Murmuring outside the door, the voices of children and youth. Today was a big day, the first time she would meet the other kozan. Her trial, where she would prove to the others that she was one of them. She would show them that she was special, that she deserved a place here among them. As soon as she began to move the handle, the hum of voices outside died. Her heart hammered so hard she thought it was going to break her chest. She took a deep breath and turned the handle.
The last year had mostly crawled by at a snail’s pace. Her bedroom connected to a classroom and to a fenced-in yard outside, and after the first month when she finally managed to crawl out of bed, that had been where she spent most of her days. Tutors were brought in from the university in the city proper, and they spent all day running her through lessons. She had already known how to do numbers from her mother, even a bit about letters. In retrospect she regretted letting them know that on the first day. It would have been nice to have spent some time being taught what she already knew before the real lessons started.
They had merely accelerated their lessons, diving into other languages, into subjects like geography and history. Neither her mother nor her father had been educated people, and they had been wrong about so much. The wizards, and the now the scholars who occupied the academy, had kept records. Meticulous and tidy, they had detailed accounts of every moment since the calamity happened. And everyone else in the whole world was wrong about almost everything. Even at seven years old, eight now, she had heard enough of what people thought to realize that.
All the while she had no peers here, no one her age. Just one tutor after another, never the same one long enough to reach any real level of familiarity. The only thought that kept her warm was that her brother was probably going through the same thing. She asked about him sometimes, but her teachers always told her they were not allowed to speak of the world outside. They never told her why, though, quickly moving on to talking about whatever the subject of the day was.
Half a year had passed like that until she finally met someone who wasn’t a scholar. He had called himself Kaplen, which she now knew meant ‘the turtle’. Another name given by the king. He was fond of animals, it seemed. This man was a kozan, like the one who had attacked her when all this started. If his name hadn’t given it away, his uniform did. Shades of blue with silver needlework, a subtle piece of heraldry that looked like a three-pronged hook just over his right breast. He was a short and compact man with skin the colour of ripe chestnuts and hair that had just barely started to get a spatter of gray.
“You’ve been here six months. You’re going to be here nearly another six before we can introduce you to the rest of the gang. You had some bad luck, kid. Normally the wait isn’t this long.” He had smelled like tobacco and perfume, and had bad breath. His voice was old and gentle, though, and his smile made sense of all his wrinkles.
“I don’t mind,” she had lied. It was a half-lie anyway, because she felt so nervous about meeting the others. At the same time, she was getting tired of always feeling she was halfway.
“The thing is, badger, your timin’s off. The Vigilant had left just a few weeks ago when you showed up, and he’s always gone for a year. Till he’s looked you over and given the go ahead, we can’t let you into the compound proper. It’s a security measure, can’t have unvetted people walkin’ around all our secrets, you know.”
“What’s a Vigilant?”
“The Vigilant. He’s one of the king’s ah-” Kaplen chewed on his words for a moment, rethinking his phrasing. “He’s a wizard from Dordoron. One loyal to the king. Ain’t like those villains you may have heard of. Till he sees you and says it’s all good, I’m afraid everywhere is off limits. We been doing what we can, got you some tutors and got your education started, but I just got word it’s another six months before he comes back.“
Compared to how orderly he looked, the old man’s accent suggested he was from a village of some kind. He was hard to place in terms of age, parts of him suggesting he was as old as her father, other parts suggesting he was much younger. Streaks of gray in his hair, and old wrinkles on young skin, especially around the eyes. He looked weary more than old, in some ways. He sounded tired, too.
“See the thing- Well, I can’t tell you. We got us an unusual situation, but we’ll get sorted eventually. There’s a reason things might seem a bit disorganized. You’ll understand in a year, after your trial.”
“What’s the Dordoron?” Her voice came out sharper than she thought it might. The trepidation at talking to a real life kozan made her nervous, but it seemed so small compared to what she had gone through already. Even that distant presence that had been so overwhelming in the beginning was just a dull throb now, a background noise that was easily ignored.
“Listen, badger… We’ll teach you all about these things once you’re in. First we gotta show you to the wizard, and he has to clear you. Make sure you ain’t a witch or a plant, that there ain’t been no training we don’t know of. There’ll be a trial, where you show us what you can do. The wizard does some magic, applies a brand, and then we spend the next two decades turning you into the king’s finest.”
“In six months’ time, when the Vigilant returns. Until then, you just sit tight, listen to the tutors. Get that boring stuff out of the way, and once you’re in… Well, then the fun begins.” He seemed genuinely excited at the prospect of what he was talking about. “You’re gonna be a real badass, badger. I can tell. You got grit.”
She liked him, he was so personal compared to the others who came to see her. They had all been told to be here, and it showed in their behavior. This man had the bearing of someone who made decisions for himself.
“Do you like it?” Her voice was steadier than she thought it would be. After all that had happened, even talking to a kozan in uniform did not rattle her the way she thought it should.
