Little Lydia quivered with a combination of excitement and fear as her father made his mark on her new contract. Finally, finally, she was going to be a baker's apprentice! She'd waited so long for this! For all of the seven years of her life that she could consciously remember, she'd wanted to be a baker, to create those magically mysterious treats that only bakers could make, to bake bread that tasted yummy instead of coarse and gritty like the stuff her mom always made. She wanted to make cakes covered in roses, and muffins with fat little heads, and cookies! And now, with the handshake her dad gave the baker's floury, massive paw, it could all begin.

First thing, Lydia got moved in to the baker's residence. She had her bag with her, lovingly packed by her mother, who was fairly resigned to the loss of her little girl. She should be, by now, since Lydia was the sixth of eight children to apprentice. Her older brothers and one sister had moved out at a rate of one per year since she could remember. Lydia was given a small bed of her own in the baker's attic and fussed over by the baker's wife, a sweet older lady who had never had a child of her own.

“So long since we had a little one around here,” the lady said. “Please, call me Nana. Nobody wants to be a baker anymore. They all want to be exciting things, like warriors, or mages, or clerics. Why stay home and bake when you could be out adventuring?”

“People don't want to be bakers?” Lydia couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice if she'd tried.

“It's hard work,” Nana shrugged. “And there's not much glamour in it. Did you ever hear a Bard's tale of the baker that saved the day?”

Lydia giggled. “No, but I've heard people talk about coming for miles to buy Baker Danno's fancy cakes.”

“True enough, and someday they'll be coming to buy Baker Lydia's fancy cakes. Now let's show you around.”

Nana gave Lydia a tour of the home and bakery, a single unit of a row of businesses. Lydia liked the arrangement of living right on top of the place where you worked. Her father had to walk for almost an hour every morning and every evening, travelling to and from the lands he helped work for the local baron. He complained all the time about not having his own lands, but he was able to take care of his family on the pay he earned even when the harvest failed, because this baron was a fair man. Lydia wondered if he'd be happy for her, or think she was lazy, if he thought about her just walking down two flights of stairs to get to work. Probably happy, she decided, because she was a girl. He was much harder on the boys about laziness than the girls.

The baker, Danno, was a large man, utterly opposite his small wife in every physical way. He had a big red face, and a big belly, and seemed permanently covered in flour. Lydia couldn't tell how much of his white clothing was really white, and how much just coated in flour. His apron had smears of things more exotic than that, bits of colors that hinted at food colorings and roses made of frosting. Lydia glanced down at her own scrawny body and wondered if she would get plump like Master, or stay thinner, like Nana.

“Well, little apprentice,” Master said, “there's no time like the present. Let's get started. Do you know how to read?”

“I do,” Lydia said, rightfully proud. Not everyone fresh in from the country knew their letters. She'd learned from her mother, who'd been a scribe before she met dad and started having babies. Mom made sure all her offspring could read.

“Good! Then you can take this book over to the prep table and start learning about spices.” Master held out a book, a small volume covered in a battered leather cover, and pointed to a stool. “Off you go, now.”
Lydia took the book, very excited now. Finally, she would enter the mysteries of cooking! She knew some spices were used to flavor breads and pies and such, but not what they were, other than cinnamon and nutmeg.

The book itself was beautiful, written carefully by a scribe, with beautifully detailed drawings of each spice in its native plant or bark form. Lydia immersed herself in it, content.

So began her first annum at Danno's Bakery. She discovered that it was indeed hard work, especially for the apprentice, but overall she was happy. Her world revolved around the ovens now, and preparing ingredients for the day's baking, and learning how to judge when a cake was ready to remove from its pan or frost... pure heaven.

But then it all changed.

Lydia stumbled out to the well in the predawn dark, grumbling a little as she always did at this task. As the apprentice, it was her first duty of the day to make sure the big water cask stayed full. So here she was, out in the very early morning, lugging heavy buckets to the fountain in the courtyard, where something small and fuzzy chirped at her.

“Huh?” Lydia shook herself awake quickly. Something small, black, and very fuzzy perched on the edge of the well and made a cute little chirping noise at her. “What are you, little creature? You're adorable!”

The round little beast's ears, shaped like a cat's but spread farther apart, perked up at the sound of her voice. Its big eyes widened, seeming to glow from within, again like a cat's. But this thing certainly wasn't a cat. It looked more like a fluffy pumpkin.

Lydia reached out to it and it sniffed her, then rubbed its round little self enthusiastically on her hand. It made a rumbling noise, almost like a purr, but again not quite.

“You're very cute,” she said, “but you might want to move now, little creature. I have to get water. I don't want to splash you. You seem like a cat, so I'll bet you don't like getting wet.”

The fuzzy thing chirped again, but didn't move. Instead it rubbed Lydia's arm as she filled her buckets, so hard that she nearly spilled a few times. She finally risked picking up the unknown thing and moving it out of the way, but that didn't help much. It just hopped closer, revealing two little birdlike legs beneath its round ball of a body, and resumed rubbing. Lydia shrugged and finished filling her buckets. She unslung the carry yoke from its position on her back, arranged the four buckets, and lifted them all with a groan.

“Well, little creature, it was nice to meet you, but I'm going back to the bakery now. Goodbye, whatever you are.”

Lydia set off for the bakery, buckets swaying and sloshing exactly as they always did. The little beast watched her leave for a moment, then chirped and bounded after her. It bounced cheerily along beside Lydia, keeping up a running comentary with its vocabulary that sounded something between bird and cat, and almost tripped her three times.

“Hey! Stay out from under my feet!”

An innocent “Meep!” answered her.

“Oh, you cute little bugger, why can't you just go home?”

Home is with you, the adoring eyes seemed to say.

The black fuzzball followed Lydia into the bakery and proceeded to investigate. She tried to eject it back into the courtyard, but it just bounced back into her arms after landing. She tried to shove it out the back, into the alley, with her foot, slamming the door shut behind it, but it did something and reappeared inside the kitchen.

“Oh, great. You're cute, you're annoying, and you're magical. Just what I needed.”

She went back to trying to set up for the morning baking, with no success. When Master came down shortly after true dawn, he found Lydia in the middle of a floury mess, torn between laughter and tears.

“What's going on here, apprentice?”

“Oh, Master,” Lydia said, and the frustration in her voice made him even more curious, “this cute little creature followed me back from the fountain this morning, and now it's investigating everything and I can't get it out of here! It tipped over that open bag of flour, and, well,” she shrugged, spreading her hands to indicate the mess on the floor. “You see what happened.”

Master looked around the kitchen and frowned. “I see the mess, yes, but I don't see a creature. Where is it hiding?”

“It's not hiding at all!” Lydia exclaimed, surprised. “It's right here!” She reached down and picked the fuzzy ball up, holding it for her Master's inspection.

“Are you playing some kind of joke, girl?” Master looked puzzled, and his frown deepened. “If you are, it's not funny.”

“Joke?” Lydia looked at the creature in her arms. It made a cheerful happy sound, and rumbled with its not-quite-purr. “Master, I swear to you, this is no joke. I'm holding the little bugger right now. Can you not see it?”

“No, Lydia, I can't.” Master stepped forward, the frown easing a little but not going away. He reached out and tentatively felt at the space between Lydia's hands. “How... odd. There's kind of a thick spot there, in the air, but I can't feel any creature.”
“You're rubbing its head,” Lydia said.

“Magic,” Master pronounced, withdrawing his hand. “I'm going to go get Nana. She'll know what to do with it.”

Nana, when she arrived on the scene in her nightwrap and fluffy slippers, couldn't see the creature either. She could, however, see its tracks, and believed Lydia's tale a lot faster than her husband had. She examined the tracks in the flour closely, little scratchmarks like a bird would leave, then nodded and got off the floor, creaking and groaning about her old bones the whole way up.

“I think I know what that is, little one, and you might not like what it means.”

Lydia stopped rubbing the thing's ears. “Why not?”

“I think you've got a fuzzling there,” Nana said, rubbing at her back. “Now, there's nothing bad about fuzzlings, aside from a love of mischief, but they only show up to certain people.”

Lydia waited, but Nana didn't say anything more.

“Well, wife?” Master wanted to know, too.

“They only show up to mages.”

Lydia blinked. Mages? What had magic to do with her?

“What?” Master let loose a bellow. The fuzzling cringed in Lydia's arms, flattening its ears.

“You heard me, husband. It seems our little Lydia is going to be a mage. The fuzzling picked her, and that means she's got the talent. We've got to send her off to the nearest mage-school. They'll know what to do with her.”

“What?” Lydia's voice was more of a shriek than a bellow. “I don't want to be a mage! I want to be a baker!”

“Lydia, dear, you can't leave magepower untrained, you know that,” Nana said gently. “You know the stories.”

“I know the stories,” Lydia said, “but they have nothing to do with me. I am an apprentice baker, and an apprentice baker I will remain, until my Master sees fit to make me a journeyman.”

“That might not be possible, Lydia. The fuzzling chose you. It won't go away, and neither will any powers you have.”

“I don't care. I'm going to be a baker, not a mage. Fuzzling or no fuzzling, I want to learn how to make beautiful cakes.”

Nana sighed and backed down in the face of such stubbornness, but she know what was soon to come.

It happened a little over a week later. Lydia, with red-rimmed eyes, formally approached Master Baker Danno and requested release from her apprenticeship.

“Nana was right,” she said, sniffling. “I can't stay here. I might burn the place down.”

“We can't have that,” the Master agreed, equally sad, but resigned. He'd talked the situation over with his wife repeatedly and become convinced, even before Lydia accidentally called fire in the flour-laden kitchen, that he couldn't keep his best, most enthusiastic apprentice ever. “I will release you, on one condition.”

