Tavi peeked around the corner of the boys' dormitories at the Academy's central courtyard, and said to the young man beside him, "You've got that look on your face again."
Ehren Patronus Vilius, a young man barely more than five feet tall, skinny, pale-skinned, and dark-eyed, fidgeted with the hems of his flapping grey academ's robes and overcoat. "What look?"
Tavi drew back from the corner, and tugged idly at his own student's uniform. It seemed that no matter how many times he got the garment adjusted, his body kept a pace ahead of the seamstress. The robes were too tight in the shoulders and chest, and the arms didn't come close to touching Tavi's wrists. "You know it, Ehren. The one you get when you're about to give someone advice."
"Actually it's the one I get when I'm about to give advice I'm sure will be ignored." Ehren peeked around the corner too, and said, "Tavi, they're all there. We might as well leave. There's only the one way to get to the dining hall. They're going to see us."
"Not all of them are there," Tavi insisted. "The twins aren't."
"No. Just Brencis and Renzo and Varien. Any one of whom could skin both of us together."
"We might be more of a handful than they think," Tavi said.
The smaller boy sighed. "Tavi, it's only a matter of time before they hurt someone. Maybe bad."
"They wouldn't dare," Tavi said.
"They're Citizens, Tavi. We aren't. It's as simple as that."
"That's not how it works."
Do you ever actually listen to your history lessons?" Ehren countered. Of course it's how it works. They'll say it was an accident, and they're terribly sorry. Assuming it even gets to a court, a magistrate will make them pay a fine to your relatives. Meanwhile, you'll be walking around missing your eyes or your feet."
Tavi set his jaw and started around the corner. "I'm not missing breakfast. I was up at the Citadel all night, he made me run up and down those crows-eaten stairs a dozen times, and if I have to skip another meal I'll go insane."
Ehren grabbed his arm. His lanyard, sporting one white bead, one blue, and one green bounced against his skinny chest. Three beads meant that the furymasters of the Academy thought Ehren barely had a grasp of furycrafting at all.
Of course, he had three beads more than Tavi.
Ehren met Tavi's gaze and spoke quietly. "If you go walking out there alone, you're insane already. Please wait a few minutes more."
Just then, the third morning bell sounded, three long strokes. Tavi grimaced at the bell tower. "Last bell. If we don't get moving, we won't have time to eat. If we time it right, we can walk past them when some others are coming out. They might not see us."
"I just don't understand where Max could be," Ehren said.
Tavi looked around again. "I don't know. I didn't leave for the palace until just before curfew, but his bed hadn't been slept in this morning."
"Out all night again," Ehren mourned. "I don't see how he expects to pass if he keeps this up. Even I won't be able to help him."
"You know Max," Tavi said. "He isn't big on planning." Tavi's belly cramped with hunger and made a gurgling noise. "That's it," he said. "We need to move. Are you coming with me or not?"
Ehren bit his lip and shook his head. "I'm not that hungry. I'll see you in class?"
Tavi felt a swell of disappointment, but he chucked Ehren on the arm. He could understand the smaller boy's reluctance. Ehren had grown up among his parents' quiet books and tables, where his keen memory and ability with mathematics far outweighed his lack of strong furycrafting. Before coming to the Academy, Ehren had never been faced with the kind of casual, petty cruelty that powerful young furycrafters could show their lessers.
Tavi, on the other hand, had been facing that particular problem for the whole of his life.
"I'll see you at class," he told Ehren.
The smaller boy fumbled at his lanyard with ink-stained fingers. "You're sure?"
"Don't worry. I'll be fine." With that, Tavi stepped around the corner and started walking across the courtyard toward the dining hall.
A few seconds later, Tavi heard running footsteps and Ehren puffed into place beside him, his expression nervous but resolved. "I should eat more," he said. "It could stunt my growth."
Tavi grinned at him, and the two walked together across the courtyard.
Spring sunlight, warmer than the mountain air around the capital of Alera, poured down over the Academy grounds. The courtyard was a richly planted garden with walkways of smooth white stone set in a number of meandering paths across it. The early blooms had accompanied the green grass up from the earth after winter's chill, and their colors, all reds and blues, decorated the courtyard. Students lounged at benches, talking, reading, and eating breakfast, all dressed in the uniform grey robes and tunics. Birds dipped and flashed through the sunshine, perching on the eaves of the buildings framing the courtyard before diving down to strike at insects emerging from their holes to gather in the crumbs dropped by careless academs.
It all looked peaceful, simple, and lovely beyond the scale of anything outside of the mighty capital of all Alera.
Tavi hated it.
