Emalynn hated group assignments.
It is acknowledged the world over that ‘Group Assignment’ is the doom of youth.
Educational theorists and experts justify the use of group assignments with lofty words such as ‘fostering teamwork’, ‘nurturing innovation’ and ‘sparking creativity’. However, many postulate and others firmly believe, that group assignments under the guise of academic guidance are in fact the only entertainment such educational theorists may enjoy. Watching the naiveté and optimism of youth being slowly stripped away under the onslaught of unbalanced work ethics, incompatible standards and threat of low grades, teachers, it is averred, gain some kind of satisfaction in preparing their young pupils for the Realities of Life.
Emalynn, let it be known, was not so concerned about her grades, nor was she concerned about her ability to complete the tasks set before her and her possibly incompetent partners. The nomination for and acceptance into the special extra-curricular program could hardly be declined and really, thinking it over rationally, when it had presented itself, no student in their right mind could pass up the opportunity to intern beneath a well-seasoned professional in the trade. That was the hope. That had been the hope.
Now, with more facts presented before her, in the shape of a form letter from the school’s illustrious Headmaster Felix Amarost, Emalynn was no longer so certain. She could pass - that she could promise herself - but that there would be no bloodshed or death...
She sighed as she made her way up to her favorite thinking spot on the high roof of the staff office buildings.
This is going to be difficult.
Emalynn, finding her usual perch by the warm chimney stack, sat back, breathed in deeply the cool, fresh breeze of autumn and looked over the small forest which surrounded her school. In the distance, she could see the familiar black, red, grey and navy tiled roofs of the Capital. In the distance, she could hear the clatter of life - muffled by the trees and empty park. If she got to the edge, hopped over its gray walls, Emalynn knew she would be swallowed up a world of noise and scents and color. A chaotic yet familiar world. Her birthplace. It was familiar territory and nothing like what faced her now.
Father told me it would happen. Eventually, she mused, remembering her grey-haired father’s words. I suppose I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.
In her mind, she reviewed the letter, the long words and academic jargon. She would be getting a mentor. That was exciting. She would gain in-field experience. Even more exciting. She would be able to leave the school grounds as she wished. Three times as exciting. But then, like a massive stone, falling out of nowhere, bringing her back to earth with a THUD - she would be in a group with three other mentors and their students as well to make one large team for a semester long assignment.
It was more than she could handle. She needed to breath. She needed to be alone in her favorite thinking spot and she needed to just consider the situation calmly. She need to lay out the pros and cons. There had to be pros. She needed to think positive. If she could. She needed to focus on the task at hand – remaining calm and staying patient as she waited for her mentor to get in touch. She needed to wait until more information came about her possible partners. No problem, really, if one thinks about it in simple steps. She could do this.
She always did.
The Capital, Doran’s central and most populous city, was not only the hub of the northern nation’s trade and commerce and politics, but also the most diverse metropolis in which to live. Guilds and merchants and craftsmen and skilled labourers and the burgeoning middle class and the swanky upper classes brushed shoulders (in a manner of speaking) as they went about the daily businesses that are involved with the country’s most important affairs – which were two-fold: making money and keeping the peace.
The monarch of Doran, King Wyllam, kept himself in much state at the center of the city and from all four cardinal points, he was able to see yet another view of the busy Capital which he had inherited and had maintained for a good long while.
To the east, lay the port capital’s edges – mass of wharves and docks and piers jutting out into the great harbour, the small sea beyond and the ocean further on. White sails, grey tugs and black steamers came and went at regular periods throughout the day. Arriving ships carried new imports from the continents beyond the ocean and ships leaving carried Doran’s best timber and craft work much favoured the Eastern Continent.
To the south, the stews hung close to the edges of the water – an unsavory place yet still an integral piece in the black market and smuggling-related businesses. Rickety, old, wooden framed houses leaned in on each other, many crooked and shaky looking thanks to their uncertain foundations set with poles in sand or the softer ground which had once been a marsh and had for the past five hundred years been diligently drained to provide more land. It was, as a result, a smelly place and more crowded than was comfortable. From thence the laundry women and the maids and the poorer labourers and craftsmen came, more often than not working for entrepreneurial middle class merchants and shop owners.
