Frane and Balist strode through the quad, the sunlight falling on their faces, glinting off the silver threads spun into their robes. Around them, the academy was alive with life. Flowering hedges grew along every walkway, attracting tessili that darted around the blooms like bright, delicate jewels.
Balist walked with his hands clasped behind his back, feeling pleased with his surroundings. Surely, the campus had not been so well tended in centuries. Ever since he’d arrived here five years ago, he’d seen to the gardens with particular devotion. And it showed.
The two men reached the murmuring central fountain. Balist paused for a moment to regard the shimmering shapes of the golden fish that shifted beneath the dancing surface of the water.
In the distance, three girls sat on one of the lawns, their long skirts pooling around them like spilled milk. As Frane and Balist stood looking on, one of the girls said something. The other two burst into bright laughter. Balist, too far away to have heard the joke, found himself smiling along with them anyway.
Frane, at Balist’s elbow, spoke. “That’s the one, sir. The one in the middle. I mentioned her in my report.”
Balist felt the smile leave his face. The sun, warm and pleasant a moment before, suddenly seemed overly bright. He shielded his eyes with one narrow hand. “Frane,” he said, “the paperwork required to move up the timeline for even one …” he trailed off, feeling fatigued at just the thought of it. He shook his head, and continued. “Anyway, I spoke with Nylan. He disagrees with you. He has several more opportunities lined up for her. He told me she’s one of our best. It would be a loss for him. Besides, we haven’t had a premature graduation in almost a decade. Surely six more months won’t make such a difference.”
Frane was shorter than Balist. He had the reddish hair of the people of the fog aisles, now shot with gray. He frowned, now, as he listened to Balist’s argument. Balist knew very little about the older man, other than he’d arrived at the academy several years before Balist himself. It had always seemed to gall Frane that Balist had been installed over him when the dean’s position had opened.
In retrospect, it was no surprise to Balist that the principle had been passed over for promotion. If it had been left up to Frane when graduation occurred, the academy would have hardly any students at all by now.
Frane made no reply. He squinted towards the girls, who were still smiling, their tessili flying loops in the air around their heads. They were such sweet things, Balist thought. They sat in the sun, their cheeks smooth, hair shining, the picture of health and ease. It was the one with the blonde hair and chocolate eyes that had Frane all worked up. Over nothing, Balist was certain.
Frane said, voice grim, “It’s my job, sir, to watch out.”
Balist set a hand on the older man’s shoulder. Frane was thin, but the wiry sinews of him arm were taut beneath Balist’s fingers. “And you do your job so well. Nylan said he’d submit a full assessment after her next opportunity. We’ll see what the data say. Now, come on. It’s time to meet with the board.”
As they turned from the girls and continued across the courtyard, the flashnodes on the walls reached full brightness. It was hard to see their progress in the sun, but now they flared to brilliance, then went out. Balist glanced over his shoulder one last time, noting how all three girls had gone still as statues. It always fascinated him, the way that worked.
For a moment, the quad was silent. The colorful tessili continued to fly, but otherwise the scene was still. For several heartbeats, it remained so. Then, one of the girls spoke. Her voice was distant, tone vague.
Balist turned away. As he waited for Frane to work the complex lock that would let them off student grounds, he felt momentarily sad for what was to come – for what always came, at the end of each year. Then, Frane swung the door aside. Balist stepped into the domed exit hall, feeling a mild relief to be out of the sun.
Jey ran her delicate fingers through Elle’s long, dark hair. On the other side of the room, Kae sat at her desk, doodling with a loose ink pen as her brilliant green tessila chased the nib and nudged it this way and that, adding squiggles to what would have been smooth, flowing lines.
Outside the tall, delicate windows, the sun was dropping. The light was growing warm and rich. Soon the academy walls would throw their long shadows over the dorms.
Jey’s tessila, scarlet hide brilliant even in the late light, clung to the swaying sleeve of her dress. He grasped the fabric with his tiny talons as it moved with the rhythmic motion of Jey’s hands.
Elle leaned back against Jey’s legs, her eyes closed. She hummed a vague tune while her purple tessila lay stretched out full length on her thumb, wings drooping in content relaxation.
Jey’s fingers continued their dance. Elle hummed, and Jey found herself humming as well. She seemed, somehow, to know the tune.
She reached the bottom of the braid, and tied it off with a golden ribbon. “What are you humming?” The room was quiet, the cloister still around them. It seemed to Jey the academy had used to be more crowded. Now it seemed silent all the time. She remembered, when she’d been young, seeing classes of six or seven girls sometimes. Now, every younger class seemed smaller than the last. She, Elle, and Kae were the only seniors. Each class below them had only two members, or less.
