The Advanced Concentrations seminar was taking place out of doors today. On a grassy mound behind Lady Arthrap’s chapel, Master Marnier stalked his students with predatory delight. His sweaty face gleamed in anticipation of knuckles to thwap or egos to attack, but few paid the old man any mind. All eyes were trained instead on the highly polished red ruby pinched between Duane Adelier’s first finger and thumb. The gem winked devilishly in the sunlight.
“We thought we knew the power of concentrated luminescence,” Marnier lectured, pirouetting through his captive audience with his long robes trailing in an emerald pool, “Thought we knew. After last night’s reading assignment you should now grasp that we have barely scratched the surface. The idea of a hidden property in translucent materials that might flavour and enhance light has long been theorized, but Composer Valentin’s discovery cements it. His paper will serve as the founding work for an entirely new branch of natural philosophy. Now, if you’ll pay close attention to Adelier, he will demonstrate.”
Standing with scarecrow gawkiness at the head of the class, Duane stiffened self-consciously. The ruby tumbled from his fingers into the hollow of his palm. As he fixated on it, he could see two Jets sneering from the front row. He stared at the ruby even harder until their faces fuzzed into the periphery.
Marnier went on. “This demonstration exhibits a true flavouring of luminescence through the gels of a translucent material, trapping that flavoured and transmuted light inside a precisely constructed and mirrored cavity. Observe the marvellous effect once it is released.”
Duane had read Composer Valentin’s breakthrough paper a dozen times, and had practised the technique described therein at least a dozen more, but to have Master Marnier’s eye fixed so demandingly upon him now he felt all the confidence dribble off the ends of his sloped shoulders. A boy named Belarus sniggered venomously, his chalky white face a mask of disdain. The young Plat had been the star of the school before Adelier had arrived, plucked by a shrewd patron from the Grettaerin seminary to attend the Durlynian Academy of Magery and the Arts. Now the professors mainly spoke of Belarus in order to cluck their tongues and shake their heads and remind each other that the pymary abilities of the castes were a trend, and not necessarily a rule.
The Plat’s fair features curdled as the Gold’s hands began to glow.
Commands took shape in Duane’s mind. For the benefit of his classmates he relayed them aloud. Valentin advised using the centre metacarpal, and soon Duane’s hand was rendered inflexible as the longest bone there went rigid, reinforced with concentrated Solidity from the earth at his feet. To it he added concentrated Specularity from a pair of mirrors Master Marnier had brought outdoors with them, constructing a small closed tube with reflective inner caps. To that at last he added the new property discovered by Valentin: an Aspect the Composer had named Light Temper, which could change the properties of light beams. This Duane drew from the ruby and added to the cavity in his bones.
Now his entire left hand throbbed with strange Aspects at strange angles, and the class craned forward to see. Sweat ran into Duane’s mouth as though to quench the heat his flesh knew was coming. But first came again the dimensions delineating the mirrored circles, the ruby lens, the rod that must remain inviolate lest the multiplied light fry his arm...
“Aloud, Adelier, aloud!” Marnier barked.
Duane shook his head in apology and gave his newest command voice. The afternoon dimmed for a fraction of an instant as the sunlight concentrated into a powdery white burst. Duane’s left hand swallowed it greedily. At almost the same moment, a glowing, blood-coloured pinprick burned through the knuckle of his middle finger. Duane quickly vectored his arm at the ground before the infant laser could put a hole through a building or a classmate.
The boys gasped their appreciation. A wavering red light hung suspended between earth and flesh. Duane smiled down at the impossibility of his creation, feeding it highly concentrated new sunlight in regular pulses.
“Marvellous!” Marnier trilled, taking a few ginger steps closer. He gave his hands a giddy clap, like a child at the zoo. “You see the complexity and precision required in the task make it impractical for most of you, as does the expense of the materials, but the principle demonstrated is stunning: the spontaneous creation and amplification of energy! This new discovery seems to fly in the face of the laws of pymary, hinting at Aspects undetectable to the naked eye; Aspects that operate according to a system alien to the systems the Great Khert has allowed us to manipulate with such beneficent acquiescence.”
Belarus spoke up with a snotty smirk. “Aye, but if I am remembering the paper correctly, Valentin thought refinement of the technique could have applications beyond making Adelier sweat like a pig.”
“Precision cutting would be one,” Marnier said, frowning at the class’ laughter and Duane’s reddening ears, “The created beam is an intensely focused rod of heat and light energy. I believe it might expedite the blinding of infected sufferers of Weeping Plague for instance, or even have some application in the boring of skull ports.”
“Building it entirely of pymary seems unnecessarily dangerous,” said a new voice. Duane slid his gaze from his hand and identified the speaker as a slight, short Silver lad named Sarthos. He stood apart from the class with his arms crossed and his chin jutted. “A mix of practical paraphernalia and pymaricaily concentrated Light might make for a safer experiment. A chamber, mirrors, lenses... we could craft the apparatus ourselves.”
Marnier shook his head violently. Duane knew he would. “If this is to ever have military application it should be constructed of pymary from the beginning, Sarthos. A murderous Crescian on the field is not going to wait for you to produce your equipment and set up your weapon before attacking.”
“He will wait for the soldier to draw his sword,” the Silver answered with a shrug. Duane smirked. Belarus was less amused.
“I fear Sarthos meant to enroll in a carpentry seminar,” he jibed, “Go and build your “practical paraphernalia” in the woodshop, leadbrain.”
“Quite so,” Marnier agreed, “You are a wright, Sarthos, and if you cannot do a thing with pymary it is not worth doing.” Sarthos withered under the duel assault. Duane craned his head around but now couldn’t see him beyond the heads and shoulders of his taller classmates.
Master Marnier brought his wrinkled hands together with some finality. “By tomorrow I wish a written response from all of you on the potential applications of the Light Temper Aspect. Within it I wish conjecture on why the Aspect is found with such potency in the ruby. Lastly, by fortnight’s end, you will each choose from among the five arcane methods of Concentration we have explored this month to enact your own demonstration. Successful completion will earn you a passing mark in this seminar. Long form commands only, no burns, no pymarics, and no supplementary ‘practical paraphernalia,’ Mr. Sarthos-”
The boys broke into laughter. Duane rocked forward onto the toes of his boots to see if Sarthos was red-faced-
Bright pain refocused his attention. He wheeled backwards to the tune of new laughter as fire engulfed his boot. His backside hit the grass and he batted furiously at the flames, a sloppy splash of blood and light marking the emptying of Aspects from his hand.
“Adelier’s put a hole in his foot!” someone called, “Maybe now all the piss can drain out!”
Marnier clucked his tongue. A line of Old Tainish sucked the air from the flames, leaving Duane grasping his charred ankle.
“Thank you for demonstrating the dangers of this new technique, Adelier. As you can see, lads, the refined and amplified light will burn through whatever it is pointed towards. If you choose to demonstrate this technique for your examination, be certain to stop into the chapel first to clear your conscience.”
The campus doctor said the injury resembled the cleanest of bolt holes. It had even cauterized itself. For a force so dangerous the amplified light created a most considerate wound.
With the swipe of a pymaric the doctor cooked any possible infection from Duane’s foot, bandaged it, and sent him to the dormitories with a cane too short for six feet of seventeen year old. That night Duane laid awake rereading Valentin’s findings and massaging aches and embarrassment from his calf.
Two weeks later the hole was only a faint freckle. He had demonstrated the light again for Marnier that morning, received his passing mark, and now Duane was wedged in his favourite corner of the portico outside the campus library, a heavy satchel of books in his lap.
