Part Two: Sight and Circumstance
The mess hall was chaos. It was the very nature of a school to take the students with the least organizational skills and make them organizers. The school board and the planning committee called it democracy. Maleoke called it school spirit.
An impressive effort had begun to transform the plain hall of function into a festive ballroom in preparation for tomorrow evening’s party. The tables had been strewn about the floor in a haphazard fashion and nearly all of them were overflowing with gaudy decorative materials. Several of the high ranking members of the student body were busy running about, shouting orders to everyone and no one in particular. Maleoke grimaced as he entered the chaos, consoling himself that it was a relatively straight shot to the opposite door and his dorm beyond. It would take hours, he knew, but eventually this madness would morph into a somewhat respectable looking party, and he was content to wait for it, so long as it would allow him his shortcut to peace and quiet. He gained the other door at last, and emerged into the open air like a boat shot from some perilous rapids to drift victoriously in the calm beyond.
“There you are,” said a voice from behind him. Maleoke nearly jumped at the words. He whirled around and found Embyr behind him. She was leaning against the wall just behind the open door, her right leg crossed behind her left and her hands folded behind her back. Her head was tilted to one side, and as soon as he saw her Maleoke knew she had been waiting for him, knowing that he must eventually pass this way.
“Don’t you have something better to do?” asked Maleoke, turning to resume his walk.
“I heard you were in to see the head Master,” said Embyr, pushing herself from the wall and coming at a light run to catch him up.
“You hear a lot of things,” Maleoke retorted irritably. “I was in the library all day.”
“You’re a terrible liar, Maleoke Parphonette!” she said with a laugh. “I heard from a friend who saw you there! Rumor has it there’s a big wig from the MPA here, and I’m betting you met him, didn’t you!”
“I was in the library,” repeated Maleoke, “studying for my exam in the morning.”
“Hogwash! You know those books off by heart! So what’d the Alliance want? Looking for more drones?”
“Yes,” Maleoke said, his stride unbroken and his gaze fixed on the building across the laws – the one which she was forbidden to enter and he was not. “They’re considering me for a position in the Prophetic Alliance – a full position.”
“And you told them to drag their starched robes back the way they came of course!” said Embyr.
“I most certainly did not.”
“Maleoke!” she said, giving him a slap as though she were his mother and he had used a cuss word. Then he re-evaluated. No, her slap was not intended to hurt.
“It’s good money,” he said, his tone becoming defensive despite his best efforts. “It’s a secure position with good renown, and the Alliance looks after their own.”
“At the expense of the rest of us!” exploded Embyr. “I wouldn’t have thought you would sell out for so little. The rest of this rabble, sure! But you?”
“Oh, shut it,” retorted Maleoke. “You’d take the money in an instant, just like the rest of us.”
“I most certainly would not!” It was difficult to tell how much of her offense was real and how much was staged – the better portion, he guessed. “Those pompous overlords have nothing of any remote interest to me! I’m going way higher than any of them have ever dreamed of – and you could too!”
“It’s a little late for freshman fantasies,” said Maleoke, a bit more harshly than he intended. “You can chase pipe dreams all you like, but this… this is real money – money that I can hold and spend – and it comes with the respect due a Prophet. Call that selling out, if you like.”
“Who’s in charge of the Alliance?” demanded Embyr.
“Who runs it? Who’s the boss? What about his councillors?”
“It’s run by Prophets,” said Maleoke.
“Yes, but which Prophets? What are their names?”
“I don’t know…”
“Exactly!” she said triumphantly. “And neither does anyone else. They’re shadows – formed into the mold of the Alliance. Maleoke, those men had to be someone to get there. They had to be really remarkable or really manipulative – so why aren’t they famous?”
“Maybe they don’t want to be?”
“Don’t be absurd! Everyone wants to be famous.”
“You’re an idiot, and yes you do. You’re a bigger idiot if you expect me to believe that. Maleoke!” she had stopped walking. He kept going, until she called his name again, this time making it a command that he could not safely ignore. He stopped and turned to look at her. “Mal, they haven’t got names because the Alliance took them away – traded them for gold. You can sell your name easy for money, but all the gold in the world won’t buy it back.”
“What do you know?” Maleoke muttered.
“I know you, mister!” she replied. “I know that you’d go there and do brilliant things and those nameless apes at the top would get rich and fat off of you. But you – you’d never see a coin of it, save what they put in your weekly pension. You’d grow old before your time in that system, given to a life of luxury and paid only enough to survive it, smiled at by a few bureaucrats, and remembered by none. Twenty years from now they’ll be saying ‘Maleoke who?’ and you’ll be explaining to them ‘that’s my name’.”
“And I guess you have a better plan,” said Maleoke.
“I’ve got ten plans better than that,” she replied, “and one or two of them might make better money. But how would you know when you’re too scared to try?”
“Yes, I said scared!”
“Try ‘smart’ on for size,” he snapped.
