The oaken door creaked open and a shadow fell across Dar’s small, almost inadequate bed. He had just completed putting away his clothes and materials into the money that was provided for him, so he let the top of the heavy wooden trunk fall, thereby closing it.
He sat down and squinted into the light, trying to make out who his visitor was. He had left most of his classmates down below in the Common Room as he had new textbooks to study and clothing to put away. Having lived with his own friends and Gabriella for a Cycle or more, Dar knew he would have plenty of time to get used to his new roommates.
“Ah, I knew it was you. Did a bit of switching around. Didn’t think you’d want to be paired up with Bezmo anymore than I prefer Sedgwick -- fastidious bastard he is and no doubting.”
Dar stared at none other than Kenian Greystorm as he breezed into the cramped room. Kenian walked about the room, noting where Dar had placed his belongings and stopped to study Dar’s sword hanging on the wall above his trunk along with his bow and quiver of arrows.
Running a light finger down the scabbard briefly, Kenian shook his head once with respect and said, “That’s one incredible sword.” He tossed his rucksack upon the empty bed and continued. ”Anyways, as I was saying, I did a little switching around with the scheduling and now you and I are together and Bezmo and Sedgwick can inflict their idiosyncratic selves upon each other.”
Dar wasn’t sure how to react to this and privately wondered just how bad Bezmo and Sedgwick could possibly be. Oddly, Kenian seemed to read his mind, for as he hung his sword and scabbard on the wall peg above his bed, he informed Dar knowingly, “In case you were wondering,” and his face took on a dry expression, “I happen to have personal experience rooming with both gentlemen. First and Second Cycles.”
Kenian popped open his trunk and carefully incorporated most of his apparel into it and took care to take up exactly half of the wardrobe. Dar noticed the higher quality of Kenian’s garments almost at once as he listened to tales of Sedgwick’s precision and painstakingness.
Dar nodded in sympathy. He decided that Kenian couldn’t be any worse than anyone else. Or so he hoped. “Now Bezmo, you wouldn’t mind him, he’s, well, he’s a nice sorta guy now, except that he snores pretty abominably. Nice enough fellow, Bez. Most everyone likes him, harmless enough,” and then, behind a raised hand, Kenian whispered conspiratorially, “just can’t live with him!” He had the grace to look slightly apologetic.
“Now whatever happened to your sister?” Kenian flopped on his bed, finished with his unpacking ritual.
Derrick paused for a moment, thinking first of his own sister back at home, his real home in Rockville. He had no idea what had happened to her, nor they him, for that matter, brooded Dar. Then he realized that Kenian was staring at him, waiting for him to reply.
It took him a moment to grasp that Kenian meant Emanuella, for they had made each other’s acquaintance back during Spring Market. In fact, he mused, it was Emanuella’s doing that brought about the introduction between Kenian and Dar, so perhaps it was only natural that he would want to know what happened to her. If nothing else, Dar grumbled mentally, as he squashed a moment of jealousy, it was a sign of good breeding and a good way to break the ice for conversation.
“Emanuella entered the Academy Second Cycle as well -- Weaponry and K’yor,” Dar explained with pride.
Kenian’s eyes grew large as he did a double take. “Both schools? That’s impressive. We don’t have a lot of those running around, especially for Weaponry and K’yor. Usually, a double gift is for K’yor and Healing, or, occasionally, Healing & Weaponry. But Weaponry and K’yor... there’s a very small handful of folks who could claim a double gift like that. If they get far enough in their Cycles, then they’ll be some of the most powerful people in the Land. Anyone would want to employ them.”
There was nothing lighthearted about the message Kenian was imparting to Dar. He felt himself grow somber. Gabriella had deliberately kept this information from them. For while anyone might want to them employ someone of those gifts, Dar could easily see why someone in this society would want to get rid of someone with gifts like Emanuella had. He had not even mentioned Fiaz and her gift of animal mind speech... a zary’andu might just be more than someone could handle, he worried.
