[chapter 8 continued]
Julien’s booming laugh echoed through the mages’ underground training room while Olivier helped Mira dig herself out from under an avalanche of rock and broken cement blocks.
“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” called Mira as she wiggled through the small opening toward freedom.
Julien kept on laughing, bent over now in glee. “No, it’s just—” He paused for breath, sucking in a long, deep inhale. He instantly burst out laughing again.
Mira turned to Olivier. “Can I please, please, please blast him with a spell?”
Olivier smiled and rocked back on his heels. “I’m tempted too, but you’d best save your energy. Etienne wants you to run through some more drills.”
She made a face upon hearing this news and squirmed the rest of her way out of the rockslide. Meanwhile Julien managed to calm himself down and stop laughing, coming over to shake Mira’s hand.
“Sorry,” he said, his smile threatening to dissolve into laughter. “It’s just, your expression when you saw the rocks falling—priceless. Then your last spell, that attempt to divert the avalanche…” He bit back another laugh. “It just came off like a sneeze of gravel.”
Mira shook his hand and took advantage of the close proximity to hit him on the side of the head, just hard enough to make him sober up. “I was this close to getting permission from Olivier to blast you post-battle,” she warned him.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “No, you held up surprisingly well. Olivier and Etienne were selling you short.”
She threw a scrutinizing glance at Olivier. “You told him about me?”
“I told him he had to step it up from most other Jade League mage battles,” explained Olivier, “but not up to full strength. So he wanted to know how much less than full strength, and it just kind of went from there…”
Mira smiled, and turned back to Julien. “So I did well?”
He nodded, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “Those fire blasts might have singed me,” he complained.
Olivier straightened and beat the dust out of his clothes. “Either you were holding back against Etienne, or you’ve really improved a lot since that battle,” he said to Mira, helping her onto her feet.
“A little bit of both,” she said, taking his hand and letting him pull her to her feet. “I wasn’t going full strength against Etienne, but the Latin study has helped a lot. I didn’t really realize it until this battle.”
“I still won,” Julien pointed out. “Don’t forget that.”
She laughed. “What’s the old proverb? It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. I like to think I learned from how that battle played out, even if I lost.”
Julien sighed. “Yes, and meanwhile I won, yet I didn’t stretch my limits.” He elbowed Olivier in the ribs. “Maybe if I had a worthy opponent, someone at my level, you know?”
Olivier swatted him aside. “I’d level you with a single spell,” he said. He glanced over at the entrance and saw Etienne there talking with Jean-Pierre. “Come on,” he told Mira. “Time for drills.”
She thanked Julien for a battle well fought and followed Olivier toward the entrance. It was strange being away from all the new non-mage additions to the Jade League. In the two weeks since the first refugees came to headquarters, they’d been joined by dozens and dozens of other Parisians seeking shelter from the tough crackdown outside. The government attitude toward its people reminded Mira strongly of McCarthyism, and she knew the Communist witch-hunt in the States was hardly the first or the last in history. At the very least, she was glad that the Jade League existed to give some Parisians safety in the city. But it felt strange, seeing all these changes to the Jade League. The ability to recall the mess hall before its current level of crowding, or to remember the days when board members would be sighted in the halls mixing with the regular recruits—these moments brought the pre-ultimatum recruits closer together, and made Mira feel like a veteran despite the fact she’d only been with the Jade League for a little over a month.
Mira met Etienne by the door, and they headed off to an open space to work on spell drills, leaving Olivier talking with Jean-Pierre. Etienne had been working with Mira on low-energy spells, drilling the Latin words over and over again and forcing her to cast them with minimal expenditure of magical power. The spells were usually aimed at dazzling an opponent—things that looked impressive or intimidating but couldn’t actually do any damage. Though not exactly illusions and easy for a mage to ignore, they could still startle an opponent if used deftly in battle.
They started in the same way they usually did, with Etienne asking her to repeat the Latin words while he paced around her, correcting her when she stumbled over a phrase. They picked up speed as she went through the complex spell incantations, faster and faster until her words spilled from her mouth in a blur. Once he was satisfied with her pronunciation and repetition, the spell casting began. Over and over again, always in the same sequence she cast the flashes of light, the exploding sounds, the shaking reverberations. The spells were so specific that she barely needed to think as she cast them, her energy dipping by such a miniscule amount that sometimes she felt like she was still just repeating the words.
Through her tenth round of casting the same rotation of spells, Mira put up with the exercise. In some ways, she appreciated the lack of energy depletion—before she had always done these drills at full energy, and they really felt like a waste then. Now, after the long battle with Julien, she could actually feel the slight cost of each spell. But she was getting bored of the drill, just like she had grown bored of running laps in the training room at headquarters.
Etienne finally stopped her. “Your pronunciation’s getting sloppy,” he said, frowning as he stood with his hands in his pants pockets, fixing her with a critical eye.
Mira searched the ceiling of the training room for patience, taking a deep breath. “Sorry,” she said. “After the sixth time through I wasn’t really thinking about the spells anymore.”
“You have to maintain your focus—that’s why we do these drills.” He returned to his pacing path around her. “Again.”
“What’s the point?” she asked instead of casting again. She couldn’t go through another round of this monotony without knowing why she was spending her time like this.
He stopped, eyeing her with a fixed expression of solemnity. “What?”
“What’s the point of this exercise?” she asked. “You know I can cast the spells, and you know I can do it without completely draining my energy. So what’s the point?”
He considered her for a moment. “These need to be second nature to you. You need to be able to flawlessly execute these spells under time pressure and when you’re low on energy.”
