Aryne found most of the buildings on the northern continent just creepy. Too big, for one thing. Who needed all that space? And how could anyone relax, knowing that there were parts of their home that they not only couldn’t see, but they couldn’t even hear? Anyone could be moving around in there. And if that anyone came after you, and trapped you in a third floor room, you couldn’t just safely jump out, could you?
Then there was the smell. Air trapped in one place for a million years seemed to grow awful little odours that no one else appeared to notice. Though it seemed to her than Leavy and Shintaro didn’t notice a lot of odours that weren’t dancing in front of their faces screaming “Smell me, damn it!” Neither did any of the other few people of the northern continent she’d been allowed to meet. So, lucky them, they didn’t catch the traces of ancient sweat and meat, and, and, dog hair or whatever.
Leavy had glared at her every time she had pinched her nose closed.
Finally, they were so dark. Tiny little windows placed so high in the walls the weak northern sunlight could barely crawl in. She knew the weather got particularly ridiculous in the north, and people had to be protected from it, but did their protection have to be so crazy? Had these people never heard of the middle line?
Though, maybe the middle line for them was in a different place than hers. After all, every single northerner she’d met had been just plain strange. The words they used, the way they moved, what they thought was important.
That made them a little harder to figure out. Aryne wouldn’t have expected that, wouldn’t have been able to predict that. People were all the same, right? At least, they always had been. But then one day there had been a pale woman with brilliant red hair standing in the middle of a crowd and looking to be unaware of what was going on right around her. She should have been an easy target. Only she wasn’t, and when Aryne got away from her, she started listening, and hearing about two northerners who’d appeared out of nowhere and joined the cursed troupe.
No one had had anything truly bad to say about them. Arrogant and soft, expecting to be catered to just because they could link, and standoffish and cool. But honest and hard working once they realized it was necessary, and respectful in their way.
But it wasn’t until she needed to link again, and felt someone else messing about out there, that she realized there was something more to these strangers. It wasn’t like there were never any northerners about, but these just showed up, and suddenly someone was meddling with her linking? She wasn’t stupid.
And she’d had to get away from Border. Or Thatcher. Whatever his name was. One night, she’d heard some ass offering Border an insultingly puny amount of coin to lay her. About the only reason Border had refused him, she was sure, was that the local quack had convinced everyone in Blue Falls that Border’s cure everything elixir was nothing more than turtle oil and ink – which it was – and the furious residents were getting ready to run him out.
Aryne wasn’t going to hang around long enough for Border to get another offer in better circumstances. But she’d had nothing. She’d end up dead trying to get around the island by herself with nothing in her hands.
So, she gambled on the strangers. Stealing hadn’t worked, so she tried the angle that they were all the same sort of freak. They could all link.
It was weak, but it had worked. They’d taken her with them and they’d treated her well. She knew they wouldn’t have if she hadn’t been able to link, but her ability didn’t mean they had to take her. She’d been an inconvenience to them, and no one who mattered would have known if they had chosen to leave her behind.
And they had made that decision even before they’d realized she shared blood with that Empress woman. And she did. She’d have to be dumber than dirt to fail to figure that out, what with them talking about looking for a relative of someone rich, and then all of a sudden choosing to stop looking. After which they decided to take her to Erstwhile on the way to the Academy for no good reason.
She wasn’t thrilled knowing everyone did seem to think she was indeed dumber than dirt, but she wasn’t going to raise a stink over it. The Empress hadn’t liked her and the feeling had been mutual, ugly old woman with her stupid questions and her unearned arrogance. What could she do but sit on a throne and tell people what to do? Anyone could do that.
And all those people Aryne had had to talk to, them only willing to do so because they thought she was the Empress’ favourite. Or pet, the word that had been more often used. And they had all been hollow. Not all mean-spirited, but all of them so stupid about the things that really mattered. Instead, everything was about which title proceeded which other title into a room. Who was lying with who? Who was being exiled to the other end of the continent? Who cared?
She had been looked over to see if she’d one day be fit to be an empress. She couldn’t believe anyone could think it remotely possible. It had been like a play. And of course she wasn’t fit. She hadn’t had any schooling, had she? She hadn’t learned to be like northerners. People hadn’t even liked the way she talked.
Apparently, she didn’t say words in the right way. They were the ones who cut all their words off so harshly. It almost hurt her ears.
Sure, it would be grand to be an empress. No one could tell her what to do, people who tried to grind her under their boots would be, she didn’t know, thrown in the dungeon or something, and she’d get to have as many pretty rocks as she wanted. And they were pretty.
But being stuck in a chair all day looked dead boring. And having to put up with hollow people. And the Empress probably couldn’t go anywhere, because people were probably trying to kill her all the time.