The late summer air was already briskly cold. They were digging roasting pits in town for Treenahinn, the harvest festival next week. The idea made him think of home. Durlyne city didn’t have this sweeping view of the Gold mountains nor these wide swathes of grass between artfully spaced white marble halls, but it had a few yellow-haired people Duane loved very much, and a rickety old flat with his name carved on the wall. All of the ghers would celebrate Treenahinn together. Their roasted hog wouldn’t be the largest but there’d be enough for everyone.
Duane sighed. These past four years he had been away from home more than he had been present. At what point did “home” stop being home? Perhaps that point had come and gone and he was forever a stranger there now. A thousand-and-one happenings between the Adeliers in the last four years and Duane privy to none of them. The thought of all that shared laughter, all those silent sideways glances, all those stories and jibes and sorrows... and all of them happening just fine without Duane Adelier there.
A cold breeze skittered leaves across the portico’s tiles. Squares of sunlight fell just out of reach. Duane unfolded a letter from his younger brother Lemuel. He scanned it for some comfort but found it lacking, for yet again father hadn’t the money to buy him a ticket home this year. Duane’s heart felt like an old Treenahinn hog skull in his chest; picked clean and brittle and hollow.
Then the letter was gone. Duane blinked stupidly down at his empty hand as the khert danced around his fingers, then vanished, taking his letter with it.
“Do you know what the trouble is with you, Soud?”
Trailed by a blood-hungry crowd of silver- and black-headed spectators, Belarus stood in the library doorway. Duane regarded him over one shoulder for a moment, then straightened carefully. He was suddenly very aware of the cold and the eyes and the sorrow. He ran a hand through his hair and swallowed hard.
Belarus closed the distance between them. Duane was taller but Belarus’s pink eyes were fearless and cruel. Duane knew that the Plat would like nothing more than to have the khert obliterate him, too, just like the letter. “I pulled off the focused Light technique. I didn’t ruin my BOOTS in the attempt either. But did Master Marnier give two damns?”
“He passed you, Bel,” laughed a voice from the crowd. Belarus laughed too.
“Aye, he stamped my license. But who’s surprised by that? I’m a ruddy Plat. And everyone knows we Hethllot are the finest wrights in Alderode. But the trouble with this one-” Here Belarus touched Duane’s chest lightly with his fingertips, and Duane fought back the urge to break his hand. “This one is a pissmop. Everything he does is measured against other pissmops. And since pissmops are putty-browed apes of the eastern wastes without sense enough to come in from the cold, he’s always going to come out looking...” Belarus searched the air for the right word and settled on: “Special.”
Duane sneered but took a measured step backward. “Are you really jealous for the affection of Master Marnier? Students and professors are not allowed to court, you know.”
His pretty lips curled, Belarus drew close again. His voice lowered. “And students aren’t allowed to duel, pissmop. But we’ll be done in two seasons. We’ll be done, and when we are I’ll make certain the papers say that Durlynian Academy only produced one Class A wright this year - one - because he bade the khert take the other, mote by mote by mote.”
Duane shoved the Plat away with a growl and raised his fists between them. “You wish to FIGHT? I will fight you any way you please!”
This caused a roar of hilarity from the students. It was a different result than his fists had always caused back in ghers 14 when he’d had to split a few lips now and then for the sake of a nicked marble or an unwisely uttered insult. Duane kept his knuckles up but he could feel his neck glowing red, and fought not to tremble.
“You just can’t scrape the street off your heels, can you, pissmop?”
Howling, Belarus clapped his hands and bent at the waist, overcome, “I’ll make a gentleman of you yet! Aye, you should thank Ssael you met me, for I’ll make certain you die like the primmest gentleman in Alderode!” Belarus skipped down the portico steps amidst a chorus of laughter, and Duane pressed his balled fists into his thighs. He turned back to his corner and reached for his bag. The portico emptied behind him with a shuffling of feet and the merry start of a Treenahinn tune.
Grandfather would say no honour was lost today. He had presented an opportunity for Belarus to address their grievances but it had been refused. Duane had won and Belarus was a snake and an effete and he would be dead in ten years anyway so who cared?
And what did Ssael say? Ssael the God said Patience. Ssael the warrior said Soon.
Duane whipped about to find the portico not quite empty. That skinny little Silver Sarthos stood there with an irritating smirk. Duane scowled and thought about striking him for he was small and friendless and no one would care. Then he hated himself for the idea.
“Aye, Class A!” he railed instead, “I’ve the ability of a Plat and I’m treated like a dog. Put me in a bloody carnival for the world has seldom seen such a freak.”
Sarthos bent about to try and see the taller boy’s face. Duane attempted to wedge himself back in his corner but a hand wrapped itself in his sleeve and pulled him into the sun. The Silver’s eyes widened. “Are you crying?!”
Duane wished for death with profound sincerity but Ssael did not listen. He scrubbed his face. “I am not! Thank you, I am not.”
The other boy shrugged, but was gracious. “Belarus is jealous.”
Duane flashed his teeth and came closer to striking out. “Aye, and grass is green and Ssael is King and here I struggle regardless. Belarus was to graduate above all others, and he will make certain he still does even if he must murder me to do it. His motive matters not when he has power and influence that I lack.”
“I think you discount yourself,” Sarthos said, “Do you not hear the Masters when they speak so highly of you? You’re a boon to Alderode and everyone knows it. Beseech the Masters and they will protect you.”
But Duane did not want to be protected by a lot of old men! He turned away and all but fell down the broad white steps leading into the sun. With a stalking gait he chose the nearest spoke of pavement and followed it towards the dormitories. All around him students were wheeling their chests and bags towards the Academy entrance, each on their way towards the caravans, vliegeng, and carriages waiting to spirit them home. Duane wanted to grab the nearest one and shake him, make him realise how unfair it was that they could see their families over the holiday and the gangly Gold could not.
Instead he groaned to hear Sarthos giving chase, the Silver jogging to match his classmate’s longer strides. “Well, the masters won’t protect you out of LOVE,” Sarthos conceded, “You are a cross and vexing hound’s ass and no mistake. But they will protect you for the sake of your patron who has given so much for your education, and for the sake of your-”
"How do you know of my patron? Who are you?"
He tried to bow but Duane had no intention of stopping to see it. Sarthos huffed after. “I may have done some research on you! You see, I am come to study the illusory arts with Master Brennen, but after seeing your display with light enhancement in Master Marnier’s seminar, and reading your article on perceptive spheres in The Standard last year, I think I would like to supplement my lessons by spending time with YOU, Adelier!”
Duane shook his head violently. “I am no professor!”
“You’re also no student,” Sarthos countered, “At least, not for the next month. The campus will be empty and neither of us will be traveling home for Treenahinn. Tutor me, Adelier. Tutor me and I will pay you, and you’ll not miss another holiday with your family if you don’t wish it.”
The suggestion gave Duane pause. Halting his retreat and squinting against the sunlight he regarded Sarthos more attentively. The boy was very short - shorter by more than a head, with narrow shoulders and pointed features. His skin was dark even for a Silver but his eyes were a watery, glowing, carbuncle blue, like the shyest stars. He did not look the sort to be solving anyone’s problems and Duane nearly told him as much.
But to surprise his father and grandfather with a visit home in a few months... to tug Lemuel’s hair and throw him to the ground amid laughter... It was an idea too poignant to ignore. Duane shrewdly cocked his head and pursed his lips at the bold boy with the pretty eyes. “Meet me on the morrow at the lakeside,” he said.
