It was without a doubt the worst day of the year for Lith. He would be forced to spend the full afternoon away from home, surrounded by complete strangers and robbed of any privacy or personal space during the festivities.
All the families in the village would gather for the festival, forgetting about all their daily problems and miseries, since everything from decorations to food and drinks were paid by Count Lark.
He would also take part in the whole event, to keep his bonds with the community strong and maintain his reputation of a fair Lord, instead of being just a faceless guy who collected taxes making their lives even harder.
The festival was comprised of three parts.
The morning would still be spent like a normal day's work, to let foreigner merchants and carnies prepare their stands and arrange their merchandise.
In the evening the families would gather and check out the stands, searching for trinkets and jewellery to buy with their extra money to add them to their daughters' dowry.
The food would mainly consist of appetizers, like fresh fruit and vegetables, with skewers of different kinds of meat and even exotic food, brought by Count Lark for the occasion, like saltwater fishes and seafood.
The only drinks available would be water and light beer.
After the sunset, huge braziers and torches would be lit all around the village, while the Count's workers would prepare the stage for the festival main event, the election of the Spring Maiden.
All the girls fifteen and sixteen years-old could take part in the Spring Maiden contest, which was more like a debutante ball rather than a beauty pageant.
It was the opportunity for all the young maidens of marriageable age to show off their beauty and virtues, in hope to catch the attention of as many suitors as possible.
The judges of the Spring Maiden contest were always the same, Count Lark, the village chief and Nana.
After the election, the real food would be brought out, with lots of roasted animals, soups and caramelised fruits. Both pure and watered wines would be available, raising the spirits for the finale.
The last part consisted of a ball, encouraging the eligible bachelors to approach one or more maidens that may have caught their eye.
Each part would affect Lith's mood differently. The first would cause extreme boredom, tempered by the fact that he was still allowed of moving alone.
The second was akin to torture. He would be forced to sit on his father shoulders, staring for hours at a bunch of little girls he did not give a damn about.
The third was the best one, but only because it was very short. After some dancing, his parents were too tired to remain any longer, and would finally bring him back home. None of their children was yet of marrying age, so they had no reason to linger.
For the first time in his new life, Lith had some money in his pocket, so he could check out the carnival games that offered the best prizes.
"They cheat, I cheat. Let's play this fair and square."
Using spirit magic he won a beautiful stuffed bear for Tista, beating a ring toss game rigged by unbalanced rings. From a crossbow shoot game he got a silver coated hair comb for Rena. All he needed to do was to use two strands of spirit magic, one to guide the dart to his target, the second to force it to crumble. Last, but not least, a silk ribbon for his mother from a Wheel of Fortune stand.
The carnies were flabbergasted, but trying to bully a local child in front of so many villagers, not to mention Count Lark, would have earned them nothing more than the beating of a lifetime and a permanent ban from every event in the county of Lustria.
They started to keep an eye on him, but Lith was not greedy and left after getting the three prizes. He actually wanted something for Raaz too, but all they had were feminine products.
The carnies hoped to lure the young boys into wasting their money, trying to impress the girls with expensive presents they could not afford without gambling.
After distributing the presents, Lith searched for Nana, he wanted to have a chat about magic with an expert. He found her sitting on a bench near her house.
The first thing he did was looking at her with Life Vision. Her mana flow was way bigger than Lith's, but her life force was weaker than Tista's.
Nana was a over sixty years old woman, but she looked like an eighty-year-old Earth woman. Her back was so hunched that she needed a cane to walk properly.
She had sharp grey eyes, a face full of wrinkles and a big aquiline nose. Nana always wore a shawl over her head, to avoid her long grey hair bothering her during work.
At a first look she seemed an inconspicuous old lady, but when you got near, you could feel the raw strength exuding from her body.
"Must have had a rough life." Solus commented.
"Hello, Nana. How are you?" Lith asked politely.
"Hello to you, little imp. You sure are growing fast, aren't you?" Just like Elina had noticed back in winter, Tista and Lith were growing taller and slender than their peers. The same was happening to Rena too, after she had received Lith's treatment.
Lith was already over 1.1 meters (1'8'') high, his shoulders broad like he played water polo.
Lith nodded. "Yes, I do. Can I ask you a question?"