She’d rather be a Source.
Actually, she’d rather be a Shield, but Leavy had insisted she was a Source, and Leavy would know, right?
And being a Source was as good as anything else, right? As much to eat as she wanted, clothes that fit and didn’t need patching, and a safe place to sleep. And when she was old enough, she would get a Shield and they would travel and everyone would treat them with respect.
Well, everyone in the north would. And if she had her way, she’d never go back to Flatwell or anywhere like it again.
Though it had smelled better. And the fruit was much better. Food in the north was so bland and weighed in her stomach like a stone. The air was cold. And dry. Her lips were always cracking.
She’d get used to it, right?
She just wished she didn’t have to get used to it all by herself.
When Leavy and Shintaro hugged her and said good-bye and left her alone in that strange woman’s office, it took every jot of discipline she had to hold herself from running after them and begging them to take her with them. The stone suddenly pressing on her chest made it hard to breathe, and she was horrified to feel moisture in her eyes.
She wasn’t a child.
She sniffed just as the door opened, and that Headmistress and the blonde girl – Tausen and Jossen Van, she could be in this one place for years and wasn’t that the oddest thing, ever? So she might as well learn everyone’s names – entered the room. She was pretty sure neither of them noticed that she had to blink away tears.
Tausen smiled at her. “Are you ready?”
Aryne frowned. “For what?”
Tausen chuckled. “That was a stupid question, wasn’t it?”
“I’m not going to pretend this isn’t going to be difficult you,” Tausen continued. “I hope you won’t, either.”
Aryne wasn’t sure how to answer that. Or even if she should. Except Tausen and Jossen were waiting, clearly expecting her to say something. “Complaints hold no water.”
The Headmistress seemed to consider that a moment. “I guess it depends on exactly how you define a complaint,” she said. “It’s important that we all understand each other, and that won’t happen if we don’t let each other know when something disturbs us. Everyone here,” She made a vague, circular encompassing gesture, “Was raised in an academy, and those who have left really haven’t gone far. You have grown up in a place far away, with … a very different routine.”
Aryne grinned. Those last four words had been a quick replacement for some other term the Headmistress had worried might offend Aryne. It was obvious and clunky but more than almost anyone else had ever done for her. And she had been raised ignorant. It wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t anything she was ashamed of.
“There are going to be misunderstandings,” the Headmistress warned her. “We know different things, we have different expectations and customs. If you keep your misunderstandings or confusion to yourself, if you let resentment and anger fester and grow, the disruption that will eventually explode, will be so much worse than the hurt feelings caused when you say you feel you’ve been wronged exactly when it happens. And it’s not just about your feelings. It’s everyone’s. You will do things that hurt others, too. Without even trying. Hopefully, without trying.” Her expression became stern. “You will be expected to hear the difficulties others have with you with some grace.”
“Never known anyone to do that.”
Tausen shrugged. “We’re Sources. We’re not like other people. When we feel something, we have to address it, but not with violent reactions. We are a great number of emotional people in a small space. And we are in training for important responsibilities out among the regulars. We can’t be erupting all over the place in front of them, and failing in our duties. Do you understand?”
“Kai.” She supposed. It sounded strange to her.
“Now, I hope and expect that the friends you make and the mentors you find among the staff will help you when something happens that you don’t understand. Until that time, I want you to come to this office. I won’t always be able to see you immediately, but I will see you that day. And my explanations won’t always be what you want to hear, but they will always be honest, and if changes need to be made, they will be.”
She knew how to take care of herself. She always had. And when things went wrong, they just went wrong. Whining about that would be embarrassing.
“All right?” Tausen prompted.
Tausen smiled again. “Excellent. So, Jossen will show you to your room and will help get you settled in. I’ve decided to delay your tests until tomorrow. It’s been pointed out to me that you might not be able to work at your best straight off the road.”
That was true. She’d gotten very soft since leaving Flatwell.
The blonde picked up one of Aryne’s bags, Aryne the other. “Good day, Headmistress,” Jossen said, and Aryne echoed her.
“All right,” Jossen said as soon as the door was closed. “You’re not going to want to run to her every time you get upset. You’ll be called a baby and your life might as well be over.”
“My life might as well be over?” Because of a bad name? “So what do I do, stab ‘em myself?.”
Jossen quickly looked at her, appalled.
Aryne grinned. She had a feeling these people were going to be fun.
“Well, no, if someone is beating you up, you go to the staff. Of course. But anything short of that, you have to handle on your own.”
Aryne wasn’t concerned. “Used to that.” She truly doubted these pampered lot could throw out anything she couldn’t balance.