“What?” Lydia half-whimpered, stroking the head of the little fuzzling in her arms. It purred comfortingly.

“You have to come back to see us again when you're allowed to travel.”

Lydia blinked against more tears. She'd already cried until throat, nose, and eyes were raw and scratchy, but this unexpected request nearly made her start again. “I'll do that,” she promised, around a big lump in her throat.

“Nana and I talked about this, you know,” Master said. Lydia nodded. She'd noticed. “We think your best bet is to go with a priest. They're safe, they'll look after you.”

“A priest?”

“Yes, there's a temple of Vann out on the edge of town. You know, the harvest god? Of course you do, you're a farmer's daughter. But the priests are nice, and one of them would know where you need to go, and help you get there safely.”

“Can I say goodbye to my family?”

“Of course. I'll walk with you myself. I need to speak to your father, anyway.”

And that was that. Alll her hopes, all her dreams, ended in just a few brief moments. Baker Danno walked with her to her home village the next day, a good half day's trek, and she told her family what had happened and where she was going. Her parents nearly burst with pride. A mage, in their humble family! Her younger brothers were jealous, but neither of them could see Meeplar, the fuzzling. Lydia's father thanked Danno repeatedly for escorting his daughter and suggested sending one of his sons as escort, instead of troubling a priest.

“Could Janos take me?” Lydia said, perking up a bit. She adored her older brother. Maybe a road journey wouldn't be so bad if Janos were there with her.

“We'll ask him, okay? I can't see why he wouldn't. It's nowhere near harvest, everything is stable in the countryside around here, and his wife won't have her baby until early winter.”

* * * *
Janos and Lydia set out two days later, with Meeplar bounding alongside. They followed the well-worn path out of the village towards the nearest big city, Caissa, almost a week away on foot. Lydia talked to her brother a lot about the necessity of training her newfound abilities, but still remained reluctant to give up her beloved baking. Danno had given her a parting gift, a recipe book of his own making, and she carried it in her pocket, rubbing its leather binding frequently.

The journey ended before Lydia was ready for it to end. She and her brother both gawked at the beautiful, enormous city like the country bumpkins they suddenly felt like, but managed to make their way to the biggest, grandest structure of them all: the Hall of Lights. It reared above them, gleaming in the afternoon sunlight, with majestic pillars and white marble. Lydia felt very, very small, walking into that imposing edifice, and very grubby as well.

She'd never seen anything so grand before, or so terrifying. Walking through the immense reception hall, Lydia trembled with a wave of homesickness so strong that little Meeplar actually cried out. She wanted Danno's bakery! Or her mother's kitchen, even! Anywhere but this cold, sterile, viciously imposing environment.

“Do I have to do this, Janos?” Lydia said, clinging to her brother's hand for reassurance.

“So everybody says, little bug,” he said, but didn't sound certain enough to ease her fears.

“Can I help you?”

A woman in a silver dress stepped out of a little alcove. Lydia finally noticed that the place wasn't completely sterile. Potted plants grew at intervals along the walls, in little alcoves, even a few scattered throughout the hall. They looked green, vibrant, healthy. They made her feel a tiny bit better.

“We're here to find training for my sister,” Janos spoke up, direct as always. “Who would we talk to?”

The woman smiled. “I see you have a familiar already, young lady. Why don't you come with me and we'll go speak to the headwoman?”

“I'm coming too,” Janos said, and Lydia squeezed his hand. She'd never loved him more than that moment.

“Very well,” the woman said, without batting an eyelash. “Come with me.”

She led the way through the immense entryway and into a far more welcoming courtyard. Trees bent over pathways through vigorous gardens. Flowers hung in baskets in arches lining the rectangular walkway around the central courtyard. Lydia felt a lot better out of that stark marble environment. They walked around the outer border of the courtyard and the woman turned into a door.

“Clariss?” she called as she entered. “Clariss, are you in?”

“Just a moment,” a voice called from through a doorway. Meeplar let out a cheery sound. Lydia got the impression that she approved. “Yes, Sella? What can I do for you?”

The owner of the voice entered the front room, a sort of office. Meeplar made another cheery sound. The woman was short, and plump, and had a voice like an angel. Her face wore an expression of utter serenity and polite curiosity.

“We've got new arrivals. These two just arrived, a prospective student and her escort. Can you take care of them?”

“I can,” Clariss nodded. “You may return to the Grand Hall.”

She smiled. Sella gave a sort of half-bow and left. Meeplar peeped.

“Welcome to the Hall of Lights,” Clariss said.

“What are you going to do with my sister?” Janos demanded.

“That depends,” the headwoman replied. “May I ask what your name is, child?”

“I'm Lydia,” she replied, shyly. “And... this is Meeplar.”

“How do you do, Lydia? Meeplar? Did you have a pleasant trip?”

“My brother Janos took care of us,” Lydia replied. “It wasn't a bad journey.”

“Thank you, Janos, for caring for your sister. Now, you asked what we will do with her. Let us all sit down and find out. Do you wish to be a mage, child?”

“No,” Lydia blurted, without thought. “I'm a baker's apprentice, not a mage.”

“But you have a fuzzling, a familiar. These beings only attach themselves to people with mage talents.”

“I may have those talents, but I don't want them! I want to be a baker! That's all I want to do with my life. I didn't ask for Meeplar, she just appeared one day and wouldn't go away.”

“Lydia, this is a very serious matter,” Clariss said, indicating chairs positioned for guests at her desk. She settled down on the opposite side. “Do you understand what will happen if you leave mage talents untrained?”

Lydia nodded miserably. “Things happen,” she confessed, “already. I almost set fire to the bakery. And they say I will go mad. Not just a maybe, but definitely. And they also said before I go mad I could be stolen away by an evil mage and sucked clean of all my mind and will. I don't want any of that stuff to happen. But I want to be a baker, not a mage.”

“What if I offer you a compromise, Lydia? You are old enough now to know what you want from life, if you were an apprentice. What if you stay here, with us, long enough to learn how to control your power and keep yourself sane and protected? Then, after you are safe, you can reevaluate your choice. You may change your mind. But we would be terribly remiss in our duty if we let you go away completely untrained. Especially, might I add, since one or more of our Clusters might wind up facing you if you were taken by an evil one.”

“I think I can do that,” Lydia said, brightening. “Janos, did you hear? She's not going to make me be a mage if I don't want to!”

“Yes, little bug, I heard. I'm happy for you. I think that means you'll do fine here.”

* * * *

Meeplar surveyed the room, then settled on the bed with a satisfied rumble of purring.

“I'm glad you approve,” Lydia said, dropping her bag with her few possessions on the ground. Meeplar looked at her with wide, adoring eyes and started making the little noises she found so irresistable. “Okay, you win, little creature. I'll pet you.”

She sat on the bed beside the purring, chirping fuzzling and stroked the luxurious fur. Meeplar wrestled with her contentedly, gnawing gently with her little nubby teeth.

“What am I going to do, Meeplar? This isn't as terrible as it could be, I'll agree to that, but I still don't want to be here! Why does this have to happen to me? I'm probably the only apprentice in the whole land that doesn't dream of magic and glory. I just want to make yummy desserts, and amazing breads, and get all fat and happy like my Master. Nobody trusts a skinny baker, after all. And this city! It's so big, why did I ever think I could live here? I miss Vallan, and Greentree. Big enough to support a baker, and a blacksmith, and a carpenter, and a cobbler, and others, but still small enough that I could go to market and know most of the people I saw. Even the streets... I mean, remember the cobblestones? Hard to walk on when it rained, but normal. Did you see the streets here? Somebody had to make all those paving stones, you know. It's so much work... and the buildings, they're so grand. I feel so small, and so dirty!”

Meeplar sat up and made a loud noise, looking at the door. It hung open, and a woman in a light gray robe stood hesitating in the doorway, one hand raised to knock.

“Hello,” she said. “I'm Sarrin. I'm your new mentor.”

“Hello,” Lydia said, voice soft with nerves. She picked up Meeplar, who purred. “I'm Lydia. Can you see Meeplar too?”

Sarrin smiled. “Yes, I can. May I come in?”

“I guess so.” Lydia squeezed Meeplar, who squeaked. “My name is Lydia.”

Sarrin walked in the room, closing the door behind her. Lydia wondered if that was how it was done here. Were people really that unfriendly? She'd never thought of shutting other people out, but now that she thought about it, the only open doorways she'd seen here didn't have actual doors in them. How was she ever going to survive here?

“Welcome to Caissa, Lydia and Meeplar. I'm glad to see you here. I spoke with the headwoman a few minutes ago, and she told me you were an apprentice baker. Is that correct?”

Sarrin sat gracefully in the room's only chair, by the bare desk and empty bookshelf. Meeplar struggled, and Lydia released her. The fuzzling hopped to the ground and started rubbing against Sarrin's ankles, chirping.

“Yes,” Lydia said, blinking at the ever-ready tears. She really didn't want to cry in front of this lovely, elegant woman. “That's all I've ever wanted to do with my life. But now I have to learn magic.”

“Yes,” Sarrin nodded. “This is essential. You have to understand how vulnerable you are if you don't learn to control your abilities.”

“Yes, I know.” Lydia sighed and patted the bed. Meeplar mrrped and trotted back across the floor, jumping in Lydia's lap.

“But you don't like it. That's okay, I understand. When I was your age, I wanted to stay in my family business. We had a dressmaker's service, and I used to love the beauty of the gowns... the fabrics were so rich, so beautiful, and—never mind. I had to come here, to the Hall of Lights, instead, because things started flying around without me touching them when I turned thirteen. It was scary, and made me very mad, because I was almost a journeyman dressmaker by then, about to start travelling to the great noble houses and making the truly lovely ball gowns I'd always admired... This is why I'm here. The headwoman felt I'd be best suited to helping you out, because I never wanted to be a mage either.”

