By Hiram Webb
© Copyright 2013
Project Phoenix is a work in progress. It is an abandon project pending the completion of The Fall of NaRasch. Encourage the author to write faster by providing feedback.
THE BUREAUCRATThe lobby was a thing of elegance. It was almost as if it were built specifically to intimidate the students of the Coreson School of Prophecy, with its high vaulted ceiling dominated by a crystal chandelier and the indoor stream snaking its way through a plant garden that covered three walls of the room. The final wall was set like the front of a cathedral with the bookkeeper at his desk in the middle dwarfing the door to the left which led down a long hall and eventually to the study and private library of the School Master. The grand waiting area must have cost a small fortune to build, and it all seemed to be for the purpose of reminding the students that waited there of their position in life. To be commanded to wait here was either an event of great excitement or foreboding. For Maleoke Parphonet it was the former emotion. He had taken his seat here nearly an hour ago, and watched as the minutes of his appointment fell off the clock, and still every name was called but his. But still he waited, for he had been summoned and that meant that he would not go ignored forever. Someone wanted to see him, and as far as he knew he had done nothing worthy of reprimand. In fact, if he were honest with himself, he had to admit that several of his recent accomplishments were quite remarkable for any prophet, much less an un-graduated intern; nearly-graduated, corrected himself. So if all his recent actions had been positive he must only conclude that this audience was to be equally positive. He did not presume to make any assumptions, but he was hardly what might be considered worried. “Mister Parphonet,” called the bookkeeper. “Approach the front.” Maleoke rose from his seat, picking up his book satchel, and straightened his uniform. It was the nearly nondescript grey assigned to the fifth-year interns with the school-standard Sun Shield embroidered on the breast. The loose fitting tunic fell to just above his knees, for it was only upon graduation that he would be permitted to wear the full-length robe of the Prophetic order – the robe that would grant him access to a life most people only dreamed of. But for the moment he straightened his tunic and made his way toward the desk. “The master will see you now,” said the Bookkeeper, without so much as looking up when Maleoke came near. It was always the way with him. It was said among the students of Coreson that the school Master and the bookkeeper had a way of speaking to one another through walls and without words. The master would dismiss a student even as the bookkeeper admitted another, and when the student returned from his meeting the bookkeeper might have some special instruction for him that the master had not bothered to give. It only added to the sense of grandeur that saturated the head Master’s office. Maleoke stepped through the door into the hall beyond. He had been here only once before – a week after his arrival at the school. Then the head master had called him in to welcome him, and to address the matter of some small feud between Maleoke and another student – a feud that neither he nor the other student had spoken of to anyone. Yet the headmaster had more insight into the matter than either intern, and had settled it quickly, making punishment to fit crime and causing each boy to consider seriously his future with the school. It was a meeting Maleoke would not soon forget. The long hall was just as he remembered it. The roof stood about three times higher than it needed to be, dwarfing the various doorways that broke through the wall in ornate frames. There were perhaps ten or twenty of them, and that number seemed to change each time he recounted. They all stood closed – locked – and of all the conversations Maleoke had ever heard about the head Master and this hall he had never heard of anyone opening any door but the one through which he was directed – the one at the end on the left. There was never any confusion because this door was bigger than all the others, and the carved frame was wider and more elaborate. Unlike the others, this door had no handle. One walked up to it, and when it opened, one entered. Maleoke stood outside the door and tried to catch his breath using a rudimentary mental practice taught early in the Prophetic teachings. He had not realized how excited he was – how out of control his emotions were, and he must be in control of himself when he appeared before the Master. “Come in, Maleoke,” said a voice from behind the door, and slowly the great portal began to open, swinging silently upon its hinges without the physical influence of any man. Maleoke stepped through into the school Master’s study. Beyond the door the masters study appeared as it might be expected to which, considering, was in contrast to the rest of the building. It was certainly grand, and the furniture that filled it and the paintings that decorated the walls were all fit for the palace of a king, but everything here felt a little more to scale. It felt as if this might actually be the office of a living breathing human. Maleoke found himself breathing a little more easily. The study overlooked the school ground by three windows which stood at angles to one another and so made a sort of alcove in one wall. While the sun was up one could stand at the windows and look out over the teachers’ offices to the fountains beyond and the circular pavements that connected the major buildings of the campus; the cafeteria and mess halls, the dorms, the library, and of course the teachers’ offices and training grounds. The head Master’s office was the highest building on the campus, but now the sun had set and all that could be seen through the picture windows was the faint distant lights coming from dorms and the library. Before the great windows sat the Master’s desk, and behind it was his chair, but he was not in his chair. Neither was he at one of the several couches that sat in the left-hand corner of the room, for what purpose Maleoke could not imagine as they had never to his knowledge seen any use. Instead, the school Master of Coreson was standing on the near side of his desk, and with him was another man. This second individual was clearly not a teacher, or any staff member Maleoke could recognize, and from his bearing the young intern knew that he was none of the staff members that he could not recognize. He was a little taller than the head Master, and though he had on his hand the marking of the Sun Shield that distinguished him as a Prophet, he wore no robe but instead dressed as a dignitary or a bureaucrat might, in a tunic and pants with an ornamental sword at his side. He had hard features, as though all the kindness had been chiselled off of his face, though it was not that he looked particularly unkind. His hair was coal black, and cut short so that it stood up on end, and even through his clothes Maleoke could tell that this bureaucrat was as strong as a young bear. “There’s someone here I’d like you to meet,” the head Master was saying. It seemed like an unnecessary thing to say, but the intern took no notice. He was glad of any speech that might make the meeting less awkward. “Would you like to sit?” asked the master, almost as an afterthought. Maleoke nearly answered, but then he realized that the question was not directed at him. “I’ll be fine,” said the bureaucrat. His voice was surprisingly low. “I won’t take long, and then I must be about my business.” “Maleoke,” said the Master, “I’d like you to meet Sir Kandace Longshod from the Morovian Prophetic Alliance. He’s here in search of potential recruits for the alliance, and I suggested you to him.” “It’s an honor to meet you, Mister Parphonette,” said Longshod. “Your master tells me great things about you.” “I am humbled by his kind words,” replied Maleoke, accepting a little reluctantly the hand that was offered him and shaking it. The bureaucrat’s grip was like steel. “And