Géta got through breakfast without trouble. Apparently, few were up at six when the dining hall opened, and he had his pick of the offerings and eyed the few others present before sitting by himself. Most of the others were adults; Priests or Mages. After returning his tray and dishes to the kitchen, he ventured into the school proper for some exploration.
Like the dormitory, the school halls consisted of one major artery with branches off to either side. Géta checked the paper he had and found the rooms where his book-learning classes were, then sought the weapons-practice room. It was off the main hall and had double-doors. Mirrors had been attached to the large room’s left-hand wall, and various weapons hung on the right-hand wall. Circles had been painted on the floor; the wall opposite the entrance bore more weapons and had a door slightly off-center.
There wasn’t anybody present, so he crossed to one of the benches along the right-hand wall and sat, rubbing his palm on the pommel of his sword. A rhythmic tapping with the tip of his parrying dagger’s sheath on the seat of the bench kept his insides from tightening up too much. He whistled softly, so it wouldn’t echo in the chamber, a familiar simple tune he’d first learned on his flute, and it reminded him of more recent lessons with the flute tutor he’d convinced his mother to let him keep. His father had wanted the instrument lessons to end last year, but his mother had agreed he could continue them as long as he kept up with the other studies he was assigned, and he’d worked hard to not only keep up with his mother’s expectations, but to surpass them. Géta felt Shélan’s decision not to put him in some classes was an indication he’d been doing very well in his lessons back home.
Someone entered, and he froze as the other glanced around, then went to sit on another bench. Géta bowed his head a little, wishing the newcomer had approached him. The shyness which had struck in Walphren’s presence had returned, and he didn’t think he could find the courage to introduce himself. With a pang, he realized how different this place was going to be from home, where he’d known everybody, had grown up with all his friends. There hadn’t been a need for introductions because they’d been in diapers together. Most of all, he missed Alénil. It would have been nice to have a firm ally here, someone to help him get through the days. He didn’t know how he’d ever make friends here.
More people, most clad in unadorned brown uniforms and ranging in age from about eight to eleven, entered over the next hour. Some stood, others sat, but they all collected in groups. Géta observed the obvious friendships with a knot in his belly and clutched at the grips on his weapons with tight fists. He had no way to impress these people, no way to prove he could be a good friend.
The door in the wall opposite the entrance opened and several adults stepped out. One of them clapped her hands, and the students lined up facing the mirrors. Géta scrambled to his feet and hurried over to the adults, bowing when he reached them. He couldn’t avoid introducing himself to the instructors.
“H-hello. I’m Géta Disphreni.”
None of the instructors introduced themselves, and the woman who’d clapped departed. The nearest man patted Géta’s shoulder.
“Join a column of your classmates for warm-up exercises.”
He nodded and did as told, taking up a position at the end of the nearest line. Géta’s weapons master at home had never had him exercise, but he gamely learned them, copying his classmates and the female instructor. This occupied the class for about fifteen minutes, and it made Géta glad he’d eaten early. At the end, the woman clapped her hands again, and the class broke up into pairs and groups of three or four, spreading throughout the room, taking circles. Géta watched, wondering what he was supposed to do next.
A hand clapped his back, making him sway forward. “Come along youngling. We’ll get you set up.”
He turned to face the man who’d spoken and found another male instructor. The man beckoned him, so he followed.
“Did you bring any armor?”
“I didn’t know I’d need any.” He’d thought he was leaving home to be a Priest and had foolishly believed Priests wouldn’t need to learn weapons work, but he couldn’t explain this thinking. It would be too humiliating.
The instructor grunted. “We’ll set you up, then. Do you know any hand-to-hand fighting?”
“Yes, Séona Freehand.”
“Then that’s what you’ll do until we have your armor. Hang up your belt.”
Now they were at the wall across from the entrance, so he undid his belt and hung it, then looked expectantly at the instructor. The man smiled at him a little.
“Come on. Let’s see how you do against Phrée and her brother. They could use a third.”
Back in the musicians’ dorm, Géta gathered clean clothes. He’d been suited up in some extra armor to test his sword skills, but he’d garnered a number of light cuts. The armor had been ill-fitting and he’d been worn out by the exercising and hand-to-hand fighting. He’d asked one of the instructors before he left why they had martial arts for two hours, and the response had been, “To build up your fighting stamina. You may be sent out to dangerous areas, and the longer you can fight here without wearing down quickly, the better you’ll do when you truly have to defend yourself.” He supposed his brothers who’d gone into the army had longer training, so tried not to resent the experience he’d just been through, but couldn’t help but dread tomorrow’s martial arts class. Right now, he wanted to collapse.
