Alabell walked past the throne room but stopped when she saw her great uncle seated on the throne. She had intended only to wave to the king if he was there, but he beckoned her to enter.
She waited patiently for him to finish his conversation with the liaison to the Academy. Alabell knew the pompous liaison almost as well as she knew the king himself. Today was recruitment day, and there was a lot the two men needed to discuss.
Her great-uncle, James Kerr, stood after dismissing the liaison. He stretched his back and then opened his arms to embrace Alabell. Although he was old, his mind was still sharp. She would be sad to see him step down from the throne.
“Have you decided who will be the new king?” she asked.
“I have not. Unfortunately, the people most suited for the position don’t want it because they’re smart enough to know what comes with the task of leading Kyrro.”
“What about Terren?” Alabell asked. She admired the headmaster of the Academy equally as much as she did her great-uncle. “Without him, the Academy would’ve fallen during the war. He’s a magnificent leader.”
“I agree.” Kerr showed her a sly grin. “He was one who wisely declined my offer.”
“That’s disappointing.” Moments alone with her great-uncle were rare these days, so she decided to take this opportunity to ask something that had been bothering her. “Why not continue to lead? I know the last king only wanted you to rule temporarily until you found someone more suitable, but he’s dead and you’re a good king.”
Kerr groaned as he eased himself into a cushioned seat, choosing it over the throne.
“Thank you, Alabell, but I’m old and tired. I don’t have the energy to oversee everything I need to. Advisors want me to do things I’m not comfortable doing, spying and stifling and threatening.” He clicked his tongue and tossed his hand. “They think because we have power that there are others who want to take it from us, and they might be right.” He shrugged. “I allow some of their spying and stifling and threatening, but there’s much more they want to do, yet no one has convinced me that it’s necessary. As king, there are too many difficult choices with no right answer.”
He sighed. “It’s the same dilemma with choosing a new ruler. Selecting the right person will ruin his life, while selecting the wrong person—someone who relishes the power—could ruin Kyrro.”
Servants came and asked if the king was ready for breakfast to be cooked. He nodded and sent them off. Kerr had been so busy preparing for the new year at the Academy that he’d been pushing back his meals until he had a spare moment to relax. Alabell suffered from the same lack of appetite when she was busy or worried.
“I shouldn’t keep you any longer.” She bowed her head.
“One moment, dear. You would tell me if you felt overwhelmed with your mother’s duties, wouldn’t you?”
Since her graduation from the Academy as a chemist, Alabell had been living in the castle with her mother and preparing to take over her position as the head healer in a few years. Most chemists would give a finger for even the chance to have a position within the castle. Alabell was grateful to be selected, though there was some guilt, for she knew her family name had a great deal to do with it.
She’d entered the Academy a year early, at sixteen, because of a recommendation from her great-uncle, who was the lead councilman to the king at the time. This year, others were allowed to enroll at sixteen because many students had died during the war and interest in joining the Academy had suffered as a result.
Alabell hadn’t fought in any of the battles. She was there, though, close enough to see the Krepps and men of Tenred killing her friends. Her closest friend had died on her medical table, and she constantly told herself there was nothing she could’ve done to save her. Sometimes it helped. Most of the time it didn’t.
“I’m far from feeling overwhelmed,” she answered Kerr. “I eagerly await more tasks.”
“Good. We need a chemist at every training center in each city today. Many of the swordsmen are hopeful beginners facing well-trained braggarts who don’t know the meaning of mercy.”
Alabell nodded. She’d met many such men throughout her three years at the Academy. “Which training center would you like me to be at?”
“The one that often sees the worst injuries: Worender. It’s the nearest one to the poorest district in Oakshen, so it attracts many young men who’ve spent countless hours with a spade or a pick but none with a sword. There might also be novice mages who do more damage to themselves than the metal dummy they’re aiming at.”
It was about four miles to Oakshen from the capital, but Alabell’s time at the castle, with its many stairs and ramps, had served to help her retain her fitness after her training at the Academy. She made it to the training center in time for a brief lunch before the trials began.
The line of potential warriors was much longer than the one for mages, and she expected a higher percentage of the men would injure each other than the women on the mage side would hurt themselves. So she pushed her medical cart toward the warrior’s side of the training center.
The men ranged from thin to stout, short to tall, clean-shaven to faintly bearded, but the most noticeable difference was between the rich and the poor. Some of the young men were pungent enough for the others to give them a wide berth.
She hadn’t anticipated the staring. Every time she looked she found a number of the men watching her instead of the two dueling. She’d worn a loose robe of white to indicate her class as a chemist but also to help hide her shapely bosom. It didn’t seem to matter, though, and soon she decided to move her cart more toward the mages’ side.
Those who were injured were easily treated. Most had small gashes that just needed to be disinfected and covered. These men knew how to defend themselves.
But none of the poor had fought yet. They were toward the end of the line.
She watched the mages shoot small fireballs, many missing their targets. They were quiet in comparison to the boisterous men who cheered and laughed at each other frequently. Many took a vicious hit yet refused to come to her for assistance, presumably out of pride.
