They had decided to spend their last day exploring their new schools before they left the city in the morning. Fiorra allowed the boys and Emanuella to go on to the Academy of Weaponry after they extracted a promise from her to be back at the inn for dinner by the fourth mark; she was sure they would find little interest in a tour of the Academy of Healing. She felt a bit alone, as the only one of them who would be taking classes at the Academy of Healing. Emanuella would be taking classes at both the Academies of Weaponry and Kyor, so Ander wouldn’t be entirely alone. And, of course, Rick and Dar would be studying together at the Academy of Weaponry, along with Emanuella.
She stared around her. She hadn’t paid close attention to the route they’d taken to get here from the Collegium where they had submitted their applications. Dar had retained the map, so she hoped that retracing her steps to the inn would not prove difficult once she completed her exploration of her school.
The Academy of Healing was, Fiorra was not surprised to see, a calming constitution comprised of stone in a triangular formation united at each juncture by ivied towers. The Academy found its niche nestled among willows whose gracious, low-hanging foliage drifted gently in the breeze and higher shade trees that loomed protectively over small lily ponds and mossy stone paths. Quiet, shady walks invited students to take an introspective hiatus between classes or study peacefully under the trees on wooden benches and tables around which wildflowers sprang up. Small bridges led across the stream that danced its way musically through the grounds.
Just then, a long, clear bell pealed, indicating, she supposed, the end of classes. Students in various shades of green poured out of the Academy and onto the commons like ants from an anthill. They hastened past her, laughing and talking. She stuck out, she knew, like a scarecrow in a castle, as Gabriella was fond of saying. Self-consciously, Fiorra smoothed back her hair and tried to assume a demeanor that belied her nervousness.
“Ah. A new collegian,” called a voice.
She turned and found a young man striding toward her with books under his arm. His smile was warm and set her immediately at ease. He stopped next to her, appraising her.
“Was it so obvious?” Fiorra asked shyly. She gave him a tentative smile.
The young man – a student, she decided, from the books he carried – chuckled, revealing straight white teeth. “Well, the expression lost its dubiety, but the emotions remained the same.”
Her emotions? But she was shielded. She said as much.
The student shrugged. “I’m a very strong Empath. But probably you hail from a place where your shields don’t need to be very thick, judging from the filter I sensed. Where are you from?”
“Oh,” Fiorra waved dismissively as she instantly thickened her shields. Gabriella had suggested they be vague about where they came from, since no one lived in the Illyth; no one would believe where they had really come from. “Quite a bit south of here,” she finished. That was true enough.
“Ah, that would explain your accent. And are you now a student here?”
“Yes. But not until the fall. My – family and I are here for the Market and we just submitted my application. They told me I’d start in the Third Cycle.”
The student’s eyebrows shot up. “Is that so? They just received your application today and already you have been accepted and classified?”
Fiorra looked back at him. “Isn’t everyone?”
The young man shook his head with some amusement. “Most people submit their application and wait months, sometimes seasons, for notification of acceptance. It seems you have contacts in high places.” He bowed with another warm smile. “Welcome to the Terruth Academy of Healing. My name, by the way, is Barcik.”
“I’m Fiorra.” Fiorra curtsied, feeling more self-conscious than ever. She felt as though she were playing a part, that everyone could see through her masquerade as a native. Back in the Illyth, she’d felt at home, but out here, in the open, among throngs of other people, she felt as though she were a glaring alien amid them.
But if Barcik knew her to be an Outlander, he made no sign. “Well, my last classes are canceled today. I’d be pleased to show you about, if you’d like.”
Fiorra thought for a quick second. She liked this Barcik almost instinctively; his light brown hair and blue eyes made him a handsome figure, while his smile and calm manner soothed her nerves. And a friend would be good to have here, since her own friends would be attending different Academies….
“Yes, I’d like that,” she replied with a smile.
“Good. Let me put my books away.”
Fiorra followed Barcik into one of the stone towers, awed at its magnitude. He hurriedly dropped his books onto a clutter-filled desk in a cramped office of sorts. Pulling off his robes from over his white shirt, he balled them up, tossed them offhandedly into a corner and turned to usher Fiorra through the daunting door of the tower again. She wondered vaguely if that had been his dorm room.
