Holly was having a tough time learning magic. Currently, Estilian Linnear was the best wizard she had on hand, but she’d quickly found out he was no Wodec; he’d only recently passed his Arcana Maldegas (kind of like the equivalent of a wizardly bar exam, from what she’d gathered). He hadn’t had any real experience in teaching students outside of class; he didn’t know what it meant to give someone an effective crash course in eldritch tactics. When he’d first tried to teach her spell-craft basics, she’d knocked him out.
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘things happen without cause?’ ” she raged. “How the fuck is that possible?”
Estilian cast a nervous look around; he was the only one inside her tent. He raised both hands in a please-calm-down gesture. “Try and understand that in order to—”
“Understand? Understand?” Holly slashed the air with a hand and fixed Estilian with a murderous glare. “According to what you’re saying, there’s nothing to understand! There’s no cause, no effect, there’s…there’s…there’s nothing whatsoever! How the hell am I supposed to conjure up something by focusing on nothing?” She tromped up to Estillian and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Answer me, you LITTLE FUCKING CRAWLER!” And before he could answer, she pulled him in to a vicious headbutt. She hadn’t put her weight behind it, but still—Kor’Thank was so damn strong that it was the equivalent of a regular person’s full-force kick.
While he’d been unconscious, she’d had to forcibly remind herself that she needed him alive. As satisfying as it would be to squelch his liver between her fingers, it would end up costing her.
As much Holly hated to admit it, she needed his help.
When he came to, she had crouched before him, and he’d flinched back like a beaten dog. She’d gritted her teeth, forced a smile, and said the two of the shittiest words in all of existence:
“I’m sorry.” She extended her hand.
He stared blankly at her, tempting her to slap him again, but she’d maintained control of her simmering rage. After a few seconds, she realized she needed to be more proactive.
“Please—forgive me.” Her hand stayed out.
Estilian wasn’t being disrespectful. He was simply in shock from getting the mother of all concussions, and also by the sight of his hulking ruler asking for forgiveness. Understandable, considering he’d spent most of his life as a middling mage, and then, after Wodec had defected, suddenly been catapulted into the upper ranks of Indashi society.
Estilian reached out and grabbed her arm. “I…I apologize, my king. I should’ve explained the principles in a manner that—”
“Don’t be absurd.” Holly rose and pulled on his arm, bringing him to his feet. “I lost my temper and took it out on you. It was stupid and petty, and you didn’t deserve it.”
Gratitude flashed through Estilian’s eyes. Holly wanted to slap it off his sniveling little face. Fucking crawler. But she bit her tongue, stayed her hand, and forced an amiable grin. It was the equivalent of the dazzling, extra-shiny smile she’d learned to throw around as Atherton High’s teen-queen cheer captain and Head Bitch In Charge (this vaunted position was, in her mind, far more important than a stupid fucking title like valedictorian or AP scholar or whatever fucking bullet point the sheep back at school were trying to put on their sad-ass college applications.). She couldn’t deploy her fake-nice Holly-smile—it would only serve to bewilder Estilian; everyone around here had been raised to express a stoic, mildly approving grunt instead of an actual compliment—so she had to be careful and tone down the wattage.
“I…I…” Estilian didn’t know what to say. Kor’Thank had never struck him, but he’d never apologized to him either. Uncertainty and worry percolated across his bruised features.
Holly inwardly bit her lip. Had she come on too strong? She was used to manipulating the ambien-addled dullards that comprised Atherton’s faculty, or the vicious piranhas that made up the cheer squad. She’d never hit someone and immediately tried to win them over. This was new. This was—
“I am honored to be of service, my king.”
Holly searched Estilian’s face. Was he lying to her? If a dude knocked her out and tried to apologize, they’d be in for a surprise castration. But in Estilian’s case, she wasn’t sure…
“I am honored to be of service, my king.” He said it firmer this time, with real conviction. Holly relaxed.
He wasn’t deceptive; he was just an idiot. Whew.
She clapped his shoulder and said, “Good man.” The way his eyes lit up only served to further her conviction: he was an idiot, no doubt about it.
At that moment, Yinhalka poked her head into Holly’s war-tent. Holly wanted to grill her about the front-line news, but that’s not what she did—when it came to manipulating people, Holly Dent was super disciplined.
“Is it urgent?” She kept her eyes fixed on Estilian.
“No. I just wanted to inform you that—”
“Then leave us.”
Yinhalka nodded. “Of course.” She slipped out of the tent.
Estilian started speaking: “My king, I just want to express how much gratitude I—”
“Think nothing of it.” Holly forced a grin. “I am sorely in need of your expertise. Magicians are made, not born, eh?”
Estilian nodded. “An old saying, but an accurate one.” He cocked his head, puzzled. “My liege…forgive me if overstep, but you are known far and wide as a competent wizard. Not extraordinary, but accomplished nonetheless. Why do you need instruction in basic arcana?” He looked afraid, then adopetd a meek, submissive look. “Once again—I did not mean to overstep my bounds. If you—”
With a conscious effort, Holly maintained her expression. Disrespectful little fuck. “No, it’s okay—it’s a sound question; you deserve a rational answer. What kind of leader would I be if I discouraged open inquiry?” It was fucking killing her to spew this bullshit. In her mind, a good leader smashed anyone and everyone who questioned their edicts.
Estilian wrinkled his brow, thinking it over. “Yes…a canny sentiment.” He nodded slowly and met her gaze. “You are a wise and forthright king.” His eyes searched hers, and his voice lowered with respect: “I am proud to serve you.”
You shouldn’t just be proud; you should be fucking ecstatic. Fucking insect.
Holly thought this, but didn’t let it show. Instead, she nodded gravely and said, “You are a good magician, Estilian, and more importantly, a good man.”
Sudden panic flashed across his face. “My lord, when you helped me up, I grabbed your arm; I did not wait for your command to rise. I sincerely apologize, I wasn’t thinki—”
Holly flapped a dismissive hand, simultaneously pleased and annoyed. Pleased that he’d caught his mistake and was ready to shit a brick, annoyed that he hadn’t caught it earlier when it had actually mattered. “It’s all right. I struck you out of turn. You’re the last person who needs to apologize.” She clapped him on the shoulder, even though it pained her to do so. “As I said: you’re a good man, and you deserve better than what you got.”
“Thank you, my king.” His eyes once again shone with gratitude
Holly let the smile fall from her face. It felt like she’d been holding up a fatass cheerleader for a fucking hour, and she’d just now let her drop. “Let’s continue with the lesson,” she said in a brusque, business-like tone. “Senkilo’s cannon, right?”
Estilian stroked his beard and bit his bottom lips. After a few seconds he shook his head. “I think we should proceed with something a little more basic.”
Holly raised an eyebrow. “And that would be?”
“Shindalthi’s cloud. An occlumentic enchantment.”
“Great.” Holly cleared her throat, clapped her hands, and rubbed them briskly together.
“Let’s get started. I’m looking forward to learning.”