Sarthos smiled fit to rival the sun. “Not the library?”
“And what inspiration lies among books and dust?” asked Duane, whapping the Silver on the shoulder, “You wish to know of light and beauty? We shall practise our art in a place where we will find both in abundance.”
Reflecting on the nature of his experiences these past few weeks, Duane was not surprised the next morning to awaken to rain. Undeterred, after morning service he took the Academy corridors to the very edge of campus, feeling like a ghost as the thunder reverberated through empty classrooms and abandoned halls. Again he thought of all his classmates speeding towards home and felt jealous and low. He abhorred the nastiness in his head and kneaded the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to smother it. How alone had Ssael been all those years walking the khert?
Sarthos was waiting for him under a dripping willow. He’d dried out six square feet of ground and made them a translucent shelter.
“At least we won’t get wet,” he greeted, “Thank you for coming - I feared you might not.”
“How could I stay indoors on a day so fair?”
The lake was gorgeous on a clear day but this morn it was a grey smudge beneath a dismal sky. A line of evergreens stood on the far shore and monocorns grazed without concern beneath them. “Where did you wish to begin?” asked Duane, settling on a tree root. Sarthos seated himself opposite. His eyes were grey today too, spoilt by a storm of their own. His clothes were fine and new however, and Duane was certain it was not money keeping the Silver from traveling home for the holiday. Had he stayed behind only to study with the shabbily attired Soud?
“I took all they could give me in Durlyne,” began Sarthos quietly, “I was enrolled for two years at Dauph’s School of Bright Arts and then apprenticed for a year at Reginald Fauver’s shop-”
“He is very good,” Duane said, surprised, “He lights the Temple of Song.”
“He was adequate.” Sarthos scrunched his nose. “Adequate, and little different from the relics at Dauph’s. They all see glamours only in terms of their limits. I would talk to him of moving pictures; of creatures not only of light but of substance and thought-”
“No!” Sarthos blurted, as though striking the suggestion down for the thousandth time, “Constructs are bound to some tangible First Material. I endeavour to bind substance to light itself.”
“First Light then.”
“There is no more First Light.”
“Then you speak of creating ghosts?” Duane had dabbled precious little in ghosts and sounding, finding there to be a certain unattractive irreverence in handling and reshaping the memories of the dead. Nothing in Scripture forbade it but the practise had not existed in Ssael’s time. Duane was certain He would not have liked it.
“There are properties in ghosts we barely understand,” Sarthos went on, warming to the topic, “If there was a will to study them we might create completely independent light-driven constructs that could do for the Ssaelit what plods do for the Gefendur. The property in dead flesh that allows it to so well ape life must somehow exist in the spectral flesh that flees it!”
“Each is an exploitation.” Duane shook his head. “We forbid the making of plods because it is an affront to the dignity of man. Enslaving the mnemonic matter of the dead is little better by my way of thinking. It is sophistry to forbid the one and seek the other.”
Sarthos shrugged. “Composer Valentin’s discovery of these hidden properties of light make me wonder what other hidden properties may lurk therein. This reality...” He extended a hand beyond the glimmering Solidity of their shelter and caught the rain in his curling brown fingers. “This reality is such an inadequate emanation, and one that represents perhaps only a sliver of all the systems in action around us. Ghosts are an emanation that represent an entirely separate reality-”
“The reality of the khert’s interior,” said Duane patiently, “Ghosts do not belong in this world and it is an aberration when they appear here.”
“Yet they CAN appear here,” Sarthos argued, “They are compatible with this reality. If that is the case, why can the pymary we use to alter this reality not be used in some way upon the not-yet-understood Aspects that allow intangible ghosts to manifest in our world? The light emitted by ghosts is no different than the light emitted by a candle, Adelier! What property of light is it that the ghosts are utilizing? What property of light is it that the ruby in your hand altered two weeks ago?” The Silver boy stood and wheeled on one foot, wiping his wet hand on his trousers and glaring fiercely at the stony lakeshore. “I tell you I am mad to understand these workings.”
Duane chuckled softly at his enthusiasm. After two years at the Magery he had only seldom heard its like. Such appreciation for the unknown! Such a zealousness to burn away the mists of the ever obscure khert that loved but bound them all. Had he read Poole’s ideas on the origins of smoke eels? Or Henri’s paper last spring that tried to make some sense of the senseless organisation of the dead memories that composed the khert’s infinite structure?
“I am not certain in what way you expect me to help you.” Duane lowered his chin and rested his palms on his knees. For the first time in a long while, he was in the presence of someone who cared less about what was in the books on the shelves... and more about what could be in future books on future shelves one day.
Sarthos frowned. Duane could see an objection brewing in his expression, but cut him off with an upraised finger.
“I don’t see how I can help you,” he continued, smiling, “But I’d like to try regardless.”
At some point the rain vanished, but Duane had long since stopped listening to it.
Instead he listened to Sarthos. For hours the Silver chirruped of obscure theories from long dead wrights, pulling out sheaves of notes traced in a meticulous hand. He spoke of pure mnemonic matter harvested fresh from the khert, and of centuries old ghosts who had escaped into reality to grow into five-headed eels who accepted sacrifice from superstitious Ulestrian villagers. Why eels, they wondered? How long could ghosts thrive in reality? How long could they thrive in the security of the khert?
Duane spoke too, unspinning ideas he admitted were mad but that would not leave him be. He spoke of dust; of the idea that all material could be broken down to particles smaller than could be seen with the finest glass; particles so small that they operated outside of the jurisdiction of known natural law. He knew it was impossible, that pymary had not the language for pieces so minute, but he postulated that if there was so little use looking for evidence of alternate systems in the emanations of reality, perhaps the key was to look within - not at the khert, but at the smallest slices of their own material world. Finely ground lenses expanded that view inwards but how deeply could they peer? What if at the very bottom, in that vast unsounded interior, were the ghosts themselves?
Sarthos was a fine and patient listener, with questions and observations that guided Duane’s imagination down pathways he’d seldom traveled. As the afternoon turned to evening Duane realised he had not once all day remembered that his brother and father and grandfather were somewhere eating supper together without him. Instead he had recalled why he’d began this journey to learn pymary in the first place. The rain had washed away his caked and crusted regrets.
As the stormclouds melted to reveal the stars, he and the Silver had nothing of substance to show after a long day of comparing notes, but neither cared. It was with no great haste that they wound back towards campus, monnies bleating in the distance and the first owls emerging from the woods.
“They’re all wrights,” Sarthos said of his family when asked, “Seven generations back. My great-grandfather was Jeremy Sarthos who was lead wright of Durlyne’s constabulary for a time. There’s a statue of him outside ghers 3.”
“Ah, I thought your surname familiar,” Duane mused, hooking his thumbs from his belt, “No small amount of pressure for you to follow in his footsteps, I’m certain.”
“Theoretical pymary is my passion,” Sarthos answered with conviction, “In truth I see little difference between killing a man with a sword and killing him with a spell. But put to purposes no practical means can achieve... that is the heart of pymary. Surely that is what the ancient Tains endeavoured towards when they created the art in the first place, no?” Duane stiffened and dragged his eyes to his feet. Sarthos elbowed him. “What? Your heritage upsets you?”
“My heritage damns me in most circles.”
“Ach, you are a Gold; a Tain. Your ancestors invented the arts that made Alderode great. And Ssael himself was one of them. I don’t understand all of this hatred towards the Gold. It’s one more excuse to keep us all divided and bickering.”