“But you are,” Lydia felt curious, despite her stubborn desire to resist anything and everything about this place.

“Yes, I am,” Sarrin nodded acknowledgment. “I decided to stay after my third year, because magic isn't as bad as I thought it would be. And while the robes we all wear in the Hall itself are deplorably simple and plain, the beauty of the magic fills up the place in my heart that longs to create wonderful things. I don't expect you to understand that right now, but you may someday. And if you do, you may find yourself drawn to magic as strongly as you were to baking. But for now, I am going to show you around the living area of the Hall, and answer whatever questions you have for me.”

How soon can I leave this place? Lydia didn't say that aloud. “Why do people wear robes in the Hall?”

“It's a way of visually identifying who's who, without having to ask. The color and fabric of the robes are different for different ranks. For you, we're going to get a short woolen robe, charcoal gray, that will be worn over a shirt and trousers. This is the uniform of students. We chose it for pure practicality, as you will be doing things other than sitting at a desk with a book. People with robes like mine, soft cotton in this lighter shade of gray, are all instructors of some kind. In general, the lighter the color, the higher the rank of the person wearing it. You'll soon be able to tell all sorts of things about a person by what they are wearing. For now, it's enough to remember that anyone with robes like mine will be able to help you if you have a problem or a question.”

“What other things am I going to have to study?”

“You must learn how to read the rune languages, and how to write them as well, plus you need to learn the proper way to speak the spell words. I notice you don't have much of an accent. This is a very good thing, and gives you a strong advantage already. You will also learn other things, like how to ride a horse, and how to make a fire out of wet wood. Most of our students can call fire—Clariss said you can do this already?”

Lydia nodded.

“Good. But it is an ability that is unfortunately vulnerable to all sorts of attack, so we want to make sure you can survive in even the most adverse conditions. You will also learn how to work in a group. The Clusters of Lights are groups of four people that the Hall sends out to do our works in the world. Clusters consist of a mage, a fighter, a loremaster, and a healer. Each person must work together to create an effective Cluster.”

“Do I have to learn all that? I just want to be a baker! I only want to learn enough to keep myself safe. Why do I have to learn all that other stuff, too?”

Sarrin's smooth, serene face showed the smallest hint of a frown. “You are young now, and this is the best time for learning. I know you believe you will not stay here any longer than necessary at this moment, but do you know for sure this will remain true two years from now? The Circle can not take the chance that you will decide to stay without the learning you may need. Can you understand that? If we concentrated solely on teaching you magic, and you decided to stay, you would be behind in your other skills, and past the age when you learn as easily as you breathe. So even if you do leave, you must learn the basics of the skills required of our active Lights. Is this understood?”

More tears trembled behind Lydia's eyelashes. “Yes, Mistress. I will learn what you require.” But I will go home as soon as you allow.

“Good. You may start by learning this: instructors are addressed as Your Wisdom. The protocol here in the Hall is very strict. Allowances are made for new arrivals, but you do not wish to offend anyone by using the wrong mode of address. Also, true names are not always used here. You may wish to choose a use-name to tell casual acquaintances, and keep your true name to yourself and your closest friends.”

“Why?” Lydia asked, startled out of the seething resentment she felt over the whole situation, especially this new ridiculousness about protocol. “My name has been good enough so far.”

“It's not a question of good enough, dear. It's about safety. Knowing someone's real name gives you power over that person.”

“Is Sarrin your real name?”

“No, it is not.” Sarrin smiled tightly. “That is a question you should never ask of people. It is very rude.”

“Sorry,” Lydia muttered, back to resentment. She looked down at the fuzzling in her lap. At least Meeplar liked her, and wasn't about to chastise her!

“Come, Lydia. Let's go have that tour now. I can answer questions as easily while we walk as sitting here.”

“Okay.” Lydia stood, dumping Meeplar unceremoniously on the ground. The fuzzling chirped and bounded alongside Lydia as she followed Sarrin out of the room.

“This is the wing of the building where students are housed,” Sarrin began, gesturing at the long corridor filled with closed doors at even intervals. Plants on stands broke the monotony of the white marble between doors. “You may or may not get to know your fellow students, depending on the time you spend at lessons and studying. Obviously, the more time you spend at study, the faster you will learn. This room,” she said, indicating a blue door, shockingly bright after all the stark white, “is the bathing room. Are you familiar with indoor plumbing?”

“Indoor what?” Lydia bit her tongue. Stupid! She had to learn to not just blurt out the first thing into her mind. She didn't want to label herself any more plainly than necessary as a country bumpkin.

“Plumbing. Come inside, then, and I will explain.”

Lydia found the bathing room almost as beautiful as walking suddenly into heaven. She'd never even heard of the concept of indoor plumbing, let alone seen it. The ability to turn a knob and have water—even hot water—come gushing out of a metal tube was so intensely wonderful she just wanted to stay and turn it on and off for a while. More than that, this room had bathtubs larger than she had ever seen before, that drained through a hole in the bottom, rather than a laborious bailing process. And there were indoor privies! They were called “flushpots,” because stuff inside got flushed away to somewhere mysterious by more of that running water. Pull a chain, and it went away. No more digging, no lime, no yuck. And best of all, no sitting on a cold slab of wood over a drafty hole on winter mornings. Why, people probably didn't even need chamber pots here, with this beautiful warm room available even in the middle of the night!

The tour continued. Lydia and Meeplar followed Sarrin around as she showed them the student facilities. Food came from long sideboards in the dining hall, with the option of eating with others or carrying it back to one's own room. Lydia made careful note of the location of the kitchen and resolved to see if she could get in there at any point. Books were stored in a cavernous library. Lydia wondered, looking at the shelves towering probably three times her own height, why everything in this place was so big. Was it all made by giants? She didn't want to ask her mentor that, though. She didn't want to sound stupid, and resolved to not ask the questions that seemed like something only an ignorant bumpkin would ask.

While in the library, Sarrin picked out her first assignment, a big clunky volume titled simply Magic. Looking at the size of the thing, Lydia felt sure she'd be out of this place and back to the bakery quickly. Surely a volume that size contained everything she'd need to know to stay safe and sane! She'd master it quickly, then get out of this intimidating place.

Outside, Sarrin led Lydia, Meeplar jogging gamely behind, to an even more intimidating place: the stable complex. Lydia had never even seen a horse close up. She knew they were big, and useful for pulling plows and such, but she'd never had reason to go near one. They were huge, and very scary, until one put its head down and sniffed her trembling hand. Then she noticed how soft the nose of the beast was, and how much it enjoyed her rubbing its head. Sarrin showed her how to scratch behind the ears and the horse let its ears flop and let loose a big gusty sigh. Lydia giggled at it, less frightened now. It looked so silly! But she still didn't want to climb up on its back, or the back of any other horse, either.

The riding arena made no real impression on Lydia. It was just a big enclosed area with a lot of dirt. The jumping course, however, scared her nearly stiff. She listened in horror as Sarrin described sitting on the back of a horse as it raced across the open countryside and actually jumped over obstacles, instead of swerving around them like any sensible creature should do. She hoped she would be long gone from the Hall before anyone asked her to do such a thing.

“How large is this place, anyway?” Lydia asked. She added up the things she'd seen so far and came up with an area larger than her home village and the town of Greentree combined, and this was all contained within a larger city!

“The Hall of Lights grounds cover nearly an entire district of Caissa. Next to us is the Temple, and then the palace. If you look from outside the city, on a hill, you can see a big block in the middle of the city, with a lot of green towards one edge. The green is this big field, with the jumps and the pasture, and it is shared with the palace. All together, the three locations make up the largest complex in the entire city.”

Lydia chewed her lip. A palace? A temple? Dedicated to what god, she wondered. Probably not one she knew. And “palace” meant royalty. Was this place ruled by a king? She didn't know much of anything about government, only that the lands where she'd grown up were seen over by a baron, and that Greentree had a mayor.

Bells rang at intervals throughout the tour. Sarrin explained that the bells signalled certain times of the day. Lydia wondered if she'd ever keep everything straight. Bells here, colors there, modes of address to annoy her, and her poor mind felt like it was about to explode. First Bell wasn't really the first, because two other bells rang before it, but they made different sounds and were meant to wake different groups of servants. She didn't need to listen to some bells, but she did need to listen to others, and how could she tell them apart when they all sounded the same? Okay, maybe not the same, but it was hard for her to tell which bell sounded higher or lower when they sounded seperately.

Sarrin left her when the dinner bell sounded, after guiding her to the dining hall. Lydia watched her go with mingled relief and panic. Alone! Now what? She couldn't feel stupid in front of her elegant mentor now, true, but what was she to do?


Meeplar gave her a questioning look, then glanced at the dining hall.

“Good idea, little fuzzy,” Lydia said, then went inside. She hung back for a moment to survey what was going on. It looked like students, in their short gray robes, were taking food from an endless sea of serving platters and either carrying it away on a tray or sitting at the long tables. Conversations merged into a dull roar, punctuated with clinks of utensils hitting plates. Lydia slipped in quietly and took a place at the end of the serving line. Soon she had a tray full of food and was on her way back to her room, struggling to keep the tray and the big magic book under control.

She counted doorways to find it, using the blue bathing room door as a landmark. Hers was six down from that all-important door, she remembered that from the morning. There!