“My mother used to sing that song.” Elle’s voice was drowsy as she spoke, but Jey felt a strange little stab at the word. Mother. It gripped her heart like an invisible claw.
Out of reflex, Jey glanced at the flashnode, tucked discreetly up against the ceiling in one corner of their large room. But the light was dim still, the bulb not even a quarter full. They still had time.
At her desk, Kae had stopped doodling. She turned, setting down her pen, which her tessila nudged and sent rolling across the spattered paper. Kae stopped it with an idle hand and said, in a bemused, distant voice, “Mine too.”
The three of them stared at each other. Jey felt something rise up in her, some strange feeling of knowing something she did not know. She looked down, frowning. She noted the ribbon at the end of the braid she’d just made was crooked. She untied it to redo the bow. As her fingers brushed the delicate contours of Elle’s neck, a thought surfaced in her mind. One hand on the throat, the other on the base of the skull. That’s it. Now push. In her mind’s eye, Jey seemed to see a flash of light. She felt the memory of an exhilarating rush inside her own head. I could kill her, just like that.
The thought shocked her into sitting back. The ribbon fell from her fingers. The braid began to uncoil, the ends unwinding in lazy loops. Jey shot out of her chair and hurried to the counter, where the spritzer sat. She gripped the hollow crystal base, shoved the golden nozzle into her nose, and squeezed the white balloon in one hand. A mist shot out of the nozzle. She sucked it in.
Immediately, the thoughts faded. Her mind turned soft and blank. She let out a deep sigh. It’s been happening more and more lately. But the thought had no power. It faded like a dream.
“Anyone else,” Jey said, turning back to face the room, spritzer in one hand. Elle had sat up and was completing the work of unwinding her braid. Kae’s eyes had the stunned look Jey only recognized too well. “Both of you,” she said, setting the spritzer in Kae’s hand. “Come on. And Elle, stop humming, will you?”
As Kae accepted the spritzer, Jey lifted the dangling end of her long, white sleeve. She remembered with a small smile how, long ago, she had looked at the seniors, and envied them their pure white dresses. Now, her tessila was brilliant against the pale folds of fabric. She raised her sleeve so he was level with her eye, and held him there for a moment. Diminutive as he was, he stared back at her with his dark, fierce eyes. Unafraid.
She heard Kae inhale, then pass the spritzer to Elle. It takes more each week. But again, the thought was nothing. It was as pale as a shadow in the moonlight, and meant even less.
Jey hurried out of the rooms she shared with Elle and Kae, pulling the door closed until she heard the click of the latch. The dorm cloister was deserted, all the other students off at class already.
Jey was running late. She was running late because her tessila had hidden from her that morning. He’d been doing that with some frequency lately. When she’d found him at last, tucked underneath a quill, he’d hissed when she’d picked him up. Now he sat in the curl of her hand, inert, refusing to climb up her sleeve or stow himself anywhere more convenient.
The morning light was pale. The delicate columns threw shadows over the shrubbery and lawn that occupied the cloister’s center. She hurried down the south walkway. It was still cool in the shadows – too cool for the tessili to have come courting the flowers.
Jey had nearly reached the set of double doors that lead to the quad when a small shape darted through them, and all but ran into her. Startled, Jey jumped back, clutching the hand that held her tessila protectively to her chest.
The girl, for it was a girl, wore the dark dress of an pre-initiate. She dodged to one side, ran past Jey, and hurried onto the lawn to dive under one of the brillban bushes. Before Jey could decide what this might mean, ringing footsteps sounded around the corner. Professor Dail strode into view, his face rigid with frustrated impatience. He saw Jey standing in the cloister doorway. “Have you seen anyone? A girl? B412? She ran out of my classroom not a minute ago.”
Jey didn’t know why she did it. Lying was an affront to Priam, the god of honor. She’d been taught from her earliest days never to do it. Jey didn’t know if she’d ever lied before. If she had, she couldn’t remember. Now, the words seemed to slip out of their own accord, “No, sir.”
Her tessila chose that moment to emerge, poking his narrow head out from the cave of her fingers. Professor Dail looked at her, eyes flicking from her face to her tessila, then back again. He seemed to weigh her with his hooded eyes. Then he turned away, heading up the walkway that led towards the center of the quad, and the fountain. Feeling a strange thrill, Jey made her way to the bush. Mindful of her white skirts, she crouched, peering underneath the dense, waxy branches. The girl was not very well hidden. The bush was too dense to let her in much, and her small feet weren’t even in shadow. Jey could hear her quick, ragged breaths, and smell the sweet musk of the brillbane blooms.