“A progressive opinion not widely shared,” said Duane with a sideways glance, “Is this talk what keeps you, too, away from home?”
Now it was time for Sarthos’ expression to darken. The Gold felt immediately sorry for the question, but the Silver was quick to let it pass. “I am not interested in popular opinions,” he said, “Our fear and hatred towards each other hold us all back. Imagine where pymary - where Alderode would be if it was not always... caste against caste. Class against class. Gefendur against Ssaelit. Aldishman against Crescian. Man against woman.”
Duane bristled at his bluntness. His grandfather the great war hero would slap the young man across the mouth for such words. And to think what father would say, or Shadwe Grandvin who preached so eloquently of the evils of the Gefendur! Duane chewed his lip and watched the stars dance in the pooled rainwater between the paving stones. A wealthy Silver knew as much of the woes of the Gold as those stars did.
Sarthos hummed a strange little melody. “I have offended my new friend.”
“I don’t think you mind it.” Duane shrugged. “I have been four years battling the presuppositions of men who do not realise I want only what they want. I have not yet made peace, and the war winds on. Knaves like Belarus won’t allow a ceasefire, no matter what I achieve or what I surrender.”
“The battle’s never truly without, Adelier. It’s always in here.” Sarthos lightly thumped Duane’s breastbone. “You have to convince yourself that you deserve what you’re struggling to achieve. Once you’ve done that, all else is revealed as enemies unworthy of your time; they become speedbumps worthy of your boot. You’ll graduate a Class A wright, Adelier. And who knows, you may be a Composer one day.”
“A Soud Composer?” Duane laughed into his collar. “I’m not sure the country is ready for it.”
“You’d lift up Golds everywhere. Do it for them if you cannot be persuaded to do it for yourself. Do it for that grandfather you say you adore.”
“I would do it for my brother,” said Duane, remembering Lemuel’s tears on the day he’d climbed the carriage to begin the long journey to Grettaerin. “He intends to join the army next month. The elders decided his stipend was worth more than his value as my father’s printing apprentice. I cannot imagine him in armour, with a sword.”
Sarthos hmm’d. “How old is he?”
“Not so young.”
“A Silver would say so.”
Sarthos laughed. “And a Gold would say that a Silver would say so! This is a mad world, Adelier.”
Duane couldn’t disagree. He kicked a fan of water from the nearest puddle and fractured the moon reflected there into a thousand crystals. “Mad enough that perhaps you will be a Composer yourself one day, eh?”
“No,” Sarthos sighed, “Never me. There are some things to be in Alderode even worse than yellow-haired.”
The next few weeks were an intoxicating flurry of research and conjecture; hypotheses and experimentation. Duane realised very quickly that he was not tutoring the Silver; they were tutoring each other. Like the mirrors in the laser chamber, he and Sarthos bounced and amplified the light of each other’s knowledge, focusing data to fine points of educated theories. Excited by their progress, Duane proposed that they co-author a paper for The Standard, the continent’s preeminent journal of Pymary and the Arts, and by the time holiday break was over they had the paper laid out and half-written. Crowing with delight, Sarthos said it would make Composer Valentin’s work look like childish scrawl.
“He is a good man,” Duane said of Valentin the evening before classes were to resume. The faculty and students had returned fat with feasting and wine. The library was bustling again but hidden behind a stack of bookmarked volumes on the stability of the khertlines according to environmental variables and the known properties of the extra port of tacit casters, Duane and Sarthos may as well have been alone.
“Have you met him?” asked the Silver.
“Of course not.” Duane cocked an eyebrow, remembering his friend’s famous grandfather. “Have you?” Sarthos looked smug and grabbed Duane’s inky hand.
“It was at a dinner for Captain Argenti of the Lions. He had invited everyone in ghers 3 to celebrate the birth of his first son. Valentin swept into the hall with his entourage, crushed my poor fingers in his, and pressed his lips to my hand. Of course he’d failed to realise his lips were still smeared with laerfhel and I stank of pork fat and garlic for a week.”
Duane laughed bemusedly. “He... kissed your hand?”
Sarthos' expression flickered and he turned to rifle aimlessly through the nearest open book. “Of course I don’t want to see us in competition with him now only for his having terrible manners. Valentin is a clever man but like everyone else he’s preoccupied eternally with surface emanation. Surface, surface, surface. Let him and the rest read this and shift their archaic points of view inwards. Downwards. Beneath.”
Interior Emanations was the title they had chosen. Duane looked to the treatise, scarred by long revision lines and patched with carefully worded rephrasings and clarifications crammed onto small squares of parchment, then looked to his side where Sarthos’ hand still held his.
“You must give me no money, “said Duane. He withdrew his hand smoothly and rested it on the desktop. Sarthos laughed at the abrupt words and cupped the back of his neck awkwardly.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“I have not tutored you. That is, not in a way in which you’ve not already repaid me in kind. There’s no debt between us.”
“There’s a debt of friendship,” said Sarthos, grabbing the taller boy’s shoulder fiercely, “You need another patron; one who will finance your soul and not your head. Take my useless money and visit your family next season. It will rejuvenate you.”
The Silver’s hold tightened and Duane laughed at the mock ferocity. “Do not argue with me, scarecrow. You are dull when you are miserable. I would pay twice the price to cure you of it”
“Cure me? Ach, you are not likely to remain a rich man if you do not cure your own sickness of generosity.” All aglow, Duane embraced the smaller boy around the shoulders, briefly. “It will be so, then. And I say it will be more difficult to find time for this paper once orientation week is through. We should finish it in the next few days. I still don’t care for the language on page twenty-one; it begins to sound too much as if the khert has no bearing at all on interior systems.”
The Silver tossed his head dismissively. “Make your changes and pass it back to me. But you know you have not yet convinced me that the khert is ultimate arbiter.”
“To suggest otherwise is to question all known observation,” Duane argued, gathering their papers and books into his arms, “I wish to publish a paper that will ruffle a few feathers; not make me the cockerel with its head on the chopping block.”
Sarthos grinned and jabbed his ribs. “Coward.”
Walking to the dormitories after dinner that night, Duane felt vaguely unwell, as though the sudden wintry turning of the weather had brought on the hypos or a stomach complaint. There would be snow in the morning, he was sure. Clouds gathered in the north and blotted the stars until only a scattering remained to the southeast, watery and wavering like Sarthos’ eyes.
Duane’s attention wandered to his hand. He could still feel the other boy’s touch against his knuckles like a burn.
The cure for a burn was to ice the injury. Duane returned to the library, to the corner of the portico that he loved, and folded against the frozen marble with a book of theory propped on his thighs. The evening grew older around him and the world darkened as the storm rolled in. Far away he heard the whoops of the boys in the dormitories, enjoying their last night of freedom before tomorrow’s classes and two more seasons of grueling prep work for their final examinations.
He wished he had a place among them. It was not difficult to imagine himself sharing a beer with Belarus or singing with the Jet brothers or poring over the dueling circuit articles with the other boys of his dormitory. He’d had friends and family in ghers 14, why not here?
Ahh, because these others would not have him. It was that simple. It was not personal. He was Duane Adelier, the Gold from the printer’s family who did not belong among these privileged aspirants and never would. It did not matter what he achieved, whom he simpered to, what he said; he was a ghost from another reality, and he was not compatible.
Strange that Sarthos had made him feel so normal during the break.
Duane looked at his hand again. Without deciding to, he put his knuckles to his lips and tasted where Sarthos had held his fingers. It did not taste of garlic and pork fat. The thought made him laugh.
