We were barely asleep when a loud banging on the door woke us up. Riei sat up and said “It’s the priestess!” So Arni put on a shirt and went to open up, and Riei and I got dressed too and found the temple priestess in the kitchen while Arni was making tea.
The priestess called me by my name, and I noticed she was fishing for my mother’s name, so I said Mialle, and she called me “Miallei Leva, daughter of the late Miallei Ferin, owner of a small trade house, prospective student of the trade school.” Well, that was all true! She explained that the king’s chancellor for Essle, Prince Uznur, had divided Essle into districts and that she was acting priestess for this district and had to know who was living there and make sure that they all had the basic education the queen required.
“Are you going to live here or at the school dormitory when school starts?” she asked me.
Honestly, I didn’t know! I’d thought everybody lived at the school.
“I am staying here,” Riei said. “The dormitory is — well– it’s all right if you’re in the library all evening and you don’t want to go home at all hours, you can get a guest room then, but I’d rather not be in the crowd some of the time.”
“If you’re going to stay here, I can stay here too!” I said. “And when I’ve got my materials and start selling toys I’ll pay part of the expenses.”
The priestess wrote something in a book she had with her, probably a list of everybody living in her district. “Now I’ll give you a test to see if you’re up to standard with school-work,” she said. I said I’d finished school in Albetire, but she said standards were different in different places so I had to do it anyway. And it was easy! “This is the schooling that the queen says every Valdyan must have,” she said when I asked for more difficult things.
“Oh, and if you’re not very smart you can take longer to learn it, as long as you need,” I said, making the priestess nod and smile. “Exactly.”
She left, taking Arni with her. We saw them walking towards the temple hand in hand.
“Arni complains all the time,” I said, “but it does look like she likes to go to school!”
“She likes the priestess a lot,” Riei said, “but school is much too easy for her, and she gets bored all the time!”
Then we went to the school so I could get registered before classes started. “We’re going by boat,” Riei said, and there was a boat waiting at the landing at the end of the island whose steersman and rower Riei knew. “Ah, Riei,” the steersman said, “back to school? And who is your friend?”
“I’m Leva,” I said, “and I’m going to school too.”
“So you might be considering a regular contract?” the steersman said, with a wink to Riei. “You’ll be much safer with us than with random boats every day. Not every crew bangs each other and nobody else!” And the rower looked over his shoulder and winked too. “My grandmother would kill me if we took girls to the brothel instead of where they want to go,” he said.
“I don’t want your grandmother to kill you!” I said.
“No, that’s why we’re not taking you to the brothel, even though a girl with your looks could earn a lot there!” I was very glad that I could tell that he was joking. I realised that we’d be going to school by boat every day, and back after classes, and it would have been horrible not to feel safe with the boat crew.
“You ought to be careful,” the steersman said, “that school is full of the Nameless these days! My daughter says so, she’s going around with the Order a lot now, wants to join as a journeyman. I’m not sure I agree, I want grandchildren!”
After a while — perhaps as long as half an hour — we arrived at an island that looked as if half of it had been washed away, one a building was in ruins and half under water, and another building had sandbags all around it. “That was the Guild school,” Riei said. “Now we’re sharing.”
“Shall we wait or come back for you?” the steersman asked.
“Don’t wait,” Riei said, “we’ll be a couple of hours and I don’t want you to miss any trade because you’re waiting around for us. But if you come back in the middle of the afternoon we’ll probably be finished.”
There was a woman in the hall of the school who asked “Trade or Guild or both?” and when I said Trade, wrote down my name and pointed us to a place that Riei could find, through a wide corridor with lots of doors. When we knocked on the right door, a door three doors back opened and Senthi came out! And she so much didn’t see me that I was sure she was pretending. Just at that moment our door opened too, and a tall, spare, dour, strict-looking man asked us to come in.
There was a lot of paperwork, it took half an hour at least. Then I got another test of what I’d already learned! But this one was properly difficult, geography and history and knowledge of the gods. I did all right, though, at least I thought I could tell by the way he looked at me. Finally he asked “Do you want to be tested on the optional things too?” I didn’t understand what he meant at first, and that didn’t get better when Riei said “it’s not often that the principal himself does the testing!” The tall man then sent Riei out of the room, and I got so flustered that I said “er, yes, I want to learn all I can”.
“Excellent!” the tall man said, and pushed me through a door and closed it behind me.
I was in a smaller room than the office, quite bare, with a single window looking outside. A youngish man was sitting on a stool. The first thing he did was seal the door I’d come in through. He could have been Arni’s brother, I thought, and he seemed to hear me think that and said “In case you’re wondering, I’m Ernei Radan, Arni’s youngest brother.”
