There was no one as proud of anything as Robert and Maryse Lightwood were of their children. Robert and Maryse were notorious for boasting publicly about the deeds of their children. It happened to such an extent that the town tended to ignore them more often than not.
"Our youngest shows great promise. I have no doubt that one day he may be the finest swordsman in all the realm!" Robert bragged. He stood in the middle of the tavern, to make sure that everyone would be able to hear and see him. Most of the patrons didn't even turn their heads. Maryse stood to join her husband.
"Our daughter is so beautiful even princes have asked for her hand. She will marry into a fine family and bring us great pride," Maryse promised the room. Robert was laughing now, loudly, like a donkey.
"Our eldest son is talented beyond compare," Maryse continued, "He is incredibly strong and skilled with a bow. Why, he could hit the center of any target, no matter how far!"
"Max is the smartest child to be taught in a thousand years," Robert assured them.
"Isabelle is very clever, she could fool the sphinx itself," Maryse said.
"Alec could spin straw into gold if he wanted to!" Robert said, and he and Maryse shared a laugh, the only two in the tavern to be enjoying the conversation.
"Could he really?" A voice chimed from the corner of the tavern. The owner of the voice pushed back her hood, and everyone recognized her instantly. It was Lydia Branwell, one of the Duke's chief advisers. The Duke was notorious for sending delegates into towns to spy on the villagers and gauge the general will of the people. While the representatives typically did a good job of remaining hidden, they were easily recognized once they revealed themselves. Everyone knew who the Duke's servants were, and it was obvious that Robert and Maryse knew, too. Robert's jaw had dropped and Maryse's face was white as a ghost.
"Well?" Lydia continued, "Are your children really as talented as you proclaim?" Robert nodded hastily, everyone watching him intently.
"Oh, most definitely," He said quickly, "They are by far some of the best citizens of the realm and we hope they will bring great pride to the Duke, ma'am." Robert averted his gaze.
"Then your eldest son could truly spin straw into gold?" Lydia pressed. The tavern was absolutely silent. Robert swallowed, unsure of how to answer. If he said no, he'd be punished for lying. If he said yes, surely Alec would be punished when he failed. Maryse answered before Robert could decide.
"Of course," She said, "All of our children have immeasurable talent." Her face was tight as she sealed her son's fate.
"Well," said Lydia, smiling, "If he can really turn straw into gold, the Duke would be delighted to meet him. Your son will bring great pride to you indeed." Lydia motioned for the Lightwoods to lead her to their unfortunate son.
"You have until dawn to spin all the straw into gold. I'll come back then to check on your progress. Keep in mind, should you fail, or refuse, your parents are at risk of execution for lying to royal authorities. The wheel is right there, we have plenty of straw, do your best to turn all of it to gold. I'll see you in the morning," Lydia finished, shutting the door as she left.
Alec blinked numbly. Just a few hours ago he'd been at home, eating dinner with his siblings. Now he was in one of the Duke's various Imperial Palaces. They'd placed him in a large wooden room, filled almost to the ceiling with straw. There was a spinning wheel in the center of the room. At least, Alec assumed it was a spinning wheel. He'd never actually touched one before, and now he was expected to do the impossible. His parents, his father in particular, had a penchant for exaggeration. They'd never thought anyone would take them seriously, much less hold them accountable for it. Everything had simply spiraled out of control, and now Alec had to spin straw into gold or his parents could be killed.
Alec didn't even know where to start. He supposed he should at least try spinning the straw, for his parents. Oh God, his parents. Alec didn't know what to do. Even if it was possible to spin straw into gold, Alec didn't even know how to use a spinning wheel. Suddenly, the room started feeling smaller. The straw was towering over him. It must have been suffocating him, because Alec couldn't breathe anymore and the room was spinning. He felt himself sit down and he put his head in his hands. His parents were going to get hurt, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Would the Imperials even let him go back to his siblings? Perhaps escape was his best option, but he didn't see any way out of the room.
"My, my, my, what's going on here?"
Alec shot up, stumbling backwards at the intrusion. There was a man standing next to the spinning wheel who had definitely not been there a second ago. He was tall, though he was still shorter than Alec, with dark hair and piercing eyes. There were various rings on his fingers and he was dressed elaborately in black.