the honor is all mine.” “Yes of course,” said Longshod. “Now, Maleoke, I have a notion you’ve got some idea of what the MPA does…” “Of course,” replied the intern without hesitation. “You’re archeologists. You manage the diggings in the tunnels of Morvan.” “That’s part of it,” said the bureaucrat, a little amused. “A small part, mind you. What we do is not all digging. We search out the secrets of the old world, and we relearn them. Most importantly, we protect them.” “Yes, I know,” said Maleoke. “I’ve read everything the library has on Morvan and the work that the Alliance does there.” “You have an interest then?” “Oh, very much so!” said Maleoke. “I’ve always been fascinated by the old world. My uncle was a member of the Alliance, and so was my grandfather.” “Yes, they were,” said Longshod, “And great Prophets too. Maleoke, I’m here, as your Master said, to seek out new recruitment for the MPA. Do you understand what a big deal that is?” Maleoke nodded quickly, but the bureaucrat continued anyway. “The Alliance has around a hundred members stationed in various cities, mostly in Morvan. Normally we only accept two or three new members each year, and they are almost always seasoned Prophets with twenty years or more of experience, and then only the most outstanding applicants get accepted. In the long history of the Alliance only once before have we accepted a member as young as yourself. The fact that I’m here having this conversation with you says what tremendous words your Master has spoken in your favor. My purpose in coming to Coreson is to see if his words are true. Do you understand?” Maleoke nodded, but he could not make his mouth open or coax words from his suddenly dry throat. His mind was exploding behind his closed lips. “Good boy,” said Longshod. He gave the intern a smile that did not quite make it to his eyes. “Now, I’ll be in the city for two days, until after graduation. Then I’m going back to Morvan. When I go I want you to come with me and perform the tests for application to the MPA.” Maleoke opened his mouth to speak, but the bureaucrat cut him off. “I don’t want an answer from you now,” he said, though it seemed plain that he knew what the intern’s answer would be as well as he himself did. “You have until graduation to make your decision, but I have faith in you to make the right choice.” Maleoke nodded and then stood waiting. A long moment of silence stretched out, and then the school Master spoke. “That is all, Maleoke,” he said. “You may go now.” The intern nodded again. “Thank you sir,” he managed to say, and this time when he shook the bureaucrat’s hand his grip was not so firm. “I won’t disappoint you.” Then he turned, and nearly fled the room. The door closed behind him silently. “Are you sure about this, Andrew?” asked the bureaucrat from Morvan. His eyes were still on the door where Maleoke had been a moment before. “I’m sure,” replied the head Master. “If it’s anyone in this rabble it’d be him. He’s the one you want.” “I have ten other leads I could be following right now,” said Longshod. “You’d better not be wasting my time.” “And I have fifty-six interns to graduate tomorrow,” replied the school Master a little hotly. “You’d better not be wasting mine. You’ve got no more to lose than I, I remind you.”
SIGHT AND CIRCUMSTANCEGlordesh had given herself completely to the task at hand. Somewhere in the back of her mind she could still hear the droning of her cousin two stalls away from her as he continued with his attempts to relate his morning’s frustrations, but she was doing the best she could not to listen to him. It was not that she was unsympathetic to Gaben and the hardships of his day, but he had already fully explained to her his endeavours to bring some sense of reason to the planning committee and the punishments he had received. Now his narrative had gone on three times longer than need be. He was no longer venting frustrations. He was reliving them, and dragging in innocent bystanders – namely Glordesh. She could have snapped at him. She knew she had every right to ask him to shut up, but she had opted for another path. Necessity, it was said, was the mother of invention, and she was currently inventing a means by which she might systematically ignore any noise that troubled her while keeping her ears opened to the rest of the world around her. She was keenly aware of the sound her grooming brush made on the coat of the mare whose stall she was sharing, and of the footsteps and conversations of those passing by outside, but she had become completely unaware of Gaben’s ranting. For now it was an effort toward convenience, but she supposed one day such a skill might prove invaluable for more than just enduring unpleasant circumstances. Gaben was still talking when Glordesh finished her task and left the stall. This was the last of her allotted five horses. Gaben had only done three. She cleaned the hair from her brush and knocked it against the wall to dislodge the rest of the debris. The noise caused a pause in the unintelligible droning. “What are you doing when the week is up?” Glordesh asked in the momentary silence. She knew her abrupt change of subject gave away the fact that she had been ignoring him, but she did not really care. It was time he got over himself and moved on with his day. Gaben had to think for a minute before answering her question, probably because he had been so wrapped up in his previous topic. “I thought I might stay on for another semester,” he said at length. “I could use a few extra credits before I submit my application into the Coreson branch of the Alliance. Who knows, if I did well enough in my studies I might even get a referral to Ekron.” “I see,” Glordesh replied, her mind far more concentrated on her brush than on what he was saying – which spoke for itself since her brush was as clean as it was going to be and now needed only to be hung in the tack room at the end of the hall. “What about you?” asked Gabin. It was the first time since they had been there that he had asked her a direct question. “I’m going home,” said Glordesh. “I haven’t been to Oomar in four years.” “What!?” Gabin exploded. “Home to Oomar? Why on earth would you want to go there?” “Oh, I don’t to know,” Glordesh replied sharply. “Maybe to see my father again before he dies? Maybe to see if I can help them! It’s not like they paid for my schooling or anything, and you know what a big deal that was for them. I don’t think there was anyone in that town who didn’t contribute in some way that hurt them.” “Desh…” Gabin tried again, this time coming from his stall to look at her, “It’s no good. You’ll never make anything of yourself in Oomar, and you know it. You’re not like me. You have real potential – you could be someone if you’d let yourself.” “I’m not having this conversation with you, Gabin,” said Glordesh, trying as she spoke to control her anger. “That decision was made before I’d so much as lit a candle. It would be nothing short of betrayal to go back on it now. Besides, I want to go home, and don’t you dare try to change my mind.” Gabin opened his mouth to bring a rebuttal, but the look she gave him was so withering that he shut it again. “One day you’ll wish you’d listened to us,” he muttered. Glordesh shook her head in disgust and stalked off to the tack room. The truth of the matter was she was hardly any happier about going back to Oomar than her cousin. Returning to the tiny hamlet where she had grown up was hardly her idea of a delightful way to celebrate her graduation, but everything she had said was true. Many of those people had given up things of great value to them in order to send her to Coreson. Her parents had sold most of their land to give her the chance at becoming a Prophet, and they deserved to see firsthand what their sacrifice had brought. She knew there were ways she could help them – sure it wouldn’t be anything like the glamour that most of her friends were going off to, but she could not abandon her family now – especially with her father so sick. She had gotten more than a dozen letters now that had her father’s illness written between the lines. It had been better when her mother and brothers spoke of it openly to her in their correspondence. As hard as it had been to hear of his suffering, it was worse now that they avoided the subject like the plague. And she knew why they did it. They believed that if they told her the truth of her father’s condition she would drop out of school and return home. They were wrong, of course. Glordesh knew that her father would never approve of such behaviour, whether he was alive or dead. If she did not wait out her graduation it would be purely for selfish reasons, and so she had stayed. But her family’s fear that she might return to her father told her one thing plainly that their words would not. There was no longer any question – he was dying and all their efforts had failed. She doubted now that she would arrive in time to greet him except at his graveside. 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. “What?” “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.” “I don’t.” “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?” “Scared?” “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.