“This, by the way, is the building you’ll have most of your classes in, and that tower is where you’ll sleep with the rest of the female students.” Barcik gestured at the tower to their left. As Fiorra committed the locations to memory, her new guide continued, pointing to a small cluster of students. “The Academies are each split up by robe colors. Here we wear greens. See the students in light green? They’re First and Second Cycle students. Green trim for First Cycle and white for Second. In their third cycle, they’ll give up their light green robes for the medium greens, like…” Barcik scanned the Academy grounds and pointed. “Over there. She’s a Fourth Cycle student. Third and Fourth Cycle students wear the medium green and then assume the dark green in their Fifth Cycle. About a third of our Fifth Cycles complete their training and become Master Healers.
A minority of our populace is endowed of the Gift enough to take a sixth cycle; those are the few you’ll see in white robes, and they are in training to become Healer Adepts. They still have to pass their examinations, of course, and some will have to reconcile themselves to remaining Master Healers. But most of our students don’t advance past their Fourth Cycle. They have learned enough and have enough of the Gift that they can be of competent service to nearly any village or small town, which is where most of them intend on seeking employment anyway. Having attained the rank of Healer is all many of them want to achieve. A shame, really, many of them have potential,” Barcik mused, more to himself than to Fiorra.
Fiorra found this commentary fascinating and also thought privately that Barcik was rather more concerned with other students’ success and potential than she thought she would be herself.
“What cycle are you in?” She was chagrined to admit that she couldn’t remember what color his greens were. She would have to work on her power of observation.
“Well, I’m pretty strong with the Gift, so I’m with a lot of the advanced students,” Barcik replied cryptically. She thought almost that he was hedging, but realized that she had only known the young man a quartermark and certainly had no precedent to go by at a school such as this.
“See him?” Barcik pointed to a silver haired man who stood within his billowing white robes as impassively as a mountain does a drifting cloud. Before his cross-armed posture groveled and wept a Second Cycle student in what looked to Fiorra to be futility. “That is Healer Stone. He is one of the most rigid of our Academy’s faculty members and has never made a mistake in all his years of teaching, though it is known by those more perceptive of us that he makes rather habitual trips to Healer Selak, who is our resident eyesight expert.” Barcik grinned with this piece of insider’s information. Fiorra felt a smile spread across her own face at the irony of the man’s name and hoped that she would not find herself in Healer Stone’s class.
“And her?” Barcik directed her gaze to a pretty young Master Healer who wore her hair loosely down her back in a golden cascade. “That’s Healer Melody. If you watch… just a second….”
Healer Melody glanced circumspectly about, then proceeded down a quiet pathway that disappeared over a small hill and into the woods behind the Academy. For a moment, Fiorra wondered why this was remarkable. Then another Healer in whites appeared. Fiorra recognized the purple line about the trim that indicated the Healer was an instructor. He stood at the head of the pathway, rifling through some scrolls and papers he carried in his arms with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Healer Jaysen. Much better an actor, wouldn’t you agree?” Barcik smiled at Fiorra with a twinkle in his eye.
“Why do you say that?” she asked, puzzled. Then Healer Jaysen looked about quickly and descended down the same path, never looking back.
“Surely, Fiorra, even in the remote province from which you hail, even there do people carry on illicit affairs,” Barcik smiled.
She reddened again and smiled back. “Is she married, then?”
Barcik laughed, small wrinkles crinkling up around his eyes. “Oh, no. Such would be the day,” and he raised his eyebrows with a knowing look. “But he is. Indeed he is, and his wife expecting their third child.”
Fiorra shook her head with mock outrage as they strolled leisurely over a small bridge.
“Oh come now, a man’s got to find some release somewhere. If you only knew his wife, what a shrew! Complaining about childcare and domestic concerns so often, she might have a care for him. That he’s been so circumspect is really quite a credit to her.”
Fiorra glared at Barcik, quite ready to unleash her utter disgust when she discerned from Barcik’s merry countenance that he was teasing her. “Such a gentlemen, really, a role model for students everywhere,” she intoned dryly as they turned up the path along the stream.
“Ah, Barcik.” A large, callused hand clapped down on Barcik’s shoulder with a meaty thwack. “Did I hear this lady accusing you of being a role model for students everywhere?” The robust, barrel-chested man behind them looked as though he would have been more at home astride a warhorse than in Healer’s Whites. He gave Fiorra a wink.
