. With a blink, they vanished. “What way?” her voice, though wary, could not entirely mask the bead of interest.
With a secretive smile, Ziln took her arm and tugged her toward the back of the workshop. “It did not originate with me. Our freedom has been sought for a longer time than you realize.”