APARITIONS AT NIGHTGlordesh kept a casual pace as she made her way down the dark street. She could see the eyes that looked out at her from the shadows. She could even see the faces behind them if she looked close enough. But she knew that they were only present to observe. So long as she made no aggressive movements they would remain where they were, and she would be allowed to proceed. Some paces behind her, Gaben followed a little more reluctantly. She still was not sure why she had allowed her cousin to come along. Probably it was because between this and the alternative of leaving him behind this were the easier to endure. She had the misfortune of being known by Gaben from childhood, so he still saw her as the helpless little girl that he thought she still acted like. At times, usually when it was most inconvenient and least necessary, he took it upon himself to act as her lord protector. Usually this only served to aggravate her, but she had to concede that on the rare occasion such protectiveness could be beneficial. It would remain to be seen whether this would be one of those occasions or not. Down the street ahead of her, from the shadows where one of the lamps had gone out, three figures separated from the darkness and stepped onto the cobblestone. They were cloaked and hooded, with their cowls low over their faces, and they turned immediately toward Glordesh, not bothering to conceal their advance. Behind her, the intern heard her cousin suck in his breath. “Steady, Gaben,” ordered Glordesh, her voice barely above a whisper. “I don’t need any trouble from you.” The three figures down the street waited as she walked closer, holding their position until she had come right to the foremost of them. “This street’s a dead end,” said the figure in front – a middle aged man by the sound of his voice. “Turn ‘round, go back the way you came.” “Who made you police?” replied Glordesh, undaunted. “Move to the side. You’re blocking traffic, and I’ve got places to be.” “Throw down your weapons, and we’ll let you proceed.” “That wasn’t the agreement,” said Glordesh, her voice growing cold. “I haven’t come all this way to banter with underlings and serfs. Move aside before you force me to do something we might regret.” “What agreement?” demanded the man. “There is no agreement. There’s only me, you, and your pretty little boyfriend there. Throw down your weapons, or turn round.” “This is the last time I’ll say it,” said Glordesh. “Get off the road.” “Tie them up,” said the man to his companions. “Take their weapons.” That was enough for Glordesh. She had been itching for a good fight for some time now, ever since she had been banned from the ring for breaking that intern’s nose. She took a step back and, digging her feet into the cobblestone, she leapt at the man before her. Before he knew what was happening, she had delivered a kick to his shin and planted her fist firmly in his stomach. As he doubled over, she brought her other fist into the back of his head. Then, before he could crumple to the ground, she brought up her knee into his face with enough force to stand him up, and followed through with a kick to the chest. He was already unconscious when he hit the ground his cowl fell away, revealing his face. It was no one she recognized, but she would know it if she ever encountered him again. The other two figures had not had time to react. They stood, frozen in indecision. “Care to have a go?” asked Glordesh, flashing them a smile, “or are you ready to take me to your leader?” “You killed him!” protested one of the figures, revealing himself by his voice to be not much older than Glordesh. “Him?” laughed the intern. “No, he’ll be fine – and wiser too, I think, once he’s recovered his headaches. Shall we?” The remaining minions looked at one another, and the silent one nodded once. “This way,” said the other, and they both turned away. “I only need one guide,” said Glordesh, “and you have a fallen friend. I assure you, words are my only intent. Your master has nothing to fear from me.” They complied with her wishes, and the younger one led the way down the street a little way, then down an alley to the right, and at last to a basement door, half sunk in the earth by a flight of stairs. Descending, he knocked once, and the door was opened. “Wait for me here,” said Glordesh, turning to her cousin. “Not in your dreams!” replied Gaben. “I’m coming too.” “You’re not coming,” replied Glordesh. “You promised me you’d wait when I told you to, and this is me telling you to wait. If you can’t keep your promise then I’ll ask his guards to kill you. I don’t want a cousin who can’t keep his promises.” “Fine,” said Gaben sulkily. “I’ll wait.” By this point it was less about protection and more about curiosity. Glordesh turned away and descended the stairs. There was a candle burning somewhere inside, but it was blown out as soon as she entered the doorway. She only had time to glimpse four people in the room, masked as those she had seen already, before all became darkness. “There is a chair in front of you,” said a voice. “Please, sit down.” “Do you always treat your guests like this?” asked Glordesh. “Generally,” replied the voice. “My guests tend to try to kill me.” “I have no interest in killing you,” said the intern. “I know,” replied the voice. “That’s why you’ve made it this far.” Glordesh found her chair and sat down. The door was closed and the room began to get a little warmer which was a relief after the night air. Glordesh closed her eyes, allowing them to relax for a moment. When she opened them again they had become milky, though the others in the room could not see it. But now she could see them. She had to blink several more times, trying different intensities of the Prophetic practice to find what worked best in this level of darkness. The room appeared ghostly under its effect, but she was accustomed to it. This was something of a specialty for her – a trick that few Prophets ever mastered, and she had taken it to a new level even though she was only an intern. The man seated across from her wore a dark cloak like all his guards, but in the darkness he had pulled away the cowl, revealing a face that she could only describe as ageless. Was he thirty or eighty? He could have been either. His hair was short and shot through with streaks of grey, but that was no indication of anything. He was not at all an unpleasant person, and he even smiled on occasion, and since he thought that she could not see him it was not for her benefit that he did so. “Now then,” said the man. “What is your name, intern?” “I am Glordesh,” she replied. “Glordesh of Oomar,” said the man. “I remember you now. I am Hayley.” “I’m pleased to meet you,” replied the intern. “You’re about to graduate, aren’t you,” said Hayley. “Yes,” replied Glordesh. “Tomorrow.” “And then you’ll be going back to Oomar?” “Yes, that’s the plan.” “Glordesh, why are you here.” And so they had come to the heart of the matter. She