To the west, estates and manors and mansions and other kinds of institutional buildings grouped along wide roads and meandering paths which were covered with greenery and shaded with trees. As the city melted away into the countryside, where farms began to spring up, many estates and manors were hidden, pleasantly situated on hills and green meadows. It was a quieter part of town and obviously the wealthier.
To the north, the middle class spread out in various burgs and boroughs. There the “new rich” and the “new aristocracy” lived in grand houses with smaller plots of land. Parks allowed for the bedecked young ladies to parade their newest fashions and the young men could play as they pleased (while keeping an eye out for said young ladies). Here, business took place as well and various guild shops and streets were open to sell their wares as they were delivered by sea or from the highways stretching east and to the north.
Yet, as with all respecting countries, there were two sides to Doran. The side seen and the one hidden. The hidden world, populated by specific guilds, had a life of its own – and only those whose families had “been in the business” for some time or those who had been selected by recruiters for such a shadow organization understood the truth of the matter.
Between the suburbs (and the rural countryside beyond) and the palace, there lay one such guild, surrounded by high iron fences. It was a great park populated with tall trees and only a staid facade (glimpsed only from other towers around the capital or from far off down the road) gave clue to the existence of life or activity within the woodland. A school, some might think, or a crazed aristocrat’s folly.
That was the farthest from the truth.
Katrynn Romayan, younger sister of Emalynn, was also concerned – but for different reasons altogether. The inevitable doom of group assignments did not ruffle the eleven-year-old. However, if one was perceptive enough, below the deceptively serene expression of Katrynn, an air of tense excitement and expectation could be discerned. Not only was this a group assignment, but it was a special extra-curricular group assignment headed by masters of the field AND the assignment had come on particularly thick and official-looking parchment complete with the officiating seal of the Headmaster himself.
With the parchment had come another small note from her future mentor, a certain Athylee Corvanon, which outlined a time and meeting place for their first briefing session as well as a preliminary evaluation for the young student. Katrynn knew that, as one of the youngest students at the Academy, her initial entrance exam marks, while high, were always undercut not only by said age but also by her family connections. ‘Of course she would enroll so early and easily,’ she had heard people say – and this made her want to work even harder to prove that she wasn’t here because of Uncle and her father and Emalynn. She would do well at all of her classes, regardless of what others said and expected. She would do well and show them.
Inflamed within, Katrynn’s determination to scavenge the necessary food stores as outlined by her mentor’s instructions rose to new levels of intensity. Intensity, perhaps, could have been Katrynn’s middle name. Already she had achieved a stash worth three days of food culled from the pantry, her mother’s pantry and three unsuspecting neighbors’ pantries (from whom she had had a standing invitation to ‘help herself’).
Secreted carefully away in the waterproof, rat-proof, room-mate proof chest at the foot of her bed, Katrynn’s newly supplemented food hoard filled her with a sense of new accomplishment. She had had to stash all of her clothing at the foot of and beneath her bed in bags, but comfort, Katrynn knew, was a necessary sacrifice at times in the cause of thoroughness.
And Katrynn was thorough.
Everything is going well. She thought. So far.
Hidden by miles of thickly forested acreage, The Academy of the Secret and Arcane Arts of Politics and Espionage appeared, to many unaware passersby, to be a respectable looking building. The black tiled roofs, gothic crenellations and staid grey stonework gave no indication as to the secretive and often violent activities that were carried out from the inconspicuous place. Such folk, newcomers and traveling merchants, often thought, erroneously that it belonged to some reclusive aristocrat who might come to the great iron gates located on its east side if they rang the clapper bell long and hard enough. However, the local natives, the Capital’s army and security, the Guilds and the Court all knew that it was a school of some kind. Higher ups and those who swanned through the upper echelons of social and political power knew the truth.
The Academy of the Secret and Arcane Arts of Politics and Espionage was in fact the center, the headquarters, the heart of the King’s assassins corps. Only a few knew that the building was not only a school, but a training center for assassins and that the Headmaster Felix Amarost, distinguished, suave, and yet kindly, not only headed up the administration of said school but also sat on the High Council of Assassins amongst other equally powerful and equally anonymous assassins.