All recruiters were instructors at the Academy, and Alabell recognized both the warrior and the mage recruiters in front of her. She’d never met Warrior Marne, but he was known to be as tough as he was ugly. Alabell had met Mage Jackrie several times because her friend who’d died had been in Jackrie’s class. She was young for an instructor, laughing more than most other instructors and yelling less.
One of the impoverished swordsmen had walked over to Jackrie upon arriving and then run off. Alabell watched him go straight into a wand shop. A short time later, he came out with a hideous wand and an empty sheath on his belt. Alabell was thankful there were no injured to treat as she watched him, because she’d never heard of someone going into recruitment as one class and choosing another at the last moment, and she became interested to see how he performed.
To be skilled enough to be accepted into the Academy took hundreds of hours over years, no matter which class a person chose. Psychics and chemists had to prove themselves differently than mages and warriors, but it was still just as difficult for them. They sent out a letter to the Academy weeks before recruitment day listing their address, a description of their abilities, and the name of their private instructor. A recruiter then interviewed both the teacher and the hopeful student. A demonstration of the applicant’s skill concluded the visit. When recruitment day came later, psychics and chemists were notified about their acceptance or rejection.
This impoverished man couldn’t have been trained as both a warrior and a mage. Perhaps he knew a little magic and thought his chances were better as a mage.
Something he said made Jackrie walk to the other side to speak with Marne, which then caused everyone in the training center to stare at the poor fellow. Alabell was too far away to hear anything, so she moved her cart closer.
By then, the conversation was done and he seemed to have burned himself during his second attempt at casting what was most certainly the biggest and best aimed fireball of any mage that day, amazing Alabell. He nursed his hand on his way over to her, though he did stop to say something to the line of warriors that made their faces turn sour.
He appeared quite smug by the time he reached her. “I seem to have lost some of the skin on my fingers.”
She was shocked at how severe his burns were compared to his beaming smile. “Does it not hurt?” She was concerned he might’ve damaged his nerves.
“It feels like my flesh is being ripped off, and every moment it’s getting worse.” His jovial tone made her laugh.
“Well, I have some ointment that’ll relieve the pain and speed up your recovery.” She handed him a vial. “Make sure your hands are clean before you apply it.”
He frowned. “Your hands look clean. Will you help me?”
She noticed a handsome face beneath all that dirt. Her gaze drifted down to take in muscular arms and shoulders beneath his ragged clothing. He looked far more like the warriors she’d met at the Academy than he did the male mages.
As much as she felt inclined to help, she couldn’t. “You need to flush out your wound before applying the ointment. The cool water should feel good as well.”
His grin flattened as he checked his wound again. “Do you have anything that will clean it?”
Of course, he has no money to use the spigot. I shouldn’t be so insensitive. Before she could come up with an idea, Mage Jackrie called the young man over to the metal fence of the training center.
He hurried to her. She handed him a scroll through the fence. “Congratulations, Basen Hiller. But you’re going to need a wand full of sartious energy and at least two sets of clean clothing before tomorrow. Can you manage that?”
“Certainly can, thank you.”
Basen Hiller? Now she knew why everyone had been gawking at him.
He jogged back to Alabell. “I’ll take the ointment and figure out something. Thank you.”
But she didn’t hand it to him just yet. She opened her mouth, wanting to confirm that he really was the nephew of the late enemy king, but then realized an interrogation was the last thing he needed.
So she gave him the ointment along with another potion—an extremely valuable one. “Take both. Sell the silver one to an apothecary. Make sure they give you enough coin for water, a decent wand, and some new clothing, because it’s worth a lot.”
He seemed confused as he carefully slid his acceptance scroll into his shirt pocket and took both potions with his uninjured hand. “Why help me?”
“Because a skilled mage shouldn’t be denied the opportunity of his life simply because he lacks money.” A thought came to her. “But let me write you a note so the apothecary owner doesn’t think you stole that potion from me.”
She finished and handed it to him. He reached out slowly to take it, then didn’t move or speak for a while.
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Just don’t tell anyone except the apothecary, and that’s thanks enough. Oh, and make sure you do not drink it.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“I will find a way to repay you, Alabell.”
She smiled as he hurried off.
It wasn’t long after that she noticed a young woman running toward the training center from the opposite direction, a scabbard on her belt bouncing with her stride. Alabell couldn’t believe this was indeed a woman headed toward the line of warriors with a sword instead of a wand. She strained her eyes to make sure. Yes, there was no mistaking her hairstyle and breasts.
The woman dashed into an alley and came out a moment later with a cloak covering her figure and her shoulder-length hair now tucked into the hood of the cloak.
She noticed Alabell staring and stopped suddenly. Then she put her finger over her smiling lips to ask Alabell to keep quiet. Alabell shrugged and gave a grand sweeping gesture for her to make her way to the end of the line.
Alabell had no idea what the woman was expecting to accomplish. Females weren’t allowed to join the Academy as warriors, and it wasn’t as if she could hide her gender for long.