"As long it's not about my age, be my guest." Nana laughed.
"Nana, are you a strong magician?" Nana was surprised, the question not very childlike.
"Yes, I am. When I was still a young girl, I even got a scholarship for the prestigious Lightning Griffin academy, and I managed to graduate without any problem." Nana straightened up proudly, remembering her years of glory.
"Then how did you end up being a healer in Lutia?"
"How tactful of you, Lith!" Solus rebuked him.
"Children are allowed to be rude. It's one of their few privileges."
Nana's mood turned gloomy.
"You see, Lith, in this world there are commoners, nobles and mages. A strong mage has a status on par with the nobles, depending on his/her magic power. Back then I was very strong, but not a genius. Sadly, I was also stupid and naïve, so I made some very bad choices and ended up alone, without anyone backing me. I had only two options left. Either submit to a powerful noble or living free with the status of a healer. Guess what I picked?"
Lith became gloomy too, the idea of losing everything after working so hard for it made his future look even scarier.
"There, there kid!" Nana brightened up. "Let's not spoil the mood and enjoy the festival."
After leaving Nana alone, Lith thought back at her words about his growth, and stopped in front of a mirror on display, watching his reflection.
He could only sigh in resignation.
"No matter how many impurities I expel, I managed to fail even at the gene pool lottery. I took so much from my dad and so little from my mom.
When I look at myself while brooding, rather than cool I like some kind of psycho kid escaped from juvie. If I smile, now that I miss so many teeth, I'm not even cute. Even all dressed up, I could barely pass for a street urchin from one of Dicken's novels."
Solus tried to brighten him up, but to no avail.
Later in the evening, Count Lark introduced to the village elders his guest of honour.
"Chief Yurok, sage Nana, allow me to introduce you the young Ricker Trahan, son of my dear friend, baronet Lokar Trahan. This young lad is a really talented magician, that in the future will bring glory to our county." Count Lark was a magic enthusiast, always trying to sponsor promising youths from his land.
"Nice to meet you, young man." The village chief saluted him with a polite bow, expecting the other to offer him his hand or at least reply to the bow.
Ricker instead kept looking around, his eyes filled with contempt.
"The pleasure is mine." He replied with a cold tone.
"Ricker, where are your manners?" Count Lark rebuked him mildly. "Sage Nana was a powerful and renowned magician in her youth. Feel free to ask her for advice. Her experience could prove invaluable to overcome any difficulty you may encounter during your studies."
"I have no doubt about that, my Lord." Ricker bowed this time, but to Count Lark.
Nana had seen enough nobles in her life to recognize the type. A high and mighty young master, pampered enough to believe that only nobles could achieve greatness.
The people of the village were having a hard time tolerating so much disrespect towards their elders, but for the Count's sake they limited themselves to angry whispers.
"Oh, oh, oh! You got yourself another spunky one, dear Lark." Nana laughed without any warmth.
Ricker shuddered at such lack of respect, the old bat calling the Count by his first name without honorifics. But he knew that Lark was a sucker for magicians, and judging from her attitude, he had granted the old bat the right to do so.
"He has every right to be proud, dear Nana. Next year he will turn twelve and apply for a Lighting Griffon's academy scholarship, and with a little luck he will enrol just like you did back in the day!"
Ricker failed to repress his amazement, knitting his eyebrows at Nana.
"By the gods, how could such a commoner get admitted into the academy?" He thought. "She must have cheated her way in, no doubt."
"Really?" Replied Nana with exaggerated enthusiasm "Why don't you ask him to show us what he is capable of?"
Count Lark gladly accepted, and per his request soon was set up a one meter (3'3'') high stump with a head of lettuce on its top.
Ricker had to stay at least 10 metres (11 yards) away from it and knock it down. It was a very basic exercise for anyone who wanted to become a magician, often use to quickly get rid of unworthy candidates.
Only those with real talent for magic were able to use chore magic at such range. For normal people, magic had a range of a metre or two.
To learn something outside chore magic, one had to either enrol in a magic academy or buy very expensive books.
"Young man, do your best!" Count Lark's voice was full of enthusiasm.
Ricker had done that exercise countless times, but always alone. This time he was surrounded by commoners, clearly hoping to watch him fail and get the chance to ridicule him.