Géta bathed as quickly as his sore muscles would allow and spent the last ten minutes of his free half hour organizing his room before heading back to the school halls to his mathematics class. Here he found himself in among adults. They all had to be around twelve. None of them made overtures of friendship toward him, and he hunched in a seat at the back of the class feeling out of place.
Music composition class was worse. He was the oldest of the lot. The eldest in this class couldn’t have been above seven. His teacher, a weathered old Priest who squinted at everyone, put him in the front of the class, as if she knew he was humiliated and wanted to make sure he felt even more so. The students regarded him with wary gazes, and Géta did his best not to cower beneath the stares. Susurrations surrounded him whenever the Priest turned her back, and he guessed her hearing wasn’t quite as good as it had once been because she shouted half of what she said, even when facing the class, and didn’t seem to hear any of the whispers his classmates spoke.
Géta did his best to concentrate past his humiliation, but it was difficult. True, his little compositions had been made without any kind of composition education behind them, but he wondered if Shélan couldn’t have found him a class he’d have fit in with better.
He ended up leaving the class in a bit of despair, longing even more strongly for his old life. There he’d known where he belonged, and he’d had friends. It was the friends part that hurt the most. How was he supposed to make friends with children younger than himself and feel like he had with Alénil and his other friends? And the people in his mathematics class? They probably wouldn’t want to associate with him anyway, so it would be pointless trying to make any friends among them.
Now he wasn’t even hungry any more, either. Hoping the practice “class” he had after lunch would be better, Géta collected his flute and went to the second floor of the school, where the musicians had their music classes and found the room he’d been assigned to. Much to his relief, he discovered only two chairs and a pair of music stands within. He took the chair facing the door and got his flute out. This would help him feel better. Music always helped. It would work its magic now, too.
Closing his eyes to better imagine the notes as he’d seen them on the page, Géta began to play. And playing did help. It brought back his confidence and helped him find a home in this foreign place. Maybe he didn’t have any friends he could talk to, but music was friend enough for the present.
Ophelan sresaph Alaril was an excellent teacher. Asthané had come to this conclusion sometime during his first few months of training. There had been any number of times he suspected Ophelan would have given up, but the stubborn old hen hadn’t. She’d proven to be irascible after extended time in his company on more than one occasion, but she hadn’t let his typical attitude defeat her. It took her just about three Secular months to figure out he wasn’t doing it deliberately.
She was the first he sought after being assured both his teachers were still alive and present. The “present” part was fairly important at this stage. He didn’t have time to get to know anybody else well enough for any real lessons this time around, so he was pretty happy both Ophelan and Jéesan were available. Particularly Jéesan; he’d made some connections between his fire, air, and water abilities he felt were important and he wanted to see what she had to say. It may be the solution to the problem he’d been having with working certain weather magics.
But first, Ophelan, who’d had his training for a year and a half before he’d even met Jéesan. Ophelan had become something of a surrogate mother for him after that first year. She was mostly retired from teaching and didn’t do much for the Empress any more, either. In fact, she hadn’t had any new students for a few years now. The most she’d done was assist in the gardens of the Palace and Temple. Most of her former students had been moved on to other earth-work teachers, but she’d been as stubborn as ever when it came to giving up teaching Asthané. She’d refused to see him shuffled onto someone else just yet, and he suspected she’d cling to “teaching” him until the day she died.
Her apartment was on the ground floor, in deference to her arthritic knees. Knowing better than to unhook the bell cord to ring, he knocked on the door. Assured she’d be home, he waited, arms folded, for her to open the door. When she did, they gazed at each other for a moment before she grinned.
“Asthané!” She stepped out to embrace him, and he returned the hug. “Come in, come in. I heard you’d returned. I didn’t expect you to be awake early enough to make a visit before I’d had my brunch!”
With a chuckle, he entered with her, shutting the door behind himself as she crossed to the wing-backed chair next to her fireplace. He followed and threw himself onto the sofa facing the chair, slinging his left leg over the arm and tucking one of the decorative pillows under his head.
“I was up before dawn, so I thought I might get to business early. They’re already arranging a roster of musicians to tend to me for my lessons with Jéesan—and I think I’ll have a lot to work on with her—and I returned from my breakfast to find a note in my mail catch telling me to expect to be summoned to an International Council meeting sometime within the next week.”