“And what’s so funny there, Adelier?”
Duane flinched, but Master Marnier’s was no voice to fear in the night. The old man climbed the portico stairs and Duane scrambled swiftly to his feet to bow and touch his brow. “Naught at all, Master.”
“Listen to them, the monkeys.” The dark point of Marnier’s silhouetted chin gestured disdainfully to the distant dorms. “This is why you’ll go far, Adelier. You reject that gaiety for the sake of your studies. Haven’t they heard the armies of the coasts are gathering south? That the Council forces have been summoned? That the country looms on the brink of civil war with Avelpit?”
“Frightful times, Master.”
“Aye, for all of us. You keep your head about you, ignore firebrands like that Plat Belarus. You’ll get what you want in the end.”
Duane nodded half-heartedly, haunted by images of his younger brother in a military camp. “People have been telling me that all of my life, Master.”
The old man’s face flared orange as he lit his pipe. He was a Jet, but his greyed hair sometimes disguised the fact. “I’ll be 200 next year, Adelier. If I’ve learned nothing else it is that the khert has a role for all of us, and it’s the happy man who allows himself to sink into it.”
“I shouldn’t be here then, should I?”
“You don’t get to define the role,” said Marnier testily, “That is the khert’s place. How are your hands? Are you up for a demonstration for my First Years tomorrow?”
“Ah, I am afraid I am meeting with Jeremy Sarthos after matins. We are co-authoring a paper for The Standard-”
Duane recoiled as a withered old finger dug suddenly and demandingly into his armpit. “Stay away from that Silver, do you hear me? He will ruin you.”
Duane’s chest tightened strangely. A surge of protectiveness for his friend put an edge to his voice that it would not normally possess when speaking to a professor. “Sarthos is the cleverest wright I have ever met, Master Marnier. He has taught me more over the break than I have learned in the past year. His ideas on the undiscovered Aspects of light and the secondary system of mnemonics are startlingly brilliant.”
Marnier snorted and blew smoke past the Gold’s shoulder. “What do you really know of him, Adelier?”
Duane opened his mouth to speak but realised he had already told Marnier the extent of it. Sarthos was a fine wright - should anything else matter?
Surface, surface, surface.
“He comes from a fine family, Master.” Duane rubbed where the old man had jabbed him, thoughtful. “His home ghers is only a mile from my own.” But he was a Silver, of course, so they might as well be a world apart. “He apprenticed with the artificer who lights the Temple of Song. Strangely, I had not heard of his first school... Dauph’s School of Bright Arts? Someone of Sarthos’ talent should have been sent to Seminary or straight on to the Academy.”
“I would be surprised if you had heard of Dauph’s,” chuckled Marnier, turning towards the library doors. He took a final drag from his pipe and then emptied the ashes against his boot heel. “It is a girl’s school.”
Duane blinked. “What?”
“You’re a keen lad, Adelier,” said the Professor, disappearing into the building, “Top of your class. Figure it out.”
Duane had left his gloves in his room and his fingers were like frozen clay as he walked the grounds, muttering at the snow.
He remembered the first time he had heard of the Third Option. It had filled him with confusion and disgust, and he had wondered why there needed to be such a system when God’s khert infallibly placed each man and woman where they needed to be.
If a person was meant to pursue the higher arts for the good of Alderode, they would be born a man. If it was their place to serve a husband and keep a family they would be born a woman. How arrogant that there should be a way for a woman to become a man so that she might pursue paths the khert had not properly equipped her for!
“Composer Valentin kissed his hand,” he whispered, kicking the snow, “He kissed his hand. It was another’s hand then, was it not? A hand in a lacy sleeve perhaps, clutching a silk purse!”
What vanity! What deceit! Sarthos had thrown away the gift of her womanhood in order to become a full wright, to grasp for herself the fullness of an art that God and State said she had no right to! What was worse, in a time when Ssaelit numbers were diminishing because of a ravaging plague she had thrown away her ability to produce children. It was no wonder his- her- its family had not wished her home for the Treenahinn holiday. How could her fine Silver father bear to look at her? What place was there for her in that home?
What manner of monster, split down the middle and bound in a mask, had Duane been carousing with these past four weeks?
This thought twisted his stomach even as it quickened some other part of him. He clutched his brow and bit back whatever this other feeling was that threatened to rise. Was it pity? Aye, he should pity Sarthos. That she-thing. That monster who had deceived his friend and spit in Ssael’s face.
There would be no paper submitted to The Standard. There would be no more conjecture at the lakeside nor feverish arguments in the library. Duane had trusted those same broad emanations he and the Silver had been arguing against for a month, never seeing the deeper reality.
The shattering of a bottle brought Duane from his miserable reverie.
He looked up into the inky night with his judgment drowning in venom. The storm had dropped its measure of snow and retreated, leaving a crisp white crust over the grounds. The cold was deepening and Duane’s breath was almost opaque as it steamed from his lips.
From behind a statue of Vaosa Sefan, a muttered spell caught the edge of his attention. Duane reacted without thinking, sending parrying pulses through every khert line passing too near his vitals. Some hateful strike meant for him was stymied with the action, and Duane heard laughter from the darkness as toxic green flashes vanished into the night.
“Adelier!” called Belarus
The Plat stumbled from around the corner of one of the lecture halls. A crowd of boys was behind him, red-nosed and riotous. They were drunk, half of them still clutching bottles. Duane’s every hair stood on end at the sight. Old warnings from his father blared in the back of his mind. A wise Soud is never caught alone at night away from home with men of a contrary caste.
“Belarus,” he greeted stiffly, pocketing his hands in submission. Awarding them the path, he moved onto the grass as the broken crowd closed the distance between them. They would pass and he would go to the dormitories. He would not be meeting with Sarthos tomorrow. There was no reason not to stay up rereading Valentin and Rackham and Crane and praying and praying and Sarthos, why? Why? Had it been a long-sought joy to make Adelier look the fool? To pretend to be his friend while lying to his face? To loathe him? Yes, to finally have something in common with every one else here.
A hand on his shoulder demanded his attention.
“How do you solve the pissmop problem?” one of the students slurred. Duane pulled against the hold but another limb shot from the knot of boys and grabbed his opposite arm.
“You make them Coppers!”
Bright, nauseating pain broke across the back of his head as something - a bottle or a chunk of pavement - exploded against his skull. The next he knew he was coughing in the snow, blood dying his hair a more acceptable hue. Half a dozen boot toes shot sharply into his face and ribs, forcing him into a bloodily curled ball. He freed a hand to launch the surrounding ground upwards, but someone stamped his wrist and kicked him in the temple so hard all he saw were the stars in Sarthos’ eyes.
“Special, Adelier,” roared Belarus, grinding a heel into his back, “You’re so special! And this is especially for you!”
Duane teetered. With every strike mad visions burst behind his eyes. His grandfather teaching him to duel like a gentleman, to be a tacit caster that foes wouldn’t just fear but respect. His father teaching him how to work the presses, lay the type, trim the sheets, roll the ink, and be in all ways a man that his ghers would value. Lemuel asking-- begging for a reassurance that his older brother didn’t hate him for killing their mother when he was born. What had it been like when she died? Had Duane seen the khert open wide to embrace her?
Then came the maddest of all. He saw Belarus, shrieking and white, dissolving into the night like snow on a child’s tongue. With the sudden fragility of gossamer the Plat oozed back into the khert that had birthed him sixteen years ago; pulled apart, embraced, and wrenched from reality with the fierce unrelenting of the Dammakhert’s unforgiving love.
