Hanging off Mistress’ shoulders was already second nature. One hand of hers rested on one of mine, her warmth my warmth. Passerby in the halls would likely ogle us for some time, I reasoned to myself.
A professor hurried past, but not before stopping to address the center of the universe. His own familiar lingered as a shadow at his feet. “I offer you my sincerest congratulations, magus. We had no doubts of your success.”
What would have been disdain at an insult was instead the comfort of knowing my place.
Mistress tossed her hair and smiled. “It was a closer fight than you might think, professor.”
“If you say so. Will you be getting that scar healed?”
Her hand brushed across her face, across the sliver of darker and still somewhat raw skin. Beginning from one cheek and ending just below the opposite eye. “I don’t think so. It’s a tribute to my familiar, if that makes sense.” My grip on her shoulders tightened just a bit. Her hair smelled so nice, like lavender.
“I see, I see,” the professor saw. “I mustn’t keep you. Continue to take pride in your success.” As he hurried off, I heard some utterance of “ruining her beauty” or something like that. The fury that welled up was soothed by Lisette’s words, however.
“Easy, easy. He’s just a dumb teacher, you don’t need to pay any attention to him.”
“He insulted you!”
“That man’s familiar was handed to him on a silver platter by the meager family from which he came. My scar shows that my triumph was earned, unlike his.”
Okay, that made sense. If she decided it. One more person interrupted Mistress’ transit, and I may have let my face show my feelings about that.
“Glad someone showed that brute what for, Liss. Even better it was you.” Something within me served up an identity. Emmaline, a friend/rival of Mistress. I’d hold my tongue for the time being.
“Aww,” Lisette responded with a saccharine tone. “Thanks, Emmy. I know you’re just saying that because you were afraid of Hilde challenging you and breaking you in half, but I appreciate your feelings nonetheless.”
She was so perfect in every way.
Emmaline huffed. “I would’ve put her down before she could ever dream of touching me.” She glared in my direction for extra effect, her copious ringlets bristling with the rest of her.
“It’s interesting you say that.” Mistress touched the arm of her frenemy. “It almost sounds like you think you would’ve made a much better showing than I did. I can’t challenge you, but I’m always down for a friendly sparring match if you’d like to test your theories.” She smiled as she used her words to lacerate. “I could even grant my familiar here the power that was taken if you’d like to test yourself against her!”
Emmaline’s face scrunched up under the verbal assault. “As if I’d ever debase myself by entering the circle with something subhuman!” She stomped off.
“Pretty uppity for the rank five, isn’t she?” Mistress purred. “Let’s not waste anymore time.” She turned her head and I instinctively leaned in, matching her quick kiss. At some point maybe I’d get used to the act setting my entire body alight, but I hoped that point was far off.
We passed a ponderous slate on the wall, which revealed its contents as I looked. The top ten of our class. Emmaline was actually rank four, now.
Mistress strode proudly into the lecture hall, as another professor offered her congratulations. Nodding with that winning smile of hers, she sat at her desk, while I lingered just behind. Recognizing her arrival, the ring at the desk’s base lit up, sending us into the starry void of the class space, automatically facing the area where lecturers did their teachings in the round.
I caught a glimpse of what used to be my desk, refreshingly dormant. The days of furiously scrawled notes on spells or the rift wars or whatever the fuck were over. That was nice.
More and more desks flitted off into the aether as other students filtered in, but Lisette was one of the first with her soulbond forged; I smiled proudly as lesser students glanced my way, grappling with the knowledge that they could end up in a similar state. On the surface, anyway. Only one had the privilege of being Mistress’ familiar.
Lisette lazily conjured up her notebook, leafing through the pages with purposeful slowness. So that I could see the doodles in the margins — a bespectacled figure and an almost spectral being beside her…wearing an approximation of the dress she’d put me in this morning. A little heart occupied the space between the two drawings.
She’d had this in mind for a long time.
But there was another doodle, a few pages forward. A figure that must’ve been me, as I had been, accompanied by a silhoulisette with a question mark for a face. Further down, there were more theoreticals; Lissy with demon horns, Lissy as a graceful lamia, Lissy as something…I couldn’t really identify. Something truly bizarre.
But wow, the doodle kept going. Every alternate universe Lisette had scornful grins directed at a cluster of unpleasant figures; there was an intentional likeness to the picture she’d shown me of her family, once.
“Hope my family just hates that I took a lowborn,” she mused. “They’d had a number of scions picked out, suitors with strong blood and weak magic.” She turned so I could see her roll her eyes. “All boys, of course. And all stuck up.” Mistress smiled sadly. “Before I got a solid grip on the number one spot, they had promised me to a number of families. Their daughter, up for offer.”
“That’s terrible, Mistress.”
“They can forget they ever had a daughter,” she breezed. “I have no need to go back there. Not now. There’s gotta be a way a magus like me can make things just a bit less terrible, right? Too many people go through the exact same thing. Stripped of their personhood in the eyes of the very people that birthed them, long before any hint of a duel!”
“Their mistake was thinking that’s your course,” I reasoned. The lecture had started at some point, but I had no cause or inclination to pay attention to whatever the prof was saying.
“The whole system is a mistake,” Lisette hissed, “like you said before. Opportunists just took the cruelty of the warlords to justify their own tyranny, all those centuries back. Sometimes I just wonder if magic itself has got to go. As if that’s possible.”
“Can’t imagine the world without it.”
“I guess it would probably be pretty bleak.” Mistress looked up from her notes once more. “There’s gotta be a way forward. We’ll look for it together, yeah?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Class went on, Mistress answered a few questions directed her way, and it culminated with the professor’s demonstration of some sort of tightly controlled tornado spell. Certain apprentices were rapt at the display; ready to clamor for quick mastery, any way they could possibly get a last minute leg up.