Ophelan picked up a dainty little plate with sections of orange already separated on it and regarded him over the fruit for a moment. “I certainly don’t envy you. I remember Council summons too clearly to envy anyone expecting them.”
He groaned. “Thanks.”
She chuckled as she bit into an orange wedge.
Asthané stretched and yawned, suddenly feeling tired. Must be the softness of this sofa. It was certainly comfortable. “I have a suspicion the Empress wants me to emphasize certain things—even without a missive from her.”
Ophelan swallowed. “She had words about the Situation you’re coming from when you gave your report to her?”
“She wants to nip this thing with Inski before Utevsko can get a war going.”
His teacher nodded. “Sensible.”
“Éethin doesn’t think the International Council will go with camping some of our army on the border to quell it, though.”
“Probably not.” Ophelan ate the remainder of her orange wedge and set the plate aside to wipe her fingers and lips as she chewed. “They can be so damned hardheaded when it comes to war.”
Knowing Ophelan had been through several minor wars herself throughout her career, he nodded, tacitly agreeing with the blanket statement. “I have a feeling I’ll want to pound their heads together before they’re done with me.”
She chuckled. “You will.”
This got a true laugh out of her. “You’ll do fine.”
“Right. Me with my tactlessness in with a bunch of hardheaded Council members. That’s guaranteed to be a successful event.”
Ophelan laughed again, setting her napkin aside to pick up the little plate again. She wasn’t belittling his very real bitterness about the prospects of success with the Councilors, but she’d learned long ago he didn’t care if she took his anger and bitterness as a joke. Her amusement was enough to make him relax a little—just enough to bring a small smile to his face, but it fell away as he remembered how well Siéda had gotten along with Ophelan, and he rubbed his face with both hands to stop the tears.
“I’m sorry about Siéda.”
Asthané gave a backhanded wave with one hand. “Oh.”
“You had something special with him.”
He lowered his hands. “Gods, Ophelan, don’t try to tell me I was in love with him. Séephaya tried that this morning at breakfast, and I nearly took her head off.”
“Certainly not,” was Ophelan’s arch reply before she ate another orange wedge. After she swallowed, she went on. “No, a very deep, very close friendship which I’ve rarely seen, even between Mages like you and their musicians. You and he had a . . . sensing of one another. Something deeper than I daresay even a pair of sresaph Kalia who are lovers have. A very precious relationship, one which goes beyond the physical and enters the spiritual realm.”
His mouth opened, and his jaw progressively fell wider as her explanation continued, until he snapped his teeth together when she finished. “Maybe. I know it was something I feel like I’ll never be able to replace.”
“Probably not. Such friendships as you and Siéda had are rare and valuable. I am very sad his end came so soon.”
Asthané turned his head to face the ceiling. “So am I, Ophelan. He didn’t deserve to die. It should have been me, not someone like Siéda, who could spread cheer with a mere smile.” He rubbed his face again and took a deep breath, but this time the tears came, and he shook with them.
Though he didn’t hear the tick of her plate on the glass end table beside her chair, he did feel when she urged him to raise his head. Asthané did so, and she sat, and he pushed himself, head and shoulders, into her lap to sob against her abdomen. Her scent, of vaila flowers and mint, filled his nostrils and lent him a comfort he hadn’t been aware of lacking until just this moment. She stroked his hair and let him cry, murmuring sounds and words of comfort.
“Thané, take comfort from this: You had Siéda and his spirit in your life for a time, and he was a true and steadfast friend, the best you ever had. He would wish you to go on with happiness, and I’m sure he’s here somewhere watching over you. Siéda wouldn’t leave you utterly without some happiness. Talk to Lasée about it. Perhaps she can see if his soul has remained and communicate with it.”
Sniffling because he’d done his best to silence his tears when Ophelan had begun to speak, he nodded. Her words did give him some comfort, and her suggestion bore more than a little sense.
“All right. I will.”
She ran her fingers through his hair again and allowed him to snuggle against herself until his sniffles faded to silence. Long after he was recovered from his tears, Ophelan held him, caressing his hair. They didn’t speak, but they didn’t need to. All that was necessary between them at this time was Asthané’s need for comfort and Ophelan’s willingness to give it.