Dar did not reply other than a grunt of acknowledgment. He did however, say, “My other siblings are entering the Academy as well: Weaponry, Healing, and Kyor. Third and Fourth Cycles.” He controlled a pleased smirk from spreading across his face as he watched Kenian’s eyebrows raise another notch.
“Indeed, you have a blessed family, my friend. And it doesn’t hurt,” a trace of Kenian’s humor returning, “to retain the services of an excellent Armsmaster and healer, either.”
Dar yanked his russet Cycle Five tunic over his trousers and followed Kenian into the corridor, still buckling his sword belt on. He started to reach for his new sword. “Will we need these, do you think?” he faltered, looking at Kenian in the open doorframe of their dorm.
“Nah, you’ll not need that. ’Course, then again…” and Kenian hesitated, frowning a bit and then glanced about him as Fifth Cycle students passed him.
“Hey Steb – what say you,” Kenian called the attention of a passing classmate, tall and lanky, brown haired with a wealth of freckles splashed randomly across his face. Steb stopped in his descent down the stairwell, a friendly smile spreading easily across his face.
“What’s that?” Then he saw Dar. “Oh, it’s you, the new student. Melton Stebernathy, well-met,” he reached out to clasp wrists with Dar.
“We were just wondering, Steb – new Cycle, new Armsmaster – think we ought to bring our swords then?”
The thought gave Stebernathy a moment’s pause. “You’re right – new Master. I don’t know, what can he do to us as a class if none of us brought our real weapons? No one ever has. And there was no notice,” he pointed out.
Kenian looked back at Dar, who unbuckled his sword. “It’ll just be practice swords, mate, always is.”
Over their rushed morning meal, sounds of students exploring and comparing their new schedules and regaling each other with tales of their summer hiatus echoed throughout the Dining Hall. Not so very unlike school at home, Dar mused as he stole a surreptitious glance around the Hall for any sign of Rick or Emanuella.
At Kenian’s table, Kimble illustrated his colorful summer whereby he had found himself an uncle yet again, this time by a third sister, so with characteristic incessance, he complained of sleepless nights and odiferous infant diapers. Pavrick added his congratulations to the refrain of those from around the table and then remarked, “Kimble, I’ve but one question. Don’t anybody in your family sleep nights?”
After another chorus of laughter, Kenian replied, “Of course. Kimble does.” The innuendos did not go unappreciated and Kimble insisted he had plenty of nights he could tell about that would teach them all a thing or two.
Stebernathy then reported that it appeared more and more that his da was expecting him to take over the family business. “Do you fancy me – a tailor?” A round of jests followed this, disclosing their surety that maybe he wasn’t cut out for this business after all, that he’d always kept them in stitches. Dar smiled at their genial camaraderie and experienced a moment of double-edged homesickness, for his comrades here in this Land, and for his own friends that he’d grown up with his whole life.
“Oh, very funny, laugh it up, you. And when you go off to war and leave me behind and you need supplies to cover your threadbare arses, it’s Stebernathy’s you’ll be coming to, see if it isn’t.”
The boys sobered a few moments as Dar pondered this new mention of war. He didn’t recall Gabriella mentioning war. Kimble then spoke up and said, “Ah, Steb, we’re just proddin’ you, you know that. And maybe you’ll make it all the way through your seven and join the Resistance, you never know.”
Sedgewick cleared his throat and then remarked, “None of you have it even half so bad as I do.” To a chorus of expectant appeals, Sedgewick took in a deep breath and let it out, staring glumly down at the oatmeal on his plate.
Amused, Kenian dug Dar in the ribs and subsequently queried, “All right, Sedge, cut out the dramatics, what gives?”
Sedgewick looked about at all of them and then blurted, “It’s my folks! They’ve gone and – and – I’m engaged! To be married!”
The boys glanced at each other, torn enormously between the desire to laugh aloud and loyalty to calming their friend. Nearest him, Kimble and Stebernathy thumped him awkwardly on the back. “Come on mate, it can’t be that bad, aye?”