took a long breath before continuing. “I heard a rumor,” she said, “that you might know something of value about Vhoca.” The name was followed by silence, complete and oppressive. The intern watched Hayley carefully for a reaction, but he gave none. “I assume that by Vhoca you mean that old hag on the coast who refuses to die?” “I mean the tyrant who sits in his castle on the bogs year after year and feeds of the pain of my friends and family.” “I knew him by another name,” said Hayley sternly. “But that was a long time ago. What would you learn of Vhoca, Glordesh?” The intern took a long breath. “Do you know how to kill him?” she asked. Maleoke came awake with a start. How long had he been asleep? He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and looked around. The sun was gone from the sky above. In fact, the sky was gone altogether, and the valley was filled with a thick fog. Had night fallen? He decided at once that it had not, for it was far too light still, though it was a dim light for daytime. Perhaps it was twilight, or the edge of a storm? He craned his head around, stretching the muscles in his neck that had cramped during his nap. Then his eyes fell on the fountain before him, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. The stone phoenix was looking at him. He blinked and looked again, and saw only a statue – a stone form of a bird as it always had been. But he could have sworn that he had seen its eye open a moment before – a burning yellow eye that he could see in his mind even now. He really must have slept too long. He stood up, preparing to leave the valley and head back to the school. He was just turning away when again he saw the eye. A moment later it was gone again, but this time he knew he was not imagining it. The stone statue had opened its eye and looked at him. He turned to face the fountain head on, and suddenly the fog around him seemed an unfriendly thing. A whisper rippled through the air, shattering the silence like a stone dropped in a still pond. But there were no words to it. Maleoke turned a full circle, peering into the mist, but he was alone in the sanctuary – alone with that statue over the water. And now the phoenix appeared as a stone as it had always been with blank eyes, but he could feel it watching him nonetheless. He did not like the feeling of being watched. He was about to turn away when suddenly, shockingly, the eye opened. There was no doubt about it this time. It was an eye as yellow as the sun with a pupil as black as night and as deep as the well within the library, and it fixed him in its gaze. Maleoke was rendered as still as the stone that looked at him, and he felt sure that he saw in that eye a quiet disregard. “Ancients!” muttered Maleoke to himself, and he would have turned and ran if he could have. Then it blinked. It vanished for a moment, and in that faintest moment he was free of its spell and such fear fell over him that he thought the walls would fall on him. But then it was back. The phoenix closed its mouth, and the sound was exactly like two stones falling together. The stream of water escaped from the edges of its beak for a moment, and then was gone. Then the great bird moved, lifting first one foot and then the other from the side of the basin and retaking its grip. All the while its great yellow eye held the intern spellbound. He watched as the stone stretched its wings, then drew itself up to its full height. It opened its mouth and blew. For the smallest moment there was nothing but a faint rippling in the air before the granite beak. But then the bird closed its eyes and the breath took flame. It filled the basin in a moment, and there was a sound of hissing as the water boiled away. It seared the grass about the basin on all sides and it sent out a heat wave that went straight through Maleoke so that he felt he had never before been warm until this moment. But most impressive was the effect that the flames had on the Phoenix itself. The fire within the basin rose in a roaring inferno until the stone creature had become engulfed. Within the flames Maleoke could see it flapping its wings, fanning the fire and sending fingers of it dashing in every direction. Then the blast turned to a piercing call, and as suddenly as it had sprung up, the fire died. The stones of the basin stood red with heat, and about them the stream was dry and the grass black. But over the empty bowl stood a thing of magnificence – nearly twice the size of the original stone and as superior to it as a man is to his portrait. The bird stood an easy three meters tall and was covered from beak to talon with feathers as red and bright as ruby. When it shook itself the sunlight sparkled off its coat on all the walls of the sanctuary. Many of the feathers in its wings were the size of Maleoke’s arm and its beak could have crushed his scull without need for a second bite. In front of the phoenix, where a moment ago had been flames, and some time before that a fountain, a man stood upon the stones of the basin. He was old and tall, and he wore the robes of a Prophet. He held a staff in his outstretched hand, and the tip of it glistened with light. The stranger turned toward Maleoke, and his eyes seemed to look right through the intern. “I am Silence!” he said, commandingly though not angrily. “You have summoned me.” “I did not summon you,” Maleoke managed to say. He stepped to the side, trying to dodge the gaze of those eyes, but they followed him. “You did summon me,” said the stranger. He came from the basin and crossed the lawn as he spoke, the great bird following after him. “You came here to think in Silence. But I am Silence, and I have heard your thoughts.” “You are a Prophet,” observed Maleoke, bowing as he would to the head Master or any other superior. After a moment his legs became weak, and he fell to his knees. “After a fashion,” replied Silence, coming to stand before the young intern. “You might say that, but you will know me better, and then you will say differently. What do you wish of me Maleoke Parphonette? What request would a child of Coreson make of Silence the old and Averell Firebreath?” “I’m sorry,” said Maleoke, “I did not mean to summon you. I only wanted some peace.” “Then peace you shall have,” said Silence, “but it will be dearly bought in days of war. Would you fight for the peace you desire, Maleoke?” “I… I don’t know,” said the intern. “Your decision lies before you then,” replied Silence, “but whatever you choose, you must pass through fire. You will know anger and grief, and all that you care for will be taken from you because you are in a world of Prophets, and the Prophets have become fools.” Maleoke did not dare to say anything in response. He stayed on his knees, staring at the strangers feet and not daring to look up into his eyes. “They have all forgotten,” Silence went on. “They have lost their roots and have fallen into the festering marsh. They grovel in the dust for trinkets and ignore the treasure of the Ancients. They strike at spiders on the wall while they feed dragons in the corner, and always Coreson flows with money as Amathea with wine, and my Prophets are drunk with it! They rob the innocent of justice, and spill the blood of the helpless! The lives they swore to protect become long stories of pain, while they run after glitter and words of praise, and the stones of my creeds lie in ash and blood beneath the dung of their debauchery! Murderers without remorse they are, and now you must pay the penalty of their crimes.” Maleoke had begun to shake uncontrollably. The words of this apparition seemed to reach deep inside him and bring out some nameless fear. He could have argued with Embyr for a month more, but there was no arguing with this old Prophet. When he spoke Maleoke was forced to accept truth. The Prophets were corrupted by wealth, and so was he. Perhaps that was where the fear came from – the knowledge that he was guilty of everything the stranger before him spoke of. No, he was not rich. He had never received anything from the school or from a Prophet, but he had wished for it – how he