Asthané felt much more like himself after his visit with Ophelan. He climbed the stairs to the library’s level with a lighter heart, finally seeing that he had other friends and understanding what it meant for him. Siéda was gone—shouldn’t have been, but was—and his life was going on. He’d always have Siéda in his heart and mind, and he would always value those memories and feelings; he just couldn’t continue dwelling on the loss, though.
Since it would take a couple days for everything to be organized with regards to his sresaph training, he had the afternoon free, and he intended to use it to study. Asthané had never actually gone for official training as a sresaph Jalza, but he’d always been more than happy to study history. He had a goal in mind today, and stopped at the stand where the journals’ resource book lay open. The resource book was actually an index of the subjects discussed in the various journals, and he intended to look up information on how predecessors had handled the periodic upheavals on the Ruphlan-Inskiti border. Asthané hoped to find information on how they dealt with the Council with an eye toward using the information to try and push for what the Empress wanted. He could see the sense in camping an army on the border to warn Utevsko about her awareness, and he wanted to see what others had done with their Councils to encourage agreement among them.
There needed to be a policy change here in the Imperial Capitol before things would change on Ruphlan’s border, and he desperately wanted to make that clear to the nobles on the International Council. Even if the current Situation wasn’t going to escalate into a war, he felt the Empress needed to be able to at least make it known to Utevsko she wouldn’t put up with his activities. The army could act without a declaration of war, if in a limited, and reactionary way; all it had to do was accompany Mages and set up defenses at the Temple posts along the border where the worst of the activity was and wait to be attacked. The Borderfolk eventually would, particularly if they were being secretly encouraged by Inski’s king. Once Utevsko understood the Empress wasn’t going to tolerate his antics, he’d probably back down.
Asthané listed the names, dates, and pages of the journals which had the information he wanted and sought them out. He didn’t take a collection down, but took one at a time and skimmed for the information. Unfortunately, he didn’t find much to help him in his current Situation. Everything he found was just explanations of how the various Mages did their duty and sat for questioning by the Council. It apparently hadn’t occurred to any of them to push for a change in policy regarding Inski’s testing of the border.
Well, he’d just have to make it up as he went along. Maybe they’d give him good opportunities to put his opinion in. With a little fair luck, they’d actually listen, though he doubted they would. Most people had this idealistic view of the Empire being a totally peaceful state, but that wasn’t the case. There was always some little skirmish happening on one border or another. Truly, Asthané thought the various Councils through the years had been reacting to the notion that preempting a war might somehow turn the Empire into an expansionist state, no longer concerned with preserving the laws, customs, and traditions of its member countries, and become some sort of dictatorship. Councils didn’t seem to comprehend what Asthané had read in more than one journal written by past Empresses: The rulers of the Empire completely understood what it meant to have a healthy nation, and they’d all done their best to continue ruling with fair, even-handed restraint. And the current Empress wasn’t the only one who’d wanted to preempt a war with Inski. At least three others he’d read the journals of during his initial research had felt the same—and this was going back to times even before Ruphlan had been invited into the Empire.
Édalai’s and Ruphlan’s relationship had been fairly stable and positive since the Empire adopted its neighbor between them, and more than one Empress had longed to invite Ruphlan into the Empire for a number of reasons, but had never been able to because the two primary Councils governing the Empress’s actions had disagreed. If the International Council hadn’t had some complaint or issue with the suggestion of inviting Ruphlan, the Imperial Council had, and vice versa, and it took a clear two-thirds majority vote in both Councils to give the Empress permission to invite a new country into the Empire, and both Councils had habitually voted against sending more than a token company or two to assist Ruphlan in defenses when the Inskiti attacked—in other words, doing the least amount they possibly could to abide by the letter of whatever treaty forced them to act, but with blatant reluctance to allow the Empress the freedom to fully commit to the terms of the treaty because, invariably when Ruphlan’s border had heated up in the before-invitation times, both Councils had wanted to pretend as if they didn’t have any treaties with such a needy nation.
After seeing the same results in the fifteenth journal he took from the shelf, Asthané gave up. None of the Mages had made much of an effort to encourage any kind of preemption of war, and none of the Empresses had had much success with approaching various council members individually in an effort to garner support for their idea.
He put the last printed journal back and left the library. Maybe he could come up with some sort of plan to tackle different council members to convince enough to vote to send an army to the border. He couldn’t do it all himself, however, especially since he’d most likely just offend whomever he approached once they showed signs of resisting the idea of preempting a war.
Shaking his head, Asthané went down to supper. He’d have to discuss it with his friends. Maybe they’d have some ideas.