“Do you like being kozan? Is it nice?”
He laughed at her question, a deep and hearty sound that rumbled out of his chest as much as his mouth.
“‘Nice’? No, it ain’t nice.” A somber look came over him as his chuckle died. “But it’s good. You don’t have to like it for it to feel worthwhile, kid. You’ll see what I mean. I don’t know how it is up there in Dordoron, but bein’ a kozan it’s… It’s good. If you’re wonderin’ whether you made the right call, all I can say is I made the same one, and I’d make it again knowing what I know.”
Those words had stuck with her, in the time since then. She thought perhaps they stuck with him too, because he came back. Not often, but perhaps once per month, he would talk to her. It had made the next six months pass far more quickly than the ones that came before. He had told her about what to expect, and even about the trial. It was really more of a demonstration of powers, with a wizard present to make certain that it was born of the user’s talent and not a trick of magic from some other source. One shot at proving she was what she seemed, and all her life would be decided on the outcome. Now the moment was upon her. She walked through the door out of her small compound for the first time in a year.
There were about twenty people gathered outside. Three of them were her age, and they had gotten there early, and they all had eyes wide with excitement. The rest were somewhere between Iri’s age and young adulthood, perhaps going as high as twenty years old for the oldest. None of them wore the kozan’s uniform, instead they wore a gray tunic that probably denoted that they were still cadettes. The oldest were less moved by her appearance, although even their cool expressions belied some excitement. Well, with one notable exception. Standing at the front was a tall, powerfully built boy with dark brown skin and eyes that were almost black, and he looked so shocked that she thought he might fall over. He was older than her brother by a few years, and there was something about his bearing that suggested he was normally a man of great composure. It was a composure he quickly regained, as voices erupted among the crowd.
“She only has one arm!” A young voice exclaimed with a whiny tone.
“So it’s true, she’s a proper cripple!” This one sounded more excited about it.
The words stung. She had gotten used to the stump, but it still bothered her. It was one of only two reminders of the fight she’d been in. It, and the silvery network of lines where the many cuts and bruises on the rest of her body had healed. They were impossible to see except when the light came at the right angle, but they were there, and she liked them. Like subtly gleaming seams that showed where she had been hurt, they made her glitter, and she thought they looked like fancy jewelry.
“Is it true Basia took your arm off in a fight?”
“Does it hurt?”
“What was it like?”
“Must be stupid to have tried to fight, she’s lucky she didn’t die.”
“How do you get your pants on with only one arm?”
The buzz of questions and announcements came at her faster than she could even acknowledge them. She was trying to figure out a way to work around it when suddenly the boy who had stared at her with such shock a moment ago cut through the noise.
“How about you kids shut up. She hasn’t even gotten to introduce herself.” He had turned away from her and toward the crowd, taking a step back to interpose himself between them.
“How about you shut up Talem, what’s it to you?” That was one of the other boys
“She took Basia’s eye out in that fight, and she’s just a kid. I say we give her the benefit of the doubt.” He turned toward her with a grin, and extended his arm.
Smiling nervously back, she appreciated the moment he took to consider which arm to extend. Before she could take it, though, a familiar voice sounded over the hum of the others.
“That’s unlike you, Talem, sticking up for a new kid. Good to see you’re becoming more responsible, but I reckon it’s probably for the best if I do the introductions.”
It was Kaplen, and a flush of red under his skin and gleam of sweat on his brow told her he had been running. He had promised he’d be here when she came out, after all.
“Sorry I’m late darlin’, I had to make sure everything was ready. I see you’ve met the gang. Not giving you too much trouble I hope.” He gave a very pointed look to some of the younger boys who had been the most vocal about her missing arm. “Not makin’ observations they might best keep to themselves?”
She shook her head at him. Talem, the tall boy, moved to the side to stand with the others as the crowd split in the middle to let Kaplen through.
“Everyone, this is Auri Ateri. Auri, this is everyone. She’s got her trial today, then she’s gonna be the newest member of our little family. I’m expecting all of you to make her feel right welcome,” his voice turned sharp to accompany another pointed look, this time somehow hitting everyone in the room. “The time for introductions is later, though. Right now we’re going downstairs, so we can get this show started.”
The kozan put his arm on her shoulder, and lead her through the divide he had made in the group. They all formed neat files behind them. Kaplen’s presence had been like flicking a switch, and not a mutter escaped them. Auri was surprised at the sudden discipline. They had been just kids a minute ago, and now they were soldiers on the march. That put a pit in her stomach. They were all going down the same hallway.