“Why?” she asked.
His posture didn’t change, but something in his expression lent more intensity to his words. “Because the secret police will be shooting at you after a long chase through the city, and the only way you’ll have time to cast an actual, damaging spell is if you cast one of these to distract them. You won’t have time to think. You have to know these until they’re reflex.”
Mira sensed this wasn’t some made up scenario—this was something he, and likely Olivier, had experienced before, back in the early days of Favreau’s regime. Charlotte had mentioned before how the two of them had risked their lives again and again to understand the patrol routes of the secret police, and they must have found out first hand that mages could be shot on sight.
“Okay,” she said quietly, taking up a stance for spell casting again. “It would have been nice to know that when we started.”
Etienne sighed and stepped closer, a vague hand gesture telling her to pause the drill for the moment. “Every facet of your training has a rationale behind it,” he explained, crossing his arms at his chest while he talked. “I realize we don’t always explain that rationale, but now that you’ve been training for a while, I suppose it’s time I laid it out for you.” He held up three fingers. “There are three main parts to your training: physical combat, subterfuge, and mage attacks.”
Mira nodded, considering the activities she’d been put through in the last few weeks. They did indeed fall under these three categories, though she’d never thought of it that way.
“The first includes overall physical fitness,” continued Etienne, “with an emphasis on stamina and flexibility to keep you from injuring yourself under the demands of everything else. In terms of combat, I’m sure you already understand how hand-to-hand sparring is important. Charlotte has also started you on fighting multiple opponents, which is the more likely scenario outside the Jade League if you encounter secret police. You’ve also been terrain running, which hones your ability to read and leverage terrain while also working in a chase scenario. If you remember, it’s how you first arrived here with the Jade League from the Notre Dame.”
Nodding, Mira interrupted. “I understand the rationale for physical combat training,” she said. “And subterfuge I understand, too—all the spells Charlotte has had me working on for evading secret police. But all the focus on spell work seems a little off. How often will I be using spells out in the city?”
“Most of the time you won’t,” he explained, “with the exception of evasive spells. But we’re preparing you for large-scale operations and battles—not against other mages, as you’re used to in mage society battles, but against non-mages and secret police.”
Mira frowned. “I thought the point was to carry out the Jade League’s operations while minimizing our contact with the secret police.”
“It is right now,” answered Etienne. “But conflicts are inevitable, and we would be fools not to prepare for them.”
“But you said large-scale operations,” said Mira. “You actually plan on attacking the government?”
Etienne tilted his head to one side, watching her. “One day,” he said. “We’ll attack them directly when we’ve exhausted all other options. Technically we’re already attacking them in disrupting their operations, but there’s a limit to what we can do on this scale. The point is I want you prepared for all possibilities. We’re honing your mage abilities, broadening the range of your attacks through Latin study. You’re getting preparation in how to disarm and disable conventional, non-mage weapons. These drills here are for visually stunning or otherwise distracting non-mages. Meanwhile Quentin has been teaching you to cast spells on buildings, which will play a key role for any time we infiltrate a government office. All these are spells outside your normal mage society repertoire—we’ve modified the Kingham training to fit the needs of the mages in the Jade League. So we’re not developing your shielding or counter-spells, because with the exception of Lucas, you’re not likely to encounter a mage in Paris that isn’t working for us.”
Mira looked down at her shoe. “You trained to fight non-mages at Kingham?”
“Yes,” said Etienne quietly. “It wasn’t a large part of our training, but we developed those skills because we knew not everyone in the world was tolerant.”
Mira glanced up at him, and she registered a certain tone of sadness in his eyes. “That’s a possibility that American mages never think about,” she said.
“We don’t all live in the relative security of the United States.”
He didn’t say it like a criticism, but Mira felt the prejudice against American mages all the same. It stung, but she reminded herself that now she was here, in France—in Paris, the very den of anti-mage sentiment of the world right now.
She changed the subject. “I understand the rationale now, but I feel like I’m the only recruit who’s learning more than just the evasive techniques and physical combat.”
A hint of a smile touched Etienne’s mouth. “Not all recruits are trained like this. Most we prepare for self-defense, and the better ones we train for joining the patrols. The particularly strong we often don’t train much, and they lead the guard rotations. Only the exceptional mages, the ones we’ve identified as strong enough to work on par with Kingham graduates, only those are trained like this.”
Mira crossed her arms, feet set wide apart. “So how many other mages are exceptional?”
He shoved his hands back into his pants pockets. “Just you so far,” he said.
She laughed out of skepticism. “That can’t be true.”
“Why not?” asked Etienne.
“Because I can’t be the only mage here that’s capable of training in all this,” she answered, incredulous.
“There are six Kingham graduates in the Jade League,” he told her. “A few days after being plucked from starvation and exhaustion you held up decently against me. You’re the first mage we’ve recruited who can even begin to match a Kingham grad. A few weeks of training and already you’re capable of matching Julien pretty well.”
“He still won,” she said. “He’d want you to remember that.”
“Yes, he did,” admitted Etienne. “But you learn fast—imagine if we were training you in mage combat. You’d soon fight with the best of us.”
Mira smiled at the thought. “You really think I’m that good?” she asked quietly.
“You’re showing us you’re that good,” he said. “Now come on, five more rounds of these drills and we’ll be done for the day.”
Mira nodded, waiting until Etienne had backed far enough away before she took a deep breath and began casting the distraction spells again. With each one, she tried to focus on it without trying, turning each one into instinct.