Isadora and Orion were on their podium by the same stage as yesterday. The third discipline of the 124th Annual Witch Tournament began when Gabriel blew his whistle, and we all ran to the potion stations set up on the stage.
This had never been the most exciting part, for the audience anyway. For the next hour, it would be clips of five people brewing potions, and I remembered finding this bit intolerably boring as a kid who otherwise loved watching the Tournament. It was always worth it for the displays that came after, though.
All the ingredients had been set out for me. I added a few grass seeds, a single apple seed, flower petals, and finally dragon scales to my base. I added a few more than usual, so that it would hasten the growth and make the effect all the more noticeable.
I turned my back and waited while the potion brewed and had a glance at the other contestants.
A string of barely muted curses flew from Celeste while she stirred, added something else, stirred… then she dumped the contents and tried again.
Cloris had a big, satisfied smile on her face. Her movements were trained, and I noticed that she looked like she knew what she was doing. I wish I could say the same for Amin. A very bad smell soon wafted from his cauldron, and he had to throw a thin, smelly substance out before he, too, started over. Nadir worked quietly, with a concentrated look on his face, but he did look up when he noticed my eyes on him and then he looked away quickly. Something in his eyes made me feel bad.
At the sixty minute mark, our time for preparation ended, and we all bottled our concoctions and sat down in front of the stage. Gabriel cleared the alchemy stations off the stage with a spell.
Celeste, the first participant, went to the stage.
“Ms. Aura,” Isadora asked from her judge’s seat. “Show us your display.”
Celeste walked to the centre of the stage and threw her bottle to the floor. Where the liquids splashed, fire started crackling and growing, until Celeste stood in a sea of flames. She spread her arms and spun to show that there wasn’t a burn mark on her.
The judges and contestants clapped, and we were all allowed to go up on stage and walk among the flames. I couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t a very complex display, but it had a certain flair – the flames gave off a little warmth, and there was a sound like crackling wood. She appeared next to me with a smile, and I nodded.
“Stop praising me, Genevieve. Don’t you know that every time you admit someone other than you did well, a puppy cries a single tear?”
I elbowed her in the side, but she beamed.
Isadora, Orion, and Gabriel were talking amongst themselves, and after a while they asked Celeste to remove her effect and we took our seats for the next display.
Nadir walked on stage.
He raised the bottle over his head. It smashed to the stage floor, and all the shards of glass flew everywhere. Before our eyes, the otherwise bright, sunny day went completely dark, and a cluster of little lights blew up and grew in size. They took shape and found their position in the room. They were planets, I realised. A small-scale, beautiful little solar system hovered over the stage, illuminating Nadir’s face and the careful smile on his face. He stood to the side while we filed onto the stage.
“You can touch them,” Nadir said as we all walked over to take a closer look at the them. “It doesn’t hurt the form.”
I tried to say something while walking among them, but I couldn’t find the words. All the planets of the solar system were there. There was even a small, blue-green planet with its own little moon that I walked towards. A smile formed on my face as I reached out to touch the green sphere, and my hand came back slightly damp. So, it was steam solidified into shapes. He must have used luminescence, and maybe dragon scales to help them grow, but as for the rest… Nadir appeared next to me, at a careful distance.
“I had hoped you would like it” he said, picking at a corner of his shirt.
The kind of talent it required to create something like this was almost startling, and yet there he was, looking at me expectantly and… was he trembling? Cloris had said she thought he was nervous, but was it really that bad?
I nodded and asked:
“How did you arrange them like this? I’ve seen similar, but they were always made with spells.”
“If you like, there’s a book I can show you,” he said.
“Yes. I’ll think about it.”
My gaze returned to the display, and just then, Isadora’s voice shattered the illusion.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Hazan. Will you dismiss the effect?” she said, and I almost begged her to let it stay up. If only I could look a little longer, a little closer, maybe some sort of eureka moment would happen.
But Nadir did as he was told, and I blinked in the sun as we were left standing on the wooden boards of the stage. We went back to our seats, but my mind was still swirling with the possibilities of that kind of potion.
“That was incredible,” Cloris said somewhere a little ways away.
I nodded. Everybody else kept whispering about it, even after Amin had taken the stage. It was really to poor Amin’s disadvantage that he had to perform right after that. His potion, while impressive in its own right, didn’t look nearly as revolutionary. It made shadows dance across the stage, and there was a beautiful, eerie feel to it. They even played soft music. But even as I walked around to admire his creation, my gaze kept coming back to Nadir.
My own potion was next.
I smashed the bottle, and even though I didn’t feel as confident in it anymore, I still smiled as the scent of fresh grass filled the area. Grass grew all over the stage at my feet, flowers bloomed, and behind me, apple trees grew from saplings that sprouted and grew fruit. The sounds of singing birds could be heard from the trees.
