The ring of eman vath, p.13
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.13

           Hal Emerson

  Chapter Eleven: Apprentice

  Valinor led AmyQuinn up the long flight of stairs at the head of the Sorcerers’ Court.

  They passed between the two queues of people waiting to petition the harried-looking scribes and ascended the white stone steps. AmyQuinn tried to ignore the eyes on her, tried to shrug them off and hunch her shoulders against them like they were nothing more than an annoying, insistent wind, but she couldn’t quite seem to manage it. She felt on display in her new white clothes and after her interaction with the Keeper, and despite what she told herself about being a fool, her face would not stop burning with a fierce blush.

  The stairs ended at a second open space, where two more Sorev Ael were waiting in the distance. They began to approach, but before she could much more than take in the general impression of this new courtyard – wide and made of the same white stone as the stairs, with columns all around – Valinor was speaking.

  “This is where I leave you,” he said.

  “Oh,” was all she managed to say in reply.

  He swung his arms once at his sides as if thinking of patting her on the shoulder or shaking her hand, but he did neither. The moment lengthened until it was unbearably awkward, and neither of them seemed sure of what to say.

  “Will I see you again?” she asked finally. She did not know why that was the question that came to her – he was rude, arrogant, and mean, and she was sure now that she didn’t like him.

  “I come and go,” he said.

  They stood another moment in silence, and then he clasped his hands together and extended them to her in an extremely uncomfortable gesture of farewell. He seemed to realize how pathetic this motion was and quickly returned his hands to his sides.

  “Keep your wits about you,” he said gruffly. “You’ll be fine.”

  “Right,” she replied, feeling that if she moved or spoke too much she risked dying of some horrible awkwardness disease.

  “You’d better go,” he said, nodding over her shoulder with his chin. “Farewell.”

  He turned and hurried back down the steps, taking them two at a time. She watched him go, wondering why he was heading back down when he’d said he was going to visit the Circle that ruled Var Athel…

  It happened so quickly that if she hadn’t been watching intently she would have missed it. Between one step and the next, the retreating figure twisted and turned in an unnatural way and then lifted into the air. Valinor shrank and spread his arms wide, and then he burst into flight, completely changed. The eagle made its way into the sky, and as it turned, the noonday sun revealed bright red plumage on its breast and ash-gray feathers along its wings. It shrieked at her, flapping hard, and then disappeared into the sky.

  Slowly, she realized that she was all alone. There was nothing tying her to the past anymore – not even Col. Her clothes were gone, her parents were gone, and so now too was Valinor.

  She took a shaky breath. The flush in her cheeks began to fade and she gripped her hands into tight fists to keep them from shaking. She heard noise behind her and turned toward it.

  Two women were standing there, dressed in long gray robes and holding staves that clearly marked them as Sorev Ael. The first was tall and thin, with steely gray hair pulled back in a severe bun that let not a single wisp of hair escape its grasp. Her face, however, was open and kind, with lines along the sides of her mouth and at the corners of her eyes that she was used to smiling.

  The second woman was her opposite. She was short and stout – plump, even – and she examined AmyQuinn quite dispassionately over her half-moon spectacles as if trying to obtain notes for a mildly interesting study. She had brown hair that was not – and quite possibly could not be – contained; it fuzzed and frizzed about her head in a thick cloud the color of wet sand.

  “Good afternoon,” the first one said, smiling kindly.

  “Good afternoon,” AmyQuinn replied, trying to keep herself from fidgeting.

  “What’s your name?” the second woman asked. She did not smile, though neither did she frown; she simply observed.

  “AmyQuinn Stonewall,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady.

  “Very good,” said the second woman. “And what is it you wish from us?”

  AmyQuinn, thrown by the question, looked back and forth between the two of them, mouthing words but managing to produce no sound.

  “Take a deep breath, dear,” said the kindly first woman, smiling at her in an encouraging way. AmyQuinn did so and then managed to collect her thoughts.

  “I want to be a Sorev Ael.”

  The first woman nodded, looking proud, which both annoyed AmyQuinn and made her feel strangely grateful.

  “Very good. Then please follow me.”