Even worst, count Lark was putting a lot of pressure on him. In Ricker eyes this wasn't a simple test, but a matter of life and death.
Feeling countless eyes on him, he lost his concentration while performing the hand signs and stuttered the magic word.
He produced a chestnut big fireball, that almost missed the lettuce. Yet with a small boom the head of lettuce got knocked off.
No one applauded except for count Lark.
More than one "That's it?" could be heard among the crowd.
Nana walked slowly to the vegetable, bringing it back for the Count to examine.
"He messed a few key hand signs, stuttered the magic word, and missed the lettuce entirely. It only got knocked off because of the explosion." Nana remarked coldly.
"I would not keep my hopes up, Lark. When I was his age, I was able to actually hit my target without performing signs nor using magic words. They admitted me only because of my perfect silent magic." Nana's grey eyes were staring at Ricker in contempt.
"Well, he is still young, that's why I brought him to you. He has another full year to prepare for the exam. There is still time to fix the small mistakes. I was hoping you could mentor him."
"I would be glad to, I really would. But between the villagers and my disciple, I already have my hands full. I'm too old to take care of two youths, and my apprentice takes precedence. As you know, a magician's word is her bond."
"You have an apprentice?" Count Lark was shocked no one had informed him about such critical matter.
"Yes." She nodded, smiling in Ricker face.
"He learned to read and write and the age of three, and by that time he had already learned chore magic all by himself."
"Marvelous!" Count Lark excitement was a slap in Ricker's face.
"Yeah, he is also my disciple." Selia stepped forward, adding fuel to the fire. She and Nana politely detested each other, but between her and a stuck-up obnoxious brat, she would always choose the devil she knew.
"He hunts in the Trawn woods from the age of four. Even if he can only hunt blinkers and critters, he would never miss a moving target, let alone some deadweight lettuce."
She then whispered to the count's ear: "He is actually the you-know-who that provided the you-know-what."
"Fantastic! Excellent! When can I meet him?" His monocle jumped out of his eye orbit from the happiness.
Ricker was on the verge of exploding out of anger.
"Can't he see they are just leading him by the nose? How can someone with such a high social status like the Count trust even one word from these commoners?
Lying and cheating is in their nature. They are just trash, trying to stoop us at their level to make themselves feel better about their pathetic lives! If that old bat is a magician, then I am the crowned prince.
Why do I have to bear with all her nonsense? And how come even a gut-stinking hunter can freely speak to a Count? This evening could not turn any worse. How the heck I managed to let my father convince me to come to this pigsty?"
"Here he is!" Bromann shouted triumphantly, forcefully dragging Lith by his arm.
He had no idea what was happening. Lith was with his family, nibbling at a caramelized apple, when Bromann appeared out of the blue, babbling about the village honour or something.
Too many eyes were on him, Lith's intuition told him that something was wrong, so he decided to play it close to the vest.
"Count Lark, I'm honoured to meet you." It didn't take a genius to understand that the overdressed beanpole with the monocle had to be the lord of the land.
Lith greeted him cupping his fist, performing a deep bow. He then proceeded greeting the village chief, Nana and Selia, making his bow deep according to the respect they deserved.
Lastly, he turned towards the ill looking kid standing next to the Count. He had to be around ten years old, 1.4 metres (4'8") high. He was wearing a silk white shirt over high-end leather pants. His face was all red and sweaty, like he had either run for his life or been bitten by a venomous snake.
The situation made no sense to Lith, but since no one seemed worried about the kid's health, Lith did what he was supposed to.
"Greetings, honourable guest. I hope you enjoy your visit in our village." Lith cupped his fist again, making only a small bow. He had no idea who that kid was, and Ricker could not find the strength to introduce by himself.
The Count seemed to have completely forgot about his existence.
"Oh, oh, oh!" Nana laughed. "See, Lark? Manners. That's something so many youngsters lack nowadays."
Lith kept looking around, waiting for someone to explain what was happening.
"Can I be of assistance?" He asked.
Ricker once again needed all his willpower to prevent himself from throwing a fit of rage.
"This is their prodigy? A toothless bum? I should ask the Count to whip them all to death for their blatant lies! Simply outrageous!"