Belarus’ terrified screams died too soon. The night and the cold and the quiet returned. Gasping, Duane rolled onto his back with one eye swollen shut, his chest on fire, and his hair stuck to his pate with blood. Belarus’ friends had kicked up the snow and fled, leaving Sarthos in their wake looking small. The Silver had a gash across his forehead, and gave a jolt when Duane met his eyes.
“Did you cast in y-your head?” he asked in a hoarse whisper, "You killed him, Adelier."
A strange calm was in Duane’s breast even as his skull roared with pain. There were stories among the Gold of the proud warriors of ancient Tain. They would lay on beds of sharpened bone, sleep exposed under blizzards, tear off their fingernails and replace them with red-hot bear claws. No pain could shake them and no man of Tain thought enough of himself to complain.
But that was not Duane. He sat up shakily and smeared blood from his good eye. Not blood. Tears now. The ancient warrior’s hide had been breached.
"I didn't mean to... I-"
“It’s not your fault,” Sarthos hissed, daring to come closer. He put a wadded kerchief to Duane’s head. “I think they intended your death. They were drunk.”
“Who will bear witness?” Duane sobbed, jerking away, “A hated Soud and a despised Third Option.”
Sarthos’ cheek paled. Duane turned to glare his hatred. “Why did you n-not tell me you were a woman?”
“I- I could not, Adelier.” He shook his head, confused. “When it is done one takes an oath. I have been a man since and may intimate nothing else.”
“But you are not a man!”
“I am in the eyes of the state,” said Sarthos hollowly, “Come now, your head. We need to find the doctor.”
But Duane thought his head was just fine. He stood roughly and turned not towards the infirmary but towards the Academy’s north wing where the constables kept their offices. “I killed him,” he raged in a thin, broken hiss, “God, I killed him. Flee from me, Sarthos! I have nothing to lose by striking you as well”
The khert had taken apart Belarus as though he’d never existed. No ghosted memories remained, no particles of blood or tissue. There was no body for his mother and father to burn. There would be no beautiful corpse for his noble ghers to mourn. “Where is he?” Duane wept, wheeling and crunching through the snow like a mad transient on a bender, “Where?!”
“Th-the khert killed him really,” said Sarthos with a nervous laugh. He chased after, reaching to support Duane’s arm but the Gold would have none of it. “You took from his flesh some Aspect that it could not endure without. The khert saw the flesh as an aberration and cleared it from reality-”
“I know,” Duane wailed, clutching his pounding forehead, “I know! Wretch that I am- Wretch! Only a coward does such a thing.”
“Only a coward sets upon a man with six of his friends in the night! Only a coward would strike his friend, now, who is trying to aid him. You’re no coward and I am your friend.”
The north wing was dark and shuttered, but the front door parted at Duane’s touch. Sarthos remained hovering at his back, conjuring reassurances that did not ring with the same authenticity his pymarical theorizing usually did. Duane limped down the checkered corridor, past the headmaster’s locked office, past the wall of awards that made Durlynian Academy such a prestigious school to attend. And should he not be forever grateful to the shrewd Soud patron who had bought him his way? And should he not genuflect at these ribbons and plaques that belonged to countless generations of students who had managed to graduate without murdering a classmate?
Turning a corner, Duane saw the glow of the constables’ office at the end of the hall. He moved towards it but Sarthos wrenched him around with surprising strength, thudding his back into the wall. “You’re not a coward but you are stupid,” said the Silver, “You are stupid and self-obsessed, Duane Adelier, but I won’t let you ruin yourself over this.”
“You are a woman,” said Duane as though that was enough, and Sarthos tightened his grip around his arm until it hurt.
“And you’re a pissmop,” he said,” And isn’t it a mad world.” Duane shook his head and looked away, miserable, hearing Belarus’ screams. “What was it like when you fell in love with pymary?” demanded the Silver, “You fell in love and it loved you in return. The world glowed merry and bright until you mentioned your love to your family - your ghers - and they turned out the light. For you the cause was money, perhaps, and for me it was my sex. Were either any fault of our own?”
“The khert places us where we need to be,” said Duane. Sarthos gave his head one violent shake of negation.
“Your patron put you where you needed to be. The khert dissolves us if someone says the right words and points our way. The khert is cruel.”
The statement was a blasphemy; a hideous blasphemy. Yet Ssael did not appear to cut the creature down. The lips that shaped those words did not wither like a blighted flower. Duane watched those lips and his head swam.
“My mother doesn’t know how to talk to me,” Sarthos went on, releasing Duane’s arm and looking at the floor, “My father thinks me a monster and my ghers says if I do not prove worth the loss of my womanhood, they will exile me on my twenty-first birthday. That is my love for pymary, Adelier.” He looked to him in challenge. “What have you done for love?”
Had Duane not travelled down this path for love of family and faith? Ssael had come to him as a boy and said he must join the Seminary, that it would be in this life at last that he fulfilled his potential. But he had been too talented to become a mere priest, and quite independent of his wishes the Souds had pushed him towards the Academy.
“I don’t know,” Duane admitted, “I don’t know.”
“You took the means to come here when they were offered,” whispered Sarthos, “I did the same thing. That is all.”
“No... no.” Duane dropped his sticky forehead into his hand. “I thought... I thought I loved you before I realised what you are. I thought I had gone mad because... it did not feel wrong that I should love you.”
“What?” Sarthos juddered away, all his indignation and self-assurance evaporating like Belarus into the khert. Through his fear and misery Duane could have laughed to see the Silver crack. Inside that delicate fissure, like a new dandelion shoot in the pavement, he finally saw the woman.
Sarthos wasn’t a monster. Sarthos was a wandering ghost in a reality that wasn’t his, trying on an ill-fitting Aspect in a mad attempt to belong. Well, Duane had been wandering too.
“Aren’t you lonely?” he asked.
The empty corridor was cold. Duane hadn’t been able to feel his fingers for an hour and maybe there would never be warmth again. But there was a spark in Sarthos’ eyes. He itched the corner of one and frowned. “D-did you make the changes to page 21?”
Duane shook his head. “Not yet.”
The constables were waiting. Belarus was gone. The Plat’s friends were somewhere on the grounds hiding or cementing their lies or gathering new corroborators. But Sarthos was here when he didn’t have to be, and Sarthos had been there back in the snow. “Who did this?” Duane asked suddenly, touching near the mark on the Silver’s dark brow. The other shrugged.
“One of Belarus’ mates. I put a few of them on the ground before you dealt with him.” Sarthos took hold of the hand at his brow and dragged it between them. He swirled his thumb against the soft flesh of Duane’s finger pads. Duane watched, remembering the light that had been in that hand a month ago, remembering the searing heat of it and wondering what Aspect of his it was that the Silver was concentrating now to make him so lightheaded
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he murmured.
“It doesn’t matter.” Slim fingers (so slim, how had Duane never realised it before?) drew over the back of Duane’s knuckles, touching the bony undulations fanning across the top of his hand.
“You should wear your gloves,” Sarthos chided, “We should always wear our gloves.”
“I wonder who devised that rule.”
Sarthos touched his wrist and plucked at the blond hairs there. “You’ll have Thorns some day,” he predicted. Duane thought of the blood-coloured gloves worn by the most lethal wrights, and wasn’t certain he wanted them.
“Why aren’t you Class A?” he asked Sarthos, “Why-?”