had wished for it – to the point of being ready to sign a contract with the Morovian Prophetic Alliance. “That Alliance,” said Silence, reading his thoughts, “that half-bred guild of self-indulged pretenders, the fosterlings who take the children’s toys and break them – and still they have not completed their greatest harm! Look!” His word was commanding, and Maleoke had to obey. He found the eyes of the old Prophet staring down at him, burning through him, and somewhere in the haze beyond the unbearable brilliance of the phoenix. “The harlot bureaucrat of cowards has a heart of glitter and shadows,” said Silence, his eyes not blinking once. “Even as you slept I saw murder creeping on him, and manipulative plots twisted in his mind.” Maleoke felt a stab of fear go through his own heart. The walls of the sanctuary seemed to close about him. He broke away his gaze from the old Prophet and pulled himself to his feet. He had been here entirely too long. He started running across the lawn toward the stairs. He had to get back to the school before… he had no idea what, but if he did not go fast enough something terrible was going to happen. He made the gap in the rock and descended the steps two at a time. It was dark when he emerged from the gap in the rocks. He was half way to the forest when the realization struck him and he came to a stop, gasping for breath and turning circles, trying desperately to get a hold on reality. It had not been dark in the sanctuary. If he had to guess he would have said the light through the fog there felt like four o clock or so. But now it was definitely dark. The sky was clear and the stars twinkled over the valley of the Prophets. A gentle breeze played among the trees and the stream bubbled over its steps, but these were the only sounds to be heard. Maleoke turned back and looked at the gap in the rock. It could not have looked more ordinary. He had to wonder – had it all been a dream? Had he slept the afternoon away in the sanctuary and conjured up the entire affair with the apparitions in the fountain? Or was there something more going on? This was Coreson, after all, and nearly anything was possible. Was someone playing tricks on him? Whatever the case might be, he had to conclude at last that the thing to do was find Embyr. Maybe he had dreamed up the whole event, but he had not dreamed up the feeling of fear that still came on him when he thought of her. She might still be in danger, and though the thought made no rational sense to him he had to conclude that the only way to dispel the irrational would be to find her – to see with his own eyes that she was okay. He started walking. Perhaps in the morning he would try to find the bureaucrat from Morvan. Guests of the school usually were housed among the teachers if any space was open. He could ask some questions and pay the representative from the MPA a visit. Surely the man would be pleased to answer some hard hitting questions about their affairs, to dispel the ridiculous doubts that Maleoke was having. That was his job after all. The school was still buzzing with activity. The mess hall doors stood open and the hordes of students went in and out. Preparations had been completed some time ago, and though the banquet was not until sunset tomorrow, a sort of preliminary party had unofficially begun. The last of the tests had been completed today and though the usual curfews applied there was no cause to be awake before noon tomorrow so everyone was in a lighter mood. From the bustle about the campus Maleoke decided that it must be on or about nine o clock. In an hour or so the bell over the hall would sound, bringing an end to the day and sending the students to their rooms. But for now the crowds were out and alive, making the most of the last precious hours of the school year. Maleoke reached the pavement and stepped in among the students, making his way toward the hall. His eyes scanned the crowd, but he was not really looking for Embyr. He was looking for a reaction of recognition, because he knew she would see him before he ever saw her, and when she did she would have a look on her face that did not mingle with the rest of the crowd. For the intern who had spent the last two years learning to pick out the smallest differences in the world about him this was far easier to see than a familiar face. He followed the natural stream of traffic and came at last into the hall. Here the traffic was a little less. Preparations had been completed, and as such most of the room was roped off, leaving only the main walkways and encouraging the interns to pass on through. The transformation that had taken place in the hall was remarkable, even to Maleoke who had seen it when it was more or less half done. Standing there in the middle of the room with the flow of traffic going by all around him, it seemed more like he had been whisked away to the banquet of some high king of the south. “I thought I might find you here,” said a voice from behind him. “Embyr!” Maleoke nearly shouted, turning around. “Must you always sneak up on me from behind?” It was a fair bit more dramatic than the situation called for, but then his situation did not necessarily match the rest of the room. Several of the passersby stared, curious as to what might be the cause of the drama. “I’ve been looking for you,” said she, ignoring his outburst. “Where have you been?” “I went for a walk,” said Maleoke. “In the woods.” “Then it was a long walk,” replied Embyr, “or we define ‘woods’ differently.” “Why were you looking for me?” asked Maleoke, his mind working in overtime, trying to adjust his reality to the notion that she was standing there in front of him, unharmed and every bit her usual annoying self. “I have something for you,” she said. “A gift.” “What on earth for?” “Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm and dragging him toward the door of the hall. “You’re blocking traffic.” They went out onto the pavement and past the fountain, waiting until they were beyond the crowds to speak again. Embyr went to a bench on the edge of the walkway and sat, motioning for him to sit next to her. “I’m not the only one looking for you, you know,” she said when he had sat down. “The bureaucrat was asking for you earlier. He seemed unimpressed when you couldn’t be found.” “Did he say what he wanted?” “No. He made a point of not saying. I offered to take a message for you, and he was even less impressed by that – said I should keep to myself instead of poking about in other people’s business. I don’t think he much cares for me.” “He doesn’t know you,” said Maleoke. “Where is he now?” “Who knows,” Embyr replied. “Didn’t say where he was staying. In short he was most uncooperative, but expected everyone else to be happy to jump through hoops for him. Mal, you’ve got to see he’s bad news.” “So you keep telling me,” said Maleoke. “Is this your gift - another lecture?” “No,” said Embyr with a laugh – that musical enchanting laugh that made her nearly impossible to hate. “This is.” She reached into her satchel and brought out a square package. It was about the size of a small book, though a little too thin to be one, and wrapped in leather. Embyr handed it over saying, “A little something in celebration of your decision.” “But you don’t know what my decision is yet,” said Maleoke. “That’s not the point,” she said, snatching the package back and bringing a pen knife to cut the binding. “The point is that you have incredible options before you, and whether you choose the right path or throw your life away, I want you to have something to remember this night by – this night when you had everything.” He let the insult slide. Maybe one day she would understand him and see that he had made the right choice, but in the meantime it wasn’t worth detrimenting a friendship over, even if she thought it was. Reclaiming his gift, he pulled away the leather covering. Inside was a piece of glass, cut perfectly square and as reflective as any mirror he had ever looked in. It had no frame, and the corners were cut so well that they were quite sharp. It was hardly thicker than the leather that it had been wrapped in. “It’s a mirror,” said Embyr, as if that should be the only explanation necessary. “I can see that,” replied Maleoke. “Embyr, why are you giving me a mirror?” She laughed again, sliding herself closer to him and wrapping her arm around him. “It’s a metaphor,” she said. “I’m giving you yourself.” “I didn’t realize I was yours to give.” “You’re missing the point, Mal. What I’m saying is I’m not going to try to control your life anymore. I’m setting you free of my judgement.” “Thank you,” said Maleoke, and he meant it. “This means a lot to me, you know.” “I know,” said Embyr. “So where on earth did you pick up something like this?” he said, breaking the moment they were having. “Nowhere,” she replied with a laugh. “Just a trader in the town selling fancy new cuts from NaRasch.”