  The first woman turned and moved toward the center of the new court. It was very similar in appearance to the Sorcerers’ Court down below, save that it was smaller and empty of people. There were two wide openings flanked by columns on either side that seemed to lead to long corridors that curved deeper into the Citadel, and though the walls were high, there was a wide center missing from the ceiling. Light streamed in through the opening from the sun as it passed its noonday position, and the sky was a clean, clear blue.

  The women led her to the top of the court, where stood a plinth. It looked like a column that had been cut off short: the top of it was chipped and jagged, as if it had been shorn away by a single savage blow, and it only came to about the chest height of an average-sized man. A small overhang supported by simple pillars had been built to cover it.

  The two Sorev Ael led her up the steps carved in the stone of the dais and onto the platform itself, then motioned for her to step over to the broken pillar. When she rounded the edge of the plinth, she saw that an ancient tome rested inside a small indentation. It was easily the size of her whole upper torso, and nearly twice as thick. The binding was old and worn, and the cover was faded with heavy use.

  The second woman – the stern, plump one – came up beside her. AmyQuinn caught a whiff of something musty about her, like the smell of old parchment.

  “If you wish to join us, you must sign the Book,” she said simply. “As you do, you will be asked to swear the Oath. If you have passed the Keeper, then you can understand the Words. We will tell you what to say, and you must repeat it after us. When you have sworn and signed, you will be an official apprentice of the Sorev Ael and you will begin your training.”

  “Just – just like that?”

  The woman raised a bushy eyebrow, giving her the look one might give a talking sheep. “Were you expecting something else?”

  “I… don’t know. Shouldn’t you tell me what I’ll need to do? Or about the training? What it will be like?”

  The woman frowned and examined her with a flick of the eyes, apparently disappointed in what she saw. She shot a significant glance at the first woman.

  “Darling,” said the smiling woman, stepping forward with her hands clasped before her and resting easily atop her sweeping gray robes. “This is part of what is required. To be of Var Athel is to face the unknown. To take the training is to be courageous. We cannot tell you what you’ll face, because you must face it on your own. If you are not prepared for that, you are not prepared to join us. And have you really come all this way to turn back now?”

  AmyQuinn swallowed hard and turned to the book. She hesitated briefly, but not for long. They were right. She thought of the disappointed looks her parents would give her if she came back, of how Lenny and Liv would react.

  I never said goodbye to them, she realized distantly. How did I forget?

  Taking a deep breath, she stepped up to the plinth.

  There was just enough time to notice that there was no quill pen with which to write before the huge tome shuddered as if alive. She recoiled, shocked, just as the cover flew back like a waking creature opening its mouth. The solid leather landed against the stone of the broken pillar with a heavy thud that echoed through the court and bounced back aro
und her. Inside the book was a beautifully gilded page done in gold and silver leaf that depicted a single figure holding aloft an orb in one hand and striking a staff against the ground with the other. The image had a light of its own, and as she watched, gilded leaves and vines grew up from the sides of the paper and swirled about the figure, encompassing it in a circle. Flowers grew from the leaves, violet and indigo, fuchsia and cerulean, and then the picture solidified on the page and seemed to breathe and shift.

  “Place your hand on the page,” said the stern woman, businesslike. AmyQuinn raised her shaking right hand and felt heat rising from the book, a heat that reminded her of the Keeper, and with a flash of intuition she knew that he was in this book as well, that whoever or whatever he was saturated the whole of the Citadel. Placing her hand on the book would bind her to him, would make her part of whatever enchantment it was that held all of this together, all the Sorev Ael and Var Athel itself.

  “It will be harder if you hesitate,” the stern woman said. She was peering at AmyQuinn critically over her half-moon spectacles. “You must seize the chance and not look back. You are here – the time for second thoughts is over.”

  AmyQuinn clenched her jaw and landed her palm on the page.

  There was a flash of light, and a weight settled over her. It wasn’t a harsh weight, and she didn’t stagger or waver or feel thrown off balance beneath it. It was instead the reassuring weight of a heavy cloak, or the way one might feel swaddled in layers of soft blankets on a cold night.

  “Good,” the first woman said with another kind and beaming smile. “Now comes the Oath – repeat after me.”

