Authors: Terah Edun
Tags: #Coming of Age, #fantasy, #Magic, #Action & Adventure
What did you just say, landwalker
?” Vedaris shouted.
“My name is Sidimo,” said Sidimo, “and you heard me. If it’s not true, then what’s your School?”
Before Vedaris could surge forward and deck the insufferable lout, Initiate Cris and the matronly woman intervened.
“Enough!” exclaimed the woman, with a thick accent. “I am Wilhemina, Head of Dormitories and Student Cleaning.” With a pinched look on her face she said, “You come in the middle of school year, no warning, no preparation from your patrons or family. Unlike the
candidates.” With that last word she directed a glare at Allorna, whom she
came from a proper family—not wealthy, perhaps, but good enough that they should know the proper form for sending their daughter off to the academy.
“Even if you had come at the beginning,” Wilhemina said with a long-suffering sigh, “I would be hard pressed to find places for you. As it is, you will be housed together in the old Marsea Gatehouse. While it is not up to our usual standards, it will have to do.”
Vedaris raised a sarcastic eyebrow; clearly, he couldn’t wait to see what this gatehouse was like.
Wilhemina beckoned to a young boy waiting in the shadows. “This is my nephew Lous. He’ll take you to Marsea. Linens, student handbooks, and tunics have already been sent over. You’ll be living apart from the other students, but you’ll still have to live by the rules of the dorms.” She fluttered her hands in their general direction. “Now, get on with you lot! Off to your beds.”
edaris, Sidimo, Allorna, and Maride all turned to file out; Lous moved to help Sitara with her rolling chair. But he was almost as short as she was sitting down, so Sidimo waved him away and said, “Here, let me.”
He might have been an arrogant lout when such was called for, Sitara decided, but he still believed in courtesy towards the weak and infirm.
As they walked along the path outside, passing through the deep russet shade cast by the crimson leaves, Lous said cheerfully, “Welcome to the Madrassa! You’ll love it here. I mean, I do. There are so many people here; some good, some bad, of course. The rich kids are okay, but the merchant students are the best. They always have stuff to barter…”
Maride said, “I’ve read up on the Madrassa and the Marsea Gatehouse. It has an interesting history. It used to be the only entrance from the school grounds into the Ameles Forest.”
“And what is the Ameles Forest, pretty boy?” Vedaris asked.
“It’s the boundary between Sandrin and the Nardes Kingdom, where the UnHumans live,” said the gardis girl.
Maride said, “Yes, Allorna, but it’s also known for ghosts and zombies and dreck like that!”
Vedaris retorted drily, “Ghosts and zombies and dreck? Oh my!”
“Yes! But more importantly, Marsea was the only entrance from the school grounds into the Ameles behind it for decades! That is, until they destroyed the containing wall that ran parallel to it fifty years ago.”
“Containing wall?” said Allorna. “For containing whom, the students?”
“I dunno,” Maride said. “The books didn’t say.” He turned to Lous and said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t the Gatehouse been abandoned since the containing wall was brought down?”
,” said Lous, with a wicked grin. “But my aunt sent down cleaning staff to give it a good scrubbing this morning. I was one of them,” he said, rubbing his elbow.
Sitara asked, “How did she know we would need it?”
“She’s real thorough like that, Auntie is,” Lous answered. “Even if she did whine a bit, if there was a chance you might pass your tests, she wanted to be ready.”
At that moment they rounded a bend, and there was the Marsea Gatehouse.
It stood on the very edge of the facilities: two small towers connected by an enclosed bridge. The left tower was round, like a lighthouse. Gravel extended from the path below the bridge towards the right tower, which was squarish. There were windows piercing the towers, and what looked like an attempt at a small garden around the edges of the property. The remnants of a stone wall stretched about ten meters to either side of the gatehouse. The Ameles Forest, a dense grouping of shadowy trees, loomed twenty meters past the gatehouse. Unlike the trees on campus, these were all a healthy natural green, though not without a few bluish and yellowish highlights.