BECOMING PROPHETSThe morning dawned in the most brilliant sunrise Coreson had seen yet that year. The sun broke free of the mountains, bringing the sky from darkness through a panorama of vibrant colors to the clear warmth of morning. And when the world began to warm after the chill of night the School of the Prophets came alive. This was no morning to abandon the Prophetic rudiments. The day began as always with the ritualized ruminations and the ordering of mind and body. Then a bell was rung signalling the preparation of breakfast and the interns came flocking from their dorms in droves to the kitchens. Normally the morning meal would be taken in the mess hall, but as it had been decorated the interns were turned outside to eat on the tables about the lawn. No one minded this change. Many of them would have been outside anyway, so pleasant was the morning. When breakfast had been consumed it was back to the dorms to further the day’s preparations. For the girls this meant a drawn out beauty routine that turned into a team sport as the hours before noon passed. For the boys the time was harder to endure. At about eleven the carriages began to arrive. A hundred or more came, clogging up the open areas about the stables and causing the grooms and their freshman help to dash about frantically, trying to bring organization to chaos. Many of these carriages contained the parents of graduates who lived in Coreson or Kanedon. Others contained well-to-do residents of the city who had active financial interests in the school. All were rich and therefore held the opinion that the world, and this corner of it in particular, existed to serve them. In a few cases this was very nearly true. The school staff endured the rest of them, sending them on their way toward the library as quickly as possible. By twelve o clock an impressive crowd had gathered on the lawn that sloped up from the fountain to the library. A podium was set at the top of the wide stone walkway where it fanned out into a terrace, and most of the teachers had gathered there, dressed in their Prophetic uniforms and seated on benches before the onlookers. As the library bell tolled the noon hour the School Master came from among their number to stand behind the podium and begin the proceedings with a long winded and well-rehearsed speech. At last when he ran out of breath a signal was given, and the band struck the time honored theme of Coreson. The library doors came open, and the interns were released. They came in single file according to their ages and names, carrying in their hands the folded garments that had always marked them as interns. One by one they filed before the School Master. He took their uniforms from them, and dressed them in Prophetic robes. Then he hung about their necks the golden sunshield, each with the graduate’s name carved about the rim and set with such instruction that it should shatter if attempt were made to alter it in any way. This was to be their proof of identity – the credence to the world beyond that they were indeed Prophets. The Interns knelt before the Master when the sunshield was brought, and when it was dropped about their necks they rose again, having become Prophets. This was then followed by more lengthy speeches on the part of the School Master and some of his head staff, now mostly for the benefit of the onlookers. Not long before two o clock the proceedings finally ended and the new Prophets were released. They descended from the terrace into the ranks of spectators, taking up the head of a grand parade as they made their way down past the fountain and out toward the gates of the school. All this was the dictates of tradition. Beyond the front gates of the school waited all the masses of Coreson who were not rich enough to merit an invitation to the ceremony. As the Prophets passed by they joined into the parade, and for a brief afternoon the rich and the poor mingled and cast was forgotten. The throng descended into Coreson and throughout the streets of the city the graduation festival began. All that afternoon work was abandon in the Prophetic City. Its citizens waited year round for this, their greatest of holidays. Food and drink were prepared in abundance and given freely. Beggars ate as kings, and men of rank temporarily forgot their dignity. Fireworks were lit and games played where tomorrow traffic would flow. And all through the city the new Prophets were honored and begged for displays of the petty tricks of their trade. When he had eaten his fill of the bounty being passed about the streets Maleoke settled himself on a barrel near the town square and made rainbows for the children who passed by. When their parents came to see, bringing with them their judgements and expectations, he filled the street with clouds and let it rain on them. While this was a deal more impressive than the rainbows it was also far more consuming and before the afternoon had passed he was tired and hungry again. Getting off his barrel he went in search of more food – and Embyr. He had not meant to search for her at first, but as he began to wander he gradually came to realize, a little to his surprise, that when he looked through the crowds it was her face he was hoping to see. It took a little time, but at last he gave up his notions that what he was doing could be considered wandering, and began searching for her. She proved difficult to find, however, and he had spent the better part of an hour walking before his search was rewarded. She was by the northernmost of the three bridges that spanned the Morvinas, in a group of friends that he had never cared to get to know too well. The traffic of the celebration was less here and for the most part they were being left alone. Seeing that she was decidedly in a group, Maleoke went no further, but stepped to the side of the road, leaning against a wall to observe. He could not effectively make himself invisible here, especially with so many Prophets passing by, but he could draw attention to the menial objects about him so that he would go unnoticed. He did so now, dropping to the ground so that he was seated with his back to the wall. He could have listened in on her conversation, but he was content for the moment just to watch her, loosing himself in the musings of years gone by. “Ah, there you are,” said a voice from the road. Maleoke started with surprise when he realized the voice was directed at him. Turning his attention from the group by the bridge he was surprised further to find the bureaucrat from the MPA standing in the middle of the road. The man had shed his prophetic attire and was dressed as any civilian of Coreson, but he could not quite shrug off the air of high class and self-importance that identified him long before his face could be recognized. “Good day, mister Longshod,” said Maleoke politely, though he did not rise or offer his hand. “How does it feel being a Prophet?” asked the bureaucrat, coming from the street to stand beside where he was seated. “I feel the same,” replied Maleoke. “I think everyone does. Can I help you with something, sir?” “What?” said the bureaucrat, and he seemed preoccupied. “No, not today. Today is your day.” He seated himself beside Maleoke, crossing his legs and looking extremely uncomfortable. “Actually,” he