Kaeck huddled on the sofa in Selsor’s enormous office. Of late, he’d actually begun to feel comfortable there. Everything was costly leather, velvet, linen and things he couldn’t even name, in dark, rich colors. Beeswax candles, expensive furniture, all of it beautiful. The sort of office every mage dreamed of someday owning, when he finally settled down after years of dashing battles against the monsters of the Territories.

He’d been comfortable there, until today.

Today, when at least a dozen students had ganged up on him after class and harangued him for a good fifteen minutes before a professor had come along and he’d finally been able to break away.

Poor, hick, lacking class…the insults and questions and challenges had gone on and on, and he’d done his best to counter them, but it was hard to deny that he didn’t exactly fit in here. If not for the stipend that he hadn’t realized came with being Selsor’s apprentice, he would still be in his threadbare clothes and barely eating. Why was everyone putting him down for finally enjoying the things they’d always taken for granted?

He knew he would never be anyone’s first pick for such things…but Selsor had picked him, and that counted for something, didn’t it?

“You look as though a loved one just died,” Selsor said dryly.

Kaeck yelped, nearly tumbling off the sofa, books and papers going every which way. He made a face, and miserably recalled that clumsy had been on the list of adjectives used to describe his person. Also jumpy. “Sorry, Master,” he muttered, and knelt on the floor to begin gathering up his things.

Selsor’s hand covered his, and he slowly looked up. “Professor Bell said he caught some idiots harassing you.”

“Yes, Master,” Kaeck said with a sigh. “I think sometimes I miss the days when I was invisible.”

“What troubles you most about what they say?” Selsor asked, and motioned him back to the sofa. “It’s all nonsense, of course, but you young people never get that through your heads.”

Kaeck made a face and stared at his hands. “I’m not like you, or Lord Jenohn, or Bellamy.”

“You mean you don’t come from wealth or nobility, and no one ever lets you forget it,” Selsor replied. “Here’s an interesting tidbit, see you get it through that thick head of yours.”

“Yes, Master,” Kaeck replied automatically.

Selsor grunted, and Kaeck would have thought he was amused, but this was Selsor, and he was never amused by anything. “Everyone knows I was kicked out of the University once for accidently nearly killing Jenohn with lightning—the part everyone has forgotten was that it happened because I was a poor kid there on a scholarship which did not completely cover my tuition. After I was expelled, I had nowhere to go. Jenohn found me living in a stable, half-starved, with little more than two robes and an old pair of boots to my name.”

Kaeck stared at him, opened his mouth, closed it, then tried again. “That can’t be true. Ow!” He yelped and defensively covered the ears Selsor had just boxed.

“It’s true enough,” Selsor said in his perpetually grumpy voice. “Here’s another truth for you—if they can insult your lack of money, the poor clothes you used to wear, your accent…if all they can find to mock about you are superficial things that don’t matter, it’s because they can find no true fault with you. They attack your upbringing because there is nothing important about you which they can criticize. They are grasping at straws. Do not let them. You are my apprentice and they are not. That is what truly angers them. Now cease moping, and let us work on your flames today. Your delicate flame work still needs refining.”

“Yes, Master,” Kaeck said, and bent to retrieve the proper book from the mess still on the floor, trying not to smile because that would likely get his ears boxed again.