The ring of eman vath, p.15
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.15

           Hal Emerson
 
That first night, and all the nights that followed for the next several months, saw AmyQuinn fall into bed absolutely exhausted. Often times she was barely able to wash her face, remove her clothing, and crawl beneath her sheets before she drifted off to sleep.

  The days began to blur together as the seasons changed and the blustery wind-cold of autumn became the wet, freezing-cold of winter. The constant demands of the Masters and the mental and physical stress the training entailed all took its toll, and those who neglected rest in order to explore the Citadel or to read or to simply enjoy each other’s company were often the ones who lagged behind and had to work even harder to catch up the following day.

  As time passed, some of the apprentices began to pull ahead. Rylin, the small, black-haired boy from the first day who looked like a bundle of sticks given skin and motion, was far and away the best Namer. He picked up the Words so quickly that he was soon holding rudimentary conversations with Master Rewit.

  The other girl in the apprentice group, Emia, was fantastic at Herbalism. She was the daughter of a midwife, and as such she knew many of the herbs and potions even before Master Poer introduced them. Many of the older apprentices excelled at Enchantment, something that was perhaps related to Master Esmaldi and her dimpled smile. The twins, Tyl and Wyl, were excellent at illusionists, perhaps because of all the time they spent pretending to be each other. No one was any good at Sagery, a fact that did little if anything to discourage Master Vero, but most everyone did tolerably well in Healing, though Master Spall, perhaps advisably, had yet to let them around any actual patients.

  That left Magery.

  From the first class onward, AmyQuinn excelled. She did not know as many Words as Rylin, nor was she as clever as Tyl or Wyl, but somehow she still outpaced them all, and when Master Owain began to teach them to control the elements, she was the first to hold fire in her hands. The nerves that still plagued her in the other classes simply disappeared when she stepped into that dark, fire-lit room, and as the days passed into weeks and she continued to surpass the others, she felt her confidence grow.

  It would have been perfect – except for Xaior.

  He was a short, skinny boy, with brilliant hazel eyes that gave the impression of constant vigilance and calculation. Added to his high, sharp nose and ever-present sneer, his overall look was one of near-universal disdain for the other apprentices and the world at large. He had long, thick black hair that he pulled back behind his head, and which seemed to glisten even in the shadows. Like the other apprentices, he wore white clothing, but he wore it with contempt, as if it were a foregone conclusion that he deserved more and would not long be appareled thus.

  As the weeks wore on, it became clear that he did not approve of AmyQuinn’s presence. At first, she was baffled by the apparent contempt he showed her – and many of the other apprentices seemed baffled too. When she would sit with them at meals, Xaior and whoever else was sitting with him that day would abruptly stand and leave to eat elsewhere; when she was paired with him or one of his friends in class, they would switch immediately to be with someone else.

  She did not understand it until she saw him do the same to Emia.

  Her suspicions raised, she began to look more critically at the makeup of the overall Citadel population. Almost all of the Sorev Ael were men; most of the Deri’cael were men too; and though there were some girl apprentices, it was clear that they were in the minority.

  And most of them were routinely ignored, or even shunned.

  She began to hear snippets of rumor from the others over meals that Xaior came from a long line of Sorev Ael who clung to the old ways, from before the Sisters. Once, she even overheard him directly say that women who dared to join the Citadel were an affront to basic human decency.

  But what had pushed him over the edge, what seemed to have made AmyQuinn in particular so unforgivable, was that she routinely outperformed him.

  If she was the best, Xaior was next in line. In everything she did, she could almost feel him breathing down her neck trying to overtake her. When she managed to summon flame for the first time, beating everyone else by at least a week, the success angered him so much that he stalked out of the room claiming he needed to use the bathroom. When she was able to lift a feather by heating the air beneath it, Xaior tried to convince Master Owain that she had blown on it herself until she simply repeated the feat and put the debate to rest.

  At first, she did as she knew her mother and father would have expected: she took the high road and ignored him. When it was clear he was getting away with his mounting abuse, though, he began to openly berate her in the hopes of getting her to react. He began whispering behind her back in the corridors that girls couldn’t be Sorev Ael, and when she turned to confront him, he fell silent and looked at her with mock-innocence before asking in a sickly-sweet voice what was the matter. He banged on her door in the middle of the night to wake her up and ruin her sleep; he tripped her so that she spilled her food in the dining hall.