The Silver’s expression crumpled. He dropped Duane’s hand. “Wh-why aren’t I many things?”
“No, no, no,” Duane whispered, and folded him in his arms. Sarthos fit very well against his chest. The top of his grey head fit very well under his chin, and the knob of a shoulder was a fine match for one of his cupped palms. As he shook with tears Duane tried the fit of a brown cheek to one of his own, and from there thought to see how well their lips might mesh.
Duane had never kissed anyone, but as with most things in his life he caught on quickly. Sarthos pushed against him and knocked him roughly into the paneled wall. A thin hand snuck up his throat and wrapped in his blood-sticky hair. Duane made a noise of pained protest and the curled fingers retreated. Apologetic, a thumb dipped into the space under one ear as though claiming ownership while an insistent little tongue made the same move between his teeth.
He thought his heart would hammer its way out of his body. Almost too late did Duane realise the thud in his ears was actually something more sinister. Incoming boots. He whirled himself and Sarthos about, scouring the walls with his good eye until hailed by a friendly wink of bronze. Sarthos got the hint and grabbed the coat closet handle as Duane tasted his ear and lost one of his hands inside his jacket. He was pleased to find a breast there, buried in layers of wool.
“Duane,” Sarthos whispered needfully, closing the door behind them.
“Jeremy?” he guessed. The Silver pinched his arm.
“Jessamin,” she said.
For a little while the troubles of heart and mind were forgotten for the newer needs of a flesh both wrights had neglected. Duane had hoped to find acceptance of his station somewhere, some day, if he only did as his betters advised and ignored the bile of those he offended along the way. Sarthos himself had offered wise counsel that first night when he’d told Duane he must find himself deserving first. Father of course advised him only to keep his head up, his shoulders square, and his actions honourable.
Somewhere was peace. Somewhere.
Secreted away in a pious portion of his brain, or locked up in a book he hadn’t read yet, or a prayer he’d not yet learned to properly phrase, there was peace. Ssael would bring it. Graduation would bring it. Maybe even grandfather would bring it soon, all wrapped up in one of his stories from the front, alive with blood, heroism; didactic in the best way.
Maybe peace was there. Maybe.
Or maybe, in spite of his rhetoric, he was only like the old wrights in the end, obsessed with the visible emanations of reality.
Surface, surface, surface.
To find the secret, realer systems he would have to peer closer, lean in further, sound deeper. It was here. Not inside of himself where he’d so often hid with the excuse that he was searching, but inside Jessamin. She emptied herself into his hands, against his lips, in his lap, swirling mad patterns with her nails against his dripping, naked back. Peace was called Jessamin. No beams of divine light accompanied the revelation but Duane noticed another laser in his bones now, and when his flesh caught fire again he was amazed to feel how painlessly he could burn.
The coat cupboard was small and the coats smelled of pipe smoke and mildew. Duane made a nest for Jessamin with one of them and she dozed unclothed against his chest as he pondered the morrow and the mystery of their lives.
Golds and Silvers could not couple. To look unwisely at anyone outside of one’s caste was a social taboo matched by little else. Duane couldn’t imagine the disappointment on his father’s face and so chose not to try. He preferred Jessamin’s smooth brow. He liked when it crinkled too, and when she could make appear like magic ideas that would sound mad from any other, but which from her lips were a logic the world had too long been denied.
His lips were still smoking and an ember in his stomach still was burning. When she stirred, laughing at thoughts of her own he couldn’t imagine but wished to know, he had hardly the breath to ask for them before he was kissing her again.
“How is your head?” she tried to ask, cupping his crown in one hand. It only distantly ached, as far away as the earth, for he was here with the stars.
“You are so beautiful,” he panted against her neck. It was more of an insult against himself than a compliment to her, “How did you ever... ever expect me to tutor you? I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t understand.”
“I won’t let you ruin yourself,” she promised, eliciting a happy groan as she shifted positions, “I won’t let them ruin you.”
“We’ve ruined each other,” Duane gasped, “It’s better this way.”
Duane awoke half-frozen, Jessamin draped across him in an attractive heap. For a moment he thought he was dreaming, and it was a pleasant one until Belarus’ dying scream punched him in the brain. He shuddered, straightening his back against the cupboard wall, and every boot-kick of the Plats’ friends throbbed anew through his ribcage and gut. He bade himself calm; cupped his forehead and angrily bade himself calm!
Shaking, he pulled one of the coats over Jessamin and tried to slide her off without waking her. She murmured something senseless and crinkled her nose.
Ahh. There was calm.
Duane smiled and touched her face. Then his hand wavered over her naked breast, small and dark, the darker nipple beaded with the cold. It seemed natural to cup the weight of it for a moment, then slide his palm down the curve of her side and rest it on her hip. He wished his hand was as dark as she was. There would be no problems then, would there?
Ach, there was no sense in his thoughts. He was a murderer one moment, and the next a freak, and then an ingrate, a coward, and a fool, but also a lucky man who’d found someone he loved, and there was no world outside these four walls.
“Jessamin,” he called softly, needing to hear her voice. She opened her starry eyes and smiled.
“Jeremy Sarthos,” she whispered.
He shook his head. “It seems ridiculous now, doesn’t it?”
“Now?” She reached for her shirt, “It always was. But it’s a mad world, Adelier, and we do what we must to survive in it.”
Duane wondered how late it was. He was sore and sticky. He needed to report what had happened with Belarus, needed to attend matins, needed to get to his first seminar (it was Old Tainish pictography today, wasn’t it?), needed to-
There was a shuffling outside the door. Sarthos’ eyes widened and she buttoned her man’s shirt with fumbling fingers. Duane swore and reached for his jacket.
Someone outside called good morning. The door cracked open and all the phantoms of reality poured in.
Sarthos did not shriek. Of course she didn’t, she was a man again, her grey hair ruffled, her face smeared with dry blood, and her jaw jutted in cool defiance as the light of the corridor spilled over them. Regardless, Duane rose up on one knee and put a protective arm across her. It was foolish and he thought she laughed at him but didn’t care. The old man looking down at them had a different reaction. Brother Clare of Lady Arthrap’s chapel opened and closed his mouth a few times, staring and shivering, a palsy in the hand that rested on the doorknob. Duane and Sarthos found their feet the same time Clare found his voice, and there was not a quiet moment again for hours afterwards.
News traveled fast across campus that Jon Belarus had been slain in a drunken fight with Duane Adelier and Jeremy Sarthos. What happened afterwards was less widely reported.
The Gold and Silver were separated. Duane thought they would be put in cells but found himself instead in a small, plain room adjoining the chief constable’s office. One of the officers brought him a change of clothes and water for his face and head. After his ablutions he prayed, expecting to meet his inner self and God’s judgment with all due guilt and horror. But the guilt wasn’t there and the judgment was kind. Ssael wasn’t angry. Ssael agreed with Sarthos now, that Duane had only defended himself, and he found the reasoning easier to hold on to in the light of day, with the worst behind him and Jessamin’s fragrance still between his fingers.
“You were a warrior of Tain,” he whispered to his God, “I am a fool with a hot head.” He smiled and wiped his eyes. “Perhaps the difference is negligible.”
Shadows passed back and forth behind the warped glass of the room’s lone door. After long enough Duane began wondering what they would do if he opened it and tried to leave, but it wasn’t necessary to find out. The doorknob turned and suddenly the chief constable was there, stony-faced and severe. Over his shoulder Duane saw both Master Marnier and Headmaster Lenari, a thin-eyed young Jet with long fingers and an endless frown.