Kalarus Brencis Minoris and his cronies had settled in their usual spot, at a fountain just outside the entrance to the dining hall. Just looking at the other boy seemed to make Tavi's morning grow darker. Brencis was a tall and handsome young man, regal of bearing and narrow of face. He wore his hair in long curls, considered fashionably decadent in the southern cities-particularly in his home of Kalare. His academ's robes were made of the finest of cloth, tailored personally to fit him, and embroidered with threads of pure gold. His lanyard shone with beads of semiprecious stones rather than cheap glass, and lay heavily on his chest with multiple representatives of all six colors-one for each area of furycrafting: red, blue, green, brown, white, and silver.
As Tavi and Ehren approached the fountain, the group of students from Parcia, golden brown skin shining in the morning sun, started passing between them and the bullies. Tavi hurried his steps. They only needed to avoid notice for a few more yards.
They didn't. Brencis rose from his seat at the fountain's edge, his lips curling into a wide and cheerful smile. "Well, well," he said. "The little scribe and his pet freak out for a walk. I'm not sure they'll let the freak into the dining hall if you don't put him on a leash, scribe."
Tavi didn't even glance toward Brencis, continuing on without slowing his steps. There was a chance that if he simply took no notice of the other boy, he might not bother to push.
Ehren, though, stopped and glowered at Brencis. The small boy licked his lips, and said, in a crisp tone, "He isn't a freak."
Brencis's smile widened as he came closer. "Of course he is, scribaby. The First Lord's pet monkey. It did a trick once, and now Gaius wants to show it off, like any other trained beast."
"Ehren," Tavi said. "Come on."
Ehren's dark eyes glistened abruptly, and his lower lip trembled. But the boy lifted his chin and didn't look away from Brencis. "H-he isn't a freak," Ehren insisted.
"Are you calling me a liar, scribe?" Brencis asked. His smile became vicious, and he flexed his fingers. "And I thought you had learned proper respect for your betters."
Tavi ground his teeth in frustration. It wasn't fair that idiots like Brencis should get to throw their weight around so casually, while decent folk like Ehren were constantly walked upon. Brencis obviously wasn't going to let them pass without incident.
Tavi glanced at Ehren and shook his head. The smaller boy would not have been here to begin with if he hadn't been following Tavi. That made Tavi responsible for what happened to him. He turned to face Brencis and said, "Brencis, please leave us alone. We just want to get some breakfast."
Brencis put his hand to his ear, his face reflecting feigned puzzlement. "Did you hear something? Varien, did you hear anything?"
Behind Brencis, the first of his two lackeys stood up and meandered over. Varien was a boy of medium height and heavy build. His robes were nowhere near so fine as Brencis's, though still superior to Tavi's. The extra fat gave Varien's face a petulant, spoiled look, and his baby-fine blond hair was too lank to curl properly, like Brencis's. His lanyard bore several beads of white and green that somehow clashed with his muddy hazel eyes. "I might have heard a rat squeaking."
"Could be," Brencis said gravely. "Now then, scribe. Would you prefer mud or water?"
Ehren swallowed and took a step back. "Wait. I'm not looking for trouble."
Brencis followed the small boy, his eyes narrowing, and grasped Ehren by his academ's robe. "Mud or water, you gutless piglet."
"Mud, my lord," urged Varien, eyes lit with an ugly sparkle. "Leave him up to his neck in it and let those clever wits of his broil in the sun for a while."
"Let me go!" Ehren said, his voice rising to a panicked pitch.
"Mud it is," said Brencis. He gestured to the ground with one hand, and the earth heaved and shivered. Nothing happened for a moment, then the ground began to stir, growing softer, a bubble rising up through the sudden mix of earth and fury-called water with a sodden "bloop."
Tavi looked around him for help, but there was none to be seen. None of the Maestros were passing through, and with the exception of Max, none of the other students were willing to defy Brencis when he was amusing himself at someone else's expense.
"Wait!" Ehren cried. "Please, these are the only shoes I have!"
"Well then," Brencis said. "It looks like your little freeholder family should have saved up for another generation before they sent someone here."
Tavi had to get Brencis's attention away from Ehren, and he could only think of one way to manage it. He bent over, dug up a handful of sodden earth into one scooped hand, and flung it at Brencis's head.
The young Kalaran let out a short sound of surprise as mud plastered his face. Brencis wiped at the mud and stared, shocked, at his soiled fingers. There was a sudden burst of stifled giggles from the students watching the exchange, but when Brencis stared around him, they all averted their gaze and hid smiles behind lifted hands. Brencis glowered at Tavi, his eyes flat with anger.