Recruited from all of the provinces, the young students (typically enrolled at age twelve or thirteen) came from all walks of life – farmers, blacksmiths, teachers, guild workers, apprentices, or the landed folk, the aristocracy. Raised and educated in the gentle arts of persuasion and social interaction, the secretive arts of stealth movement and infiltration, the practical arts of weaponry-making, the arcane arts of alchemy and high technology, the mystical arts of the Faith and the Clerics, the militant arts of the soldier with all of its attendant skill sets and robust regimes, as well as a thorough, if practical, education in reading, writing, language, psychology, mathematics, sciences and histories.
Every year, assassins, who have returned from their various fields with more experience and a desire to pass on their knowledge, attempt a higher degree within the assassin’s arts – and part of their examination involves an exercises in team experience and handling an apprentice. Although potentially dangerous for the often youthful apprentices, the Academy recognized that hand-picking upper level (third and fourth year) students to take part in some aspects of fieldwork provided a necessary outlet for the more advanced or mature learners.
This year, however, the Headmaster had surprised the entire school staff with choosing a team himself from the First Year students. Comprised of two twelve-year-olds and two eleven-year-olds, the team of young apprentices were the youngest students in a long time to participate within the prestigious Master-in-Training and Apprentice Training Program.
Headmaster Felix Amarost moved in mysterious ways.
This path seemed just a bit too mysterious for the likes of some.
“You’ve got a letter,” Toria Horwath said with an injured air and an accompanying sniff. “Another one.”
Rolling her eyes, Emalynn went over to her nightstand which stood by her bed and the seemingly unopened letter which lay upon it. She’s still sulking about the fact that I got into the program, Emalynn sighed. Well, if she doesn’t want to talk, maybe this place will get a bit quieter.
“I didn’t look, if that’s what you were thinking,” Toria added snidely.
“I never said you did,” Emalynn said. “Did they say who it was from?”
“Uh. Some handsome man dropped it off... He was tall... tan... blue-eyed and brown-haired with lots of curls. Square jaw, a little stubbly. The hardy, black assassin standard uniform with light tan accents... Sounded like he came from out west.” Toria reeled off the information she had gathered with pride. Emalynn nodded, trusting her careful, if annoying, room-mate’s memory. “But it probably wasn’t him. I mean, he’s probably just the messenger. Although, what kind of assassin just carries messages – other than important documents, I mean.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Emalynn replied mildly, cutting off Toria’s often tangential chatter. “Or at least, I will.”
This sent Toria into a further snit and in awkward silence, which Emalynn stubbornly ignored, the young girl sat down on her bed, broke the small, firmly affixed seal carefully and quickly scanned the contents. Considering the ceremony Toria had made out of the whole thing, the note was rather anticlimactic.
Short and sweet, it gave a date and a meeting place (a lecture hall) for a proposed meeting of ‘the team’. Emalynn nodded and barely restrained a large sigh. Judging by the looping, wide strokes of the handwriting this individual appeared to be a rather out-going, confident kind of person. A man, Emalynn corrected herself, skipping ahead to the name at the bottom of the page. Colin Shermore. Perhaps Colin is a certain ruggedly handsome Westron man, Emalynn smiled. Toria will be beside herself. Ha.
Returning back to the short note, Emalynn reread it twice. There was, as she expected, a preliminary evaluation, a benchmark test as it were. She was to find a suitable, out-of-the-way ‘hideout’ that would function as a secretive meeting place and study hall for the team in the future. Secrecy and convenience were the two key requirements and Emalynn would be judged on the options she set forward. Options. So I can give more than one option for our ‘secret hideout’. Emalynn snorted over the words ‘secret hideout’. Who uses that anymore? Babies... maybe...
However, faced with the information at hand, Emalynn felt a bit more relieved. She had a mentor. She knew his name. She knew a time and a date and a meeting place. She knew what she had to do for her preliminary exam – and she had an idea about what would fulfill her newly instated Master’s request.
Emalynn was ahead of the game.