  In class, he would routinely try to sabotage her work: In Enchantment, he kicked her when Master Esmaldi wasn’t looking so that she sent a rock she was supposed to be convincing to roll over shooting through a nearby window instead. In Herbalism, he switched her herbs so that when Master Poer came to inspect her, she had nothing but diced celery to show for her hour’s worth of work.

  And so she began to hate him.

  Their rivalry, unlike the other petty rivalries that sprang up and disappeared within the group from week to week, never abated. It grew stronger with every class, to the point where she felt waves of loathing overtake her every time she heard his high, sickly-sweet voice.

  She began to fight back. When he said something to her, she would turn and remark on his appearance, saying that his oily black hair made him look like a drowned rat. When he tried again to switch her herbs yet again in Herbalism, she pretended not to notice and then switched her brewed potion with his when he was not looking, so that she received top marks for the day by passing off his potion as hers, while he received a disappointed shake of the head from Master Poer.

  The others saw it happening and began to take sides. In fact, she wasn’t Xaior’s only target: he went after Rylin as well, and even Lalin and Balin – both of whom, it turned out, were named Alin and had simply used their last name’s first initial to distinguish themselves.

  His dislike of these other unfortunates followed a similar theme: they were from the outer provinces, from the Forts that held the passes to the Wilds, and as such not deemed members of polite society. Sorev Ael did not typically come from beyond the Peninsula or Aginor, and so Xaior proclaimed them backwoods pretenders.

  The four of them joined together and began operating as a unit, in opposition to Xaior and his group. Emia joined them as well, though as the weeks passed by she became more and more withdrawn until it was all they could do to coax her into making a single comment on any given topic.

  AmyQuinn took it on herself to act as a barrier between Xaior and the others, drawing his taunts to her instead of letting them land on them. She could take it, and every time she did, she paid back with interest.

  Finally, the escalating conflict came to a head. As the top apprentices in Magery, AmyQuinn and Xaior often competed with each other openly in Master Owain’s class – a rivalry that the Mage himself encouraged.

  “Xaior’s holding flame in both hands now,” he would goad her. “You must catch him.” He wasn’t one-sided though; as soon as she passed Xaior, he turned it back on the boy: “AmyQuinn has managed to rotate her flame, Xaior. Why haven’t you?”

  So it came as no surprise to anyone that on the day of their first in-class examination, the two were paired up against each other.

  The format of the examination was simple: having completed their first course on fire, the first and simplest of the five elements, Master Owain wanted to evaluate their overall progress. One by one he asked them to stand and conjure flame from thin air, then to multiply it, enla
rge it, shrink it, and finally to extinguish it. Those that made it through the whole routine would be allowed to advance to air, the second element, while those that did not would stay with flame for the time being.

  They were called forward one by one to the area in front of the fireplace – off the wide embroidered rug, as only Owain was allowed to stand there when handling flame – and put through their paces. A few of the apprentices were asked to do something extra – create a wheel or juggle – but all passed, even poor Jolend, who exceled at Healing and almost nothing else.

  And as they all passed, it became clear that Xaior and AmyQuinn were being left for last. Whispers flittered between the apprentices who’d already finished the examination, and they eyed the pair eagerly. Gar and Cath, Xaior’s similarly conceited friends, gathered around him while Owain tested Tyl and eyed her wickedly.

  “AmyQuinn,” Owain said finally. She rose. “And Xaior.”

  She glanced over at Xaior, who was looking back at her with thinly veiled contempt. A surge of hot anger bubbled up inside her, and a titter of whispers went through the gathered apprentices.

  “Come forward,” Owain said.

  They did so, both of them pointedly ignoring each other. They were close enough that one or the other could have whispered a biting comment, but neither did; Owain was watching them far too carefully for that.

  “AmyQuinn,” the Master barked without warning. “Summon flame.”

  “Aduro,” she said immediately, imbuing the Word with power.

  There was a loud crack and a flickering red-orange ball appeared over her out-stretched palm. She concentrated on holding it steady, and when she was certain she had control of it, she looked up at Owain.

  “Xaior – do the same.”

  “Aduro,” Xaior said – his own flame appeared, slightly darker than hers but just as hot and full.

  “Both of you: split the flame in two,” Owain said.