"Come on, Ehren," Tavi said. He pushed the smaller boy behind him, toward the dining hall. Ehren stumbled, then hurried that way. Tavi started to follow him without turning his back on Brencis.
"You," Brencis snarled. "How dare you."
"Leave it, Brencis," Tavi said. "Ehren's never done you any harm."
"Tavi," Ehren hissed, warning in his tone.
Tavi sensed the presence behind him just as Ehren spoke, and ducked. He darted to one side, in time to avoid a pair of heavy-handed swipes from Brencis's second crony, Renzo.
Renzo was simply huge. Huge across, huge up and down, built on the same scale as barns and warehouses-big, roomy, and plain. He had dark hair and the scruffy beginnings of a full beard, and tiny eyes set in his square face. Renzo's academy tunic was made of unexceptional cloth, but its very size meant that it had to have cost twice what a normal outfit would have. Renzo had only heavy brown beads on his lanyard-lots and lots of them. He took another step toward Tavi and drove a huge fist forward.
Tavi hopped out of the way of that blow as well, and snapped, "Ehren, find Maestro Gallus!"
Ehren let out a startled cry, and Tavi looked over his shoulder to see Varien holding the little scribe, his arms around Ehren's shoulders, twisting painfully.
Distracted, Tavi was unable to avoid Renzo's next lunge, and the big, silent boy picked him up and threw him without ceremony into the fountain.
Tavi splashed into the water, and a shock of cold stole the breath from his lungs. He floundered for a minute, trying to tell up from down, and got himself more or less righted in the two-foot depth of water in the fountain. He sat up, spluttering.
Brencis stood over the fountain, mud dripping from one ear and staining his beautiful clothing. His handsome face twisted into an expression of annoyance. He lifted one hand and flicked his wrist in a languid gesture.
The water around Tavi surged on its own accord. Steam, searing heat, washed up and away from the surface of the fountain's water, and Tavi let out a choked breath, lifting a hand to shield his eyes while the other supported him upright. The flood of heat passed as swiftly as it had come.
Tavi found himself completely unable to move. He looked around him and saw, as the steaming cloud cleared, that the fountain's water had transformed completely into solid, frozen ice. The cold of it began to chew into his skin a moment later, and he struggled to get a deep breath through the grip of the ice.
"H-how," he muttered, staring at Brencis. "How did you do that?"
"An application of furycrafting, freak," Brencis said. "Firecrafting is all about arranging heat, after all. I just moved all the heat out of the water. It's an advanced application, of course. Not that I would expect you to understand how it works."
Tavi looked around the courtyard. Varien still held Ehren in a painful lock. The scribe was breathing in short, pained gasps. Many of the students who had been there a few moments before had left. Of the half dozen or so who remained, none were looking at the fountain, suddenly engrossed in their books, their breakfasts, or in the details of the roof of a building across the campus.
The cold's teeth became painful fangs. Tavi's arms and legs throbbed in pain, and it became harder to breathe. Fear raced through him, making his heart labor.
"Brencis," Tavi began. "Don't do this. The Maestros-"
"Won't care about you, freak." He regarded Tavi with a relaxed, calculating expression. "I am the eldest son of a High Lord of Alera. You're no one. You're nothing. Haven't you learned that by now?"
Tavi knew that the other boy was trying to hurt him, to anger him, and had chosen his words carefully. He knew that Brencis was deliberately manipulating him, but it seemed to make little difference. The words hurt. For most of his young life, Tavi had dreamed of leaving his aunt and uncle's steadholt, of coming to the Academy, to make something of himself despite his utter lack of ability in furycrafting.
Fate, it seemed, had delivered her most cruel stroke by granting his request.
The cold made it hard to speak, but Tavi did. "Brencis, we're both going to get demerits if the Maestros see this. Let me out. I'm sorry about the m-m-mud."
"You're sorry? As if that should matter to me?" Brencis said. "Renzo."
Renzo drew back his fist and hit Tavi in the mouth. Pain flashed through him, and he felt his lower lip split open and tasted coppery blood on his tongue. Anger joined his fear, and he stammered, "Crows take you, Brencis! Leave us alone!"
"He still has teeth, Renzo," Brencis noted.
Renzo said nothing, but hit Tavi again, and harder. Tavi tried to jerk his head away from the blow, but the ice held him fast, and he could no more avoid it than he could turn a cartwheel. The pain made his vision blur with tears he tried furiously to hold away.
"Let him go!" Ehren panted, but no one listened to him. The pain in Tavi's limbs continued to swell, and he felt his lips go numb. He tried to shout for help, but the sounds came out only feebly, and no help came.