“And she looks like a grub!” mourned Sedgewick, dreadfully unhappy. However, this revelation gained him nothing but chortles and laughter. The bell tolled just then, alerting them that a quarter-mark remained for them to reach their first class of the day.
As they stood rigidly at attention, the new Armsmaster inspected them and then announced suddenly, “You may have noticed – I am not your former Armsmaster.” Grizzled and growling at them in his black Master leathers, as he sauntered back and forth before their hastily assembled line, eyeing them for inexactitude, Armsmaster Milvern presented a formidable figure.
But what Dar noticed most was the man’s predilection to spit into the gravel every four or five strides; this disgusting habit Dar attributed to a preference for smudge wedged in his mouth. While he was sure it would distract him from the actual education he was supposed to receive from the Master, he felt even more sure that it would lower his respect for the man.
Armsmaster Milvern paired them off to where their weaknesses and strengths lay. They had been stiffly arranged at attention in alphabetical order, so Dar turned to Padrick on his right.
“All right, then, Morgan, let’s have a go, see what you’re made of.” Padrick smiled winningly and raised his sword.
Dar knew that all the boys in his Cycle were curious to witness his prowess as they’d never known of a student who had entered the Academy and skipped four Cycles. Kenian assured him it was quite unheard of.
And Dar himself hungered to pit himself against new adversaries other than Rick or Gabriella. Or Emanuella, he thought grimly. Dar ducked a Poor Man’s Curse that whistled through the air. Surprise crossed Padrick’s face as Dar returned just as quickly with a Fly Away, invigorated as he struck Padrick a death blow that allowed him to move on to a new partner. So rarely had he practiced these advanced moves against an actual partner, blood coursed through his veins, energizing him.
He moved on to Sedgewick, whom he easily dispatched as well, though Sedgewick did get a shoulder hit in on him with a Death Kiss that Dar wasn’t quick enough to evade entirely.
Moving on, he turned to find Kimble awaiting a partner. He and Kimble saluted with their wooden practice swords as custom demanded and then sized each other up, throwing a few miscellaneous blows, but soon enough, Kimble attacked. Dar felt sure Kimble’s weakness was underestimating and then advancing too impulsively. Several moves were smoothly executed, however, and proved to be Kimble’s best and, Dar suspected, tweaked just a bit. Dar appreciated the ingenuity and countered each of them. Eventually, he surprised Kimble with a Malverian Uppercut death hit and Kimble, impressed, clasped arms with him. “Excellent counter.”
Dar turned and engaged Steb, soon leaving Dar alone in the practice ring to await a partner. Just as he turned about, Kenian turned around, mopping his brow. Seeing that Dar was his next quarry, a grin overtook his features and he chuckled.
“Ah. Fancy a rematch?” he asked jovially, his eyes dancing as he held up his wooden sword.
Dar grinned and, in reply, looked at the sword held in Kenian’s hand and threw his own sword into his other hand. Dar’s smugness faded as he found Kenian mirroring his own move, transferring swordhands, and he then knew a moment of doubt.
As he had discovered at Spring Market last Cycle, Kenian was no easy adversary to dispatch, but Dar welcomed the conquest. Soon neither of them were fighting lazily but with a serious eye to his opponent, careful to watch for both an opening on the other, and to avoid becoming a target himself. Dar felt a rivulet of sweat trickle down his temple.
Just then, Armsmaster Milvern called out, “Cease!”
Students around them immediately halted their swordplay and all else they had been doing.
Kenian paused, his sword against Dar’s, and met Dar’s eyes.
“Now? He wants us to stop now?” Their swords clacked twice in a mediocre strike and counterstrike, their eyes never leaving their opponents’.
A small smile quirked at the corner or Kenian’s mouth. “I’ll keep going if you will….” His eyes were lit up with the thrill of the combat, not wanting to surrender for something so menial as an instructor’s decision.
Dar knew a pang of reservation – it was a poor impression he’d make if he got in trouble from a teacher so soon.