The others walked onto the stage. They leaned down to feel the grass between their fingers, and I encouraged them to pick apples from the tree.
Celeste picked one and took a bite.
When Isadora told me to dismiss my little meadow, I held up a finger and told her to wait. As I expected, the grass grew longer and longer until it dried out and disappeared. The apples fell from the tree, rotted, and vanished, and all that was left was the scent of fresh hay and sweet, over-ripe apples.
It wasn’t a bad display, but it wasn’t met with the same kind of awe as Nadir’s either. Neither was Cloris’, even though hers was more than competent. After she had smashed her bottle, a small ocean appeared at her feet with waves and sounds of seagulls overhead. She had made the water feel cool on your feet as you walked in it. When she removed her display, you could still smell seaweed and salt in the air.
The results from the votes weren’t close this time. Nadir won in a landslide.
“This has no doubt been one of the most thrilling alchemy rounds in my time as a commentator,” Isadora said, and Orion and Gabriel agreed.
“This is starting to look very bad for you,” Celeste whispered, as we all applauded Nadir.
“We’re only two days in,” I said back. “And tomorrow is the duel round. It’s not over yet.”
I couldn’t for the life of me think of alchemy ingredients that would do what Nadir had done to that solar system. Well, there were dandelion seeds maybe, but they created a soft drifting and not a hovering. And anyway they reacted with dragon scales to create a completely different effect all together… and surely he had used those?
I was practising my duelling spells, but my heart wasn’t really in it, as ingredient after ingredient soared through my brain. He was from Egypt, so perhaps it was some unknown, Egyptian ingredient. Scarab beetles, papyrus, mummy dust… Truthfully, that was probably too stereotypical, even offensive. I didn’t know much about Egyptian magicians, even though they had a rich tradition. But maybe it wasn’t even from Egypt…
My thoughts were interrupted by a squeal as one of my fireballs flew off course and almost burnt off Celeste’s eyebrows. Again.
“I’m so sorry!” I shouted, running over to her. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not the one you should be killing,” she said, checking her arms and face for injuries. “Aim at Nadir instead.”
I muttered another sorry. Fortunately, I hadn’t hit her.
“I’m distracted,” I said, sighing.
Her eyes looked unusually soft. “Losing sucks, huh?”
“That’s not it,” I said, my eyes seeking Nadir, who practised at the other end. “I don’t know how he did it.”
“Well, go ask him.” Celeste rolled her eyes.
I bit my lip.
She slapped her forehead. “The puppy thing? That was a joke. Just go tell him it was a great display and ask how he did it. The puppies will be fine.”
Celeste was probably right that I should go over there and ask; he had even said he would tell me. But I didn’t go. I stood there like an idiot, until Celeste came to inform me that I stood there like an idiot. Then I went inside and studied on my own.
That evening, while I was supposed to sleep, it kept bugging me. After nearly an hour of tossing and turning, I gave up and got out of bed. I brought a book on duelling theory and my reading glasses to the library, lit a fire, and sank into one of the old armchairs. Duelling theory didn’t really resonate tonight, and my mind kept drifting. First to the display and then to my surroundings.
The manor was quiet, apart from the crackling of the fire and the old walls creaking. Sitting there in the warmth, I discovered that the theory was pretty boring and that the chair was very comfortable. Actually, it was so comfortable that I quietly nodded off. I dreamt about floating planets, and Ifrey sat on them, wearing Celeste’s dress. Then suddenly, he turned and screamed at me to be a puppy.
I shot up in the chair. It hadn’t been Ifrey that screamed at all, but a voice in the entryway. Angry speech that I couldn’t understand a word of, and it took me a minute before my brain was awake enough to realise that it was Arabic and that the voice was familiar. I plodded slowly towards the entryway to see that it was Amin, and the man he was shouting at was Nadir. The former was so busy shouting, he didn’t notice me until Nadir suddenly spun, staring at me with wide-open eyes.
“Is there a problem?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.
“Nothing at all,” Amin said, glaring at Nadir. “I’m going to bed.”
He pushed his way past Nadir and stomped up the stairs.
Nadir sighed and crossed his arms again. “I’m sorry for the disturbance.”
“Is there a problem with him? You know, you should talk to Gabriel about it, if-”
“It’s nothing,” he said, curt. “It was a small disagreement.”
Didn’t seem ‘small’ to me, but I didn’t say. The door to Amin’s room slammed shut upstairs, and Nadir’s shoulders slumped. He had dark circles under his eyes, and even though he was a good head taller than myself, he looked sort of small. Like a stray cat that wanted to hide.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
His eyes grew big again, and then he shook his head hard while his entire body was turned towards the door. “Please, don’t worry. I’m sorry for the disturbance.”
“I’d fallen asleep over a theoretical examination of duelling stances,” I said. “It’s probably good you woke me so I can try and go back to bed.”