"Well, freak," Brencis said. "You wanted me to leave you alone. I think I will. I'll stop by after lunch and see if there's anything else you have to say."
Tavi looked up and saw an opportunity approaching-but only if he could keep the bully's attention. He fixed his gaze on Brencis and snarled something under his breath.
Brencis tilted his head to one side, taking a step forward. "What was that?"
"I said," Tavi rasped, "that you're pathetic. You're a spoiled mama's boy who is too much a coward to face anyone strong enough to hurt you. You have to pick on people like Ehren and me because you're weak. You're nothing."
Brencis narrowed his eyes, leaning forward intently. "You know, freak. I don't have to leave you alone." He rested one hand on the ice, and it began to twitch and shift, letting out creaks and groans. Tavi felt a sharp twinge of pain in one shoulder, cutting through the frozen agony of the ice.
"If you like," Brencis said, "I can just stay right here with you."
Variens blurted, "Brencis!"
Tavi leaned forward and growled, "Go ahead, mama's boy. Go ahead and do it. What are you afraid of?"
Brencis's eyes flashed with anger, and the ice shifted more. "You've had this coming to you, paganus."
Tavi gritted his teeth over a pained scream.
"Good morning!" boomed a boisterous voice. A large, muscular young man in a legionare's close-cropped haircut loomed up behind Brencis and casually seized him by the back of his coat and his long hair. Without preamble, the young man drove Brencis's head down into the ice, cracking his skull against the frozen surface near Tavi with a solid thump. Then the young man hauled Brencis back, and tossed him away from the fountain, sending the young lord sprawling bonelessly onto the green grass.
"Max!" Ehren shouted.
Renzo took a lumbering swing at the back of Max's neck, but the tall young man ducked under it and drove a stiff punch into the hulking Renzo's belly. Renzo's breath exploded from his chest, and he staggered. Max seized one of his arms and sent Renzo sprawling beside Brencis.
Max looked over at Varien and narrowed his eyes.
The young nobleman went pale, let go of Ehren, and backed away with his hands held before him. He and Renzo hauled the stunned Brencis onto his feet, and the three bullies retreated from the courtyard. Excited mutters and whispers from the academs in the courtyard rose as they left.
"Furies, Calderon," Max called to Tavi, loudly enough to be heard by anyone who wasn't deaf. "I am so clumsy in the morning. Look at how I went blundering right into those two." Without further delay, he moved over to the fountain and regarded Tavi's plight. Max nodded once, took a deep breath, and narrowed his eyes in concentration. Then he drew back his fist and slammed it down onto the ice near Tavi. A spiderweb of cracks exploded through it, and stinging chips struck against Tavi's numbed skin. Max pounded his fist down several more times, his fury-assisted strength more than equal to the task of pulverizing the ice imprisoning Tavi. Within half a minute, Tavi felt himself come loose from his icy bonds, and Ehren and Max both hauled Tavi up from the ice and out onto the ground.
Tavi lay for a moment, gasping and gritting his teeth at the numbing cold still in his limbs, unable to speak.
"Crows," Max swore idly. He started rubbing briskly at Tavi's limbs. "He's near frostbitten."
Tavi felt his arms and legs twitch as fiery pins and needles started prickling against his skin. As soon as he could get his voice back, he gasped, "Max, forget this. Get me to breakfast."
"Breakfast?" Max said. "You're kidding, Calderon."
"I'm going to get a decent b-b-breakfast if it kills me."
"Oh. You're doing pretty well then," Max observed. He started helping Tavi up off the ground. "Thanks for keeping his attention off me until I could hit him, by the way. What happened?"
"B-Brencis," Tavi spat. "Again."
Ehren nodded earnestly. "He was going to bury me up to my neck again, but Tavi threw a bunch of mud at his face."
"Hah," Max said. "Wish I could have seen that."
Ehren bit his lip, then squinted up at the larger boy, and said, "If you hadn't been out all night, maybe you would have."
The large academ's face flushed. Antillar Maximus's features were not beautiful by anyone's standards, Tavi thought. But they were clean-cut, rugged, and strong. He had the wolfish grey eyes of the northern High Houses and combined a powerful build with a casual feline grace. Though usually he shaved scrupulously every day, he evidently hadn't had time to this morning, and shadowy stubble gave his features a roguish cast that went well with the dents in his twice-broken nose. Max's robes were plain and wrinkled, and had to struggle to contain his shoulders and chest. His lanyard, randomly arrayed with a hefty number of colored beads, had been carelessly knotted in several places where it had broken.