  She spoke then words that AmyQuinn couldn’t understand. They were the same sounds the Keeper had made, and the sounds she’d heard Valinor make when he’d fought the raiders in Dunlow. She strained to make sense of them but found she couldn’t. They entered her mind only to slip out again, leaving behind vague, shadowy impressions, like footprints on wet sand.

  “Relax!” snapped the stern woman counterproductively. AmyQuinn gritted her teeth and bit back a scathing retort. “Let the Words break over you like wind or wave. They are not to be understood but felt; not to be reasoned but known.”

  She tried to slow her heart and ignore the sourceless light that poured down on her and the broken plinth, tried to ignore that there were others crossing the courtyard now and that some were watching her. She tried to ignore everything, and instead blanked out her mind and let herself float, imitating the way she’d felt in the presence of the Keeper.

  Her mind detached itself from her body, and she felt almost as if she were floating. The world slowed and expanded, and there was a rushing sound in her ears, like the sound of the river that fed the Silvercreek Pond in Dunlow.

  The kindly woman spoke the words again, and this time AmyQuinn opened her mouth and the sounds came out of their own accord:

  “I swear myself to the Sorev Ael of Var Athel.”

  When she was done, she tried to think back, to remember exactly what the sounds were and how she’d said them, but all sense of them was gone.

  The kindly woman spoke again, saying more words, and she repeated those as well. She began to sweat. Her eyes felt dry and her lips chapped. The words rang loud in her ears, and she spoke them as quickly as she could.

  A shock went through her, traveling from the book to her hand. She gasped and shivered, and her knees went weak. Another shock traveled through her, and suddenly her hand was thrown up off the tome, and the pages began to rifle as if blown by an invisible wind. Pages and pages and pages of names flashed before her eyes, until finally the book fell open to a page in the center only partially filled. Immediately, her hand was sucked back down against this new page, and on that page, at the end of the row of names, was her own name, forming by itself in thick black strokes. It was almost full, almost done – and on the page across from it, in words that hurt her head to read, was a paragraph of words:

  “I swear myself to the Sorev Ael of Var Athel. I give myself to knowledge. I forswear all right to land and titles, to money and power. I swear to protect the lands of Aeon and to guide its people. I swear to serve those who are in need. I swear to never raise a hand to hurt or kill save in the direct defense of my own life, or the lives of others. I swear to never accept more than that given to the lowest and the least. This I swear by the blood that runs through me from the time of the ancients; I bind myself, body, mind, and soul, to this Oath for all my days to come.”

  A final swirl of black lettering appeared to finish spelling out her name, and then everything stopped. The shivers that wracked her body stilled and her head began to the pound. The words of the Oath disappeared.

  A third shock threw her hand up and off the heavy parchment page again, and this time with such force that she stumbled backwards as a wind whipped through the chamber, coming from all directions at once.

  The book’s pages flew by again, back and back and back until they reached the title page where stood the gilded Keeper with his orb and staff, and then the cover lifted up off the plinth and slammed shut with a resounding bang. The weight that had settled on AmyQuinn lifted, and the kindly woman held out a steadying hand and caught her easily.

  Applause rang out, and AmyQuinn looked up over the pillar. A dozen people had stopped to watch her. Some of them were dressed as she was, in pure white, while others were in all black, and still others were dressed in various combinations of colors and styles that matched the rings shining on their fingers. A few of the ones in white – they looked the youngest, and all of them were boys – let out whoops that made some of the older Sorev Ael frown and then began to move away.

  The first woman smiled down at her again and then turned her away from the book. “Welcome,” said. “My name is Tamora. It is a pleasure to have you join us. Are you hungry?”

  AmyQuinn said she was, and Tamora called over a young man dressed all in black who happened to be passing by. She introduced him as Deri’cael Pyrce and told him to show AmyQuinn to the kitchens for dinner, and then to take her to the guest quarters.

  “Guest quarters?” she asked, surprised. “I thought I was an apprentice now?”

  “You are,” Tamora reassured her. “You have not, however, been placed – and you will need to go through the process with the rest of your group. The apprentices are put together based on the month they arrive – you are lucky in that you will only need to wait until the end of the week. You can visit the kitchens for food, and the Sorcerers’ Court if you’d like, but until then you must not go anywhere else. By the end of the week we will come for you, and you will begin your classes.”