“Where is Sarthos?” Duane demanded, standing, “He has done nothing.”
“Sit back down, Mr. Adelier,” said the constable, moving aside for Marnier and Lenari, “They tell me you are a tacit caster. If you give me trouble I have an Aseptick awaiting my word in the lobby.” Duane shuddered at the word. “If I tell him to he will come and he will block your ports and take your voice and you can listen to what your betters have to say while curled up shrieking silently in the corner.”
Duane sat back down.
“Adelier will give us no trouble,” Marnier assured, entering the room and kneading his brow, “He is a keen lad but he has proven himself a stubborn one as well.” He met Duane’s eye. “I told you to stay away from Sarthos, boy.”
“Sarthos has done nothing, Master!”
“He told us a different tale. He told us that on his way to his rooms after dinner last night, he came upon Jon Belarus and his drunken friends attempting to beat you to death on the walkway. Your injuries seem to corroborate it, and Belarus’ friends were quite inebriated when apprehended last night, but what is more difficult to prove is what happened afterwards. They claimed Belarus was obliterated by a core leech.”
“He was,” said Duane without hesitation, “He was. And the khert took him.”
The Headmaster’s eyes widened and even ancient and unflappable Marnier twitched his lip, disturbed. Lenari clenched his fists. “Such tactics fly in the face of the law, of honour, of the ethics of combat, and the morality of the Durlynian Academy,” he said.
“I have watched Belarus savage this boy for two years, sir, “said Marnier, “I do not doubt he and his friends attacked Adelier last night.”
“Neither do I,” answered the Headmaster, “But it will be difficult for Sarthos to prove that he knew Adelier’s life was in danger when he cast the leech-”
Duane’s yellow hair bristled. “Sarthos did not cast the leech!” he shouted, half-rising from his seat, “I did-!”
Marnier’s voice was old but it rattled the walls of the small office with its dreadfulness. The constable flinched and Duane was crushed back into his chair by it. Pale, he looked up at the old Jet in fear as he continued. “Adelier, Jeremy Sarthos confessed to the attack! He confessed and you will say naught against it. Think you of the debt you owe your patron! Think you of the time and money and good will invested in you by this Academy.”
The Headmaster turned away, his shoulders around his ears. “Duane Adelier the Soud innate,” he spat, with no admiration, “Duane Adelier the tacit phenom. Head of the class, author of two papers published in The Standard, and the boy not even eighteen. Duane Adelier who is authoring a paper that Master Marnier tells me could put him on a path to Composition.”
“Sarthos wrote most of it,” said Duane miserably, “How did you find it-”
Marnier raised an eyebrow. “You left your satchel in your... love cupboard.”
“Sarthos is a Third Option,” said the Headmaster with disdain, “There is only so far he can go. But you are an asset, Adelier; an asset to this Academy, to the country, and especially to your much beleaguered caste. I will not let you ruin yourself.”
I will not let you ruin yourself.
“Sarthos did not cast the leech,” Duane stammered, “Sarthos did not killed Belarus.”
“I am afraid that he disagrees with you, Adelier,” said Marnier, “Sarthos confessed his seduction of you. He confessed that those strong feelings goaded him to protect you last night when he feared for your life. It seems the neuter is still too much the woman. Be grateful she realises her error and admits her guilt; she’s saved your professional career.”
Duane shook his head, feeling sick. “I want to see her.”
“Sarthos is already on his way back to Durlyne.”
Duane stood again in protest and this time the Bronze constable’s thick right arm clenched his shoulder tight enough to bruise. “She’s been expelled from the Academy. Let her Silver brethren in Durlyne mete their judgment.”
“The Silver are barbarians,” Duane mourned.
“Perhaps,” admitted the Headmaster, turning to go, “And perhaps we should all be so clearheaded.”
Duane did not attend that afternoon’s classes.
Adrift, disarrayed, he walked to the lakeside in his bare feet and sat in the roots of the willow there, an orphan returning home. The sky was garishly beautiful and unendingly cold. The grass was dying beneath it, each dark blade stiff as a knife. The sunny season was over.
It took a dozen sheets of paper to manage a letter to his father but by the evening Duane finally had one that he could stomach. He sent it on its way. Afterwards he wrote a letter to Belarus’ parents, shaved his head, and tucked half of the yellow locks away with the missive. There was no greater gesture of apology and shame that he could offer.
When he was finished, he put the other half in a dish and set them alight. He said Jessamin’s name over the smoke like one of the heathen Tains praying to their dead gods, and thought he would have burned all the rest of him if it could help her.
That night he slept little, reading instead his and Sarthos’ paper and wondering if there was a way to get it to her without her family intercepting it. The Sarthoses. Renghul Ghers 3, Durlyne City, Durlyne. Was there some secret way to address the package? To hide it? Some way for the pages to be blank unless Jessamin herself handled them?
What if he sent it to Lemuel? Lemuel could see it to her under cover of night and enjoy the challenge of a sneakthief’s adventure.
A week passed and Duane still hadn’t sent the package on. After dinner one night he found an envelope addressed to him in the postroom. There was no return address, but the handwriting quickened his heart.
The letter inside read only: “Ssael abhors a martyr.”
“She’s not going home,” Duane told the boy working the postroom. He didn’t know how he was so certain, but the certainty was warm and real as the answer to a prayer. Duane pocketed the letter, returned to the dormitory, and decided he could be that brave too.
Father’s reply was gruff but supportive. Lemuel had drawn a crude and bloody sword beneath the signature. Holding the letter was like holding their hands, and Duane put it in his breast pocket. Near it was reassurance from Ssael, just as warm and unmistakable.
“You’ll be wasted in the army,” Master Marnier complained as Duane stood at the Academy entrance, his life packed into the trunk at his feet. Marnier had come to see him off and Duane hadn’t understood why until he’d asked if he mightn’t have his and the Silver’s half-finished paper on Interior Emanations. Duane had handed it over without much hesitation, for a field wright had no time for research and theorizing.
“I haven’t been a good student, Master,” he sighed, “I wonder if a school is, in the end, the poorest of places to learn.”
“You’ll put us all out of work, Soud.”
Duane smiled, then turned towards the horizon for sign of the carriage that would take him to town. The Avelpitians were revolting. The papers were bursting with stories of the glorious victories of the Council army as they fought back the rebelling miners. There was a place for everyone in Alderode’s forces, even for a Tainish warrior and a Soud outcast who could not spend one more day in the institution that had damned the best teacher he’d ever had. He would not miss the Academy. Nor would Duane miss the stares of the students in the corridors who were too well educated not to realise only Adelier could have outcast a Plat.
He eyed Marnier askance as the old man browsed his and Sarthos’ work.
”It’s a good paper,” he said of it, distantly, “Perhaps it would have laid Composer Valentin flat...” His gaze softened and dropped to the patch on his boot. “What if... what if we’re a microcosm of the systems of the world, Master? Beneath the natural reality we experience with this crude matter, all of the world is haunted by systems that fly in the face of what we are able to observe. We’re the same. Crude and predictable natural systems haunted by an unknown order... or disorder. Master, I have to peer deeper, lean in closer... sound the unsounded.” Duane turned to the old man. “What have you done for love?”
Marnier rolled his eyes and made a disgusted noise in his throat. He turned to flee back into the Academy as Duane’s carriage crested the horizon.
“God’s teeth, boy,” he snarled behind him, “I told you Sarthos would ruin you.”
©2013 Ashley Cope
Commissioned by Janicein - Thank you!