“No, sir, we both know that would never happen. We were actually speaking of Healer Jaysen.”
The older Healer chuckled. “Well, now that would be an interesting case to plead. Don’t let Barcik fool you, yendra, Barcik is as fine a young man as they come.”
Barcik cleared his throat and, with a hand lightly on Fiorra’s back, said, “Healer Stevan, Fiorra will be joining us in the fall.”
“Will you, now? Are you transferring from another school of Healing, then?” Healer Stevan asked with interest.
She shook her head. “No, I’ve been – training under another Healer.”
“Fiorra will be starting as a Third Cycle,” Barcik reported.
“Ah, I see. Well, you have found a good guide to help you learn your way about the Academy; you’ll fit in smoothly under Barcik’s tutelage, I’ve no doubt. Barcik, I’ll see you on the fifth mark, then?”
“Yes sir, that you will.”
Healer Stevan bowed briefly to Fiorra and took a path back in the direction of the Academy.
“Nothing sordid about him, is there?” Fiorra smiled as they resumed their walk beneath the willows.
“Oh, no, Healer Stevan is as solid a man as you’ll meet here. If ever you have trouble, you’ll want to take it to him, he’s fair and he’ll make sure justice is meted out. He is the Minister of Students here at the Academy of Healing. He used to be a soldier, a lieutenant in Danyon’s forces, fighting against Brillabar. No one knows too much, just that it got to be too much for him, is what he tells us when we ask. A Healer Adept in the business of killing people, it’s certainly understandable why he gave up his career as a soldier and went to school to train his Gift.
“However,” Barcik smiled again, “he is known for his pursuit of women. Off duty, of course, but nonetheless.”
Fiorra snorted and shook her head. “Are all men such pigs?” she wondered aloud.
“Not all of us, but most of us,” he replied with mirth. He proceeded to point out a First Cycle who, despite various potions and teas designed to assist him, continued to wet his bed at least once a week, almost to spite his roommate, the rest of the school felt sure. And a Second Cycle student who had arrived with her “pet” sheep and had been quite distraught when told that her pet could not sleep with her in the Girls’ Tower. Her father, a lesser noble, was able to make the Chancellor’s life difficult to the point where he finally acceded to allowing the sheep to remain in the stables where the girl could visit it whenever she pleased to do so.
After Barcik had given her the history of several students and shown her about the grounds of the Academy, they chose a secluded lily pond to walk about, framed by grasses bending amiably in the breeze. Barcik began skimming nuts from the trees overhead into the water.
“So. If you’ll be starting in the Third Cycle, you’ve had some experience. Are you an apprentice to a Healer?” His nut skimmed three times across the surface.
“No. I’ve just – had some training.” She paused, groping for a plausible explanation. “A member of my family is a Healer. I’ve been training under her.”
“Ah,” Barcik said. “Healing kyor runs through families. Are you the only other member with the Healing Gift or shall we expect more of you in the future?”
Taken back, Fiorra thought for a moment, considering her own family. Mother’s strength was in her creativity as an artist. Kay? Perhaps. Kay had helped her through Cedric’s death more than anyone, sitting up with Fiorra at night when she couldn’t sleep, hugging her close when she cried. Cedric? Cedric was – had been – quite patient, given his circumstances, but she doubted he had the touch that would have made him good at helping strangers on a daily basis. He would have been better maybe at studying causes of diseases and finding cures, researching symptoms. Finally she mumbled, “My brother was born with the Gift, I think….” She did not want to become emotional in front of him. And she would not. She would be strong. She took a deep breath and steadied herself. What was that Barcik was saying?
“Quite often siblings exhibit the Gift together, particularly twins. Has he been tested?”
Fiorra blinked. Had she spoken aloud? “My brother is – dead,” she said flatly. She made sure her shields were as tight as she could make them.
Barcik’s face changed. Whether he was attempting to read her or plotting a careful course, Fiorra could not determine. Few options were left to one when acquainted with such a frank disclosure.
“By your face, I would surmise that it is a recent wound.”
Fiorra glanced at him from the corner of her eye. All jocularity had vanished from his demeanor. The lift of his eyebrows demanded verification. Intrigued and disturbed that a stranger, healer or no, might know her so well, she nodded shortly.