  She motioned to Pyrce – he was a tall boy with black hair and looked to be about sixteen or seventeen – and he led AmyQuinn away. They walked back toward the staircase that led up from the Sorcerers’ Court and then crossed through a small side passage that led to an off-shoot wing separate from the rest of the Citadel.

  The dining room was small and mostly empty. Her room was small as well, with a hard bed and simple white-washed walls, and as the hours passed into days and she had nothing to do – she did not want to brave the Sorcerers’ Court where she might be stared at, and thus had nowhere else to go – she sat and thought about what was to come, kindling the anxiety that was already burning in her gut.

  On the morning of the third day, after she had washed her face and eaten a quick breakfast of bread, hard cheese, and an apple, the same young man from before, Pyrce, came to her room and asked her to follow him. She did, and when she left her room she saw that she was not the only one: there were five or six others who trailed after him, all boys. Pyrce went from room to room with unerring accuracy – a remarkable feat, as none of the doors were marked with numbers or names – and collected the rest of what AmyQuinn could only guess was her apprentice class, none of whom she’d seen since she’d arrived. They must have, like her, kept to their rooms.

  In the end there were about twenty of them, though it was hard to
be certain in the slim corridors. They were all dressed in white clothing, though the boys wore breeches and tunics instead of the dress the Keeper had given her. Of the twenty, there was only one other girl. AmyQuinn observed her covertly as they moved down the corridor, hoping they might eventually be friends. She was tall, with mousy brown hair and darkly tanned skin. She didn’t speak and didn’t acknowledge any of the others.

  The boys who formed the rest of the group – none of them looked much older than AmyQuinn was – were all relatively quiet and shy as well. Some of them looked like they might even be as young as nine or ten, and they in particular looked quite nervous and frightened. The smallest of them looked like he was constantly trying to decide between bursting into tears and breaking out in laughter. His little black eyes darted around frantically, like a woodland creature trying to find the way out of a trap. A few of them seemed to know each other and said hello, but the serious presence of Pyrce in his black clothing kept them from talking as they were led out of the Visitor’s Wing, through the upper court, and into the left hand corridor that branched off into the main building.

  The Citadel had been built on an enormous scale. Every pillar, every corridor, every stone seemed to drip with age, and walking through the palatial halls made AmyQuinn feel like the worst kind of backwater simpleton.

  There were tapestries and paintings on every wall, each of a different battle or treaty or ocean crossing or discovery or crowning, and the sheer psychological weight of them all was overwhelming. The ceilings were high and vaulted so that even minor sounds echoed up and down the passageways, and the pillars that buttressed the ceilings were all majestic carved columns.

  In contrast, the chamber to which Pyrce led them was small and off to one side of an ancillary corridor. It contained neither furniture nor decoration, and the floor and walls were nothing but blank, bare stone. The only thing the room did contain was people – three of them, standing in the exact center of the chamber. Two of them were dressed like Pyrce, in clothing the same cut and style as the apprentices except that it was midnight black, and they too were young men.

  Pyrce motioned the apprentices forward, and then left, shutting the door firmly behind him.

  The man in the center of the room stood – he’d been sitting, legs folded beneath him, as they’d entered – and looked them over. He was dressed in simple wool breeches and a wool tunic, both a drab, almost shabby, gray, and he wore a ring on his right hand that bore a dazzling topaz gem set in a snowy white band of metal unlike anything AmyQuinn had ever seen. In his other hand he held a staff of light-colored wood.

  “Welcome,” he said with a nod and a smile. The look was inviting and clean, and his voice was deep and calming. AmyQuinn felt some of her nervousness pass away. “I am Sorev Ael Ferrith. I am your Counselor.”

  The group of apprentices accepted this in silence. It seemed clear that no one had any idea what that meant.

  The man’s eyebrows quirked up in apparent amusement.

  “Your first lesson: if you have a question, you must ask it. If I cannot answer, or will not, then I will tell you. There is no reason for you to be here if you choose to remain silent; if you are not prepared or not courageous enough to seek out knowledge, then you might as well leave now.”

