Anja made her way down through the tower with a spring in her step that could not be entirely explained by the gentle downward slope of the hallway. A smile kept forcing its way onto her face, and eventually she just let it stay there. She was genuinely happy for about the first time in seven months, and found herself poking bemusedly at the edges of the sensation, trying to get used to it again, and to shake the feeling that there was still another shoe to drop. She knew there wasn’t one, and she felt as though dawn was breaking at last after a very long night.
She beamed at the mages she passed, most of whom smiled back with an ever-so-slightly baffled air. She went a few steps past Hans’ door before she realized and danced back to it to knock. From beyond it, she heard a thump and a muffled curse, and a moment later Hans pulled the door open.
“What is it?” he asked, the worry etched onto his face melting away when he saw her expression. “It’s good news.”
Anja grinned. “I,” she said, twirling past him into the room, “am officially, by decree of the Septumvirate, aspirant to the Guild of Aeromancers.”
In hindsight, she should have expected the bear hug. “That’s wonderful!” he said. “Wonderful news!”
Her feet found the floor again, and she put her head against his chest. “Isn’t it? After so long, for it to be over so fast— are you crying?” she said, tilting her head to look up toward what had sounded like a sniffle.
Hans nodded, stepping back and running the back of his hand over his eyes. “It’s just that it ended so well for you,” he said, smiling through misty eyes. “There aren’t too many happy endings in the world, you know.”
There was more to it than that, Anja could tell, but she let it go and pushed the troubled feeling aside. “We’re lucky it happened to us,” she said. “I’m supposed to talk to Mikel Skräskyddsling about some things I have to do before I start studying. Some of it will probably apply to you, too.”
“Lead on,” said Hans.
Anja had no idea where to look, but the first mage she stopped in the hallway suggested she start with the courtyard. Anja and Hans descended through the tower, saying little. She still smiled brightly, eliciting the same sort of smile from the mages she turned her own on, and had all but forgotten her doubts about Hans’ truthfulness by the time they’d reached ground level.
They passed through the arched front doors, three times Anja’s height and standing wide open to let the sunlight in. Just outside Anja stopped, lifting a hand to shield her eyes from the midday sun and blinking away the spots in her vision. “Bright,” she said good-naturedly, brow furrowing as she pulled her hand away. “Or dark inside.” Hans said nothing. She gave him a concerned look, which he didn’t seem to notice, and a bad feeling wormed its way back into the edge of her mind.
She spotted Mikel Skräskyddsling across the grassy circle between the tower and the wall, watching over two others who were fighting with staves. She set out toward him. As she neared, she was surprised to see that the fighters were Liam and Elisa. It was no static fight, either; they ducked, dove, circled, dodged, and struck too fast for Anja to follow. They seemed evenly matched.
Mikel Skräskyddsling watched with arms folded. He let the fight go on for a few moments more before he called, “Halt!”
Liam and Elisa raised their staves toward each other in salute, and then leaned on them and grinned, breathing hard as they turned to face Mikel.
“Well done,” he told them, then raising an eyebrow at Anja. “Good news?”
“They admitted me,” Anja replied. “By a four-three vote. You were right.”
A corner of Mikel’s mouth quirked upward. He leaned down as if telling a secret. “The only time they don’t vote four to three is when it’s a foregone conclusion.”
“Was there any magic there?” Anja said, nodding toward the other two students.
Liam looked to Mikel, who raised an eyebrow. The former explained, “Self-discipline, willpower, and unity of mind and body are three things you have to have before you can even begin to use magic safely and effectively. Training in a martial art develops them, and without the danger of starting with magic.” He finished reciting and became himself again, showing her a grin. “And congratulations.”
Elisa even managed a smile.