“Mal!” She fairly yelled the words, bringing the conversation to a standstill. “You always were a brick,” she said after a moment. Her voice was changed. She was calm, speaking quietly now, so quietly that he had to come closer to hear her. “You are smart, but sometimes it’s in all the wrong ways.”
He wanted to retort then and there, but her changed tone denied it. “All I’m trying to say is you’re worth more than what they’d give you,” she went on. “You’ve got it through your head that you’ll be happy once you’ve got a bit more money and a fancier badge on your robe but you won’t. You’re a terrible liar, and the only one still believing you is yourself. You’d hear the truth if you’d just shut up and listen for a minute – if you’d be honest with yourself.”
“You never liked the Alliance,” Maleoke said.
Embyr ignored his accusation. “Do you remember,” she asked, “two years ago after the end of summer when you’d been in Morvan? Do you remember that night after the autumn feasts? That place in the woods?” Without his realizing it, she had taken his hand in hers.
“I do,” he said, “what of it?”
“Do you remember what you said to me?”
“It was a long time ago,” Maleoke said defensively.
“Oh, shut up! You remember.” And he did. He had spent the semester before chasing Embyr about the campus, covertly lining his classes up with hers and manipulating his way through study groups, just to spend a little more time with the fiery redhead who had captured his attention. He had been oblivious to the social situations, of course, so preoccupied had he been with his pursuit, but she had seen every minute of it, watched his every advance, and waited for him. Then, a week before he was to leave, he had finally worked up the courage to ask her out, and their relationship had burst into bloom.
It was the stuff of schoolyard legends – the best of rumors that everyone sees coming and feels as if they’re somehow in the know of some juicy secret when it finally happens. It had lasted for exactly a week, and then he was gone, whisked away to Morvan for an apprenticeship with a subsidiary of the Alliance. They kept up their relationship through letters, and by the time summer ended and he returned to Coreson he was unquestionably, unapologetically, head-over-heels in love.
He had come back to the autumn feast, and she had been waiting for him, there to resume where they had left off. After the last night they had gone walking in the woods. He remembered how excited he had been – how his mind was fit to explode and how his hands shook, just knowing she was there walking beside him.
Of course, it had all fallen apart a week or so later and it was the testament of two years and a lot of social discipline that found them friends now, but try as he might Maleoke could not forget that night, and whenever he recalled it he would nearly fall in love again just from the memory.
“You made a promise to me, Mal,” said Embyr. “You said you’d wasted your summer and you should have spent it with me. You said you’d never do it again.”
“Yeah, and look how that turned out,” Maleoke said with a chuckle. “I said a lot of dumb stuff back then.”
“You didn’t say that for my sake,” Embyr retorted. “You knew something then that you’ve forgotten. You knew that the Alliance couldn’t make you happy – that their money couldn’t make you happy. Maybe we hadn’t figured out what we wanted, but Ancients, we knew what we didn’t want.”
“We were delusional,” said Maleoke, but now he didn’t even believe it. He could feel his mask cracking, and he knew she saw it too. “Things change – people change.” He wondered if it sounded as lame to her as it did to him.
“Not us,” she replied. “We’re the same short-sighted idiots we were two years ago. You’ve got to see that. I don’t care if you’re honest with me,” she took a step closer staring him in the eye so he couldn’t look away, “but promise me you’ll be honest with yourself before you pack your bags.”
“I’ll think about it,” Maleoke muttered.
“You’re incorrigible,” she said. Standing on tiptoe, she kissing him lightly on the cheek.
“And you’re a nag,” he replied. Then he stepped back, breaking her grip. He no longer felt like being stuffed up in his room. Turning his back on Embyr he moved off the sidewalk and made for the corner of the dorm.
“Where are you going?” she called after him.
“Somewhere quiet,” he replied, “where I can think in silence!”
The School of the Prophets was old – older than anyone remembered. The library still had on display a few old documents from the founding of the school, but these were so weather worn that they could hardly be read, even under a glass. The dates in them were in an archaic mode that some claimed to understand but that no one could agree upon, and the few translations that the library offered were a close approximation at best, and highly flawed at worst. The school had always been in this valley, but most of the buildings had been burnt down so many times that it was doubtful that they were anything like they had been. Only the library was unchanged. It was built of great pieces of stone, so great that even the technologies of Morvan could not have managed them, and the air within its walls would not abide any flame to exist. So the library and its contents had stayed, but the rest had all been transformed, probably many times over.
The school was laid out in more or less a diamond pattern, with the fountain and its circular highways at the center. The library was directly to the north of this, and the road lay to the south, though it wandered a little west as it went. The teacher’s houses were on the west of the fountain, and the mess hall and dorms were on the east, with various other facilities sprinkled among the layout. Behind the dorms lay a park which took up about a third of the valley and ran up to the cliffs which surrounded the valley on three sides, making it impossible to get in or out save by the road.
