“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.”
-- Thomas Merton
He did not look or act like a magi. Tall and gangly with hands and feet which seemed too big for his wiry body, he moved with an utter lack of grace and tripped over things. Confronted with a stranger, he often fumbled with his belongings and dropped them; startled to speech, he stuttered. Some thought him simple and most --- correctly so --- assumed him harmless.
His own gifts were minimal; he could, just barely, manifest a few elemental defensive techniques and he could communicate with his creatures if he physically touched them. No one had ever been able to determine whether or not Pennington's 'green thumb' came of simple botanical knowledge or tapped an innate earth magic, but he kept an herb garden of some of the finest medicinal and culinary specimens and he brewed an excellent tea as well as other remedies for common ailments. His strongest spell was an uncomplicated one, the manipulation of the molecules of water in the mug until they reached the correct temperature for steeping.
He did, however, possess a particular skill which High Archmage Thane found quite useful to the Keep.
Pennington liked travel more than most and had an uncanny ability to sense and assess magical potential, especially in the young. While most magi, if they sought students at all, based their choices on personal connections and family tendencies, Pennington did not allow such shallow considerations to influence him. The students he brought back to the Keep might not have had inheritance, money, or titles but they did have that spark which made a studious and powerful magi.
Of late, enrollment at the Keep had been declining. Disturbing reports had come from around the continent of magi being shunned in small villages and cities alike; sometimes those incidents included assault and one magi had died of her injuries. The students among their ranks at the Keep seemed more concerned with the prestige of being a magi than manifesting the skills needed to become one. These came from the wealthier families who could pay tuition, were the second or third sons of landed nobles, or were the daughters of ambitious merchant families hoping to make a good impression and a good wedding match.
It seemed to Pennington, as he sighed inwardly, that his class of first year magi were worse behaved than usual. Several days of unusually severe summer thunderstorms had kept them all indoors; the students were restless and more interested in playing outside with their creatures than in sitting in the classroom and learning basic magical theories. They would need that information in order to properly train their creatures and, ultimately, to identify the types of magic in which they would specialize.
“Not,” he muttered to the blackboard or his tarsier, either of which seemed more likely to listen than his pupils, “that these b-b-brats are i-i-inter-rrested in wh-wha-what I have to s-say.” Casama merely turned his big, brilliant eyes toward his magi and slowly winked. Since the tarsier seemed to sense when students were about to pull a prank, Pennington took that as a sign that nothing could be seriously amiss and continued his lesson.
“He's talking to the chalk again,” whispered Tarryn to the blond girl across the aisle. The blond, whose name was Ava, smothered a giggle which startled a small gryphon hatchling lounging under her desk.
“He'll have trouble in a moment,” Ava predicted. She gestured toward a lanky redhead sitting in the last row of seats with his feet up on the chair of the desk in front of him. “Alan distracted the tarsier with a handful of juicy grasshoppers. He's not paying the slightest attention to us.”
“What's he up to this time?” asked Tarryn, feigning a yawn. The black winged cat at her feet followed suit as she stretched out her front paws and showed a delicate pink tongue between her sharp teeth. Tarryn liked Alan but wasn't about to admit it to anyone.
“Watch and see,” said Ava, holding a finger to her lips and smiling mischievously.
The two girls faced the front of the room and pretended interest in the lecture. A few minutes later the smell of sulfur permeated the air, followed by a series of crackles. Alan's phoenix fledgling flapped its wings as it streaked up the aisle still trailing the firecrackers it had accidentally ignited. It squawked in indignation, tripped over its own feet, and rolled to a stop under Pennington's robes...where it promptly set them on fire.
“...and f-f-fire if impr-roperly ha-handled can be quite danger--- oh, hell!” Pennington flapped about, frantically trying to put out his smouldering robes while avoiding injuring the confused phoenix fledgling. The tarsier, having finished the last of his snack, blinked in alarm and then commenced an ear piercing shriek. “F-f-f-ind w-w-water, Digger!” he cried to the sarvain curled in a basket of earth next to the cabinets. The sarvain waddled around the room, sniffing and testing the air with its long tongue. Finally it stopped in front of a small, pale boy and nudged the bowl on his desk with its snout.
“Hey, you can't have that!” he yelled, lifting it and the koi out of reach of the insistent sarvain.
“Put it out with this magic you keep droning about,” Alan drawled. He gestured and the little phoenix, its bright eyes full of questions, came slinking back to him.
“I won't d-do th-th-that!” Pennington's stutter made him almost unintelligible. The class caught something about the ability being to advanced for a basic technique.
“You mean, you can't,” Tarryn taunted him. “Pennington the Putz can't even do a simple thing like boil water,” she announced to her classmates. A few others nodded, remembering the time he had tried to demonstrate the ability and had instead turned the tea into mud and then exploded it all over the students in the front row.
“Pennington the Putz,” several others began to chant. Pennington stood helplessly in front of them and literally smouldered. He knew he could do nothing else.
“Aww, leave him alone. It's not his fault.” Heads turned. Kimi, the boy with the koi fish, rarely spoke and when he did, the quiet force of his personality was enough to make them listen. Kimi was an albino and felt an innate sympathy toward their instructor; he knew what it was to be the target of ridicule. Without another word, he held the fish bowl in his hands and made eye contact with the koi. A shimmering wave of water appeared, arced across the classroom, and doused the fires from Pennington's robes.
“Th-th-thank you, Kimi,” Pennington managed and, drawing his tattered dignity around him, returned to the lecture. He had just begun explaining the properties of water when someone knocked firmly on the doorway and stepped into the classroom.
Master Belmos in one glance took in the ruins of Pennington's robe, the water pooling on the floor, and the soot marks on the floorboards. He raised a bushy eyebrow and inquired, “Problems, Magi Pennington?”
“N-no, s-sir,” he responded. “Just a l-l-little a-a-accident. C-can I d-do s-s-something f-f-for you?”
Master Belmos gave the students an oppressive glare which promised this wasn't the end of the incident. “Matter of fact, I'm in a bit of a hurry. Thane would like to see you.” He shook his head in bewilderment. “It can't be helped; you won't have time to change.” Suddenly he grinned and it wasn't a pleasant sight to the students trying to eavesdrop on the two magis' conversation. Master Belmos jerked a thumb in their direction. “Go on, I'll deal with these.” As Pennington took his leave, he heard Master Belmos saying, “Today we'll be mucking out pegasi stalls....”
In spite of his harried state, he grinned. “Well,” he said to the tarsier, speaking without a trace of a stutter for once, “they wanted to play outside. Let's go, it won't do to keep Thane waiting.”