  This was harder – there was no Word to use, there was only thought and intention. AmyQuinn focused on her flame, and after a hesitant waver the red-orange ball split. Xaior’s did as well, but a second after hers did. She felt a rush of vindictive pleasure, and from the corner of her eye she saw anger flash across his face.

  “Again,” Owain barked, now pacing back and forth before them.

  She took a deep breath and concentrated harder, already feeling the exertion; sweat was dripping down her back, slicking the white cotton of her dress to her skin, and her hands had begun to shake. Maintaining flame like this without doing anything with it was like hefting a heavy weight and holding it out at arm’s length.

  Her flame split again, and so too did Xaior’s.

  “Turn to face each other.”

  Startled, she shot a look at Xaior and almost lost control. The red-orange flame, now split into four but controlled as one, wavered over the palm of her hand and almost winked out. She gritted her teeth and hung on to the Word in her mind, trying to keep her concentration.

  She and Xaior were only a few paces away from each other, and as such she could see the sweat beading on his forehead, just below his hairline. They’d already gone further than the rest of the class – the best anyone else could do was to split a flame the one time – but she had a feeling that this was only the beginning.

  “Good,” Owain said once they were facing each other. “Now, both of you hold onto your flame and try to extinguish the other’s.”

  There was a short beat of silence that followed this pronouncement, and then AmyQuinn felt a rush of panic. They’d never done this before – was such a thing even possible?

  She had no time to think; the Word that would extinguish the flame came to her lips automatically, and she saw it form on Xaior’s lips in the same instant.

  “Suf!” they shouted in tandem, spitting the Word at each other.

  It felt as though a huge weight had suddenly slammed down on her shoulders. She staggered and barely managed to keep her feet. The rotating flames on her palm flickered and shrank, but did not go out. Through a haze of sweat and growing fatigue, she saw that Xaior too had staggered back as through struck.

  She concentrated harder, trying to hold both Words in her mind, keeping one to herself and mentally throwing the other at him.

  Aduro – Suf! – Aduro – Suf! – Aduro –

  Her red-orange flames grew; his blue-orange ones shrank.

  Xaior grimaced and began to mutter other Words under his breath. His flames grew and hers shrank. Gritting her teeth with the effort, she began to mutter aloud as well. They teetered back and forth like that for longer than she would have thought possible, each vying for control.

  She felt as though she’d been detached from her body and was now floating in a strange blank space – all emotion gone, all thought disappeared. All she could think of was the bright ball of energy inside her and the flame it was feeding.

  Finally, Xaior’s flames began again to shrink.

  His wild hazel eyes fixed on hers with manic concentration, sweat flowing freely down his face. His arms shook, and then his back began to bow as if the weight on him had increased to the point where he could no longer fight against it. She could feel her victory approaching; she would win, she knew she would, she would beat him and show she did belong in the Citadel –

  “Aduro!”

  A new flame blue-orange appeared in front of Xaior, bright and uncontained, and shot straight toward her.

  Forgetting everything else, she dove for the floor. The fire rushed through the air where she’d been only seconds before, and when she looked up again she saw that Xaior still held a palm full of flame. Hers, along with her concentration, had disappeared.

  Rage boiled up inside her like nothing she’d ever felt before, and before she knew what she was doing, she strode forward, knocked his hand aside, and punched him right in the nose.

  There came a heavy crunching sound, and then Xaior stumbled backward, clutching at his face. The flames he’d conjured disappeared, and blood started flowing freely between his fingers and over his lips.

  “Aduro!” she screamed. A dozen balls of flame burst into life in the air around all around her, flaring bright and out of control. She had no idea what she was doing; her anger had taken her over, and through the gasps of the other apprentices and Xaior’s sudden look of disbelief and horror, she pulled back her fist again.

  “ENOUGH!”

  AmyQuinn was abruptly picked up and thrown through the air. She crashed to the ground twenty feet away from where she’d been, and the air immediately rushed out her lungs. Heaving and gasping, she tried to suck in a full breath but found she simply couldn’t. People appeared and tried to help her to her feet; she glanced up and saw bat-eared Rylin and blonde Lalin.

  “That was disgraceful.”

  Everybody froze. Gar and Cath had helped Xaior to his feet, and there was blood all down his front from his still-bleeding nose. He was staring daggers at her, and she was quite certain that if Master Owain had not strode forward to separate them, the fight would still be raging.