continued after a moment, “I’m here to help you with something. I’m leaving in the morning.” “So soon?” said Maleoke. “I’ve stayed longer than I intended,” replied Longshod. “But I am called home. I have only one last affair to attend to before I go, and that is you, Maleoke.” “I see,” said the new Prophet, because he was unsure what else he should say. “I would like you to come with me,” said the bureaucrat. “But if tomorrow is too early then you may follow me within the week and when you come to Morvan you will find the tests ready for you.” “I hadn’t decided the matter yet,” said Maleoke. “What’s to decide, boy?” said Longshod with a lough as though the young Prophet had made a joke. “If you’re worried about the tests I can put your mind at ease now. Your master showed me your scores, and I assure you the application will be the least of your concerns.” “No, it’s not that,” said Maleoke, wondering as he did why he was talking to the bureaucrat this way. “I’m just not sure I’m the best match for the MPA. Perhaps someone else would be better suited for the job.” He wondered if it sounded as lame to Longshod as it did in his own ears. “Match?” said the bureaucrat with a laugh. “Do you think I’d be here if you weren’t a match? No, this is about something else, isn’t it…” he thought for a moment, looking hard at Maleoke. “Someone’s been whispering pipe dreams in your ears,” he said at last. “Someone with a chip on their shoulder for the alliance… someone you care deeply about.” Maleoke shut his mouth and looked hard at the bureaucrat. “You’re not just a researcher,” he said finally. “You have a measure of power yourself.” “Insight, actually,” said Longshod, “and it’s not really power. A few useful tools given me by the Prophets to carry out their business. It’s how I found you. It’s how I know that the Alliance needs a man like you – and you need it.” “I guess a trick like that would help a lot if you wanted to impress people by telling them the things they want to hear.” “I was never very good at manipulation,” said Longshod. “I think that’s why they gave me this job. This may surprise you, Maleoke, but the Alliance really isn’t interested in Prophets who aren’t interested in them. If you really don’t want to be with the Alliance then the last thing they would want is an unwilling member. It’s unhealthy for everyone. But I don’t think you’re as uninterested as you’re putting on. It’s her, isn’t it.” He gestured nonchalantly towards the group of Prophets by the bridge. “The red head. She’s the reason you’re eating yourself up inside.” “You’re good,” said Maleoke, half impressed. He knew just enough about the rudiments of insight to understand how difficult it could be – especially for a man like the bureaucrat who had not been schooled as a Prophet. “That means a lot to me, coming from you,” said the bureaucrat. “Does it?” said Maleoke in surprise. “Of course,” replied Longshod. “It’s only natural that you still see yourself as an intern, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know how it works. When we talked in your Master’s office you couldn’t keep your jaw up. But that’s only where it starts. Two years from now I’ll need an appointment to talk to you, and my superiors will be asking you for favors.” Maleoke chuckled at the thought. “She’s a lovely girl,” said the bureaucrat after a moment, indicating Embyr with his chin. “But she hides things. She’s covered herself in a mask so thick not even you can see through it. Her smiles are cracked with tears. She looks for something to project her pain onto, and finds the Alliance that took her older brother away. But his death was not our fault and she knows this when she is honest with herself. Today she is happy – like every graduate here – but tomorrow the pain will find her again and she will seek to drag you into her bitterness.” “She never mentioned a brother to me,” said Maleoke. “She hasn’t spoken of him since he died,” said the Bureaucrat. “It happened before she came to the school, but it clouds every judgement she makes.” With a great heave Longshod rose to his feet. “Be careful if you decide to ask her about him. Be guarded or she will hurt you. I see how you care for her.” He gave Maleoke a nod which was intended to be goodbye, and walked into the street. Glordesh did not stay in the city long. She went with the parade of Prophets down from the school and wandered with Gaben and her other friends for a while, but it did not take long for the glamor of the party to wear off. She drifted toward the edge of the town and by the time she crossed the bridge she found that she was making for the school. The heat of the afternoon had not yet passed. The sky was clear and the earth smelled of sun baking. The road to the school was deserted, and Glordesh set an easy pace, taking her time with the journey. As she walked her mind drifted back to the events of the night before. “What do you want to kill him for?” had been the first question Hayley had asked her, and it was a fair enough question. But Glordesh had more than enough answer to it. She had seen firsthand the poverty and oppression of Oomar – she had grown up with it. She knew more than a dozen stories of run-ins with Vhoca which always ended in the slaughter or maiming of otherwise peaceful farmers. And the stories were well known – even outside of Oomar. Hayley had not argued any of her words. He had only listened, nodding occasionally to what she said. “How badly do you want him dead?” had been his next question. That had put her off guard. Was there even a proper answer to that? She had tried several answers out in her head, but the one she went with at last was probably the lamest sounding. “More than anything,” she had said. It had made the old man smile in the dark. “That’s good enough for me,” he had replied. The gates of the School of the Prophets came into view before her. Glordesh was glad to see the end of her journey coming near. The heat that had been pleasant at first was growing tiresome. She wanted now to gain the shadows of her room, and to have a drink of cold water and lay down for a rest. These new Prophetic robes would take some getting used to. The school grounds were all but deserted. Two gardeners worked in the flowers about the fountain and a third rested beneath the shade of the hall, but beyond these there was no signs of life within the valley. It was the most eerie and anti-climactic scene Glordesh could imagine. She hurried on, passing beyond the edge of the hall and making for the side entrance of her dorm rather than the main entrance on the front. She climbed the stairs two at a time, making a last effort in the stifling hallway to reach the freedom of her room. The curtains were drawn as she had left them and the room was in shadows. As she closed the door the heat of the hall melted into the pleasant cool she had been anticipating since she began walking. The binding agents she had laid on the cracks about the window to keep the air from passing through were still in place. With a sigh of relief she pulled free of her robe and crossed the room to her bed. That was where she had put the sword early in the morning when she came home. She drew it out now. It was a great longsword standing as high as her shoulder when she set the point on the floor. Carefully she laid it on her bed and peeled away the layers of dirty rags that were bound about it, both to protect and conceal it. Even in the darkness of the room the seven blue gems inlaid in the blade gleamed out through the windows in the scabbard. It sang a sort of cold song as she drew it methodically into the world. It’s blade appeared to be polished steel, but even Glordesh who knew little enough about metals of any kind knew that this was no common element. It was much stronger. The two halves of the hilt did not quite meet, but lay open in a jagged fashion from the pommel to the divide of the guard. The grip appeared uncomfortable with ridges and points to prick the hand, but it was remarkable deceptive. It fit in her hand as though it had been made to go there. “You must be very careful with