After a ten minute walk through hallways that looked eerily similar to one another, and stairs that only ever went downward, they arrived at a room that all in all, Auri thought seemed disappointingly small. It was perhaps twenty feet side to side, with stone walls that had adorned pillars set in the corners and decorative framework that ran along the floor and ceiling. The room was longer than it was wide, however, and clearly divided into a front and a back section by a cast iron fence with a heavy gate. Beyond the gate was a perfectly square empty space with a large glyph carved directly into the stone floor. A set of three small circuits ringed by a large circle, and connected with the lines of a triangle, each was trimmed with a multitude of arcane symbols. Standing at the center of it, next to an anvil, was a young man wearing light robes who was looking directly at her.
He was bald, and he had the most terrifying eyes she had ever seen. The irises were huge, leaving almost no white at either side, and his pupils were all wrong. He had too many of them, rather than a black dot pinpointing the centers of his eyes, it was as though his irises were blue pools in which floated dozens of tiny black dots. When he moved his eyes, those colored pools did not budge at all, instead the black dots shifted, becoming a dense swarm in the direction he was looking. Even then, they did not remain still, constantly swimming around one another in a mesmerizing dance that made her sick to her stomach.
It was so disconcerting that she barely noticed as the rest of their entourage filed into the benches near the room’s entrance. Kaplen lead her to the gate and opened it for her. She was still so transfixed by the wizard, and his appearance left no doubt he was the wizard, that she did not notice the gate swing closed behind her after she stepped through.
“We all set, V?” Kaplen’s voice shook her out of her reverie.
A brief look of annoyance came over the face of the man standing near the anvil as he looked at Kaplen, the black dots scattering for a moment and distributing uniformly across his eyes, then suddenly surging together in the direction of the kozan.
“We are the Vigilant, not V, Kaplen, we ask that you show us due respect. We are quite ready.” His gaze shifted to Auri in the same way, and his face crinkled just enough around the eyes that she thought he might be smiling. She was uncertain what the ‘we’ was about, considering there was only one of him. “Well met, Auri Ateri. Has Kaplen explained to you about the trial?”
Auri shook her head and the wizard tutted audibly as he looked back to Kaplen, who raised his arms out to his sides and shrugged. Whatever it was they were implying, the exchange made the Vigilant turn his eyes back on Auri. For a moment, instead of coalescing into one pool, the numerous black flecks wavered in two distinct spots as if he were looking at both of them simultaneously, then they finally all snapped to point at her her. As he began to speak, he gestured to the section of the room behind him.
“This room has been prepared especially to ascertain that you are naturally gifted, and not a homunculus made by the Adversary or a facsimile created by a warlock. These terms may not make sense to you, but you can be assured that they are very real threats to the king and his kozan.”
She did not know what either of those things were, but she was too distracted by the appearance of the man to ask. Not only were his eyes strange, but his robes were not behaving like they ought to. The fabrics of his clothes suggested that they should be gleaming in the ample illumination of the room, but there was no shine to them at all. They caught no glint nor even a shadow, instead it was as though they glowed with their own gentle light. She thought she could make out bands of scrolling symbols floating across them, but it was too vague to be sure. It was especially apparent as he moved toward the edge of the room, taking up a position near one of the corners. It wasn’t his clothes that were acting strangely, it was his skin underneath them. There was moving writing on it, and it was glowing through the material.
“We have been informed that you require metal to work with. An anvil has been provided which should serve your purposes. Please proceed.” His voice too, sounded strained, as if it were trying to hit several notes at once. At least she was starting to feel confident about her decision not to travel to the Dordoron, if this was what it turned you into.
She hessitantly approached the anvil. Her moments had become so full of distractions now that even the prospect of the wizard was easy to put aside. The constant pain in her arm that her body told her was still there, that incessant calling by the presence in the back of her mind, the nagging doubts of her conscience at what she had done to get here. It was all always there, and she had found that rather than let herself drown in the constant impressions, she rose above them. Put them beneath her and rose to the top, where she found it was easier to focus than ever before. Everything had become so tiny in comparison to the burdens she bore through every waking moment, that each new thing that came her way was only a momentary distraction.
The anvil hummed at her like a tuning fork. When she thought about it, she had heard it the moment she entered the room, perhaps even before. Her bedroom and the classroom did not have a scrap of metal in them, everything was made from wood and leather. There were not even nails in the woodwork, it was almost as if they had built the whole room just for her. Now that she was listening to the metal’s song, however, she knew she could make out every scrap of it in the room. She could pinpoint every person in here from the silver needlework on their uniforms, could picture the outline of the cast iron fence that separated her from the others. There were traces of iron in the symbols on the wizard’s skin, too. There were three weapons in the room, two of them on the kozan and one dagger hidden away among one of the cadettes.
As she came closer to the anvil and the arcane circle, she felt the stub of her missing arm begin to throb, and pulse down through nerves that no longer existed. The room grew hotter, and that blistering sting of the fire that had burned her come back into her mind. When she was finally within reach of the anvil, she found that it was not her good arm she was extending toward it but her stump. More surprising, however, was that the singing steel in front of her wavered in response, and then reached back.