They turned into the yard of the manor, where lord Whitter himself awaited their return. As soon as the wagons came to a halt, Wayne stepped down and greeted their father.
“Well done, Wayne,” said lord Whitter, eyes passing over the goods they had brought back, “Any issues to report?”
“Just one, Father. There’s a rat catcher in town, however, he was out on other business. I took the liberty of leaving a message for him.”
“Hmm… Yes… I’ve heard how Hans has been grumbling. Well done.”
Lord Whitter turned his eyes on Hamelin, who returned the stare with a dumb grin. “And Hamelin? Was he any trouble?”
While Voln’s face visibly began to pour with sweat, Wayne replied honestly, “None whatsoever, Father. I believe he slept most of the time.”
“As always,” lord Whitter shook his head, then looked at his youngest son with a palpable resignation. Hamelin offered a cheery wave in return. “Let the men unpack, Lad, and come see me in the study; we have business to discuss.”
Wayne gave a short bow of his head, then gave the order to unpack before following his father into the house. Left alone, Hamelin jumped down, gave an authoritative nod to Voln —who looked back, confused— then disappeared into the house.
Climbing the stairs up to his room, the sense of euphoria grew stronger, Whiter’s emotions rushing through Hamelin with the power of a hammer. Fighting down the excitement, Hamelin opened the door, and was immediately met with a white furball, coming right at his face.
Catching Wither mid-flight, Hamelin held the little rat up to his face. “Calm down,” he growled, staring straight into small, overjoyed, red eyes. The emotional surge within shook and weakened slightly, but the tingle continued for a long while.
Sighing, Hamelin placed the rat on a small writing desk, and sat in front of it. Imposing his own will on the creature, he managed to return their emotional state to a near-equilibrium.
“It seems,” he said, using both his voice and mental images in a two-pronged attack, “That we must discuss our partnership from here on out.”
Wither sat up on its hind-legs, tilting its head curiously to the side. “If you are to follow me, there can be no outburst of emotion like that. You have to be able to remain calm, even in the face of danger, do you understand.”
A light of intelligence lit up in the little rat’s eyes, and it nodded sagely. Hamelin had the distinct suspicion that the rat understood absolutely nothing, but knew when to appear as it did. He grinned; that was almost as useful an ability as actually understanding.
“Good. Now, I have a job to do tonight. If you think you can keep up, would you like to come?”
Wither nodded its head vigorously in agreement, and Hamelin felt another wave of excitement, which he forcibly suppressed. “I repeat: control yourself!”
Cowering, the rat lowered its head to the ground, exposing its neck. The emotion soon subsumed. “You are newly born, and so I understand that you are not fully at fault,” Hamelin said, petting Wither’s head with true affection, “But if we are to be partners, you have to learn fast.”
The rest of the day, Hamelin kept to himself, dozing off. Only at the ritual, evening dinner was Hamelin forced to attend. Dressing appropriately for the occasion had become a hateful habit at this point, and Hamlin went through the motions with his mind on entirely different matters.
Once he was ready, he slipped down the hallway like a shadow, entering the dining room without a sound. The others were already present, but barely noticed his entrance. He sat at the lowest position, as far away from his father and mother as possible, next to Mosel — the magical genius of the family.
Up one seat was Heston, whose chest was bulging with muscles. Hamelin was pretty sure his martial-idiot, older brother would grow up to have more muscle than wit, the way he was training daily.
Opposite Heston, seated in the second seat to the right of the lord Whitter, sat Wayne with his usual composure. The day’s market had gone well, and Hamelin was certain that his oldest brother had received another helping of praise from their father.
At the seat of honor, next to Wayne, sat mage Correl, the renowned tutor. Hamelin’s father made certain to always show the old man the utmost respect, and would probably even vacate his own seat, ahead of the table, if the mage ever asked for it.
The way the old man looked both disgruntled, at having to attend the dinner of a minor family, and satisfied at the honor shown him, made for an exciting study in facial expressions. Hamelin made sure to keep an eye out on the old man’s every movement, seeing as he was also the most dangerous person present.
Opposite the old mage, at his father’s left hand side, sat Hamelin’s mother, lady Sarah Whitter. Though she possessed the quiet dignity of the lady of the house, the years had made her once-beautiful face turn pale and gaunt. Occasionally, she would look down the table, at her youngest son, and sigh.
Hamelin knew that his apparent idiocy was the cause of much distress in his mother, which, despite his best attempts at convincing himself otherwise, left him with a sour note in his mouth. In his early years, this woman had been the chief obstacle in him attaining any progress in his withermancy, and so he had done everything possible to lose her attention.
In the end, the woman had resigned herself to having birthed three gifted children and one idiot, as if the gods had to create some sort of balance. Looking at it that way, gaining three and losing one was a good deal, but Hamelin could see how his play-acting was tearing at her.
The rat within wanted to snicker at her foolishness, but his now-human heart beat a tune of regret. He bit down on the bile raising in his throat, and looked down at the plate in front of him with pretend meekness.
Forget it, he reminded himself, as he always did when he saw her, She could never accept you. Like all humans, she only wants to look into the light, ignoring what lies waiting beneath. Better she thinks of you as an idiot, than as a creature of the night.
Though he knew this to be true, Hamelin felt it harder and harder to fully believe it, with every time he met his mother. This only made him loathe these dinners all the more.
While dinner at the Whitter house was nothing impressive, it usually contained at least three meals — especially after the old mage had joined them. Once the first, a light soup, was finished, Hamelin’s father put away the small talk that had occupied the first half of the meal, and said, “Mage Correl, you have been with us for a few months now; tell me, how is Mosel’s progress?”
The old mage cleared his throat and took a sip of wine before he deigned to answer. “My Lord, your son is truly a gifted one, as is your other… well, most of your sons.” Mage Correl nodded to both Wayne and Heston, ignoring Hamelin completely.
“I should think they could all be accepted into the Academy —not all in the field of magic, you understand— but they each have skills worthy of further cultivation.”
Lord Whitter’s eyes lit up with joy, and he gave each of his sons a heavy nod. All, except Hamelin, of course. “I’m happy to hear it, mage Correl. However, I fear my Whitter family has been away from the center of power for too long, and cannot fully provide the support my sons require…”
“Fear not, lord Whitter,” said the old man and raised a hand, “As a teacher of the Academy, how could I watch such promising young men go wasted? Once I return, I’ll see to it that letters of recommendation are sent to both the martial and the scholar’s department, ensuring entrance for young Heston and Wayne, respectively.”
Lord Whitter’s face was now a mask of unrestrained joy, looking almost as if about to embrace the old mage. “Thank you, mage Correl, my Whitter family will not forget the grace you have given us!”
Laughing and stroking his beard, the old man looked at the two young men he had just secured the future of, before his eyes fixed on Mosel. The nine-year-old looked down into his plate, face red with joy. He knew it was his potential that had provided this chance to his family; a truth which would surely motivate him to study harder.
Hamelin observed the old man carefully, whose eager eyes betrayed his true intent. There was something sinister hidden within that old man’s eyes, something which only Hamelin’s experience of betrayal and dissembling could expose.
Hamelin might not know anything about magic, but the old mage’s face spoke a universal language. When he had gotten what he wanted, Mosel and the Whitter family would be left out to dry.
Licking his lips, Hamelin thought on how to capitalize on this information.