Maroward,” Hayley had told her. “This is a treasure of more value than you can imagine. It was a gift to me at great price to the giver, and now I give it to you.” “I’ve never used weapons,” Glordesh had said hesitantly. “What am I to do with it?” “Not much,” Hayley had replied, folding his hands in his lap as if he wished to take the sword back. “This is the sword that will change everything for Vhoca. It was given to me by one who sees future events. He saw that you would come here, and he saw that I must give it to you. He saw that you in turn would give it to a child of Oomar – a girl of flowers and wind chimes – who would carry it to meet Vhoca.” “So I must find this girl,” said Glordesh. “Not necessarily,” replied Hayley kindly. “After all, it’s not as if I found you. It was you who sought me out. The foreknowledge does not say that she will find you as you have found me, but I think it will not be a difficult matter for you, though if she is indeed the child that it suggests then you may have a challenge on your hands preparing her to meet with Vhoca.” “I had always thought it would be me who met him,” Glordesh had said thoughtfully. “Things seldom work out the way we expect,” Hayley had replied gently. “Ancients, they never have for me. But the matter of Vhoca is still a far off affair for you. In the mean time you have other work.” “What work are you talking about?” demanded Glordesh, growing suddenly suspicious. Perhaps, she had thought, this sword might not turn out to be as much of a gift as it had first appeared. “For the time being your only task is learning,” said Hayley. “I know that the name of this sword is Maroward, but beyond that I have no knowledge of its uses or history – these you must discover for yourself. You must learn how to use it so that you can teach the child of Oomar.” That had made perfect sense to her. But the rest of his statement had not. “Before she is found,” he had said, “It is given to you to use this blade once – and then never again – not in Oomar, but here in Coreson.” She had asked many questions then, but the only answer he would or could give her was, “It has been seen that a need will arise, and if you are present with this weapon when it does so then a great sorrow will be averted.” Glordesh had to concede that compared to some of the more famous historical foretellings this one was actually rather specific. But though this helped to quench her sense of self-pity it did nothing for the futility she felt. She had spent most of the night mulling over the matter, but the truth was she had her starting point and until she actually started she had no room for complaints. Maroward; that was the name Hayley had given the sword, saying that she must discover the rest of its history for herself. She had a name, and she had a purpose, and if she were to pursue it than she was fortunate because she was still in Coreson. It was generally agreed among the Prophets that all of the world’s oldest histories resided in Kanedon, in Morvan, and here in Coreson in the library of the School of the Prophets. She crossed to the window and peered out between the drapes at the white dome of the library just visible beyond the edge of the hall and wondered if the Library Keeper would be about his business this afternoon. There was one way to find out beyond all certainty. With great care she replaced the long sword in its sheath, rewrapping the rags about it and moving it back under the bed. As afternoon turned to evening the party in the streets of Coreson grew old. Gradually the traffic shifted back to the road and the school grounds came back to life. The fires in the kitchen were kindled and a battalion of hired help came to support the usual staff. For two hours the smells of cooking wafted over the campus and then at last the doors of the hall were thrown open about an hour after sunset, and the real graduation party began. The meal lasted for most of the night, progressing gradually as the hours passed from one theme to another. The food was accompanied by music and dancing and a few more speeches, most of which were endured with only one or two actually being enjoyed. But drink was as abundant as food, and by nine o clock the audience was far more forgiving. All students and residents of the school were in attendance, but the graduates were held in highest honor this night, paraded around like royalty and commended by all, whether their achievements were commendable or not. At first they sat at a designated table which stretched across one end of the room and the wandering trays of food came first to them before being offered to the rest of the banquet. But time and inhibition eventually did away with the cast and the graduates wandered again among their friends. By eleven o clock the older and younger members of the party were beginning to wander off in search of bed. Maleoke was seated at a table in the midst of the hall, with a drink in his hand and a stomach on the verge of bursting. He was among friends and seated in the midst of their conversation, though it had been some time since he had contributed anything meaningful to it. He was thoroughly and enjoyably lost in the cacophony of sound and movement going on about him when he was brought quite suddenly to reality by a voice which he recognized immediately as Embyr’s. She was saying hello to his friends and shoving the person next to him down to an empty seat so that she could take his chair. With her foot she kicked her newly obtained seat toward Maleoke’s, nearly bashing his hand as the two collided, and dropped into it, effectively destroying any physical bubble he might have otherwise imagined. Maleoke said nothing, either to her or to anyone else. He took a long pull from his glass and shifted to the opposite side of his chair. Embyr wasted no time in striking up conversation with the one whose seat she had so rudely taken. “I heard you’re going to be a nose-picker,” she said jokingly, though the allegation was real enough. His name was Selan and he was the son of a Coreson Councillor. His father had already arranged a position for him among the council’s staff of strategists. “That I will,” said Selan good-naturedly, “and you can come visit me when you’ve grown tired of thumbing through the dirt.” “Hey!” she said in mock indignation, “Somebody slap him! Some of the greatest Prophets have been archeologists!” “Sure,” replied Selan, “But none of them dug in Kanedon. It’s the dead city! You want to dig up the dead city.” “Ancients, yes!” said Embyr, a little of the joking leaving her voice. “If you’re going to dig, you might as well do it where it hasn’t been done before. And why not dig in Kanedon?” “Because there’s nothing there to dig up,” said Selan. “Well, I wish the best of luck to you!” “And I to you,” said Embyr. She plucked Maleoke’s mug from his hand and held it up for a toast. “May you be prosperous and protected from paper cuts!” The entire table joined in on her toast – all except Maleoke who had no drink to toast with. When they drank he rose wordlessly, sliding back his seat, and stepped away from the table. He had walked nearly ten paces before the party realized his absence and called after him. “Hey Mal!” they shouted, “Where are you off to?” “Goodnight,” he called, turning back to face them while he kept walking. “I drink your health!” he held up an imaginary mug and drained it before turning away. He practically barreled his way through a group of partiers before he made the wider walkway and turned toward the door. From behind him he could hear Embyr calling after him, but he did not respond. She would probably come after him. He hoped she would not, but he knew that she would whether he hoped or not. She would want him to turn around, to fix whatever was wrong with him – it would be his responsibility to know what that was – and to come back to his friends and be happy. But he wouldn’t really be happy. He would plaster on a smile that she would be able to see right through, and she would proceed to pester him about that. And so he kept walking and hoping that she’d get mixed up in the crowd.