"I'm sorry," Max mumbled, as he helped Tavi stagger towards the dining hall. "It just kind of happened. There are some things that a man shouldn't miss."
"Antillar," murmured a female voice, a low and throaty purr drawling out consonants with an Attican accent. Tavi opened his eyes to see a ravishing young woman, her dark hair worn in a long braid that fell over her left shoulder. She was surpassingly lovely, and her dark eyes smoldered with a sensuality that had long since enraptured nearly every young man at the Academy. Her academ's robes did not manage to conceal the lush curves of her breasts, and the southern silks they were made from clung to her hips and hinted at the outlines of her thighs as she walked across the courtyard.
Max turned to face her and gave her a gallant little bow. "Good morning, Celine."
Celine smiled, the expression a lazy promise, and let Max take and kiss her hand. She let her hand rest on Max's and sighed. "Oh, Antillar. I know it amuses you to beat my fiance unconscious, but you're so much… larger than he. It hardly seems fair."
"Life isn't fair," said a second female voice, and a second beauty, indistinguishable from Celine except that she wore her hair braided over the opposite shoulder, joined them. She slid one hand over Max's shoulder, on his other side, and added, "My sister can be such a romantic."
"Lady Celeste," Max murmured. "I'm just trying to teach him manners. It's for his own good."
Celeste gave Max an arch look, and said, "You are a vile brute of a man."
Max swept his arm back as he gave the young noblewomen a gallant bow. "Celeste," he said. "Celine. I trust you slept well last night? You've almost missed breakfast."
Both of their mouths curved up into identical small smiles. "Beast," said Celine.
"Cad," her sister added.
"Ladies," Max bid them with another bow, and watched them walking away as he stood with Tavi and Ehren.
"You m-make me sick, Max," Tavi said.
Ehren glanced back over his shoulder at the twins, then to Max, his expression puzzled. Then he blinked, and said, "That's where you were all night? Both of them?"
"They do share the same quarters. Hardly would have been polite to only have one, and leave the other all lonely," Max said, his voice pious. "I was merely doing what any gentleman would."
Tavi glanced over his shoulder, his eyes drawn to the slow sway of the girls' hips as they walked away. "Sick, Max. You make me sick."
Max laughed. "You're welcome."
The three of them entered the dining hall in time to get the last of the food prepared by the kitchens that morning, but just as they found a place at one of the round tables, running footsteps approached. A girl no older than Tavi, short, stocky, and plain, came to a halt at their table, her small scattering of green and blue beads flashing in a stray beam of sunlight against her grey robes. Her fine, mouse brown hair waved around her head where tiny strands had escaped their braid. "No time," she panted. "Put that down and come with me."
Tavi looked up from his plate, already laden with slices of ham and fresh bread, and scowled at the girl. "You would not believe what I had to go through to get this, Gaelle," he said. "I'm not moving an inch until my plate is empty."
Gaelle Patronus Sabinus looked around them furtively, then leaned down closer to their table to murmur, "Maestro Killian says that our combat final is to begin at once."
"Now?" stammered Ehren.
Max cast a longing glance down at his own heaping plate, and asked, "Before breakfast?"
Tavi sighed and pushed his chair back. "Blighted crows and bloody carrion." He stood up, wincing as his arms and legs throbbed. "All right, everyone. Let's go."
Tavi went first into the old grey stone study-a building of only a single story and perhaps twenty paces square residing in the western courtyard of the Academy, which was otherwise unused. No windows graced the study. Moss fought a silent war with ivy for possession of its walls and roof. It looked little different from the storage buildings but for a plaque upon its door that read in plain letters, MAESTRO KILLIAN-REMEDIAL FURYCRAFTING.
Several worn but well-padded old benches sat around a podium before a large slateboard. The others followed Tavi inside, Max last. The big Antillan shut the door behind them and glanced around the room.
"Everyone ready?" Max asked.
Tavi remained silent, but Ehren and Gaelle both answered that they were. Max put his hand flat against the door, closing his eyes for a moment.
"All right," he reported. "We're clear."
Tavi shoved the heel of his hand firmly against a particular spot on the slateboard, and a sudden crack appeared, straight as a plumb line. He set his shoulder to the slate, and with a grunt of effort pushed open the hidden doorway. Cool air rushed over him, and he peered down at a narrow stone stairway, that wound down into the earth.
Gaelle passed him a lamp, and each of the others took one as well. Then Tavi set off down the stairs, the others close behind.
"Did I tell you? I found a way down to Riverside through the Deeps," Max mumbled.
