Lysand rode to a stop at the gates to the talentless city, his horse flicking its ears nervously. A large dog with a bright white pelt barked, and recognition dawned. He had known that hound when it was a pup.
“It’s me, Liro! It’s Lysand!”
Silence reigned from the watchtower, before someone’s voice boomed. “Lysand?”
“Wait there!” someone else called. A whistle pierced the night air. Soon enough, a form emerged from the watchtower, jogging over to where Lysand sat atop his horse. The man was dressed in slacks and a ragged coat, a long gun strapped to his back. His dog loped by his side.
“Lysand, it is you! You left a year ago!” Liro stopped a few paces away. “What…what are you doing here?”
Lysand took a deep breath, hopping down from his horse. “I’ve come for the anniversary of the founding. I promised my mother I would.”
Liro stared, and for a moment Lysand thought he might draw his gun. His stomach tightened. “Please--”
“Sure, I’ll let you in. This used to be your home, after all.” Liro waved to the other guard, and the gate began to swing open. Lysand’s heart began to beat faster. He hoped this hadn’t been a mistake.
“So…how is it? Studying magic?” The snow crunched under Liro’s heavy boots as they walked. His white dog padded quietly at his heels. He had gotten huge since Lysand had seen him last. “I mean, you always screwed up any engineering project you tried, so…”
Lysand looked away from the streamers and baubles that decorated the houses they passed. He had missed them. “It’s going well. I’m good at spells. The aether is.... I understand it now.” Lysand patted his horse when his old friend stayed silent, leading the animal around a puddle of mud. He tried to ignore the stares he was getting, and he wished he had thought to at least dress like a talentless.
“Far cry from blowing up a generator the first time you tried to make one. And the second time. And the fifth time.”
Lysand smiled. “Don’t forget melting several bars of silver.”
“And cracking every table in the room.” Liro laughed, his voice deeper than Lysand remembered. He had never imagined his friend would become a city guard. Years ago, he would have been a soldier. “So…that was all because you had magic, huh? Or, uh, the aether?” His laughter faded.
“Yes. I guess I…I wasn’t meant for this life.”
“I figured that’s why you left. I mean, when your dad died…I never thought…I never thought you’d come back, though. As a mage.” He cleared his throat.
“I’m not going to forget my home.” Lysand met Liro’s gaze. “I’m still a…” he almost said talentless, but that wasn’t true. “I still have my friend ands family here.”
Liro smiled. “Sure.” He sounded like Henry. “Well, I’ll see you at the festivities tonight. Got something to hang on the founding tree?”
Lysand patted his bag. “Of course.”
Lysand waved as Liro left, before tying his horse by a post and heading up the stairs of the festively decorated apartment. He hoped his mother hadn’t moved.
The key fit in the lock, and the door to the apartment creaked as he opened it, the sound bringing back old memories of his sneaking back home after late nights spent studying. “Hello?”
“Lysand?” His mother’s voice brought a lump to his throat, and he stared as she came down the hall, still wearing the thick gloves she always wore from work. “Oh my word, you really did come back.”
Lysand spread his arms. “I promised I’d come back for the founding, didn’t I?”
His mother felt small, almost frail, in his arms, the scent of engine grease and smoke interspersed with the scent of home. “I feared I’d never see you again,” she whispered.
“I’m not…I’m not going to forget my home.” Lysand let her go, his mother looking up at him with concern.
“I know. But the way the other boys treated you, and the war and your father’s death…I wouldn’t have blamed you if you didn’t.”
Lysand wanted to protest. He had always had Liro, and things hadn’t been that bad. His decision to leave and embrace the magic in his blood, to take advantage of his skills, hadn’t had anything to do with the bitterness of the war, or of the opportunities for magi. He just…wanted to prove he could do something.
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m here now. C’mon-let’s go celebrate the founding of the city and see the festivities.”
His mother smiled. “That sounds wonderful.”