She slipped inside the room with a feeling of intense relief, this time remembering to close the door behind her. Someone had been in there while she was away. A pile of student clothing sat in a tidy heap on the bed, along with some towels and bed linens. She wondered what happened here with laundry. Did she do her own? If so, where? She hadn't seen any kind of laundry room in the tour.

Laundry questions aside, now that she was in a safe, secure place, Lydia was suddenly ravenous. She dropped both tray and book on her desk and started eating even as she opened the book to the first page.

Soon she was so deep in the text that she didn't even hear Meeplar chattering away, as the fuzzling did ninety percent of the time. Meeplar gave up on trying to talk and plumped down in her lap instead. Lydia ate and read.

Magic started out with history. Lydia had never known much history, and found it interesting despite herself. All she'd known about historical events came from songs. But this book talked about places she'd never heard of, and the development of different schools of magic, and the spread of magic across the continent of Anarill (and what was a continent, anyway?). It was fascinating. It didn't make much sense, at first, but it was still fascinating.

Then the book moved on to the real thing, talking about preparing to learn magic, and meditations, and spell components.

“It's like recipes, Meeplar!” Finally, something she could relate to. Spell components tended to be a lot weirder than baking ingredients, it looked like, but she could understand the concept very easily. Take a substance, prepare it in a certain way, then combine it with other ingredients at the right time and in the right way, and magic would happen.

Lydia read until the room was too dark to see the words on the page anymore. She realized that she hadn't seen any kind of oil lamp or candles, and wondered how people made light here. She went out to use the bathing room, with an armload of towelling and nightdress, and noticed the corridor was brightly lit. when she returned, clean and ready for bed, she left the door open long enough to use the light to make up her bed, then closed it securely. Meeplar chirped at her from the bed and she laid down. Her last thought was of the rumbling, purring lump snuggled up tight to her side.

* * * *

The next day, Lydia woke to the sound of a bell. She wondered which one it could possibly be, then noticed it was still dark outside and decided it must be one of the ones used to summon servants. She dressed quickly, fumbling in the darkness, and glad there was so little furniture to complicate matters. She remembered exactly where she'd left her clothes the night before. There was a trunk at the foot of the bed, but she hadn't put the clothing inside on purpose, so she could find it easily.

Where did people get light here, anyway? There must be something her uneducated country eyes were missing. Well, worry about that later. For now, she wanted to get down to the kitchen, and see if there was any way she could sneak in and maybe help a little before Sarrin came looking for her.

The kitchen was already in a flurry of activity. The big ovens were blazing away, and people were hard at work with the preparations for the day's baking and cooking. Lydia slipped inside and found a corner, out of the way, yet part of the action. She watched, feeling the longing to join in, with Meeplar investigating the contents of a cabinet at her feet. A little fantasy played out in her head, where she gained permission from a kind, jovial baker to help out in the mornings, because every kitchen could use more prep staff...

A crash made her jump. Meeplar looked up at her, filled with pride at her accomplisment, in the middle of a demolished stack of pans.

“Here now, what was that? And who in blazes are you? Students aren't allowed in the kitchen!”

A floury man, obviously the head baker, bore down on her, shaking his rolling pin. “You need to get yourself and that familiar of yours out of here, now!”

Lydia's fantasy popped like a soap bubble. “I'm sorry, Master, I just wanted--”

“I don't care what you wanted. Students are not allowed in the kitchens, now go. No, don't try to clean it up, you'll just make a bigger mess. Go on, out of here.”

Lydia swallowed against tears, scooped up Meeplar, and fled. How bad could her life get? Denied even the solace of watching others in a kitchen... She went back to her room. Some light came in now, from the uncovered window, and rather than fling herself facedown on the bed for a good cry, she started examining her room carefully. Bed. Yes, she knew about that, obviously. Chair, desk, trunk, bookshelf. What was in the trunk?

She opened it, sniffling a little and occasionally wiping her eyes, to find a lamp, a pen, and an inkwell. She took the items out and set them on the desk, then tried to figure out the lamp. There was no oil inside, and no place to put oil. It wasn't a candle-lantern, either, because there was nowhere to put a candle. There was a white half-circle where the wick or candle should be, and the chimney didn't come off. What in the world...

Just to see what would happen, she turned the knob that should have raised a wick. Instantly, the lamp lit with a calm, steady glow, emanating from the half-circle. Lydia flinched and almost dropped the lamp, but saved it before she could lose her grip. How strange... no wonder the base was a solid color! It needed no fuel stored inside, therefore, no need to see through it and check the oil level. She felt at the chimney: no heat. The lamp gave off no heat, no smell, only light. How amazing!

She set the lamp on the desk, enjoying its steady illumination. She put the pen and ink well beside it, then had a look at the desk drawers. Inside she found a blank notebook, but nothing else.

A bell rang out, deep and vibrant. Surely that must be the so-called First Bell, as it was loud enough to wake the dead. She'd better go get some food. She gathered up last night's dishes and returned them to the dining hall, then picked up some bread, fruit juice, and cheese. She escaped the dining hall before anybody said anything to her and retreated to her room. The corridor was no longer utterly deserted. A few bleary-eyed students glanced at her as she moved briskly towards her room. Nobody talked to her, though, and she was both glad and sorry about that.

Lydia ate her breakfast with Meeplar fighting against her bootlace. She tried to put herself in a positive frame of mind, but it was hard, so hard... Especially since, after breakfast, she had to meet up with Sarrin, and receive her official schedule for the day. Was it just for this particular day, or every day? She couldn't remember.

She did, however, remember where to meet Sarrin. After returning her dishes to the kitchen tray return area, she made her way to Sarrin's suite of rooms. That was the last thing to go right for a while.

Sarrin greeted her with a smile, then started quizzing her on what she'd read last night. Naturally, with a teacher's unerring instinct, she went for the facts and concepts Lydia hadn't quite understood. Plus, Lydia had read farther ahead than she was expected to, in her drive to learn fast, so the things freshest in her memory were not what Sarrin was after. Meeplar didn't help much, stampeding around the floor of Sarrin's sitting room and fighting with feet, furniture, and imaginary spots on the wall. Finally the quiz ended.

“You did well,” Sarrin pronounced unexpectedly.

“I did?” Lydia blinked, astonished. Meeplar reacted to her surprise with a quizzical mrrt?

“Yes, you did better than I expected. You not only read a great deal ahead, but you managed to retain the sense of the history, even though I know perfectly well you've never seen a map and have little or no idea about geography. We shall remedy that today, I believe. Now, do you have any questions about your reading last night?”

“Yes,” Lydia said, a little hesitant. “Like you said, I read a lot, and nowhere in that book did I see anything about a familiar. Also, I haven't seen anybody here with a fuzzling following them around, or any other creature. Why is that?”

Sarrin sighed. “I knew you would ask that someday. You see, Meeplar is very special. She came from another plane, just to be with you, because she could sense your abilities all the way through the Veil. Familiars are not unheard of, obviously, but they are also not very common. They tend to come through only for people with exceptional strength, who are capable of amazing things. This is why it is so sad for us, myself and the other Lights, that you have no desire to use these amazing natural abilities.”

“Me? Amazing?” Lydia looked at Meeplar, currently upside down and kicking vigorously at a piece of fluff she'd found. “And Meeplar is really special? Then why does she act so... well, silly? Will she ever do anything, you know, helpful?”

“I suspect your fuzzling is very young, kind of like a kitten. I've never seen one myself. Most people with familiars have other creatures, like cats, or owls. Once I saw someone with an elemental air spirit. But fuzzlings, and wuzzles, and fidgets... those are things out of old tales for us. When you both get older, your companion will become invaluable. She will probably be able to speak to you with her mind. She will definitely be able to amplify your energy and give you strength when you need it. Also, I believe, she should be able to fetch things for you, since she has hands. Just remember always that Meeplar is very special, and she will stay with you forever. The two of you are bonded now. Her life energy is tied to yours. Without you, she may actually die, and definitely will not remain on this plane.”

Lydia quickly dropped from her seat to the floor to collect the fuzzling from the ground. She cuddled the little creature, which made adorable noises and tangled her tiny little claws in Lydia's hair. “I don't ever want to think about her getting hurt. Even if she wasn't so special, she's still precious.”

“She's a tough little creature,” Sarrin reassured her. “And if you truly do abandon the Art, she will have nothing to trouble her furry little hide. But she may have other ideas. I've heard of familiars that expect their mages to perform extraordinary feats.”

“Why me?” Lydia said, rocking Meeplar in her arms. “Why am I supposed to do great things? All I want is to be a baker. I want to make great cakes, not great magics.”

“I don't know,” Sarrin said softly. “Normally, those born with strong abilities are born with equally strong desire to use them. But you want nothing to do with your power, and that is horribly sad.”

“I'm sorry,” Lydia said, feeling guilty. Was it selfish to want to do something she enjoyed?

“Enough of this,” Sarrin said. “I am going to send you on your way now. Remember, from Second Bell until lunch time you need to report to the riding instructor. Then after lunch, at Third Bell, you need to come back to me, and we'll start more formal lessoning. That will be your pattern for the next few months, okay?”

“I understand,” Lydia said, apprehensive to the very core of her being about riding lessons. Meeplar sensed her distress and gnawed on her finger to cheer her up, then wiggled to get down. Lydia let her go and watched the fuzzling bounce after a speck of dust in a sunbeam.

“Good. That book you read last night? Keep it on your bookshelf. While you are studying here, you will keep most of the books I assign you in that shelf. There are a few exceptions that must never leave the Library, but those are clearly marked. Also, books you take for personal use must be returned in a reasonable amount of time.”
“There are books for personal use? Like what?”