Lous produced a set of unwieldy-looking keys from a pocket. One thick steel key allowed entrance to the right tower. In a slightly nervous voice he said, “If you will all step forward and put your hands to the door, I’ll activate the wards so you can enter and leave without the key.” He cleared his throat. “Now, remember—and this is all in your handbooks—all doors and wards except the healing facility lock to students after eight at night. You have to be inside before then, or have an Initiate escort you back.”
Vedaris rolled his eyes and said, “Blimey, how’m I supposed to dice with those rules?”
Allorna said, a little snippily, “You’re not, genius,” as she reached forward and touched the age-roughened wood.
Grinning, Lous activated the door ward. Their hands all glowed for a second, then the door swung open. As they entered, they found themselves in a kitchen equipped with a rough table, a bench, four chairs, and not much else. “You’re not required to cook your own meals,” Lous assured them quickly, “but there’s a small fire pit and oven if you want to.” He gestured to the stairs on the right-hand wall. “Shall we go up?”
With a frown, Maride and Sidimo turned to look at Sitara in her rolling chair; and Sidimo insisted on helping her up the stairs.
“I can manage,” she said quickly. She didn’t want anyone to touch her.
Allorna stepped forward and said, “It’ll be easier on all of us if you don’t fall down the steps. At least tonight. Maybe in the morning you’ll feel better. I can help you walk.” She held out her hand.
Biting her lip, Sitara muttered, “Sure, thanks.” With that, she stood up unsteadily, and Allorna slipped her left arm about Sitara’s waist. She was careful to avoid the heavily bandaged area. They started up the steps at a slow pace, everyone else following behind.
When they arrived on the upper landing, they saw four rooms with what looked like a small gate leading to more stairs off to the side. There were two rooms straight ahead, and two to the right. “There’s one smaller room in the left tower,” Lous explained.
They took a look at the rooms. They all held the same furniture: a bed, a small armoire, and a little mirror. Vedaris glanced around, looking a little miffed, and said, “What’s so bad about this? We all get our own rooms, don’t we?”
“Yes,” admitted Lous, “But all the other students are in the dormitories. It’s so
out here. You won’t get to have hall teas, either.”
“Hall teas?” asked Sitara.
“It’s a Citadel tradition,” Lous said. “All the kids in a hall get together with their Hall Probate at the end of the week to chat about classes, eat sweets, and drink mint tea.”
“Oh,” Sitara said with a sigh. “So we don’t get tea and cookies and bonding time?”
“Not without a Probate,” Lous said.
“Again, what’s so bad about this?” Vedaris asked, arching an eyebrow.
Sitara and Maride shot him annoyed looks. “Well,” said Sidimo, “I for one would have enjoyed conversing with other students, particularly those in my School.”
Lous said brightly, “But you still get to interact with the other students! Most of the intro classes are specific to the different Schools, and there’s always the Citadel green, where everyone hangs out.”
“Hoorah,” grumped Vedaris. By then, they had realized that the rooms were essentially identical; there was really no difference in choice, aside from personal preference or need.
“I’ll take the room straight ahead; I can watch the forest at night,” Sitara mused aloud. Sidimo chose the one next to that, because it faced west, which meant he could get more sleep away from the rising sun. Allorna pointed silently at the door closest to the stairs. Vedaris shrugged and tossed his stuff into the room next to that, and across from the bridge. The only room left was in the round tower off the main room. A moment later, Maride took a peek into his new room. It was small and had built-in shelves, but no armoire.
As they followed Maride over the bridge, they walked into a nice-sized circular room filled with furniture: four desks and four chairs. In the middle of the room was a large throw rug, and to the right a fireplace. Allorna asked “And what is this?”
“The arms room,” Maride and Lous responded at the same time. When they turned to him in surprise, Maride said with a shrug, “Look, the weapons hooks are still on the right wall, and the open cubicles are perfect for short weapons.”