Then, catching his breath, Dar grinned back. A poorer impression still if he didn’t continue the fight after all this time, a quartermark at least. He wasn’t about to forfeit now.
And they swung. The wooden clack-clack’s of their swords resounded throughout the practice yard.
“I said ‘CEASE! CEASE!’” yelled Milvern, but Dar ignored him, fully aware deep in the back of his mind that undoubtedly unpleasant consequences awaited him as a result of his current behavior. But for now – Kenian counterstruck every move Dar had, knew moves he didn’t, and the challenge was intensely gratifying. He was dimly aware of his classmates standing about them in a ring, and was sure the Armsmaster stood there somewhere as well, his eye narrowed and his arms crossed against his black-leathered chest.
Panting, he jumped to the side to miss one move and threw his sword into his left hand, thrusting a Duck and Swan at Kenian. Finally, he landed his sword on Kenian’s neck, but glanced down to see that Kenian had switched his swordhand as well and with a Lightning and Thunder, touched his own sword to Dar’s chest. Both deathblows, simultaneously issued.
Their classmates cheered, and as they lowered their swords, Dar heard Kimble and Padrick collecting bets placed. He swiped an arm across his salty brow and panting, grinned at Kenian.
Their grins faded immediately when the sound of their classmates’ appreciation died to tangible silence. Dar sought out his Armsmaster.
Ker Milvern stood observing them with small obsidian eyes, unmoving. The boys all around, including Kenian, took this as a signal to fall in, and Dar joined them wordlessly.
Ker Milvern grated, “I see you fancy yourselves both supremacists among your Cycle. Since that is so, you’ll not fight each other without my express permission again, until I tell you to cease said behavior. Is this quite clear?”
Both Dar and Kenian, standing as rigidly as their bodies permitted, yelled,
“Yes, Ker Milvern!”
Ker stepped forward finally and looked into each of their eyes. Dar did not find it a pleasant experience.
“Yes, Ker Milvern!” Kenian and Dar yelled.
Armsmaster Milvern aboutfaced suddenly and roared at all of them, “And when I say Cease, I expect you to Cease! IMMEDIATELY!”
All the boys in unison yelled “Yes, Ker Milvern!”
Ker Milvern turned partway to address Kenian and Dar. “Ten demerits, each starting today at mid fifthmark.” He paused pointedly. “Until I say… cease.”
“Yes, Ker Milvern!” Kenian and Dar each responded dutifully.
Dar had assumed ten demerits would be something like running laps, push-ups, something physical, as his coaches enforced back home. He had noted his classmates’ looks of pure sympathy and assumed it was simply empathy for his situation.
Then Kenian described what their demerit detail that afternoon would entail.
“Mucking the sewers! You’re joking!”
Kenian shook his head. “What did you expect, mate? First day, insubordinate to the Armsmaster…?” He gestured as if Dar was dense.
Dar had stopped on their way to Middle Eras History and was standing staring at Kenian in the middle of the brick path. “Mucking the sewers, though? What happens if you get into a fight or stars, something serious!”
Kenian grabbed his elbow and ushered him along to their next class.
“Come along now, don’t want to take more demerits for tardiness, do we?” He pushed Dar along. “And insubordination is a fairly serious offense. Usually, it’s just one or two demerits, three, maybe five.” His face split in a grin. “I should know, many as I racked up First and Second Cycles. Mainly for sneaking on and off Academy Grounds, that’s usually five demerits, or breaking curfew, most common. Too many demerits brings you down a grade in each class and if all your Cyclemates get more than fifty demerits, then everyone loses a letter grade per class regardless.”
“Academy-wide?” Dar asked, still in shock, thinking of his comrades.
“Oh yeah, Healers, not that you can imagine any Healers getting demerits, can you?” scoffed Kenian as he slid onto a bench next to Dar, “and K’yor. Don’t hear much about them, they’re a strange lot.”
Dar opened his Middle Eras History Book and resolved never again to piss off an Armsmaster.