“Have you never had a chance to read for fun?” Sarrin's eyes widened. “Well, I can understand that, I suppose. Out in the country books must be much harder to come by. Let me recommend one for you that you might enjoy. Let's see... When I was your age, I really enjoyed one called A Thousand and One Tales of the Elder Days. Try reading that in your free time, that should be a wonderful introduction to reading for pleasure.”

“I will look for it,” Lydia promised. She wrote down the title in her notebook. Sarrin had confirmed what she'd suspected, the blank notebook was for her use to keep a record of things she studied and any questions she came up with. Then she attracted Meeplar's attention and took her leave with a heavy heart. Between the assumption that she carried the potential for awesome power within her and the utter terror at the thought of riding one of those great beasts in the stable, she felt so much anxiety it made her somewhat ill.

Every step of the way to the stable was harder than the last. Meeplar couldn't even cheer her up, although the fuzzling definitely tried. Watching the little ball of fluff frisking along in the bright sunshine, Lydia wondered about what Sarrin said. Like a kitten, that part was obvious. But the whole thing of fuzzlings only being attracted to people with extraodrinary power... Nana never said anything about that. Wouldn't she have said so? Nana knew everything. She knew about the fuzzlings in the first place, didn't she?

Her conscience presented her with an overly clear memory of the very sober look on Nana's face when she told Lydia about the need for training her unsuspected abilities. Maybe Nana had known, after all.

The stable loomed ahead. Lydia's steps slowed until she was barely moving. Meeplar attacked a flower gone to seed fluff. Lydia smiled. Well, everybody thought she was so special, even Meeplar, so maybe she'd better act a little braver. She picked up her pace again and marched into the dreaded stable resolutely.

She found the riding instructor right away, in an office tucked beside the main stable door. Or rather, the riding instructor found her.

“Are you Lydia?”

She jumped. The voice came from a woman fussing with papers on a desk, who promptly dropped the papers in an untidy heap.

“Yes,” she said, heart in throat. Oh no, it was really going to happen now, there was no escape... “Are you the riding instructor?”

“I am. My name is Kara. Sarrin said you are a little afraid of the horses?”

Lydia blushed. “I don't know anything at all about horses. Yesterday was the first time I ever even saw one up close.”

“Well, we'll fix that problem, and see if we can't get you more comfortable around the beasties. Come with me.”

Kara led the way to a stall that contained a much shorter horse than the monsters she'd seen yesterday.

“This is Hervy. His breed is from far to the north, and they're called Figro. He's a very kind, gentle, and patient old soul, and you will learn a lot more from him than you will from me.”

“He's a lot smaller than the ones Sarrin showed me.”

“Yes, Figros are short, barely larger than ponies. But they don't have the nasty temper that most ponies have, so we use them to teach our youngsters. Now what's going to happen is I will teach you the basics of riding in private lessons. You'll learn how to catch the horse, how to groom him and saddle him, how to mount and dismount unaided, and how to stay on top of him when he moves. Then, once I'm confident you can control Hervy, you'll be in a group lesson with a few other youngsters just starting out. How does that sound?”

“Fine, I guess,” Lydia said, trying to keep her fear to herself. At least this one was small.

The lesson started well, because Kara did most of the work. Lydia had to lead the horse to the hitching post, which was really pretty scary. Kara showed her how to tie the lead rope properly to the rail, how to groom the big creature—somehow, he got bigger when Lydia tried to reach his back with a brush—and how to put a confusing mass of leather on him. It wasn't an ordinary bridle and saddle, the instructor explained, because she needed to learn balance. There was a halter with big rings on the noseband, a strap that went around the horse's middle, called a surcingle, and more straps to wrap around chest and rear. Kara made it look easy. Somehow, Lydia doubted it would go that well for her.

Then Kara led both Lydia and the horse to the center of an enclosed round pen, and the real lesson began.

Getting on top of the horse used muscles Lydia had never known she had, even with Kara's help. The riding instructor got her settled, then unclipped the normal lead rope and snapped a new, much longer line to the top ring on the halter's noseband.

From up here, the ground seemed very, very far away. Lydia wrapped her hands around the handhold on the surcingle and hoped she didn't look as terrified as she felt. Then the horse moved.

Lydia hung on for dear life. The creature moved in a way she couldn't begin to describe. She could feel every muscle she sat on working, and the lifting and placement of each hoof. She felt like she was going to slide right off, then what Kara was saying made sense: hang on with your knees. She squeezed her knees together and felt a tiny bit more secure.

Then Meeplar popped into existence out of nowhere, right under Hervy's nose. Startled, the horse tossed his head, snorted, and jumped to the left. Lydia fell off. Meeplar chirped triumphantly and pounced on her chest.

“Easy, Hervy,” Kara called. The horse snorted again, then turned mildly curious eyes to its former rider and the fuzzling on her chest. “Are you going to make it, Lydia?”

“I think so,” she replied, picking up Meeplar and moving her. She sat up. Sore, but not too bad. “I'm sorry, I didn't think to tell her to stay away.”

“No matter,” Kara said cheerfully. “She probably wouldn't listen anyway. Familiars rarely do. But now you've experienced the worst that can happen, and you know that you can survive.”

“Yes, I survived,” Lydia said, picking herself up slowly and brushing dirt off in clouds. “Is that really the worst of it?”

“Other than sore muscles, yes. Everybody falls off eventually. It's part of riding.”

“Really? I thought good riders would be able to stay on top.”

“They can, but they also know how to take a fall. Now back up you go, and we'll carry on, now that Hervy's met your fuzzling.”

“I just realized... forgive me if this is rude, or impertinent, but are you a mage as well? You see Meeplar!”

“Nah, I'm no mage, but there's enough witchery in my blood that I can see creatures from other places when they're around. It's a necessary ability around all these mages.”

“And you've met other people with familiars? Sarrin said it's unusual, and I haven't seen anyone else with one yet.”

“Up you go... one, two, three! Yes, I've seen people with familiars. Never a fuzzling, though, always a cat or a bird, or even a wolf. That really causes a ruckus when a wolf comes around the stables. You'll meet people with critters soon enough. Right, Hervy, back out you go.”

Lydia survived the rest of the lesson and came out of it a tiny bit less frightened. It helped that Hervy seemed to like her. He snuffled in her hair and rubbed his face on her when she was trying to groom him afterwards, and he leaned into the brush, which wasn't really all that good because he almost knocked Lydia over. Maybe riding wouldn't be as bad as she'd feared when she first saw those enormously tall beasts yesterday.

After lunch, the rest of the day passed in Sarrin's quarters. Lydia felt unbelievably grubby after her lesson and resolved to make time during her lunch break to clean up before the rest of the day. She didn't want to smell like a horse, and she felt like anybody that looked at her could see the marks of her fall and know what a fool she'd been, tossed off a walking horse and sat on by her own familiar.

Sarrin walked her through a basic geography lesson, including what geography meant. Lydia had never heard the word itself before today. She learned a lot. They also covered how to read a map, which made sense out of a lot of last night's history, and then came the absolute basics of magecraft: how to see and recognize her own power.

Lydia struggled with what Sarrin told her at first. It made no sense. How could she look without eyes? How could she see inside herself? Then, just as she was ready to give up and go back home, madness be damned, she caught a glimpse of a glow. Then it blazed to life, a vivid, intense white glow, emanating from somewhere within her, and reaching little tendrils out to everything around her. There was a thick cord running between herself and Meeplar, and a much thinner wisp connecting her to her teacher.

“I see it!” she gasped. “It's all bright, and glowing! Why does it connect to Meeplar, and you, and other stuff?”

“That's how your power works, on the most basic level. It connects you to living things. Not everybody is like that. Again, you're special that way. You have a strong bond with Meeplar, and now you can see it. Your bond with me will grow stronger as we progress, because that is the way with mentor-student bonds. As for everything else, once you know how to use it, your power will give you constant information about every living thing around you.”

“Why am I so different? Why do I have to have special mage power? I just want to be normal, and a baker...”

“I know. But you aren't. You were born with the kind of power we see maybe once in a generation, and I have to help you learn to use it before it begins to use you. Can you see now why this is?”

Lydia hung her head. “I see, but I don't want to...” She used this newfound way of looking at things to look at Sarrin. Her power was dimmer, more of a sparkle than a glow. “Why do you look so different?”

Sarrin blinked. “You can see me? Oh, my. You really are strong. My power looks different because it is less strong than yours, but it should be masked entirely, because I didn't want it to interfere with you seeing your own.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

The lesson progressed fairly smoothly from there. Sarrin showed her a few things that supposedly laid the groundwork for everything she would do in the future, how to tell what was “her” and what wasn't, how to anchor herself to the earth, and other such things. Part of her wanted to dismiss the words as nonsense, but after seeing her own power blazing away brighter than a fire, Lydia just followed the instructions without complaint.

She went to the library when Sarrin dismissed her and found a copy of the recommended book, then stopped at the dining hall for some dinner. All the excitement of the day had left her tired and hungry. Very, very hungry. She took her tray back to her room almost without incident.



Meeplar's startled vocalization shook Lydia out of the daze she'd sunk into, carrying her tray back to her room. The fuzzling stood stock still in front of her, with all fur on end, facing a longhaired black cat. The cat stretched forward to sniff the fuzzling.

“Hello there! Finally, someone else has a familiar around here!”

Lydia looked around and found the speaker, a boy that looked a few years older than her. He had red hair, freckles, and a nice smile.

“Hello,” she said, shyness making her voice soft. “I'm glad to see another familiar. I'd thought Meeplar was the only one.”

“No, but they're rare these days. Well, I'm hungry, and I see you've already got your dinner. I'm sure I'll see you around. Bye! Come on, Sashie.”

The cat sniffed Meeplar one more time, then meowed and followed her partner to the dining hall. Meeplar flattened her fur back down to normal size and resumed the trek to their room.