  She shifted her gaze to the teacher, and his face was enough to cool her rage completely. He was looking between them both with such a terrible expression of mingled fury and disappointment that she couldn’t stand to hold his gaze. It was only then that she realized how stupid she’d been, letting Xaior provoke her like that. If she’d just kept calm...

  It was worth it, said a savage voice in her head, a voice she did not understand. It spoke the way a wounded animal might, and she could hear desperation below the fury. He deserved it.

  “My two best students decide to try and murder each other in the middle of a routine examination,” Owain said in the deadly quiet of the room. AmyQuinn felt her cheeks begin to burn with embarrassment.

  “You both just attacked another apprentice,” he continued. “You specifically violated the code of conduct you swore to uphold when you placed your hand on the Book of Names. I should have you thrown out of the Citadel.”<
br />
  Sudden panic crashed through her as the gravity of the situation became perfectly clear. He was right – she’d sworn never to harm another person save in direct defense of her own life. They both had.

  The silence of the room deepened even further as Owain continued to glare. Finally, he broke the moment and strode over to Xaior. He muttered a Word under his breath and there came a sharp snap and then a cry of pain as Xaior’s nose reset itself. The bleeding stopped, though the swelling remained.

  “Both of you report to Mistress Taliana,” Owain snapped. “Tell her what you’ve done.”

  That broke the dam inside her. Suddenly the fear was gone and the anger was back. The injustice of it all was just too great. Xaior had attacked first, all she’d done was react. She didn’t deserve the same punishment he did, even if they had sworn an oath. She surged forward, breaking past the others and pointing her finger, dagger-like, at Xaior. He echoed the move, pushing away Gar and Cath and pointing back at her.

  “But he – !”

  “She – !”

  “Speak another word and I will tell Mistress Taliana to expect you every day for the rest of the month,” Owain said. “And I will also tell her to double the lashes she gives you in order to help you learn to mind your tongues.”

  They both fell silent again, staring at each other with utter contempt. The anger would not go away. Every detail of the arrogant, snotty brat who stood before her just made her want to hit him all over again.

  “Leave this room,” Owain said. “Now.”

  They both turned to go. When they reached the door, Owain spoke one last time: “AmyQuinn. Return when Mistress Taliana is done with you.”

  He gave no further explanation, and so AmyQuinn and Xaior left the room. It took everything in her power not to turn and punch him again as soon as they were alone, but she knew that someone somehow would find out, and so she forced her hands to remain at her sides. They walked through the Citadel corridors so far apart that they were almost touching opposite walls, and then ascended the Tower to Taliana’s room on the third level and knocked.

  A stern-faced woman with brown hair pulled back in a tight bun came to the door and looked them over. She took in Xaior’s nose and AmyQuinn’s slightly ashy braid and seemed to understand immediately what had happened.

  “You first,” she said to Xaior.

  AmyQuinn waited outside in sullen silence until it was her turn. The door to the room was so thick that she couldn’t hear anything of what was going on inside, which was just as well: she was starting to worry about what the punishment would be. A few apprentices and Deri’cael passed by and looked her over; she glowered at them in response, but that just seemed to make them grin, so she stopped. She began to shift her weight from side to side as anxiety crept through her.

  Finally, the door opened. “Enter,” said a hard voice.

  She did as told and found herself in a small, round room, in the center of which had been placed a chair. There were tapestries on the stone walls, and a fire burned in the grate to her right, pushing back the early winter chill. There were two other doors, one that looked as if it might lead out into another passage and one that looked as if it led into Mistresses Taliana’s personal quarters.

  “I sent your compatriot out that way,” Taliana said, pointing with her chin toward the door opposite the one AmyQuinn had come through. “I had the feeling it would be better if the two of you didn’t met again so soon.”

  AmyQuinn refused to look at her and pretended to be fascinated with the embroidered rug in the center of the room.

  “Tell me what happened,” Taliana said, crossing her arms beneath her rather considerable chest and examining AmyQuinn with such a pointed, penetrating stare that she would have given Azfar the falcon a run for his money.

  AmyQuinn took a deep breath and told the story. When she finished, Taliana nodded and motioned to the chair.

  “Let’s get this over with.”

  AmyQuinn crossed to the chair and bent over, gritting her teeth.

 
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