Maleoke made his way into the park. He wandered aimlessly at first, following the few paths that went this way and that, but after a time he abandon these. It was only after he had been walking for some time that he found himself heading steadily toward the north-eastern corner of the grounds. There a small shallow lake lay between the wood and the cliffs, fed by a small stream that ran from a gap in the cliff. He had been there many times before, though not for a year or more. It seemed a little strange to him, now that he thought about it, that it had been so long. But he supposed it only made sense. His studies had been demanding, and he had given himself fully to learning, especially after his ill-conceived relationship with Embyr. But now it was true what she said. He knew his text books by heart. The best thing he could do now to prepare was to relax and rest, so there was no time better than the present to visit an old haunt.
He came at last to the lake by an indirect route. It was a bit muddier than he had remembered it, and more weeds grew about the shore. But it was also a matter of days until the school would be drained of students and operating staff alike. Then the groundskeepers would have the place all to themselves for two months. It only made sense that they might let a few of the less important tasks slide in these last weeks. Well-kept or not, seeing the lake after so long felt a bit like coming home for Maleoke.
He made his way along the shoreline toward the cliff on the right. There, where the cliff met the lake, the stream flowed through a gap a little wider than the dormitory hallways, falling over steps that had been carved from the earth in some forgotten age. For some two hundred steps or more it climbed, back away from the valley to a sort of hidden sanctuary in the cliff. Maleoke came to the mouth of the stream and stepped in the water. The steps were placed well apart, but he made the climb with two strides to a step and so came to the top.
The sanctuary was perhaps the most interesting and remarkable piece of the Coreson School, but it was also a carefully guarded secret. To Prophets across the land it was a fond memory, but to the rest of the world it was a thing of vague legend – a secret easily kept because one would not understand the draw it had until they saw it for themselves. It was more or less circular, with a diameter of about twenty meters at the bottom. The floor was a carefully groomed lawn with a few stone benches and choice shrubbery set about the edge. There was a fountain here too. It was set in the center of the circle, and it was about three meters across, a shallow basin not much deeper than the height of a shoe. A stone phoenix perched on the rim opposite the entrance with wings folded and leaned over the water. The fountain came from its mouth and poured into the center of the basin. From there it poured out evenly over every edge and ran in a sandy stream to the staircase.
The walls of the sanctuary were riddled with tunnels. It was difficult to say whether these were natural or made by men. They were not formed, and certainly looked like the work of weather, but they all connected flawlessly one to another and from several openings on the ground one might walk by many winding ways up many levels to balconies set in the wall at different places, open to the central room. Grass grew within these balconies, though they were not open to the sky. It was most commonly believed that the rocks of the valley could reflect the virtue of the sun, and sometimes at night the basin would steam and fill the entire valley with dense fog, so the grass flourished without ever seeing sun or rain.
This sanctuary, like the lake outside, had seen some neglect in the past weeks. The grass, normally well trimmed, had grown long, and many of the shrubs had become ragged. None of this bothered Maleoke though. It meant that it had been some time since anyone had been here. It meant that he would be really alone without the need for climbing to one of the higher balconies. He moved to one of the benches along the wall and sat down.
The fountain soon drew his attention. It was not as steady and comforting as the one at the center of the school. Rather, this one had an uneven flow – almost a throbbing pulse like something alive. He recalled at times past that it seemed to mimic a heartbeat and serve to calm the nerves, but not so today. Now as he listened it sounded almost a frantic noise, like a flighty thing that ran from pursuit, or the kinetics professor’s steam turbine set free of its load to turn as fast as its own weight allowed. It seemed to match the turmoil within his head, though he could not define his own thoughts in such clear metaphors.
Maleoke took a deep breath, and tried to clear his head. This was no time to be analyzing fountains. He needed to be objective in his thinking. He needed to sort things out – to reestablish his position. Embyr had shaken his conviction, but deep down in his core he knew that she was wrong. He’d be cheating himself if he allowed his emotions to cloud his vision now. There was a certain way in which these things worked – the smallest idea could grow and fester and change one’s entire perception if it were permitted to, and these ideas, so deeply rooted in emotion, must not be allowed to grow. He was willing to concede that there was a small measure of truth to what she said, but it must be seen as just that – a small measure.
For starters, there were a dozen or more reasons why the leaders of the Alliance should remain nameless. The foremost was humility. Any man might be willing to forgo recognition for the greater good of humanity. Men such as the great Prophets would embrace such a notion. The second likely reason was safety in anonymity. The Alliance had many enemies and it was only in its best interest to keep secret the identities of those most important to it – those who would be seen as targets for its enemies. On that point alone Embyr’s entire ideology fell to pieces. She, unlike him, was driven by a need for recognition. How had he not seen that before? Hadn’t her father worked for the Alliance? Perhaps there was some bitterness there that he had passed along to her. There were endless possibilities, and all of them explained why she should hold a grudge against the Alliance. There were reasons why it was the oldest and strongest entity in Moran. What the MPA was doing worked, which was more than he could say for Embyr.
He continued mulling the matter over and gradually as his mind sorted out the tangles his head began to nod. Several times he found his eyes closing and fought it, but at last he realized that he really had nothing better to do and nowhere to be, so he laid himself down on the bench and fell asleep.