“That was interesting,” Lydia remarked to the fuzzling's round backside. Then they reached the sanctuary of their room and shut the door firmly against the outside world.

Lydia attacked her dinner ravenously, with a new book in hand, one that Sarrin had given her. She was to read the first three chapters, and continue reading Magic. She wanted to get the studying out of the way, then have a bath, and then tackle the Elder Days book. She'd glanced at the table of contents, and it looked fascinating, like stories a minstrel would tell on feast days.

While she worked through her reading assignments, the thought of her power, her vibrant, glowing poower, was never far from her mind. Somehow, she'd never believed what everyone said, despite Meeplar's presence and the fire calling incident. How could she, a simple country girl, have magical power? But it was there, blindingly bright, for anyone who know how to see it.

By the time she finished studying, Lydia was more than ready for bed. But she made herself get up and go have a bath, knowing how much better she'd feel once she got rid of the smell of horse and the lingering grittiness from her fall. She wondered, as she walked through the once again empty corridor to the equally deserted bathing room, just how many students were here, at this immense complex. She'd seen an awful lot of them in the dining hall, but nowhere else. Where did they all go? What did they do with themselves? And could they all see Meeplar? So far, everyone she'd met had seen her familiar, a pleasant change from the world outside. How many mages were there in the world, anyway?

The bath felt fantastic. Lydia wallowed in the hot water until it cooled, happy beyond words to have such an amazing bathing room to play in. If she was going to be forced to stay away from her home and chosen profession, at least she would be comfortable doing it. This tub, big enough for her to sink completely under the water, beat the living daylights out of the little tiny tub she'd used before.

After her bath, Lydia yawned her way back to her room, and positioned the light so it shone on the bed. She crawled in with book and fuzzling and set off on a reading adventure like none she'd ever dreamed could exist. She fell asleep with images of djinn and centaurs, dryads and fauns, dancing in her head, all laced through with exciting adventures and magic.

* * * *

Lydia found herself settling into a routine. She had her intensive review in the morning, her riding lesson before lunch, then real lessons after lunch. She knew what to expect from each day, and when to expect it.

Unfortunately, knowing failure was coming didn't make it any easier to face.

Before arriving in Caissa, Lydia had learned things easily, quickly, with no effort on her part. She soaked up knowledge like a sponge. But here... things were different. Was it the fact that she still didn't want to practice magic? Was she suddenly stupid? Was some kind of curse actively working against her? She didn't know, but she did know that she consistently felt inadequate.

Her morning reviews were painful ordeals. No matter how hard she tried, she could not rememer everything she studied. Sarrin had a real talent for spotting the gaps in her knowledge and questioning her on them. This did nothing for her confidence, and frequently led to an armful of concerned Meeplar.

As for riding... well, horses no longer terrified her. Yes, they were big. But they were also friendly and obedient, for the most part. But she felt sure she'd discovered every possible way to fall off a horse known to man. She'd come off bareback, and from a saddle, and over cavaletti (tiny little jumps that were supposed to help prepare her for larger ones). She'd fallen into arena fences and bushes out in the field. Once she even fell off into a pond. She still wasn't certain how that one happened. Her riding instructor thought it was all very amusing, of course. Not in a cruel way, but still...

And then came the magic lessons. For all her natural talent, magic came hard to her, very hard. It was like there was a barrier blocking her from her own power. She could see Sarrin looking grave while she struggled with the simplest of spells, like calling fire or even calling her familiar. Meeplar responded better to her emotional state than she did to any attempt to attract her attention with a spell.

In general, Lydia felt like a miserable failure, and she dreaded the upcoming review with all her heart. All students faced a quarterly review in front of their teachers and four members of the Circle, the governing body of the Hall.

The day of the review dawned appropriately gray and rainy. The clouds matched her mood as Lydia trudged down the long hall to Sarrin's suite. The review was to occur there, in the lesson room where she always felt so miserable, despite Sarrin's attempts at encouragement.

They were there already. Lydia froze on the threshold of Sarrin's suite, then took a deep breath, pulled her shoulders back, and stood in front of them, four Lights in silver, Sarrin, and Kara.

“Welcome, Lydia,” one of the Circle said, she didn't know who. “Let us begin your review. How do you feel you have done these past four months?”

“Terrible,” Lydia whispered.

“I beg your pardon? Please, speak up, child.”

“Terrible,” Lydia repeated, louder. “I can't seem to learn anything right. And I can't stay on top of a horse to save my life.”

“This is not good,” the Light said gravely. “Sarrin, you have had the teaching of this youngster for four months. Do you concur with her self-assessment?”

“I do not,” Sarrin said firmly. Lydia looked at her, eyes wide. “Lydia is a hard-working student that sets unreasonably high expectations for herself, with the result that she is ahead of all students in her age group, and many older than her. If she does not remember every word of every chapter I assign her perfectly, she sees it as failure, without noticing that she remembers the sense and meaning of the lesson perfectly well. She is very headstrong when it comes to accepting this so-called failure as normal, preferring instead to focus on trying to remember everything, which we all know is just not possible. I am more troubled by the block she has on her abilities.”

“Have you any ideas about this block?” A new voice spoke up, while Lydia was still struggling to comprehend Sarrin's unexpected praise.

“I do,” Sarrin nodded. “I believe it stems from her resistance to being a mage in general. This student, for all her hard work and drive for perfection, still wants to be a baker, not a mage.”

“Can you tell us why this is, Lydia?”

“I like baking,” she replied simply. “It is what I have wanted to do my whole life.”

“And why do you dislike magic so?”

“I... I don't dislike magic, not really,” she faltered. “I just... it's not baking. And I don't see why it is so hard for me. I just want to learn what I have to, so I can go back to the bakery and do what I love.”

“Have you no joy in magic, then?” Lydia knew this voice. It belonged to the headwoman, Clariss. She snuck a glance at the friendly face and felt a stab of guilt. All these people wanted her to succeed, to enjoy magic like they did, and she just couldn't quit letting them down.

“Not really,” she confessed miserably. “It is so hard! I have to struggle just to call a little bit of fire, when all the other students my age can do all sorts of things.”

“Lydia, dear, remember how few students there are your age. Be easy on yourself,” Sarrin said, an often repeated suggestion.

“It doesn't matter how few there are!” Lydia burst out, letting the frustration and anger at herself loose. “They are all better than me! Everybody is always telling me how special I am, and how special Meeplar is, and all the things I should be able to do, but I can't even do as much magic as an uneducated beggar off the street!”

Sarrin winced a little at that. She had great pride in the amazing potential of her student, but it did indeed hurt to see a scruffy little street urchin already casting first level spells within days of his arrival, and progressing with supernatural speed after that. Part of her envied the Light with that protege, but the rest of her was glad that her student read far better than anyone else her age and had a passion for hot baths.

“Lydia, please calm down, and listen to us now.” The leader of the group, a Light with a much paler silver robe than the others, held up a hand in a “settle down” gesture. “We do not agree with your assessment of your own failures. We have discussed you and your block at length, and we believe that someone with the determination you display every day can overcome such an obstacle. We want you to continue on as a student, to keep learning, and to keep falling off horses.”

A flash of pure mischief passed over the Light's face as she said that. Kara snorted.

“When will I break through this block?” Lydia cried from the depths of her soul. The sooner her mage powers came under control, the sooner she could get back to baking.

“That is beyond our control,” another Light said, the only one that hadn't spoken yet. Lydia sighed. “Now take the rest of this day and do with it what you will. Remember that no one is perfect, and that it is okay not to recall every word of every lesson, as long as you understand the meaning. I think, to help you with the lack of balance on horseback, you should start studying dancing. There is a new dancing class beginning tomorrow night, after the dinner hour. Please be there, in the Grand Hall.”

Lydia remembered to bow correctly to each of the Lights before she scooped up Meeplar and made her escape. Wonderful. A new set of lessons to fail at. Why could nobody see how horribly she failed except herself?

The new set of lessons proved just as awkward as the riding lessons. Lydia felt horrifically uncoordinated. Her body simply would not do what she told it to properly. Why?

“Why?” she asked Meeplar, in the privacy of her own room, after a week of dance lessons. “Why am I so blasted uncoordinated everywhere except in a kitchen? I can move just fine when i'm making cookies and have to be in three places at once, because everything's happening at the same time! One batch comes out, while another batch goes in, and the others are cool enough to come off the sheet but if I leave them any longer they'll stick... that's a lot harder than moving my feet in a pattern, or sitting on a big animal's back. Why can't I do it?”

Meeplar didn't say anything useful, just butted her round little body into Lydia's chest and purred. She sent a feeling of outside.

“Well, if everything else is going wrong, at least I can understand you a little better,” Lydia said, scratching the fuzzling. “You're right, little fuzzball. We need a walk. Let's go.”

Lydia took off her charcoal robe, the brand of a student, and picked up her cloak. Meeplar at her side, she made her way to the end of the corridor and stood for a moment, hesitating. To the right lay the doorway to the rest of the Hall's grounds. To the left lay the Grand Hall, with access to the forbidden outside world. Then she shrugged. Why else had she taken off her robe, if she didn't intend to sneak out? She picked up Meeplar and warned her to keep quiet, then walked across the Grand Hall like she belonged there. This late at night, there were no people out here, and she slipped out the gigantic front doors without any trouble at all, beyond the struggle to unbar and move one of the immense things so she could get out.

The night breeze was cool and damp. Lydia shivered, part cold and part excited, and tucked Meeplar more comfortably against her side. She hadn't been out of the Hall of Lights since the day her brother dropped her off there, months ago. The city of Caissa spread out before her, bright and sparkling even in the night with its elemental lights.