A few days passed; Lisette’s days were now my days. There was no longer any Hilde-specific schedule, I simply accompanied her without a thought of old responsibilities.
“Where are we going?” I murmured, as we crossed the grounds. Lisette raised a hand up and behind to gently pat my head.
“Artifice Building! Got some official magus business to attend to.” We passed a field of dueling circles, all empty except for one. “Hold up, duel going on. Wanna check it out?”
The crowd we filtered into was smaller than the one at our own duel, but it held your usual fair. Apprentices of our year and below, post-graduate magi. And their pets, of course.
I locked eyes with a couple of my fellows, each one respectively sizing one of the newest of their caste. With my arms draped protectively over Lissy’s shoulders, I traded nods with a man of granite, still as a statue, a four armed behemoth clad in plate mail, cradling his own mistress, and a placid, empty-eyed cat girl on a leash.
Attentions turned away as the prefect authorized the start of combat. My attentiveness was spotty at best; these were two people I effectively didn’t give a damn about. But I supposed there was merit to taking some notice of the wider world.
Lisette’s commentary would serve to guide me through it. “Emmaline challenged the number seven, huh? I expected her to play it safe. She’d always planned to.”
Number Seven was a tall and stoic woman with a wand as a catalyst.
“She’s got something to prove, all of a sudden.”
“Guess I really riled her up. Hope she’s okay…”
Emmaline was a flurry of motion, a salvo of ribbon-like dragons peeling off of her faintly glowing arms. Her adversary intercepted the attack with a series of little starbursts.
The new rank four’s response was a much larger ribbon coming out of the ground to coil around her, extending a significant distance in not much time to snap at its foe. A flurry of rock rain knocked the dragon off its course, giving Seven a chance to redirect them at the caster.
A hasty barrier blocked some but not all, and Emmaline was knocked off balance. A starry portal opened above her and a boulder tumbled out; Emmaline found her footing and screamed at the stone, the apparent force of which shattered it.
“She hates using the scream,” Lisette mused. “Says it's unbecoming. But even she can’t deny it’s eff—oh?”
Emmaline doubled over, hands clutching her throat. Cascading rubble had found its way in, and her foe wasn’t about to wait for her to recover.
“Oh no,” Lisette whispered. A bolide snapped off the ground and pummeled Emmaline in a rocky uppercut, sending her flying back. A dragon was soaring from her mouth, spreading dark wings and cradling flame in its jaws, but it was too late. Emmaline hit the boundary. She was done. “Oh…poor Emmy…she was arrogant, but…did I do this?”
“No,” I said quickly. “No, Mistress, don’t say that. She must’ve known the risk.” I wanted to be happy about her fall, but I couldn’t.
The newly promoted rank six went over to survey what was now hers. Emmaline’s screeches were cutting through the ward, but their gradual decrescendo was the truly haunting signal of what was happening. On the ground she writhed, flailed, but soon she only twitched. The winner knelt down and outstretched a hand, apparently calming the new familiar with the touch. I rose a little higher to better see the imminent transformation.
Her legs began to kick with reckless abandon as a tawny down began to cover them. Her toes curled to a nauseating degree, before gradually splitting along her feet and hardening into brutal talons. Once work on her legs was finished, she had the gnarled feet of a bird of prey.
Her magus helped her to a squatting position and held her firm; I soon saw why. First one, and then two wings erupted from her lower back, extending as bone, wrapping themselves in flesh, and finally growing a coat of broad feathers, displaying an iridescence between a soft tan and deeper brown. They thrashed for a few moments before adopting more controlled motions, and finally stillness. The face that finally looked up to meet her owner’s gaze was framed by slicked back plumage, flowing down to the nape of her neck and beyond.
Any verbal exchanges were inaudible, but things were definitely being said. I gasped quietly when Emmaline stood up to reach her full height — at least two meters, dwarfing the already tall owner. Said owner gave her an affirming pat on the back, to which the familiar responded by hunching over once again. The victor hopped on board, straddling her back and leaning in close. In a moment, Emmaline kicked off, powerful wingbeats carrying the two aloft. Getting a rhythm and displaying the full extent of an impressive wingspan, the pair flew off.
“Jovian’s balls,” someone whispered.
"That’s kind of incredible,” Mistress agreed. Could I carry her like that? I felt about as heavy as a handkerchief at most times…maybe not. But if Lisette desired it, I’d figure it out. The crowd gradually dispersed, leaving behind a few stragglers that included us. “I’ll have to check up on her,” I heard Lissy mutter. “If her owner goes too far, you ‘n I will have to beat her up, got it?”
“I’ll fight to the last breath, Mistress.”
Lisette chuckled and waved me off. “No, no, it’d never come to that. We’d just be…sharing our thoughts, y’know?”
“I guess we should get back to where we were going,” Lisette sighed. “I…wasn’t expecting to see that today.”
“I’m sure she’ll be better off this way, Mistress.”
“Do you? Speak honestly.”
“She can literally fly! And carry her magus into battle! She’s living the dream.” We got underway once more. “As much as she can be with a lesser Mistress, anyway.”
“I guess you have a point. And even if you didn’t, your enthusiasm is cute. I love to see it.”
I couldn’t suppress just the smallest moan as I basked in the warm glow of her words.
Mistress allowed herself a self-indulgent laugh. “I guess we’re going to have to see to your needs after this, hmmm?”
“I fully expect the toe-curling you promised,” I husked, “oh Mistress of mine.”
“You haven’t begun to see the power I wield.” Low and menacing. The words of dark authority had me quivering in delight. “Come along, my horny construct.”
“I wouldn’t dream of anything else,” I breathed.