“I thought Arni’s eldest brother was called Radan!” I said.
“He is — but the Dawn has to have one, so I took the name.”
“Oh, it’s more like a title then?”
“It’s both, really. My name is –was– Mernath.”
He looked at me while I was getting more and more uneasy. “I’m only here to assess your possibilities,” he said, “not to make you commit yourself. You can learn without having to choose between the gods, at least for now. And when you do choose, it will be a free choice, without any constraints from me or your teachers.” And when I was still not convinced, “Do you want to do the tests, or shall I let you out so you can go and eat squid and onions with your friend?”
“That’s the wrong question!” I said, and hoped he wouldn’t ask me what the right question was.
“All right. Then we’ll start. Imagine you’re a tree, made of stone, rooted in the earth, and get power from that.”
A tree made of stone! It was hard to imagine. And moreover there were at least three feet of air between the floor and the water, and four feet of water below that until there was even mud, and however much mud below that until there was any firm earth. But if I could imagine a tree made of copper (and I immediately imagined a tree made of copper and wondered how I could make one, and which parts I could make to move in which way) why not a tree of stone? I could see it in front of me in the middle of the room, but then I remembered that I had to be the tree, not make it.
“Good enough,” Radan-or-Mernath said. “Now imagine you’re a breeze wafting over the ocean, and getting power from that.”
I didn’t expect that to be easier, but it was! I’d felt so much wind over the ocean that I could feel the breeze in my hair and then I became the breeze and made my real hair fly around my real face. I wiped the tendrils away from my eyes –they’d come loose from the tight braids the bath-house woman had made– and stood waiting for the next test. This was fun!
“Now imagine you’re a fire in the middle of a forest, that gives warmth and light but doesn’t burn the forest.”
I’d never been in any forests but I’d heard stories about it, and I knew it was a lot of trees all in one place, like the park in Albetire that used to be the royal palace before King Athal made that fall down, but with the trees so close together and so many of them that you couldn’t see the end. I had to make a place for the fire to burn or it would burn the forest, but that was a simple matter of pushing the trees out of the way.
“Stop!” Mernath-or-Radan sealed the door tighter and said in a panicky voce, “Call your friend, NOW!”
“I can’t,” I said, “the door is sealed!”
“Call her anyway.” So I did, and we heard someone bang on the door but that wasn’t Riei because she climbed in through the window at the same moment and ran to me and embraced me.
“Come help me, both of you!” Radan-or-Mernath called, and we both helped him seal the door tighter still. Then he relaxed and sighed.
“I can’t be your master,” he said to me, “I underestimated you, you’re so much stronger than I can handle.”
“But the tests were easy!” I said.
“Because you were learning from every test and applying it to the next one,” he said. “Senthi was right about you. She wanted you for herself, but she’s with Archan — so am I, but that’s the younger Archan, she’s with the Archan from Ashas.”
“That’s not the ordinary one, right?” I asked. “Not the one who has a temple in Albetire, the one the Síthi call Anchuk.”
“I don’t know who the Síthi call Anchuk,” he said, “but not the one who was already here a hundred years ago. Neither of them. When you need to choose, you’ll have four gods to choose from.” Senthi’s, and his, and the Síthi Anchuk as well as Anshen, he meant. “It will be your choice, not anyone else’s.” (That was the second time he’d said that; it was as if he wanted to warn me off!)
I wondered if I could still go to school here if Senthi was likely to turn up, and I was about to ask Mernath-or-Radan when he heard me thinking again and said, “Senthi is a very substantial donor, about half of all the food served in the refectory here comes out of her pocket.” I almost giggled about the image of Senthi with her pockets full of food, but I knew he was talking about money. “She isn’t here more often than any other day.”
“Can I go to school here?” I asked. “I do want to go to the trade school. I’ve wanted that since I’ve known it existed.”
“There’s a trade school in Valdis, too,” he said, “and in Ildis, and in Veray there’s a school for the advance of the crafts, to encourage new inventions.”
“That sounds interesting!” I said. New inventions were perhaps even more exciting than trade.
“Veray is ours –of Archan– but if you go there and you find yourself not in the right place, Turenay is very close.” He opened the door –our seals fell away as if they’d never been there, and I felt a chill, I don’t know if it was because someone who wasn’t me broke my seal or because of something else– and looked
into the corridor. “She’s gone home,” he said, “and I think there’s a boat waiting for you.”
On the boat, I asked Riei “is he really your uncle?”
She nodded, with a bitter look on her face. “And my half-brother. It’s complicated in our family. I might tell you some time.” And a moment later, “It’s not so exciting. Let’s not talk about it any more.”