  Another beat of silence followed this mild admonishment, and then one of the boys at the front of the group raised his hand.

  “What’s a Counselor?”

  “Ah!” the Sorev Ael said, his eyes twinkling. “A very good question. It is the person to which apprentices like yourselves must come if you are having trouble, or if you have any questions about your training. The first few weeks here will be… grueling. Do not feel afraid to come to me if you feel the need.”

  The group shifted as they absorbed this, but no one raised a hand to ask another question.

  “Let me take a step back,” Ferrith said. “You are here to learn, and my job today is to outline for you how you’ll learn and also what you’ll learn. As your sponsors may have told you, we do not teach magic here. We teach knowledge, and there are seven areas of such knowledge that combine to make up the Minor Arcana. They are called the Seven Schools.”

  He waved his hand. A flash of light pulsed out of his ring, summoning up seven bright points of light that swirled in on themselves and then formed a seven-pointed star. AmyQuinn’s heart beat excitedly in her chest. This was it – this was magic, regardless of what the Sorev Ael chose to call it.

  “This is, of course, simplistic. There are many more schools of knowledge, almost as many as you can imagine, but most of them are grounded in what are known as the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. There are other, darker arts as well, known as the Barred Arcana, which are not taught at Var Athel. This is your first and only warning – delving into the Barred Arcana is forbidden, and should you do so you will be cast out.”

  The room grew cold, and a number of the apprentices shifted uncomfortably. Ferrith continued on before they could ask a question.

  “Each of the Seven Schools represents the study of a different branch of the Minor Arcana. As an apprentice, you will take lessons in all seven. They have simple names to remember: Healing, Illusion, Naming, Enchantment, Herbalism, Sagery, and Magery.”

  He motioned in turn to each of the seven points of the star he’d conjured. As he did, the points changed from the soft gold of candlelight to blue, gray, violet, green, red, white, and black respectively. He then flourished his staff, and the first row of apprentices drew back and gasped as the long piece of wood, nearly as tall as the Sorev Ael himself, shrunk in on itself, becoming smaller and thinner until it was barely a foot long and only about as thick around as his finger.

  Ferrith smiled kindly at the amazement on their faces, and then continued.

  “You will take a class in each School every day. Your schedule will make more sense to you soon – there are many apprentices, and therefore many Sorev Ael under which you will be studying. I, as Counselor, am your contact should you have questions or concerns. And on that note, are there any questions you have before we continue?”

  A hand shot into the air just in front of AmyQuinn, coming so close that it actually clipped the end of her nose. She recoiled, trying not to show that it had startled her, and glared at the offender – a small boy, short and black-haired, who was so skinny he looked as though he might never have had a full meal in his entire life. His head was enormous and far too large for his tiny body, and he spoke with an over-articulated precision that made him sound like a precocious child pretending to be an adult.

  “I have heard that there are other schools like Temperagy and Hematology that are not considered dangerous. Will we be learning those while we are here at the Citadel of Var Athel?”

  It took so long for him to ask the question – he hit every ‘t’ and rounded every ‘o’ – that by the time he’d finished, AmyQuinn had already decided she disliked him and would not forgive him for her nose.

  “Mmm,” said Ferrith, watching the boy with a keen eye. He seemed impressed by the boy’s knowledge, and AmyQuinn had to stifle a brief flare of frustration. “Temperagy and Hematology are numbered among the Major Arcana, and can be studied after you have earned the title of Deri’cael. But they are specializations, and we will not deal with them for now.”

  The boy put his hand down and frowned.

  “Speaking of which,” Ferrith continued, “to earn the right to try for the rank of Deri’cael, you must be able to demonstrate suitable knowledge of each School of the Minor Arcana. Once you do, you will be recommended to a master who will mentor you as you try for your staff. Should you succeed in earning a staff, you will become a Deri’cael.”

  Another boy raised his hand, one on the far side of the group that AmyQuinn couldn’t see. “What’s a Deri’cael?” he asked, hesitant and unsure.

  “It is the rank between Sorev Ael and apprentice,” Ferrith said, with the quick, practiced tone of oft-repeated speech.

r hand rose; Ferrith nodded to the boy.