“Sleep doesn’t come easy this week,” he said, looking at nothing in particular and fiddling with a lock of his hair. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for this.”
“Of course you are. You’re very talented.”
I blurted it, and judging from the look on his face, he had expected it as much as I had.
Silence, thick and awkward, settled around us. I was suddenly aware of my messy hair and my make-up-less face, and he still looked so lost. I grasped for something, anything to alleviate the tension, and then it came to me.
“How… did you do your display?”
If Celeste could hear me now, I would never hear the end of it. I braced for some comment of disbelief from him, a snide remark on my lacking knowledge, but instead, his face lit up.
“If you can wait five minutes, I’ll change and grab the book I mentioned. You will love it.”
I waited in the library, and he came back a little bit later, changed into a sweater, wearing reading glasses, and with a book in his hand. It looked new, but well-read, and the cover said it was written by one Iris Basil. Even more amazingly, when he sat down in the armchair next to mine, he had a soft smile on his face that made him look so far from the brooding favourite that I wondered if he had used a transformation spell while he was gone.
“Iris is incredible,” he said, opening the book on one of the middle chapters and placing it in my hands. “My grandfather learnt everything he knew from her. This is the section I adapted for my display.”
I scanned the page he had pointed. It was full of sticky notes and neat writing in the margins, that I guessed must be his. He pointed out a section.
“The positioning was done with hummingbird feathers.”
I devoured the page, read every word and every note, and Nadir explained how he had done it, down to the tiniest detail. When he was done I almost asked him to repeat it so I could take notes.
“How did you even come up with this?” I asked. “It’s not that hard to do with a spell, but as an alchemy display…”
“My grandfather always said that anything you can do with a spell you can do with alchemy as well.” When he saw my face, he shrugged. “Almost anything. He always had great faith in the discipline. Same as Iris.”
He pointed at the book.
“I haven’t heard of her before,” I said. “When was this published?”
“It hasn’t been published yet. It’s an advance reading copy that she asked me to read for her.”
He leafed to the front of the book, where a little note stated: With thanks to my darling Nadir. Love, Iris.
I couldn’t help but smile at him. “Ah, so you’re cheating.”
“I am not,” he laughed. “Not more than you, anyway. How many times have you won again?”
“This will be my seventh time.”
He laughed again. “It probably will.”
I cocked my head. “You don’t think you’ll win?”
“Oh, no, no. I’m fairly good at alchemy, but…”
I studied him, wondering what was up with the false modesty. He was much more than just ‘fairly good’ with alchemy. I said that and saw his face change to a deep red. There was a long silence where I expected him to speak, but instead he picked at a thread in his shirt. Every now and again, he glanced up at me, and I finally decided to change the topic.
“Where in Egypt are you from?”
The relief on his face was palpable. “A small village outside of Al-Samara; you probably don’t know it.”
“I don’t really know much about Egypt at all,” I said. “I’ve never been.”
“That’s practically criminal,” he said, smiling. “There are some very interesting places of high magic activity that I think you should see.”
“Any places in Al-Samara?”
“I have a small house by an oasis that’s known for strong activity. You must come see it.”
“Sounds like an invitation.”
The colour turned up in his face again. “Y-yes. I suppose it is.”
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his, or from the smile on his face. I moved closer to the fire and in the process closer to him as well. When he looked up, he started a little and stumbled for words.
“Do you…” he cleared his throat. “The book. You want to…?”
“Borrow it? Yes, please.”
“Yes. You may. Borrow it.”
“Are you okay?” I asked. “You’re shaking.”
Nadir nodded and I saw him taking a few shaky breaths before looking at me.
“I think I have to head to bed, Genevieve. Thank you for talking to me.”
“I’m the one who should say thanks.”
He stood up, did a stiff little bow, and went upstairs. I stayed by the fire with Iris Basil’s book pressed to my chest, until I felt tired enough to go back to bed. Lying there, though, sleep didn’t come. Instead I returned to square one when I found myself thinking about Nadir’s display.
Author’s note: Hi guys, and welcome back to Champion of Moonlight, and one of my favourite chapters to write and shoot so far. I’m equally pleased and amazed that it was possible to make images of Nadir’s display without any kind of photo manipulation trickery. The planets are all moon lamps that I got from here and I know I’ll be using them a lot in the future. The very fact that I was able to think of this idea and make it a reality is just a testament to the awesomeness of modders and the sims community.
I had so much fun writing this as well, because it features a much more relaxed Genevieve and brings out Nadir’s absolute, utter dorkiness full force.
And yes, both my mains use reading glasses. It is a truth universally acknowledged that putting on glasses when you don’t usually use them makes you instantly attractive. So sue me.
Anyway, thank you for reading along, and hi to new readers. I’ve noticed a couple of new readers since doing a little interview for Rosemary of Noble Doubt fame. If you haven’t seen, check it out here, and while you’re there also check out Noble Doubt because it is so, so good.