"Yes, Lith." Selia stepped in again. "Count Lark loves magic in all its kinds and forms, and I was just telling him about how you kill blinkers without ruining even a feather. Would you mind to show him?"
She took out a wooden stick, holding it up for the Count and everyone else to see.
Lith sighed with relief.
"All this fuss for chore magic? They almost gave me a heart attack. If it's just to entertain some bored nobles, why not? If the village thrives, so will my family."
"Brezza!" After twirling twice his middle and medium finger, a small vortex enveloped the stick. Outwardly it was just like the ones every housewife used daily to clean their houses, but looking at it closely one could notice that it was actually two different vortexes, one spinning clockwise and the other counter clockwise.
This way the spell applied a huge strain to the stick in the point where the two vortexes connected, causing it to break almost instantly.
Lith had invented it after Selia had started bothering him too much about how he killed the blinkers. He could not show her spirit magic, so he came up with this trick.
Ricker wanted to rebut saying that Lith was standing barely a meter (1.1 yards) away from the stick, but even he knew how hard it was to use two different spells at the same time. He also knew that such an objection would be met by the old bat requesting him to do the same. And he had no idea how to.
Nana waved her hand, and a villager put another head of lettuce on the stump.
"Lith, be a dear and knock that out, please."
Lith was getting more and more confused. The Count now had stars in his eyes, looking at him like some mythical beast had descended from the heavens, while the noble kid was as pale as a ghost.
"What the heck is going on here? Why the Count is so engrossed by cheap magic? And why no one cares about that poor kid? Whatever he has is getting worse."
Lith shrugged before flickering his middle finger while saying: "Jorun!"
An ice dart hit the lettuce dead center, making it roll a few meters away.
"Without using hand signs!" The count gasped, his voice so faint that Lith could not hear him.
"One last thing, dear Lith. If you manage to indulge this poor old lady, I will treat you and all your family for free until you start your apprenticeship. Are you willing to humour me one last time?"
Lith had no need to think before accepting. Despite his best efforts, Tista still needed constant care. From time to time they had still to seek for Nana's help and it wasn't cheap.
Nana smiled, full of confidence enough for the both of them.
"Bromann, toss one of those as high as you can."
Bromann threw a head of lettuce with a lob shot, sending it about three meters (10") high. When it reached its peak, Nana made a simple gesture, cutting the air horizontally with her extended hand and fingers, conjuring ten ice darts.
Five struck its left side, five the right side. When the head of lettuce started falling, Nana cut the air again, this time vertically, splitting it evenly in four parts.
Then she simply opened her palm toward the sky, conjuring four small vortexes that brought down the four pieces slowly.
"Damn! Not only Nana's mana flow is still superior to mine, but her skill level is above and beyond my expectations. I could probably achieve the same result, but I'd need both hands and something more than just a casual wave of the hand.
Now I understand why everyone in the village holds her in such high regard. She is likely to be the reason why the village of Lutia is so peaceful. If she can do so much with simple chore magic, I can't imagine what she can do with a real spell." Lith thought.
"Now is your turn. Bromann!"
Another head of lettuce, another lob shot.
Lith knew it wasn't a contest, he wasn't supposed to perform as good as Nana.
Until Lith could get a clear picture of how much talent was considered good, how much to be considered a genius level and how much for the "burn that monster" label, he had to play it safe.
When the shot reached his peak, Lith made hands signs with both hands shouting "Jorun!", conjuring four ice darts, two per side. When the lettuce started to fall, he used "Brezza" to cut it unevenly in half, using it again to summon two vortexes to bring the pieces down. Once again, they were rotating in opposite directions, the phenomenon highlighted by the slowly spinning lettuce.
"In for a penny in for a pound. They already know I can do it, if I have to entertain the Count, might as well do it with a little swag."
The crowd exploded into an applause, soon joined by and ecstatic Count Lark that still could not believe his own eyes.
Nana sent Lith away to his parents, reassuring him that she would keep her side of the bargain, before speaking again to Ricker Trahan.
"And that, young man, is what real talent for magic look like!"
Ricker could not hear her, thought. Back when Nana had showed her skill, he had fainted standing up.
His mind could not accept that all the certainties he had grew up with, had proven to be nothing more than convenient lies.