  “What about rings?”

  “The ring is the symbol of a full Sorev Ael. Should you do well in your apprenticeship, and then as a Deri’cael, you will go through the Trials, which earn you the right to bear a ring.”

  Immediately, there arose a clamor of questions about this dire sounding event, but Ferrith refused to elaborate further.

  “You will learn more in time. For now, we must go over the Citadel.”

  He took his wand and waved it through the air; the star disappeared with a sharp snap, leaving behind the faint smell of geraniums. He moved into the center of the room, and the crowd of apprentices parted to let him go. He stopped in their midst and squinted hard, then moved the wand and the fingers of his right hand in a series of intricate motions while muttering words under his breath. Finally, he threw his hands down toward the floor.

  Lines of light streaked from his fingers, light of all different colors. It fell to the ground and began to coil and weave around itself, directed by the birch wand, and AmyQuinn realized that the sourceless light that lit the room had begun to dim. A shape rose slowly from the floor, a sprawling construction with high towers and what looked like an enormous wall surrounding it.

  The Citadel.

  AmyQuinn was the first to realize it, and she gasped and took a step forward, eagerly drinking in the sight. The others caught on soon after, and then they were all crowding forward to see. Ferrith remained concentrated on the lines of light, and though the wand in his left hand held steady, the fingers of his right twitched and jerked in constant motion, like a weaver perfecting a tapestry.

  The glowing replica of Citadel rose from the floor layer by layer. When finally it was done, Ferrith let out a sigh of satisfaction and addressed them.

  “This is a type of light-bending illusion,” he said. The drawn and narrow look of concentration was gone from his face, and he spoke easily again. “It is similar to magelight in its essence – it is a simple bending, a refracting and separation of colors to give the illusion of something solid. Do not try to do this on your own – it is difficult, and requires years of training. Should you fail you won’t hurt yourself, but you’ll end up with a nasty headache for the better part of a week and the Healers won’t help you with it. They like teaching lessons that way to overeager apprentices.”

  Warning given, he moved on.

  “The Citadel is centered on the Tower.” He pointed to the huge, looming spar of stone in the center of the structure. “It is where you have your sleeping quarters, where you will eat, and where you will stay during the free time given you.”

  He looked around at the faces of the apprentices, examining them to see that they were listening, and then continued.

  “Around the Tower, the Citadel is divided into seven sections. Each section is called a wing and named after what is studied there. The Naming Wing, the Enchanter’s Wing, the Illusionist’s Wing, and so on. Each is organized differently, and each has its own quirks, so be on the lookout. The Illusionists in particular enjoy fooling the newer apprentices. Do your best to travel though the Citadel in pairs at least for now – it is easy to get lost here, and if you’re caught wandering around the upper levels where the full Sorev Ael keep their quarters, you may very shortly find yourself back in the Tower visiting Mistress Taliana, the Dean of Apprentices. For those of you who enjoy sitting down for your meals, I’d suggest you do your best not to end up on her bad side.”

  A few of the boys shifted nervously and glanced at each other.

  “Each wing houses the masters of the various Schools – it is where they stay when they are in residence at the Citadel if they do not wish to use the rooms set aside for them in the upper Tower. Your schedule is as follows.”

  He raised his hand and the points of light from before suddenly reappeared, the bright seven-pointed star, and in a swirl and flash of movement the points rearranged themselves and expanded, becoming a full list of class titles with times next to them in standard notation. He pulled out his staff-turned-wand again, and as he pointed to each class title in turn, the words increased in size and brightness to highlight themselves, and then they faded back and away when he moved on.

  “You will wake at sunrise,” he said quickly, highlighting the first section of the schedule. “You will be expected to dress and report for meditation with the rest of your class.”

  He flicked his wand down the list, and then down again.

  “You have half an hour for breakfast, and then you will report to your first class of the day – Herbalism.”

  He motioned then to a section of the model Citadel, one covered in ivy and heavily shaded. As he moved on, he motioned to each of the other wings in turn as he continued down the schedule.