He nodded once to himself in response, as if confirming a suspicion. “You were close.”
Fiorra had been subjected to scores of sympathetic dialogues since Cedric’s death, all of which she had suffered through on the recognition that the interested party was concerned for her well-being. Yet this was different. Barcik was not inquiring how she felt. He was telling her.
“Yes, we were very close.” He seemed to be waiting for her to say something further, she decided as she studied his tanned features. Why not? “We were twins.”
Barcik’s blue eyes appraised her. Had she finally managed to surprise him? She realized rather belatedly that much of his shrewd perceptiveness was due to being a Healing student. Of course he would want to practice his skills. Fiorra was beginning to feel like a case study. She tossed another nut into the lily pond.
“Ah. That would account for the freshness of the wound.”
Again, she was taken by surprise. “I’m sorry?”
“When I took your measure, before I approached you, your brother’s death was one of the foremost descriptors about you.”
Fiorra stopped on the path and stared at Barcik, heedless of any breach of etiquette. “My measure? What are you talking about?” Had he somehow gotten past her shields without her knowing it?
Barcik smiled slowly. “You are from an isolated region, aren’t you? ‘Taking one’s measure’ is a phrase we use when we sense someone new for the first time. Typically we are only able to assign a signature to an individual, as most of us are shielded tightly. Occasionally, if our shields, or our filters are weakened or thin, we can sense more of the person behind the kyor. In your case, when I saw that you seemed lost, I was able to sense more than I thought you might be comfortable with, so I withdrew immediately and chose to speak to you instead,” he explained.
“Oh,” Fiorra replied, feeling foolish and hoping no one who passed them would notice the flush creeping up on her cheeks.
“I seem to have upset you. Did I tread into delicate territory?” Barcik seemed concerned.
Fiorra shook herself. “No, not at all.” She paused, unsure whether he would sense the lie. “Well. Maybe a little.” She smiled to show she wasn’t bothered by the unintended intrusion.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been known to be overzealous in my observations.” Barcik smiled ruefully.
“It’s my fault – something I’m still adjusting to.”
“The death of a twin is always tragic. I’m sorry for your loss.” He placed a hand kindly on her shoulder.
“Isn’t death always tragic?” she responded bitterly.
“No, I don’t think it is. Ask the duck whose wing is injured in a near escape from a wolf. Should she live and never fly again, living with a wing that will likely never allow her to fly again, and in such leaving her an easier target in the future? Would it have been more tragic if she had bled to death or lived?” His voice was gentle. “What of a small child, caught in the shuffle of traffic and is crushed under a horse and wagon. He lives, but is mangled, his back causes him great pain and his feet do not set properly so that he can barely get about. His internal injuries are such that his breathing is forever hindered and finally he takes cold and dies after a lengthened illness. Would it have been more tragic if he had been killed beneath the horses’ hooves or if he had lived out his short life thus impaired?”
Fiorra had listened to him, transfixed on his quiet voice and solemn blue eyes. Now she had a moment to admire his passion. She looked at the lily pond and considered if Cedric had survived the… ordeal. If they had arrived home a few minutes sooner. Would he be grateful for being alive? Or would he wish to have died? She chewed her lip contemplatively and thought she knew the answer.
“Or we could wish that none of those things had occurred at all,” she sighed sadly.
Barcik smiled. “Ah. Now there we are appealing to the impossible.”
Hm. Tell me about it. How many times had she wished Cedric alive again?
“My brother was murdered.” She said it matter-of-factly and turned to look at Barcik, flipping her hair over her shoulder. She pitied him for being the receptor of so much personal information in one day from a stranger. He would be glad to wave good-bye to her, she knew.
He gestured to the soft grass on the bank of the pond. She sat down diligently and he sat beside her, close, but still a respectable distance away, some small part of her noted. “What happened?”
Fiorra exhaled quickly through her nose with a sardonic lift of her eyebrows. Leaning back on her arms as the breeze blew wisps of hair across her face, she felt Barcik watching her and didn’t care. She allowed the sun to warm her face for a few moments as she decided how to proceed.