Tavi snorted. The stone walls turned it into a hissing sound. "Down to the wine houses, eh?"
"It makes sneaking out to them simpler," Max said. "It's almost too much work to be bothered with, otherwise."
"Don't joke about such things, Max," Gaelle said, her voice somewhat hushed. "The Deeps run for miles, and great furies only know what you might run into down here. You should keep to the paths laid out for us."
Tavi reached the bottom of the stairway and turned left into a wide passage. He started counting off open doorways on his right. "It isn't all that bad. I've explored a little."
"Tavi," said Ehren, his tone exasperated. "That's the whole reason Master Killian loads you up with so much extra work. To keep you from getting into trouble."
Tavi smiled. "I'm careful."
They turned down another hall, the passage slanting sharply downward. Ehren said, "And if you make any mistakes? What if you fell into a fissure? Or into an old shaft filled with water? Or ran into a rogue fury?"
Tavi shrugged. "There's risk in everything."
Gaelle arched an eyebrow, and said, "Yet one so seldom hears of some fool drowning, starving, or falling to his death in a library or at the baker's."
Tavi gave her a sour look as they reached the bottom of the slope, where it intersected another hallway. Something flickered in the corner of his vision, and he turned to his right, staring intently down the hall.
"Tavi?" Max asked. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure," Tavi said. "I thought I saw a light down there."
Gaelle had already started down the hallway to the left, in the opposite direction, Ehren following her. "Come on," she said. "You know how much he hates to be kept waiting."
Max muttered, "He knows how much we hate to miss a meal, too."
Tavi flashed the larger young man a quick grin. The hallway led to a pair of rust-pitted iron doors. Tavi pushed them open, and the four academs moved into the classroom beyond.
The room was huge, far larger than the Academy's dining hall, its ceiling lost in shadow. A double row of grey stone pillars supported the roof, and furylamps mounted on the pillars lit the room in a harsh, green-white radiance. At the far end of the hall was a large square on the floor, composed of layers of reed matting. Beside it sat a heavy bronze brazier, its coals glowing, giving the room its only warmth. To one side of one row of pillars was a long strip marked out on the floor for training in weaponplay. On the opposite side of the room was a cluster of ropes, wooden poles, beams, and various structures of varying heights-an obstacle course.
Maestro Killian sat on his knees beside the brazier. He was a wizened old man, his hair little more than a nimbus of fine white down drifting around his shining pate. Thin, small, and seemingly frail, his black scholar's robe was so old it had faded to a threadbare grey. Several pairs of woolen stockings covered his feet, and his cane rested on the ground beside him. As the group came closer, Killian lifted his face, his blind, filmy eyes turning toward them. "That was as soon as possible?" he asked, his voice annoyed and creaking. "In my day, Cursors-in-Training would have been lashed and laid down in a bed of salt for moving so slowly."
The four of them moved forward to the reed matting and sat down in a row, facing the old man. "Sorry, Maestro," Tavi said. "It was my fault. Brencis again."
Killian felt for his cane, picked it up, and rose to his feet. "No excuses. You're just going to have to find a way to avoid his attention."
"But, Maestro," Tavi protested. "I just wanted some breakfast."
Killian poked his cane at Tavi's chest, thumping him lightly. "Going hungry until lunch wouldn't have hurt you. It would at least have demonstrated self-discipline. Better yet, you might have demonstrated forethought and saved some of last night's dinner to eat in the morning."
Tavi grimaced, and said, "Yes, Maestro."
"Were you seen coming in?"
The four answered together. "No, Maestro."
"Well then," Killian said. "If you all don't mind too terribly, shall we begin the test? With you, first, Tavi."
They stood to their feet. Killian doddered out onto the matting, and Tavi followed him. As he went, he felt the air tighten against his skin, grow somehow thicker as the old teacher called the wind furies that Jet him sense and observe movements. Killian turned toward Tavi, and nodded to him. Then the old man said, "Defend and counter."
With that, the little man whipped his cane at Tavi's head. Tavi barely ducked in time, only to see the old Maestro lift his stockinged foot and drive it down in a lashing kick aimed for Tavi's knee. The boy spun his body away from it, and used the momentum of the motion for a straight, driving kick, launched at Killian's belly.
The old Maestro dropped the cane, caught Tavi's foot at the ankle, and with a twist stole Tavi's balance and sent him flat down to the mat. Tavi hit hard enough to knock the wind from him, and he lay there gasping for a moment.