  “Next is Naming, then Enchantment, and finally Magery. You will have an hour to eat at midday, and then you are free until the afternoon, when you have Naming again,” he pointed again to the Naming Wing, long and lofty, with flying buttresses that reached up even higher than the wall that encompassed the Citadel. “After dinner is Healing, then Illusions, Sagery, and bed.

  “Mistress Taliana, the Dean of Apprentices, and I will come by to assure that you are in your beds and sleeping each night. There is no wandering the corridors after hours – if you are caught doing so, Mistress Taliana will have words with you. I would highly recommend avoiding confrontation with her whenever and wherever possible. She is a lovely woman until you cross her. Questions?”

  There were a slew of questions, but none important enough for AmyQuinn to pay attention to, and many of them the Sorev Ael refused to answer anyway. Ferrith waved a hand over the Citadel replica; the light winked out, and the sourceless illumination that lit the room slowly returned again.

  “Very well then. Please go with Deri’cael Juwel and Tyquin. They will show you to your assigned quarters and answer any questions you may have. Should you need me, you need only ask for Counselor Ferrith. Any apprentice or Deri’cael can point you in my direction. I’m usually in my quarters in the Tower.”

  He nodded a final time and moved off toward the door of the small chamber, then paused and turned back suddenly.

  “Oh, and welcome to Var Athel.”

  Deri’cael Juwel and Tyquin led the group as they’d been instructed, though they didn’t take them back through the long circular passages that connected the far flung parts of the Citadel but instead through a number of smaller side passages that looked as though they were for common use. The group passed few other apprentices or Sorev Ael along the way, and AmyQuinn wondered if that meant that the others were all still in training for the day.

  The Tower itself was an astonishing sight, so tall and wide that it seemed like something from a dream. They entered it to find an enormous staircase, wider than the whole of the Fairfield Inn, leading up the inside in swirling layers that disappeared up into the heights. It was an impossible feat of engineering, and AmyQuinn was baffled as to how it was held up. The staircase was one smooth piece of creamy white stone that circled up and up forever with no visible supports, save for the walkways and landings that branched off of it at regular intervals. All of the apprentices gawked at it as they ascended.

  There was no way that they could take in all of what they saw, but it did not stop them from trying. AmyQuinn knew she couldn’t be the only one who felt as though her neck had suddenly become a swivel around which her head seemed to rotate uncontrollably. At every full turning of the massive staircase that went up and up forever, there was a landing that branched off and splintered into a mass of corridors, and there moved in and out of these corridors and up and down the staircase large groups of Sorev Ael, Deri’cael, and apprentices.

  They ascended three levels, which meant countless steps, and then moved off to the left of the third level landing, heading down a long corridor. The two Deri’cael led them silently, until finally they turned right at a fork. They turned left again after a short passage, and then stopped at a shorter
corridor that had a number of doors all on the right-hand side. A cluster of men and women stood waiting for them there, all wearing simple livery – gray wool with the gold sigil of Var Athel on the right breast. Beside them was a large stack of gray- and cream-colored blankets.

  “Your rooms are here,” one of the Deri’cael said simply – the taller one, with bronze hair and a smattering of spots across his cheeks. “When we call your name, take your bedding and go inside. Make your bed, then come back here.”

  They proceeded to do just that. A number of others went first, names she was too dazed to take in, and then:

  “Stonewall, AmyQuinn.”

  She moved jerkily, as if her body was not quite sure how to function in this new environment. She picked up her bedding and went to the indicated door.

  The room was very small, with just enough room for a raised pallet-bed along the left-hand side and a small bar across the opposite wall that held two extra sets of clothing. The only redeeming feature was a window at the end of the bed, though it was so narrow that calling it a window would be overly generous.

  “Hurry up, apprentices!”

  She remembered what she was supposed to be doing and quickly unfolded the blankets and sheets to make the bed, tucking in the corners so that it was tight enough to bounce a coin off of, just as her mother had taught her.

  She hurried back out into the corridor, and soon the rest of the group was with her. Some of the boys were talking to each other now, but when the Deri’cael in their black clothing gave them a cold stare, they quieted.

  “Good. We will take you to dinner and show you the mediation room, and then return you here. Get what sleep you can tonight – your training starts tomorrow.”

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