Close to the river which opened up in a small gulf into the larger bay of the city, within a few minutes ride of the densely populated, less fortunate habitations of the Capital, the houses, the shops, the guild markets, the docks and their connecting warehouses began to slowly jam closer together. Further along the side of the bay as it rounded down southwards and eastwards to the old harbour, the Stews and the South Farthing District sweltered under a haze of smoke and stank to high heaven with its poor sewage and unpaved, muddy roads. Further north and west, the houses gained enough space to have a slice of yard, a patch of green or a small vegetable garden. Whenever she went walking in this district, Chrystyna felt as though she had returned home. Just a little. Not really.
Leading away from the docks and their warehouses, small roads and alleys angled, often edged with rubble, rubbish and leftover detritus from packaging and defective or broken goods. Here and there, scavengers pawed through bags and packaging and wood boxes and chests in hopes of finding a salvageable treasure. Fascinated by the things she discovered – bizarre clumps of exotic, now stale, spices, torn cloth with strange patterns, intricately carved wooden pieces of what might have been statues or chairs (sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference), strange metallic technology boxes which she carried back to further research (and then hopefully fix) – Chrystyna often found herself wishing that her brother was also present to enjoy the adventuresome life of the scavenger.
Today, twelve-year-old Chrystyna Fieldman, anonymous student at the equally anonymous Academy, rallied herself in the face of her newly appointed mission. A note had arrived earlier that morning, an odd purple-colored letter scented in some way, from a Master who would be training her. Ge – Gor – Grof- Somebody, Chrystyna thought vaguely. He said I needed to provide paper and writing utensils... I’m guessing he means pens. I can try to pick the teacher’s supply cupboard lock... and if that fails – and it most certainly will, she sighed to herself, you can always fall back on handmade quills with ink bottles here. People always toss unwanted ink colors away. I don’t know why...
Peering into various boxes, Chrystyna kept an eye out for any kind of paper that might be acceptable for the team that she was a now a part of. After two hours of scavenging, Chrystyna had not only had discovered enough paper to supply an entire class of students, but she had also found a pack of ugly looking brown quills (no doubt tossed since the feathers had been spoiled with an odd silver dye) and a writing machine. Her research on writing technology had fascinated her. Many of the words she had a difficult time understanding but one thing was certain, if the pictures were in fact true, the world was no longer limited by the speed of a man’s hand with pen and quill.
More like the speed of his fingers, Chrystyna thought, as she set the typewriter by the stack of notebooks, papers, ink bottles and quill box now all carefully secreted in her black and grey laundry bag.
“Oof!” A sound of exasperation and great effort sounded from a particularly large pile of wood.
Suddenly, Chrystyna realized that she was no longer alone. Black-shoed and white-stockinged legs kicked energetically from the pile of wood and after a moment, the rest of a rather dusty looking princess popped back out, pulling at a rather wide chest. Tilting her head curiously, Chrystyna blinked.
“Do you need help with that?” she asked finally, remembering some vague thing her mother said about being polite and the importance of helping people in this world.
“Oh, well, uh,” said the shorter stranger, edging down carefully while trying not to let the chest fall on her and crush her - totally ignoring a resulting snag (and tear) along the hem of her once very flouncy, very lacy, very white and blue dress. “I just need to carry it down to Saunders and he’ll put it up for me.”
Chrystyna’s eyes followed the jerk of the young girl’s chin and her eyes widened at the sight of a princess carriage parked at the far end of the alleyway. A wide, stiff-looking man with a white head of curls sat up top just like in the fairytales – except he looked more bored than the coachmen in the stories. Another tall, strong-looking kind of man stood by the open door looking just as alert and ready to serve as the footmen did in the tales – except he also looked a little bit more annoyed and anxious.
Already, there were a few chairs and a short table lashed down to the top of the carriage giving the whole scene a fairly ridiculous look. Chrystyna, of course, did not notice that. She was wondering if the glimmering bits on the edge of the carriage was in fact silver. The tall, plain-looking farm girl from the backwoods of Eldalind had never seen so much wealth and high society all at one time.
It looked strange.
“Well, I don’t mind helping,” Chrystyna said. “It looks heavy.”
“It is... but...”
“It is no problem. Mom says I’m built like a draft horse.”
“A draft horse?” huffed the odd girl pushing back a stray chunk of golden curly hair.