Lydia set off down the broad, paved boulevard before her. She'd heard of all sorts of wonders out here in the City, and she'd really like to see them. She'd start with... the Temple. Yes, that would do nicely. She'd heard that every god or goddess of light had a sacred space there. She'd like to go pray at Epona's altar for a moment, and ask for the goddess's aid with horses. She'd also like to see the altar dedicated to Vera, the goddess her mother worshipped and had served in her youth.

The Temple was off to the right of the Hall, part of the vast circular complex at the center of the city. It was made of the same white marble as everything else in this city seemed to be, but somehow felt welcoming, rather than cold and imposing. Lydia slipped in through the always-open front doors and looked around in awe. Enormous! This place was huge! It was all a vast, open dome, covered over with an arching roof but still somehow giving the impression of infinity. Niches lined the walls, seperated by columns. Each held a statue of a god or goddess. At the center of the structure stood a great round altar. Lydia approached it. She saw lights around the base, one of which illuminated a plaque identifying the altar as sacred to the nameless Creator. She bowed respectfully to it, then moved on, looking for Epona.

Lydia wasn't sure how much time she'd spent in the Temple when she finally emerged. Meeplar had behaved well in there, a distinct relief, and now bounded joyfully behind Lydia as she ventured out into the city. Where to now? She wanted to see so many things, but it was late at night. No sense going to, say, a marketplace in the darkness. Perhaps the statue garden? She'd heard it was worth seeing, and statues could be seen at night, perhaps even easier than during daylight hours, as there were no crowds of curious people out now. But where was it? She thought of the map of Caissa she'd studied, then picked a route that should get her there.

It worked. Meeplar clambered on and over statuary whole Lydia gawked at some of the fantastic shapes. She'd read about some of these creatures in novels and in history, but her imagination hadn't been equal to producing what they really looked like. She was staring at a centaur, envying his ability to get around quickly, yet never worry about falling off, when Meeplar let loose a shriek like she'd never made before and launched herself towards Lydia, all four clawed limbs extended.

Then the world went dark as smothering cloth was dropped over her head, a voice called out a single word, and Lydia dropped into unconsciousness like a stone.

* * * *

Meeplar's growls roused her. She'd never heard the fuzzling growl before, but had no doubt that was what she was hearing. She pried her eyes open and saw... bars. She was in a cage? Yes, a cage, just like people put animals in. And Meeplar...

The fuzzling hung upside down from a roof beam, outside the cage and well above Lydia's head. Even if she stood on top of the cage, she might not be able to reach the fuzzling. Meeplar growled and thrashed, trying to untie her fragile ankles, but her little hands were bound too so she had no success. She was so furious her fur shot little silvery sparks with every movement.

“Meeplar,” Lydia croaked, but the fuzzling couldn't hear her. What in the name of all the holies had happened?

Lydia's brain didn't want to work. She remembered... a bag? Someone had put a bag over her head? And then said... something. A spell, it must have been a spell.

Suddenly, an icy chill ran through her that cleared the fog from her head, if only briefly. People had warned her again and again that untrained, she was vulnerable to attack from evil mages. That must be what had happened. An evil mage grabbed her, stuffed her in a sack, and probably was preparing even now to take over her mind and powers.

Now what could she do about it? The fog descended back over her mind again, with a fresh wave of utter despair. How could she fight the evil one, when she had no mage abilities to speak of? Sure the raw power was there, but she couldn't get through to it. While Lydia sank farther into depression, part of her was aware that Meeplar's struggles were slowing, becoming weaker. Finally what she was feeling penetrated her depression: Meeplar was losing consciousness. Fuzzlings were not made to survive being upside down.

“Meeplar! No, oh no, don't...” Lydia wanted to cry. Instead, she looked at what held her fuzzling bound: leather. Very well, then, leather burned. Forget about failure, forget about wanting to be a baker, just concentrate on calling fire to that bit of leather. Only that bit of leather. And have a cushion of air ready to catch the falling fuzzling. Do it. Now. No failure.

Lydia focused her mind with all her willpower and her love of Meeplar working together with her magic. A spark flared, precisely on the leather holding Meeplar upside down. The fuzzling dropped and was caught by the cushion of air, which floated obediently to the bars of the cage. Lydia reached through the cage and fumbled frantically at the bindings holding Meeplar's hands and feet, discovering in the process little crystals that burned her fingers and tried to suck away her magic. But she was too desperate to save Meeplar's life. No crystal was going to get the better of her! The bindings fell away, and Meeplar opened her eyes.

“Mrrt,” she said, a pale echo of her usual energetic chirp. Lydia sent her energy. She'd found out from Sarrin that the fuzzling basically ate her energy, using it to survive in this plane, so it should help... It did. Meeplar perked up immediately.

“Meeplar, Meeplar, I'm so sorry I didn't help you right away... now you have to get out of here, before the evil mage comes back. Understand? Get out of here! I don't want you caught again!”

Meeplar made a feeling of protest, but then they both heard a noise and she winked out of existence. Lydia envied her that ability.

“What do you think you're doing, little girl?”

A voice preceeded a cloaked figure into the torchlit room Lydia was in. It was a male voice, she could tell that much, but nothing else. No obvious accent, no remarkable depth or timbre, just a male voice. So much for learning anything valuable about her captor: average size, average voice, completely covered in a dark red-brown cloak. Drat.

“N-n-nothing,” she stammered.

“Bollocks. The surge of power I felt in here could only have come from you. What did you do?”

“I-I want to ask the same thing. What did you do to me? Why am I in a cage? Where am I?”

“I'll ask the questions here, if you don't mind. I want to know what that power was used for.” The hooded head looked around, but the face remained concealed. Then it tilted upward. “You little wench! You freed the creature!”

At that moment, Lydia heard a crashing noise, then the sound of many booted feet running downstairs. Meeplar popped into existence inside the cage with a defiant shriek. Then there were people everywhere, with magic flying and swords flashing...

Lydia clutched Meeplar to her chest and scooted back into the farthest possible corner of her cage, sobbing hysterically. Meeplar struggled a little, letting her know that she was holding too tight, so she let loose her grip a little bit, but she couldn't quit crying. Meeplar had been injured! She had almost died! And Lydia herself was in a cage, and scared senseless by the magical battle going on right in front of her. Balls of energy exploded practically in her face. The heat from them made her cringe away.

Then, so suddenly the silence made her ears ring, the fight ended. The menacing figure in the cloak was bound swiftly and efficiently by a grim-faced swordsman, then unmasked. The two mages of Light stared at him in astonishment. Lydia wondered who it was, then decided she didn't care. She tried to stop crying. She could see now that the people were all from Clusters. They all carried the mark of the Hall somewhere on them, a shoulder patch for the fighters, a medallion for the mages, and the others now flowing down the stairs bore the mark as well. Her ears hurt and felt stuffed with cotton. She could hear them all talking now, but not what they were saying.

Then someone, one of the warriors she thought, noticed her and broke open the lock on the cage. '”Come on out, Lydia,” the fighter said.

Lydia tried to move, but was shaking and still sobbing too hard to do anything but hold Meeplar and rock forward a little bit.

“Hey, Shellani? Give me a hand here? The little girl's got problems.”
A woman turned away from the shocked discussion around the unmasked dark mage and smiled at Lydia. She immediately dropped to her knees, crawled into the cage, and pulled the sobbing girl against her side. “There, there, it's going to be just fine now. Nobody's going to get hurt anymore.”

“He hurt Meeplar!” Lydia wailed, then showed Shellani the burns on the fuzzling's wrists and ankles from the crystals. “He hung her upside down, and she almost died, and--”

“Let me see that,” Shellani said soothing. “Lydia, do you know what I am? I'm a healer, with magic as well. Let me hold your fuzzling's hands. Can you do that?”

Lydia nodded, hiccuping. A healer? One that could see Meeplar? Her tears slowed and she gave the healer Meeplar's hand.

The tiny arms and hands looked like something a bird might grow. They usually rode tucked up into the fuzzling's furry body, only emerging to do some sort of mischief. Now they had red blisters around them from elbow to wrist. Shellani wrapped her own, much larger hand around Meeplar's forearm and closed her eyes. Lydia saw a warm golden glow around the hand, then Meeplar cheeped and examined her arm. She let out a happy little sound, rolled on her backside in Lydia's lap, and held out both legs and the other arm for Shellani's attention. The healer smiled again and took care of the fuzzling's wounds.

“That's better. Now, Lydia, are you hurt?”

Lydia shook her head. “Thank you for fixing Meeplar. I'm sorry I was so upset.”

“It's okay, little one. You're only eight, after all. You're allowed to be upset when someone kidnaps you and hurts your friend. Now, can we get out of this cage? They've taken away the dark mage, and it's safe now.”

“Okay,” Lydia said, then crawled out of the cage. Standing up felt good. So did feeling Meeplar bounce around her ankles. Like the kitten Sarrin once compared her to, the fuzzling recovered from trauma quickly. “How many people here can see my fuzzling?”

Shellani crawled out of the cage and paused a moment on the threshold, considering. “All but three,” she said. “The two fighters and the other healer don't have any mage abilities. The rest of us do.”
“I like it when people can see Meeplar. She got me in so much trouble when I first met her, because she was invisible and tearing the kitchen apart... She left visible footprints, though, and that's what convinced my Master and Nana I wasn't just crazy. Can we go back home now?”

“Yes, little one. I think it's past time to get you home.”

Lydia traveled back to the Hall surrounded by two full Clusters. She felt much safer sandwiched between all the big adults than she had in the cage. Meeplar, fully recovered from her ordeal and chatty as ever, rode her shoulder, one hand knotted in her hair, and kept up a running commentary as they walked.