"No, no, no!" Killian scolded. "How many times do I need to tell you? You have to move your head as well as your legs, fool. You cannot expect an unaimed attack to succeed. You must turn your face to watch the target." He picked up his cane and rapped Tavi sharply on the head. "And your timing was less than perfect. Should you be on a mission one day and attacked, that kind of poor performance would mean your death."
Tavi rubbed at the spot on his head where Killian had reprimanded him, scowling. The old man had hardly needed to strike him that firmly. "Yes, Maestro."
"Go sit down, boy. Come, Antillar. Let's see if you can manage anything better."
Max went out onto the mat, and went through a similar sequence with Maestro Killian. He performed flawlessly, grey eyes flashing as he whipped his head around, keeping an eye on his target. Gaelle and Ehren went in their turns, and all of them responded better than Tavi had.
"Barely adequate," Killian snapped. "Ehren, fetch the staves."
The skinny boy got a pair of six-foot poles from a rack on the wall and brought them to the Maestro. Killian set his cane aside and accepted them. "Very well, Tavi. Let's see if you have managed to learn anything of the staff."
Tavi took the other staff from the Maestro, and the two saluted, staves lifted vertically before they both dropped into a fighting crouch.
"Defend," Killian snapped, and the old man spun his staff through a series of attacks, whirling, sweeping blows mixed with low, lightning thrusts aimed at Tavi's belly. He backed away from the Maestro, blocking the sweeping blows and slipping the thrusts aside. Tavi struck out with a counterattack, but he could feel an iron tension in his shoulders that slowed his thrust.
Killian promptly knocked aside Tavi's weapon, delivered a sharp thrust to the boy's fingers, and with a flick sent Tavi's staff spinning across the room to clatter against one of the stone pillars.
Killian thumped the end of his staff onto the mat, his expression one of frustrated disapproval. "How many times have I told you, boy? Your body must be relaxed until the instant you strike. Holding yourself too tightly slows your responses. Life and death are measured by the breadth of a hair in combat."
Tavi gripped his bruised hand into a fist, and grated out, "Yes, Maestro."
Killian jerked his head toward the fallen staff, and Tavi went to retrieve it.
The old man shook his head. "Gaelic Attempt to show Tavi what I mean."
The others followed in turn, and they all did better than Tavi had. Even Ehren.
Killian passed the staves to Tavi and picked up his cane. "To the strip, children."
They followed him to the combat strip laid out on the floor. Killian walked to the center of the strip and thumped the floor with his cane. "And once more, Tavi. We might as well get it out of the way now."
Tavi sighed and walked to stand before Killian.
Killian lifted his cane into a guard position used for swords. "I am armed with a blade," he said. "Disarm me without leaving the strip."
The cane's tip darted at Tavi's throat. The boy lightly slapped the attack aside with one hand, retreating. The old man followed, cane sweeping at Tavi's head. Tavi ducked, rolled backward to avoid a horizontal slash, and came to his feet to brush aside another thrust. He closed, inside the tip of the theoretical sword, hands moving to seize the old man's wrists.
The attack was too tentative. In the bare instant of delay, the Maestro avoided Tavi's attempt to grapple. The old man whipped the cane left and right, branding sudden pain into Tavi's chest in an x-shape. He thrust the heel of one wrinkled hand into Tavi's chest, driving the boy a step back, then jabbed the tip of the cane firmly into Tavi's chest, sending him sprawling to the floor.
"What is wrong with you?" Killian snapped. "A sheep would have been more decisive than that. Once you decide to close range, you are committed. Attack with every ounce of speed and power you can muster. Or die. It's as simple as that."
Tavi nodded, not looking at the other students, and said, very quietly, "Yes, Maestro."
"The good news, Tavi," Killian said in an acid tone, "is that you won't need to worry about the entrails currently spilling over your knees. The fountain of blood spraying from your heart will kill you far more quickly."
Tavi climbed to his feet, wincing.
"The bad news," Killian continued, "is that I see no way that I can grade your performance as anything close to acceptable. You fail."
Tavi said nothing. He walked over to lean against the nearest pillar, rubbing at his chest.
The Maestro rapped his cane on the strip again. "Ehren. I hope to the great furies you have more resolve than he does."
The exam concluded after Gaelle had neatly kicked aside the Maestro's forearm, sending the cane tumbling away. Tavi watched the other three succeed where he had failed. He rubbed at his eyes and tried to ignore how sleepy he felt. His stomach rumbled almost painfully as he knelt beside the other students.
"Barely competent," Killian muttered, after Gaelle had finished. "You all need to spend more time in practice. It is one thing to perform well in a test on the training mat. It is quite another to do so in earnest. I expect you all to be ready for the infiltration test at the conclusion of Wintersend."