“I can carry a lot,” repeated Chrystyna, wondering if the other girl knew what a draft horse actually was.
“Draft horses are amazing,” said the princess. “I’m glad for the help if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No, no, it isn’t,” Chrystyna said flatly. (She had been half-hoping that she wasn’t really needed.)
What’s a princess doing digging for garbage in a back alley anyway? Chrystyna wondered to herself. She said nothing however as she helped the girl haul the thick heavy chest back to the footman.
“That’s a good start,” said the stranger, “thank you. I see you are scavenging today too.”
“Yes. It’s for a school project,” Chrystyna replied carefully, remembering the mantra which had been drummed into her during the first week of school three months ago. “
“Scavenging projects are really fun,” the girl said conversationally with an air of ‘I know what you mean’. “You get to leave the school grounds and see all kinds of people and parts of the city your mother and father would never want you to go to. Haha.”
“Hey, was that your stuff back there?”
“The paper and quills and typewriter are mine,” Chrystyna hastily said.
“That’s amazing!” smiled the blue-eyed girl. “It’s always amazing what you can find in the alleys. I guess it has to do with the shipping district, or it’s part of the shipping district, well, the shore of the city is mostly given over to docks and harbours, don’t you think? Do you want a ride back to the school?”
The last question, like an arrow shot coming out of nowhere, flummoxed Chrystyna for a few seconds.
“I don’t think... we’re going the same way,” she finally said diplomatically.
“Well, I figured if you were going back to the Academy, you’d want a ride back – especially if you are carrying a typewriter. Those things are heavy.”
“The Academy?” Chrystyna dragged out the words with obstinate slowness and managed to use her trademark ‘stupid cow’ look.
“Yeah. You’re a First Year Night-Runner like me,” the princess smiled. “I sit in the front because Mistress Stonecroft wants me to keep focused, but I wanted to sit at the back, like you. You sit at the back by the window and always look out like you are day-dreaming... Mistress Stonecroft hates you, I think. I don’t mind. I don’t think she likes me either but she’s afraid of Mother. I know you’re always in the library reading books, which is interesting. So... if you are finished with your scavenging project, I can get Saunders to bring you back with me. No problem.”
“Oh.” Chrystyna tried to remember the girl. She failed. “I don’t...” Know. That was what she wanted to say, but Chrystyna, remembering the size of her pack and the weight of the typewriter, refrained. If the girl indeed knew her by sight and went to the Academy. And she used the code word for the assassin apprentices. “Very well, I will come along,” Chrystyna turned to make her way past the piles of wood and bent metal and torn paper and cloth to where her newest treasures lay.
Shifting her large, now very stretched cloth laundry bags, Chrystyna politely declined the “Princess’s” (that was what she now mentally labeled her supposed classmate) help and lugged her paper, quills, ink bottles and battered typewriter to the patiently waiting coach. Once inside with the door safely shut, the two rumbled off down the road and slowly made their way back out to the less populated section of the city which stretched to the west into the countryside where farms began to slowly spread outward into rolling green hills. Somewhere between the farms and crowded streets of the capital towards the southern end, the cobblestone roads widened. Larger mansions, manors and schools interspersed by parks offered green, spacious views of old-fashioned, gracious, lofty architecture.
Silence prevailed as the road, to Chrystyna’s now experienced eye, opened up familiar views and the carriage turned past a familiar turnstile where she had picked up a local coach service earlier that morning. Glancing back at the girl who now sat opposite her, cheerfully humming and looking out the carriage window, Chrystyna shifted uneasily.
What to say, she thought, nervously cudgeling her mind for something to talk about.
“So,” she finally said after a few moments, “Mistress Stonecroft doesn’t like me?”
 It is a well-known fact that educational theorists have no soul and may only find happiness in the most sadistic of tortures, such as Group Assignments and Peer Editing.
 The Thieves Guild and the Minstrels (also known as the Spies) Guild know the Academy for what it is – but they aren’t talking. Well, the minstrels are always talking – or singing – but EVERYONE who is anyone knows better than to really say anything.
 Work as Shadow Clerics, an arm of the Assassin’s Guild which extends into the Church, is optional.