Fortunately, the Hall wasn't too far away by the route the Clusters chose. It had taken Lydia longer to get to the sculpture garden, but she'd gone a more roundabout way. Once inside, Shellani took Lydia to the infirmary and gave her a dose of something bitter.

“This will help you sleep without nightmares,” she said, smoothing Lydia's rumpled hair. “Now let's get you back to your room.”

Walking down the endless marble corridors, Lydia had vague, confusing impressions of colors and designs that surely couldn't be there. After all, the walls were white marble. She knew that. And most of the doors were wood painted white. She knew that, too. But still, she kept seeing colorful things, that she couldn't quite focus on.

Shellani walked her right to her room without even needing to ask which door it was. Lydia was grateful for that, because whatever the healer had given her made her so tired her head was spinning.

“Lay down now, little one. You can tell us what happened in the morning.”

Lydia tried to say thank you as she crawled into bed, but she wasn't sure if it came out or not. She dropped into deep sleep like a stone.

* * * *

The next day, Lydia woke at First Bell instead of Baker's Bell as she usually did. She sat up, momentarily disoriented, then remembered the night before and checked Meeplar. The fuzzling was fine.

Lydia dressed and started for the dining hall, only to halt in amazement out in the no longer plain corridor. She remembered a confused impression of color from the night before, but this--! The students' doorways were decorated in wildly different, extremely creative ways, each door a unique work of art. Some of them stretched the definitions of art, but all of them were distinctly individual.

“What happened out here, Meeplar?”

The fuzzling had no answer. Lydia continued to the dining hall, gawking like a tourist at each door design.

After breakfast, Lydia made her way to Sarrin's chambers, just as usual. Inside, she found a surprise.

“Your Eminence,” she said, bowing deeply. The woman at the head of the Circle of Lights, clad in the order's only shining white robe, acknowledged her with a regal nod of her head.

“Good morning, student Lydia,” she said, her voice old and creaky, but still strong. “I trust you slept well after your ordeal?”

“I did, ma'am. The stuff that Shellani gave me worked very well, and I had no nightmares.”

“Good. Now, would you care to explain what happened?”

Lydia swallowed hard. She'd known someone would ask, but not the most important woman in the Circle. “I went for a walk,” she said in a very small voice. “I—I wanted to see the Temple, and some of the city. I was upset, because I can't do anything right, and I wanted to get away from the Hall for a little while. I went to the Temple, then I went to the sculpture garden. Meeplar and I were looking at the art when suddenly she screamed and somebody put a bag over my head and knocked me out with magic. I woke up again in a cage and saw Meeplar hanging upside down.” She paused, swallowed hard, then gathered her willpower and told the truth. “I messed up then. I didn't think to try and get Meeplar down, just started feeling sorry for myself. She hung upside down until... she... almost died. Then I felt that she was dying and made the magic work to get her free. I sent her away and she came back with a lot of Lights.”

Elmene, Head of the Circle, gave Lydia a severe look. “Do you understand that leaving the sanctuary of the Hall without an escort is wrong and dangerous?”

Lydia hung her head. “Yes, Your Eminence.”

“Do you understand that through your willful disobedience you nearly cost your familiar her life and roused all of the active Clusters currently in Caissa? People, I might add, who are in desperate need of their rest.”

“Your Eminence, please--” Sarrin raised a hand in protest, but was waved to silence.

“Answer, child.”

“Yes, Your Eminence.” Lydia burned with shame. Tears prickled at her eyes again, thinking of what she'd done to Meeplar.

“Do you also understand that you must serve pennance for your actions?”

“Yes, Your Eminence.” Lydia almost wanted whatever pennance the old lady came up with. Maybe it would make her feel better.

“Good. You will suspend your studies for four days, beginning immediately. During this time, you will be restricted to bread and water, and I want you in the library every day, researching the bond some people share with familiars. I want you to write a treatise on everything you learn about this bond and why it is important and have it on my desk first thing in the morning of the fifth day from now. Is this understood?”

“Yes, Your Eminence,” Lydia said to the floor. It could be worse, truly it could, and the research would at least be interesting. Of course, every word would remind her of how she'd almost failed her own familiar, but penance wasn't supposed to be pleasant.

“And now, child, we come to the reason why I am truly here. Tell me, in detail, exactly what you did to free your familiar.”

Lydia looked up in surprise. “I called fire,” she said.

“Is that all?”

“Well, I made a cushion of air to catch the poor thing, so she didn't fall to the ground.”

“Nothing happened inside yourself?”

“Uh...” Lydia thought a moment. Did she really want to know that part? Better not take any chances. “I got angry at myself and made myself do it right. I fail at everything magical so often, but I just had to get this right, so I did.”

“That's all? You got angry, then things worked. Hmm.” Elmene paused, rubbing her chin. “I want you to do it again. Call light.”

Lydia resisted the urge to panic and did it. She wasn't sure who was more surprised, herself or Sarrin, when a little ball of light popped into existence, hovering over her hand. The Head, however, only nodded.

“Very good, child. You may extinguish it now. I want you to add something to your days from now on, including the days of your penance. You will make sure to cast at least one spell a day, every day, with no anger in your heart. Understood?”

“Yes, Your Eminence.” Why, she wondered.

“Very well. I will leave you to your penance now. Sarrin? Come with me.”

Lydia looked desperately at her mentor, questions burning inside her, but bowed and left. What choice did she have, after all, when the Head told her to go?

She went straight to the Library to begin her penance. This wouldn't be easy, she knew. Very few books mentioned familiars, for whatever reason, and she didn't even know where to begin. Meeplar followed along behind her.

The Library was a vast room, on the same scale as everything else in this huge complex. Where to start, where to start... she chose an aisle pretty much at random and plunged in.

Over the course of the next four days, Lydia got very hungry, but learned a great deal about familiars. They came in all shapes and sizes, everything from domestic animals (the most ridiculous recorded animal being a sheep) to other-planar creatures, like fuzzlings. She learned that they had varying degrees of power, but all amplified the abilities of their human partner in some way so the two together were much more than either seperate. She learned that the more powerful the familiar, the smarter it got. This made her frown a bit, puzzled, as she watched Meeplar roll across the floor, wrapped around a stray bit of scrap paper. Weren't fuzzlings supposed to be remarkably powerful? She sure didn't act remarkably intelligent most of the time. Then she reminded herself Meeplar was only a baby and went back to work.

No one really knew what made the familiar bond possible. People speculated on every possibility from empathy to a character flaw, but no one really knew why familiars were drawn to some people but not others. Scholars generally agreed, though, that familiars liked mages with the most power. If a mage had a familiar, even a sheep, it was a guarantee that the mage was very strong.

Lydia wrote up what she learned, and her own conclusions about the information, and turned it in on the appointed day. Then she went to the dining hall and got herself a real breakfast.

She'd been dilligent about her other assignment, as well, making certain to cast at least one spell a day without any anger inside. Lydia could scarcely believe how easy it was now, after all the struggle and failure of before. All she had to do was think of light, now, and light appeared. It felt good to do those little bits of magic. She also worked her way through all the lessons she'd failed at over the last few months, astonished at the ease of working the spells now. What had happened to her? She must have broken through the block they'd told her about. Magic was fun now, an enjoyable exercise, not something to be dreaded and struggled with.

She reported to Sarrin's suite filled with anticipation. Finally, now she could ask all the questions she'd stored up inside!

“Good morning,” Sarrin said, when Lydia walked in.

“Hello! Can I ask you questons now?”

Sarrin laughed. “My, aren't you eager this morning. What is on your mind?”

“I want to know what happened... you know, that night. Why did so many people come to rescue me?”

Sarrin lost her smile. “I knew you would ask that. It's not something you should dwell on, really, because it was out of your control... Whatever you did to rescue Meeplar was felt by every single mage in this city. The Clusters currently in residence saw that the raw power belonged to someone trained by the Circle and were already halfway to the source when your fuzzling found them and showed them the right place. It was very impressive. And now... you have noticed a difference?”

“Yes!” Lydia felt a bit of shock at the thought of every mage in town feeling something she did, but pushed it away. “Magic is easy now! And... why are all the doors in the student hall suddenly decorated? They look very pretty, but why? And when did that happen?”

Sarrin laughed. “It happened long before you got here, little one. But you weren't allowing yourself to see it. All of those decorations are made of magic.”
“Really?” Lydia blinked. “How? I want to learn how to do that!”

“I will show you soon enough. For now, we need to move on to the review. Can you tell me...”

Lydia received another shock later that day. Her riding lesson went amazingly well. She didn't fall off once.

“Lydia!” Kara exclaimed, after she'd successfully trotted over five cavaletti without even a wobble. “Is this really you? Who are you, and what have you done with my real student?”

Lydia giggled. “No, I'm still me. I just feel... I don't know, more balanced today. Like I can do anything without falling over.”

“Excellent. Let's take advantage of that feeling, then. Out to the rail and pick up a left lead canter.”

Her afternoon magic lesson went equally well. Sarrin walked her through all the spells she'd been practicing, then assigned her two new ones to learn and another book on theory to read. Then later, she had another success at dance class: her body did everything she told it to, perfectly and without complaint. Amazing! What a fantastic day!

That day set what became a new pattern for Lydia. Without the constant failure, her life became unimaginably better. She still missed the bakery, but not with the all-cconsuming longing of before. Now she missed the people more than the baking. The joy that filled her now with every use of magic made her finally understand how people could give up things they loved for magic. She no longer wanted to return to the mundane, ordinary life of a baker's apprentice, not if it meant the loss of this wonderful power and the chance to use it every single day.