"Yes, Maestro," they replied, more or less in unison.
"Very well then," Killian said. "Off with you, puppies. You might become Cursors yet." He paused to glower at Tavi. "Most of you, at any rate. I spoke to the kitchen staff this morning. They're keeping some breakfast warm for you."
The students rose, but Killian laid his cane across one of Tavi's shoulders, and said, "Not you, boy. You and I are going to have words about your performance in the exam. The rest of you, go."
Ehren and Gaelle looked at Tavi and winced, then offered him apologetic smiles as they left.
Max clapped Tavi's shoulder with one big hand when he walked by, and said, quietly, "Don't let him get to you." Max and the others left the training hall, closing the huge iron doors behind them.
Killian walked back over to the brazier and sat down, holding his hands out toward its warmth. Tavi walked over and knelt down in front of him. Killian closed his eyes for a moment, his expression pained as he opened and closed his fingers, stretching out his hands. Tavi knew that the Maestro's arthritis had been troubling him.
"Was that all right?" Tavi asked.
The old man's expression softened into a faint smile. "You mimicked their weaknesses fairly well. Antillar remembered to look before he struck. Gaelle remembered to keep herself relaxed. Ehren committed without hesitation."
"That's wonderful. I guess."
Killian tilted his head. "You aren't happy that you appeared to your friends to be unskilled."
"I guess so. But…" Tavi frowned in thought. "It's hard to deceive them. I don't like it."
"Nor should you. But I think that isn't all."
"No," Tavi said. "It's because… well, they're the only ones who know that I'm undergoing Cursor training. The only ones I can talk to about most of the things I really care about. And I know they only mean to be kind. But I know what they aren't saying. How careful they are about trying to help me without letting me know that's what they're doing. Ehren thought he had to protect me from Brencis today. Ehren."
Killian smiled again. "He's loyal."
Tavi scowled. "But he shouldn't have to do it. It isn't as if I'm not helpless enough already."
The Maestro frowned. "Meaning?"
"Meaning that I can learn all the unarmed combat I like and it won't help me against a strong furycrafter. Someone like Brencis. Even if I'm using a weapon."
"You do yourself an injustice."
Tavi said, "I don't see how."
"You are more capable than you know," Killian said. "You might not ever be the swordsman a powerful metalcrafter can become, or have the speed of a windcrafter or the strength of an earthcrafter. But furycrafting isn't everything. Few crafters develop the discipline to hone many skills. You have done so. You are now better able to deal with them than most folk who have only minor talents at furycrafting. You should take some measure of pride in it."
"If you say so." Tavi sighed. "But it doesn't feel true. It doesn't feel like I have very much to be proud about."
Killian laughed, the sound surprisingly warm. "Says the boy who stopped a Marat horde from invading Alera and earned the patronage of the First Lord himself. Your uncertainty has more to do with being seventeen than it does with any fury or lack thereof."
Tavi felt himself smile a little. "Do you want me to take the combat test now?"
Killian waved a hand. "Not necessary. I have something else in mind."
Tavi blinked. "You do?"
"Mmm. The civic legion is having trouble with crime. For the past several months, a thief has been stealing from various merchants and homes, some of which were warded by furycrafting. Thus far, the legion has been unable to apprehend the thief."
Tavi pursed his lips pensively. "I thought that they had the support of the city's furies. Shouldn't they be able to tell who circumvented the guard furies?"
"They do. They should. But they haven't."
"How is that possible?" Tavi asked.
"I cannot be certain," Killian said. "But I have a theory. What if the thief was managing the thefts without using any furycrafting? If no furies are brought into play, the city's furies could not be of any help."
"But if they aren't using any furies, how are they getting into warded buildings?"
"Precisely," Killian said. "And there is the substance of your test. Discover how this thief operates and see to it that he is apprehended."
Tavi felt his eyebrows shoot up. "Why me?"
"You have a unique perspective on this matter, Tavi. I believe you well suited to the task."
"To catching a thief the whole civic legion hasn't been able to find?"
Killian's smile widened. "This should be simple for the mighty hero of the Calderon Valley. Make sure it's done-and discreetly-before Wintersend is over."
"What?" Tavi said. "Maestro, with all of my courses, and serving in the Citadel at night, I don't know how you expect me to get this done."
"Without whining," Killian said. "You have real potential, young man. But if you are daunted by the difficulty of arranging your schedule, perhaps you would like to speak to His Majesty about returning home."
Tavi swallowed. "No," he said. "I'll do it."
The Maestro tottered back onto his feet. "Then I suggest you begin. You've no time to lose."