"Wh- Who are you?" Alec asked, on guard and anxious.
"Not important," Replied the man, "What is important is who you are, and what you're doing here." The man asked, though it felt like a command.
"I'm Alec," He swallowed, "I'm supposed to turn all this straw into gold." Much to Alec's shock, the man laughed.
"And how are you expected to do that?" There was a glint in the man's eye.
"My parents foolishly told the Imperial Regime that I could do this, when I can't," Alec quickly backtracked, "They just exaggerate a lot and happened to do it at the wrong time. It's not their fault." The man hummed in response.
"And what happens when you fail?"
"I don't know. Nothing good," Alec was reminded of why he'd been panicking a few minutes ago.
"I could do it," The man told him, hands grazing over the spinning wheel.
"How?" Alec asked in disbelief.
"With magic, obviously," A flash of blue flickered between the man's fingers. Alec supposed it made sense, how else could he have entered the locked room? So the man had magic. Alec had been warned about magic users. He knew they never did anything without expecting recompense.
"Why would you do that?"
"Because I'm a nice person," The man smiled. Alec stared at him, hard. "Oh, alright. Well, what do you have to give me?"
"I-I don't have anything," Alec was at a loss. What could he possibly have that a warlock would want?
"Really? You don't have anything I could want? No family heirlooms? No items of immeasurable worth? No favors you could do for me?" The man asked, his eyes looked like they could see through Alec's very soul. Alec thought for a moment, brow furrowing.
"I suppose... I have this necklace. It belonged to my great grandfather. It's real silver," Alec assured him slowly, removing the necklace from his neck to show the warlock. He took the necklace in his hand, seemingly inspecting the quality of silver, before rolling his eyes and pocketing it.
"It'll do, I suppose," The man acquiesced, before taking a seat at the spinning wheel and beginning to spin the straw into gold.
Alec watched in fascination as the straw turned to gold right before his eyes. The gold was the same shape as spun wool would be, long and thin, but shiny, and warm off the wheel. He took some of it in his hands, in utter disbelief that something like this was possible. The warlock looked at him and chuckled.
"Is this your first time seeing magic?"
"This is my first time seeing gold," Alec said, looking up to make eye contact with the man, who prompted him silently with a question in his eyes. "My family is well off. We have some inheritance from a few generations ago, and we've got enough for my mom to stay in the social circles she wants to be in, but it's all paper money or other assets. The nicest thing I've actually got was the necklace I gave you, which is just silver. But this is also my first time seeing magic, yes." Alec finished quickly, starting to regret sharing that much with a warlock.
"Magic is becoming much less common these days. All those ghastly trials and accusations. Much too dangerous to be public than it used to be," The warlock said factually.
"Doesn't seem to have stopped you," Alec said, before he could stop himself. To his relief, the man smiled playfully.
"We're not in public, are we?"
"No, I suppose we're not," Alec agreed.
"Jobs like this are the only ones I can get these days," The warlock lamented.
"What are 'jobs like this'?" Alec asked.
"Jobs hidden away in rooms full of straw, helping the desperate, paid in silver to make gold that I can't even keep for myself," The man countered, making both of them smile. They sat in silence as the man finished spinning all the straw into gold. It didn't take as long as Alec thought it would, and soon he was surrounded by more gold than he thought he'd ever see in his life. The gold glittered so brightly Alec was afraid it would blind him.
"I really can't thank you enough," Alec said to the warlock, who stood next to the spinning wheel, admiring his finished product.
"No, you can't," He agreed, grinning despite his words. "Goodbye, Alec."
"Wait-" Alec protested, but it was too late, and the warlock had vanished. Alec sighed and took a seat at the wheel, waiting for the sun to creep over the horizon and for Lydia Branwell to return and tell him he could go home.
Lydia's face was brighter than Alec ever thought it could be as she took in the room full of gold.
"The Duke will be absolutely ecstatic. Alec, you have brought great pride to your family, and you will bring even greater pride to the realm tonight," Lydia told him, smiling. Alec froze.
"Tonight?" Alec asked. He felt like there was a rock in his throat.
"Of course! Now that you've proven yourself to me, you must do the same for the Duke tonight," Lydia explained, and Alec felt his heart sink into his stomach.