Jey didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. She reached under the bush and gave the girl’s bare ankle a quick, gentle squeeze. Then she stood and walked a few paces away, to settle herself on one of the stone benches that stood on the grass, soaking in the weak morning sun.
It took only a moment for the girl to emerge. She was a thin child, no more than five, with huge bright eyes and hair that needed to be rebraided. She scrambled out from under the bush and flung herself at Jey. Her dress was askew. She’d lost a slipper. Startled, Jey caught her, her tessila leaping from her hand to fly in an agitated loop around her face. The child, warm and heavy, collapsed again her legs. Jey held her, feeling the deep, silent sobs that racked the small body.
Jey let her cry. She seemed to recall crying like this herself from time to time, though she couldn’t think why she might have done such a thing. She stroked the disarrayed hair, and waited.
After a time, the girl’s sobbing quieted. She sniffled. Jey was aware she was quite late by now, and perhaps her dress was mussed as well. She said, “Your name is Bea?”
The girl was kneeling on the ground, leaning against Jey’s legs. Now she separated herself and glared up with smudged eyes. “My name is Frani.” Her tone was fierce. “I want my mother.”
Something stirred deep inside Jey’s mind. She seemed to hear an echo, seemed to recall her own childish voice saying those exact words. I want my …. My name is ….
Her tessila landed on her shoulder and made his slinking way down her sleeve, pausing to regard the girl with his brilliant eye. The child went very still at the sight of him so near. “Do you have your tessila yet?” Jey knew she did not, of course, but it seemed an easy way to change the subject.
The girl shook her head. “I want one, though.”
Jey found herself reciting part of the sermon Peia Garot had delivered on Apex. “Delari, the goddess of bounty, brings us what we are prepared to receive.”
The girl’s small brows lowered slightly, but she said nothing. Then the sound of footsteps rang through the quiet cloister. The girl flinched, half turning as three orderlies strode in from the quad. Professor Dail had called for reinforcements.
“Ah, you found her.” One of the young men said. The three of stepped onto the lawn.
For a moment, Jey feared the girl would run again. But she only sat, hollow eyed, as the men drew near. Two of them stopped a few paces away while the third continued forward. He crouched down in the grass, fumbled in the pouch at his waist, and brought out the small, glass tube of a single dose spritzer. He held it to the girl’s nose. Suddenly docile, the child didn’t resist. He squeezed the plunger, she inhaled the mist. He patted the girl’s hand. “There now, Bea. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
The orderly stood, straightening his tan robes. He glanced at Jey, but said nothing. Jey remembered, with a strange, surprised rush, her own orderly. Like this man, he’d been young, with light hair and a shy smile. She felt a strange tug in her chest. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him.
Bea wiped her eyes and rose to her feet. The sun was growing warmer now. Jey was aware she should get to class. She watched the girl walk, one foot bare, one slippered. As two of the orderlies split off and headed back to the quad, Bea and the third man disappeared through the thick, heavy doors that led into the initiate’s hall.
Jey stood, smoothing her dress. She noticed the missing slipper lying at the base of a column. She walked to it, and picked it up. It was soft and light in her hand.
She was about to follow the girl and her orderly, to return it, when the flashnode at the top of the column went off. Its brilliant light flared in Jey’s eyes.
Her thoughts dissolved into white snow.
Jey stood in the dorm cloister, holding a child’s slipper in her hand. She stared at the object in mild wonder. She blinked, unable to imagine why she would have such a thing. She stood for a time, turning it over in her hands. It was so small. Her tessila crept down her arm, flicking his quick tongue at the embroidered side.
She was still standing like that when Professor Liam strode into the cloister. He walked through the propped open doors from the quad, glancing up and down the long space until he saw her. Then he took a few quick strides in her direction. “Jey.” His tone was impatient. “What are you …” He broke off, taking in the dull flashnode above her head, and the small slipper in her hand.
Professor Liam closed his eyes for one long heartbeat. “Delari, grant me patience.” He muttered the words under his breath. Then he approached Jey. Gently, he took the slipper and set it on a nearby bench. Her wrapped his warm, firm fingers around her wrist. He gave he a small tug. “It’s time for class now, Jey.”
When she didn’t move, he fell back beside her. He set a hand on the small of her back. He guided her forward, though she resisted at first. It seemed to Jey there was something she should remember.
All around her, the cloister was quiet. The columns threw their long shadows. One or two early tessili stirred in the bushes. I want my …. My name is ….
But the thoughts faded. By the time they reached the doors to the quad, Jey was moving on her own energy. A few steps later, Professor Liam let his hand fall away. They walked together, not speaking, towards his classroom.
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