“My family and I had left to – see my father off. He is a soldier and travels widely,” she extemporized. “My brother stayed behind to get some work done. When we returned home, we found him – we found he had –”
Gone the way of the wind, as was the custom nicety for death in this new Land, just did not seem appropriate for the horror she had been left to visualize for the rest of her life. Barcik remained patient and waited for her to continue. She flung another nut into the pond. “A man who had tortured many other children to death murdered my brother, and he took a prolonged pleasure in doing so. My brother died in excruciating pain.” Fiorra paused, relieved to find that she was not tearful. She studied a nut before she threw it into the pond, heard the plunk!, watched the splash and the ripples it created.
Boldly, without thinking, Fiorra suddenly sent -- My life was this sweet, beautiful pond and that murder was that nut. Look at all those ripples. --
Afterward she was quite surprised at herself for being so forward with a person she barely knew.
-- And look at the directions those ripples have taken. And how the surface has smoothed out again. Foreign things have broken your surface, been taken in by you, and still you have remained sweet and beautiful. --
His kyor voice was deep and smooth, calming, but intense. She almost smiled at the implied compliment and felt immediately self-conscious and nervous for having invited this intimacy. You couldn’t blush mentally, could you?
-- I believe that something good comes of all things bad that occur, be it only the lesson we gain. -- Barcik sent. She allowed her hair to fall to one side and dared to peek at him through it. He was sitting with his arms reclined casually on his knees, staring out at the water. He really was quite attractive, she thought then, noting how the sun bounced off his auburn hair. Barcik turned and caught her looking at him. He smiled slowly. Her stomach turned over and she smiled shyly in return, feeling decidedly foolish.
-- How is it that you have turned not one but two of my deep-seated beliefs upside down? -- Fiorra replied, using kyor with an effort. She was utterly embarrassed and didn’t know which would be more embarrassing at this point, speech or kyor. She would have liked instead to have simply run away and hidden.
-- You mean that I haven’t swayed you yet that men are not pigs? I shall have to work on that. -- The sound of rich laughter filled her brain. She could not help but shake her head and smile yet again. He had managed to put her at ease again. How was he able to do that?
Barcik stood up suddenly and proffered his hand to her. Fiorra squashed the wave of shyness that swept over her and bravely grasped his hand. He pulled her up effortlessly as they rejoined the student population that milled about the grounds. “You’re sunburned,” he chuckled. “You’ll have to look after that.”
Fiorra thought herself more likely to be blushing still than sunburned, for having been outside learning the staff and the sword with her comrades more often than not for the past year had lent her a healthy color.
Stars! She sucked in her breath and grabbed Barcik’s arm. “What time is it!” She glanced at the sun above but could not make out an accurate reading through the canopy the trees provided. She had been gone at least two marks – Dar would have the town watch combing the streets for her – and Gabriella!
With no small amount of amusement, Barcik looked down at her and said, “Just past the fourth mark, didn’t you hear the bell?”
Fiorra stared blankly at him, and then realized that the bell pealed per mark. She had heard it in the back of her mind, but assumed it had only significance to the students attending classes.
“I thought – never mind,” she said weakly.
“That bell is something that will soon rule your existence, drown it out while you still can,” Barcik advised jovially. He paused at her expression. “What’s the matter?”
“I was expected back at the inn by the fourth mark – my – family will be furious.” Funny combining Kay, Virginia, Cedric, Mother, and Father with Gabriella, Emanuella, Dar, Ander, and Rick.
“Well, then, we shall have to remedy that. Which is your inn?”
“The Sword and the Stag.” She bit her lip and looked around the grounds hesitantly. “Town is back… that way?”
Barcik smiled so that the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes crinkled up. Foolish girl, she chided herself as butterflies danced in her stomach as a result of this observation. He turned her shoulders gently about. “That way,” he said, pointing. “They left you here, with no one to help you home, no map?” He sounded vaguely disapproving, as though he were struggling to keep his tone neutral.
She felt the need immediately to defend them. “No, I actually insisted that they go on without me. They’ve all been accepted to different Academies and they wanted to explore their own before we leave tomorrow. I bade them go on without me,” she explained hastily. She would have no one speak ill of Dar and the others. “If you would kindly just give me directions to Market Street, I am familiar enough with the town to find my way from there.”