“I mean, you’ll want to make friends, and if you make the right ones, certainly they’ll help you.”
“And who are the right ones?”
“The nice ones.”
“Those two sentences sort of mean the same thing.”
“Not everyone would think so. Some are nice. Some are asses. They’re easy to spot. Most of them are usually clustered together, and they enjoy making fun of other people and playing cruel pranks. They seem to think everyone wants to be friends with them. Some do, they beg to belong to their group, they’re quite pathetic really, but most don’t.” Jossen looked her over. “They’ll either love you or hate you.”
“Why would they do either?”
“Because you’ve lived outside for so long. From so far away. They’ll either thing you’re exciting or some kind of barbarian. And you’re really pretty. That’ll either make them think you’re wonderful or they’ll be jealous.”
Aryne was baffled. “Don’t they have their own business to see to?”
“Not enough, I guess.”
They were walking down a long wooden corridor. Unlike all the other buildings she’d been to, there were a lot of windows, big ones. She could see all the students running around being aimless.
She had seen children like that, sometimes, in the villages she and Border had travelled through.
They were all wearing loose red tunics and trousers. They looked ridiculous.
She and Jossen turned a corner, and suddenly they were surrounded by young people, most of them chattering. It was a noisy mess. At least, it was until they noticed her. Then it seemed to get real quiet.
This corridor was lined with rooms, most of the doors open. People seemed to be wandering in and out of them as they wished.
“Our room is down this way,” Jossen said.
“Aye. Two to a room.”
“How’d you get stuck with me?”
Aryne raised her eyebrows.
“You’re doing me a favour. Cella had become a nightmare. I was ready to tear her hair out. Besides,” Jossen smiled at her. “I’m one of the nice ones.”
“One of the nice ones who wanted to pull out some other girl’s hair?”
“She would have really deserved it. Here we are.”
Aryne hadn’t known what to expect of the room, but it seemed a fair size. Not suffocating. The outer wall was dominated by another huge window. There was a bed against each of two others, beds with real wooden frames and rich looking blankets. Not as nice as the bed she’d slept in at the palace in Erstwhile, but leagues better than she’d slept on for much of her life. There were two wardrobes, two desks and two mirrors.
But she barely glanced at these items. What grabbed her attention were the names carved everywhere. Into the walls, into the ceilings, hundreds of names and the dates in which they’d been carved. She reached out and drew her fingers over a name with characters prettily curved and deep.
It felt odd knowing all those people had slept in the room. Almost disturbing.
A strange gong reverberated through the walls.
“That’s supper,” said Jossen. “Come on.”
Aryne followed her out of the room and back up the corridor. People looked at her sideways. She imagined she was going to get a lot of that.
“Aryne,” said Jossen, “This is Atoosa.” The girl was stocky with brown hair and pretty blue eyes. “This is Ikaika.” The boy was short and thin and had red hair that was paler than Leavy’s. “And this is Tandi.” She was of average height with black skin, eyes, and hair that curled very close to her head. “They’re all lovely and I would appreciate it if you didn’t stab them.”
“What?” Ikaika demanded quickly.
“You people are too jumpy,” Aryne said.
“Have you ever actually stabbed anyone?” Tandi asked.
“Of course not.” Just the once. And only a little. He hadn’t died or anything.
“Is it true that no one wears any clothes in the south?” Atoosa queried.
What a stupid question. “Or course we wear clothes. There are snakes. And there are a lot of places no one wants dirt getting into.”
“And those are the reasons people wear clothing?” Jossen asked slowly. “Snakes and dirt?”
Modesty? What was that? This time, Aryne tried to keep her expression solemn. “What other reasons are there?”
They all stared at her.
So, they believed everything they were told, no matter how ridiculous. Good to know.
Aryne wasn’t wearing red right then. She quickly realized how much that made her stand out. Everyone knew at a glance who she was. That was irritating.
The huge room they all walked into, two stories high and as wide as a large barn, was filled with long tables, the smell of food, and unbelievably piercing noise. It bounced off the walls and she really wanted to plug her ears. And it was only people talking. What could they be saying that was worth scraping everyone’s hearing?
Along the right side of the room was a wide counter covered with platters and pots and jugs and bowls. Adults, dressed in clothing Aryne guessed the average regular in Shindonee’s Gap wore, were serving portions to students, who were slowly passing by with wooden trays.
Aryne let herself be led to the counter, and Jossen gave her a rather heavy wooden tray. Aryne balanced upon it flatware and cutlery and a mug, which she filled with water. Everyone around her seemed to prefer milk. Ick. She picked up some slices of bread and a large bowl of thick beef soup. There was a great deal more to choose from, chicken legs and vegetables and cheese – cheese tasted foul, too – but her stomach felt a little dodgy and she thought soup would settle it.