“There’s one more thing I should show you,” said Lous, as he stepped forward to the small latched ironwork gate in the wall. “This leads up to the roof, and is keyed to your signatures just as the front door is,” he said as he opened the gate. With a tip of his head, Lous continued, “This used to be the watch platform for the guards, but…well, you’ll see.”
Sitara stayed behind in the study as they others followed Lous out onto the railed landing, which was empty save for a wide-rimmed chalice filled with oil in the center of the platform. “Did the guards leave this here?” Allorna asked.
“Yes,” said Lous. “It never spills, no matter what. Nor does it catch fire. There’s a legend that says that on the day it lights, the Empire will be in mortal peril.”
Vedaris shrugged and turned back around to go downstairs. Sidimo, unhappy with the chill crosswind, followed shortly after. Lous soon bid them all goodnight and left. For a while, Allorna and Maride stared at the dark forest ahead, as the sun set on the Citadel behind them. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” asked Maride.
“’Stark and forbidding’ would be the words I’d use,” replied Allorna.
The night was uneventful, despite Allorna’s words. The next morning, the smell of a hot breakfast woke the youths from their slumber. As they filed down the steps to the kitchen, they found two young women wearing
seated at the table.
The first said cheerfully, “Good morning. I’m Tara, Earth Probate.” She beckoned them away from the doorway. “Please enter, this is your home; we just didn’t want to wake you before the day had dawned.”
The second young woman, a child really, introduced herself as Maris of the School of Air. She wore a ridiculous pink bow in her auburn hair.
They all sat and started reaching for the food. As she buttered a slice of bread, Tara said, “Now: you’ll be beginning classes in the morning, as the third quarter starts. That means that today, you’ll have plenty to do to get ready.”
Maris chimed in, “There were, of course, two sets of plain tunics and trousers on your beds last night; but those are for your student worker duties, not for attendance at class or for academic functions.”
“Student worker duties?” asked Sidimo from his perch on the far end of the bench.
“Yes,” Tara replied. “All students, no matter their backgrounds, are required to work in or near the Citadel during their first year. Your jobs can take many forms, but don’t start until the second month of classes. Each student is paid a fair wage for their work, and many have found the work beneficial to future petitions for apprenticeships.”
“It can be fun!” Maris chimed in. “I’m to start my first rotation this semester as a campus diplomat. I’m hoping to gain the skills I need to work as a diplomat for the Court. At least some of them, anyway. As an Air Initiate I’ll be before the Emperor all the time.”
Maride scoffed, “And how do you know
? You’re best friends with the Royal Chamberlain already?”
“No!” Maris protested, “But everyone knows that an Air Initiate is best suited as a Winds Messenger or Diplomat, seeing as
“Maris,” Tara interjected, “You’re not guaranteed a position, dear, and everyone does
know that. After breakfast, please escort your fellow students to the town market to buy any supplies they need, and answer further questions as a good campus diplomat would.” To rest of the group Tara explained, “The purchases will be paid for by the Madrassa, with the expectation that the cost will be deducted from your first wages.”
Ah yes, the old company store scam,
Vedaris sneered inwardly.
As they entered the town market, they encountered both women and men in jalabiya, the long fabric of their robes whipping in the wind against their legs. Before entering the fray, Maris gathered them together and said, “I won’t insult you by babysitting you, okay? We have two hours before orientation. Try not to get lost or eaten.” She winked, and held out her hand. “Here are your credit chits. Show them to the merchants. They’ll tally your totals and scribe your name to the Madrassa. Your limit is 20 shillings! I suggest you spend it wisely. Your new clothes will cost at least half of that.”
And so they paired off, Allorna getting stuck with Maris. As they browsed the market looking for suitable attire, she discovered that Maris was even ditzier than she’d first seemed. She ran a non-stop monologue, chattering about this article of clothing and that before she asked, nonchalantly, “So, what was your entry test like? Mine was so dreamy! I was flying and had to catch this baby and land without sending my skirt flying. It was crazy.”