Barcik, however, was arrested, seeming unsure of himself for once. “I would not abandon you in a strange town to find your way about, I will of course escort you safely back to your inn,” he said, sounding somewhat irked that she would think any less of him. “Did you say all your brothers were accepted into Academies?” His tone had taken on one of awe.
She supposed this might be something worthy of his tone; either because of accumulated talent or the money a family might have to pay for children’s tuition fees. Proudly, she said, “Two of my brothers to the Academy of Weaponry, one to the Academy of Kyor, and,” even more proudly, “my sister to both the Academies of Weaponry and Kyor,” she answered.
Finally she had succeeded in surprising him. Utterly, by the expression on his face. “Who did you say your family was again?”
Perhaps she had gone too far. Quite possibly only families of higher nobles and royalty were able to afford such training for their daughters and sons. “It is not important,” Fiorra replied vaguely, hoping that he would not press her. Thinking of the chest of jewels Gabriella had brought with them, she added, “We’ve a wealthy relation who is assisting us,” recalling that she had described her father as a soldier. No soldier earned enough money to send five children to formal training at the most respected Academy of Training in the Land.
Barcik’s look of incredulity eased, though she could see she had given him fodder for many a prevailing drinking dialogue.
“Indubitably, Fate and Destiny have blessed your family with talent,” he said with respect in his voice. Then he smiled. “However, a sense of direction….”
All the way back to the Sword and the Stag, Barcik told her funny stories of his own family, speaking fondly of his brothers Ancik and Turil, who were ever causing trouble by their pranks, and the scores of young men his sister Meree brought home in hopes that their protective father would allow them to court her. His family resided in Sharingseld, in the Royal City, where his parents plied their trade as well-to-do silk merchants.
“You see your family often, then?” Fiorra asked wistfully. She had not seen her own family in over a cycle now.
“As often as the Academy permits. And they visit me often. In between, we write each other. You will be fortunate to see as much of your family as you will once you begin your studies.”
Fiorra started, then realized he was talking about her comrades. She would have to amend her story, perhaps, for future reference. She grimaced as they walked up to the Sword and the Stag. “My brothers will skin me for being late, I’m sure,” she said, looking around for Dar.
“If you like, I will tell them that I was showing you around the Academy and that we lost track of time.”
Fiorra suddenly felt ridiculous. They were only her comrades after all. What were they going to do, ground her? Women, she knew, were married mothers at her age, after all.
“No, that’s not necessary.” She raised an eyebrow lightly. “If a girl can’t stand up to her own brothers, who can she stand up to?” The levity her quip afforded her only deferred the ensuing moment of awkwardness.
“I’m afraid –”
They stopped, having spoken in unison. He smiled his slow smile at her, seeming more amused than awkward. Fiorra shook her head ruefully. Did he thrive on her discomfiture?
“I do have to get inside, I’m sure my brothers are waiting for me. And I know you have an appointment to keep,” Fiorra said, wondering how to thank him. “Thank you… for showing me around the grounds.” Words could be so paltry, she fumed. Her irritation rose anew when she saw Barcik’s smile widen, teasingly, almost. He knew she was nervous. His confidence emboldened her.
-- And thank you – for indulging a silly, emotional girl, who can’t find her way around. -- She laid a hand on his arm briefly. She had not talked about Cedric with just anyone, and to have discussed it with someone she had just met… words again were too trivial to express how important such an occurrence was to her.
-- It was no indulgence, but a pleasure. You are neither silly nor emotional, I might add. More of a sweet, beautiful pond, which gets splashed from time to time. --
-- Thank you, -- she replied simply. Almost, tears came to her eyes. Then he dropped her hands and, with a mixture of chagrin and amusement, she realized she had not known he had picked them up.
He smiled at her again and bowed for the sake of those on the street not privy to their exchange, so she curtsied in return.
-- And so I shall see you in the fall, no? --
-- Yes, I’ll be back. I may even know my way around. --
A mental chuckle as he turned and made his way down the street. -- Then look for me, I’ll be about. --
-- I shall, -- Fiorra replied, giddy as she entered the dark inn. Until his rich voice came again.
-- I wouldn’t worry about that sunburn. It seems to have receded. --
She didn’t know whether to stomp her foot, cry, or laugh. His laughter filled her mind. She allowed her narrowed opinion of his remark to fill his.
More faintly, but still tinged with laughter, -- Men are pigs, remember? --