She headed for the nearest empty place at the closest table, but Jossen caught her arm again. “Not there!” she practically shouted. “We sit over there.” She pointed to a blank space at a table pretty much at the centre of the room. “Our year sits there.”
“We always do.”
“Well ….” Jossen looked almost confused. “That’s the way it’s always been. Your seats change from year to year.”
“All right.” Odd, but fine.
At least there was plenty of space between the tables, and it wasn’t difficult to step over the bench and sit down.
“After we eat,” Jossen said in a loud voice. “I’ll show you where everything is. And some of the upper students are putting on a play tonight. It’s supposed to be funny.”
“All right.” She liked plays, from what little she had seen of them.
The heat pouring on the top of her head, down the back of her neck, over her face, was a real shock. It took only a moment for Aryne to realize she was now wearing some of that beef soup. She turned and looked up.
At a girl she thought wasn’t much older than her. She had very shiny black hair braided to the top of her head, black eyes and very pale skin.
The girl smirked. “So sorry,” Aryne read from her lips. The girl put her bowl back on the tray.
Aside from her words, she wasn’t even pretending that had been an accident.
There were about five others around her, all of them snickering.
Kai. Dumping a bowl of soup on someone. That took brains.
They all turned their backs on her, smug with their pathetic little victory.
Well, she wasn’t going to let that stand. She leapt up from the bench and grabbed the girl’s shoulder, pulling her around. The girl looked shocked, as though she’d expected no reaction at all, before Aryne punched her in the face.
Not that hard, though. Not hard enough to justify all those tears and that wailing, which was very, very loud in the abrupt silence.
One of the boys around her, who had obviously never been in a fight in his life, stepped forward and shoved Aryne in the chest. And that was just pitiful.
“How dare you!” one of the other girls hissed. “Who do you think you are?”
“Aryne Malkar,” Aryne announced proudly.
She was aware of people shouting and running along the tables. The soup girl recovered herself enough to swat at Aryne with her tray. Aryne stopped the tray with the palms of her hands. It did the job. It also hurt, but Aryne wasn’t going to let anyone know that.
“That’s enough!” one of the staff shouted, taking Aryne by the arm and dragging her back. “You, too, Laurit. Everyone, sit down and finish your supper. Now!”
And at that order, talking resumed. It seemed even louder than before.
So, Aryne found herself back in the Headmistress’ office, this time covered with soup. The staff member had been dismissed. The other girl, Laurit, had resumed crying, great loud sobs that were faker than one of Border’s elixirs.
“I am very disappointed in you both,” Tausen said coolly. “Laurit, I expect you to provide a better example. And Aryne, well, I don’t know what you’ve been taught, but here we expect everyone to behave with civility.”
Aryne snickered. “I’ve seen civility. At Erstwhile. Honesty’s better.” And hadn’t that been what Tausen had been lecturing about, being honest?
“Here we exercise both. It’s quite possible.”
Seriously? “She poured soup on me.”
“It was an accident!” Laurit protested.
Tausen held up a hand. “Even if it were intentional, do you honestly believe striking her was the appropriate response?”
Aryne stared at her. “Kai.” Someone hurts you, you hurt them back, or they’ll think they can do it again. And they will.
Tausen stared back, clearly having failed to anticipate such an answer. It was kind of funny.
Tausen cleared her throat. “That sort of behaviour won’t be accepted here.”
“Given the fact that the spilling of the soup may have been accidental,” and here Tausen gave Laurit a hard look. “You, Laurit, won’t be required to clean Aryne’s clothing yourself. And Aryne, given that it’s your first day here, you won’t have to miss the play tonight. But any further inappropriate displays will result in a loss of privileges.”
A loss of privileges. Brutal.
Maybe Tausen was new at this.
“You may go.”
Laurit shot out of there and tried to slam the door behind her, despite the fact that Aryne was following her. “Out of my way!” she snapped at Jossen, who had chosen to lurk in the hallway. Laurit pushed her aside with her shoulder.
Jossen glared after her for a moment, then picked a chunk of beef off Aryne’s sleeve. “That won’t be an end of it, you know,” she warned. “They’ll find a way to punish you for this.”
Aryne shrugged. “So I’ll hit ‘em harder next time.”
Jossen looked perplexed, and then she smiled. “I’ll show you where you can clean up.” She actually linked her arm around Aryne’s before starting to pull her down the corridor. “And maybe you can teach me how to punch people like that. I’m thinking of revising my plans for Cella.”