Monday, September 3, 2007

Magic in Aquila - Chapter One

We all just stand there, small and slumped over under the weight of the grayness of the sky.

I have never seen Talent Issaka and know of him only by his marble statue in the library courtyard. Talent Issaka acted as the High Talent at the academy when he had was alive and his half of the academy kept him busy. I stay in the other half of the academy, the half within the Aquilan wards where magic is prohibited. Though, I don’t think that the wards existed anymore.

I haven’t seen his face today either, because it’s a closed casket funeral with little, white stralie flowers strewn everywhere in honor of his title as Talent. Only a few people saw Talent Issaka after his death, other Talents from the academy and important people investigating the situation, and they decided that the body should remain hidden.

When the coffin thuds six feet below ground, my cloak suddenly feels damp and scratchy. Water and mildew hang in the air. My head itches, but I worry that the priest's black, beady eyes would turn on me if I moved, even if I’m waiting with over five hundred other students from the academy.

Boryk stands to my right, a pale, earnest boy, with his cloak whipping about him as if it might bring him away from all this sorrow. Saaria stands to my left, straight and tall and still, but I can see the shimmer in her coffee-brown eyes. They are both Talented students and have taken lessons from Talent Issaka himself.

I wonder if my mother would read of this in the newspaper, but she has cared very little for newspapers since we had moved to Aquila. She’s more likely to hear it sitting in one of her friends' sun-shaded living rooms. Oh, Talent Issaka was the High Talent at Lancer's, mom might remember, or she might not. She has cared very little for Talents since we moved to Aquila; it was sudden and strange, moving to Aquila.

We used to live in Sarsen. It’s boring and dusty and exists only to grow klang, a kind of drug to stimulate the Talent. It’s a lazy village, where I would climb down from the tree for dinner when I smelled beef stew or roasted pork. Then, on that summer night, mother set down a letter she just received, stood up, and told me, "Ro, you are going to Lancer's."

I was eight, I remember, because I had just lost my last baby tooth, and I worried how the tooth fairy would give me my money on a train. When I actually arrived at Lancer's, it was night, and I still remember the whispered creaking of the gate as it opened just for me, and the sharp, unbroken tap-taps of the shoes of the man who led me to my bed. I clutched his cold, waxy hand only because my mother had left me with him. I couldn't see his face very well—there weren't very many candles lit—but I remember his dark, silent cloak, because mom would never wear something so somber.

Eight years have passed since then. I still miss my mother's beef stew. Sometimes, I want to tell my mother that I don't want to go to Lancer's anymore; I have no Talent anyways, and though Lancer’s also takes Untalented students like me, their main programs are for the Talented students. Then, I would remember how back at Sarsen, late at night, I would wake up to her flickering shadow, trying to find a way to give a better education.

"Your father would want you taught properly," Mom told me once with a faint smile that she wore whenever she remembered father, when I had said that I didn't care about learning. "But I don't have very much to teach you."

I think that my mother believed that my father was alive, then.

Maybe she believes it still—they have not found his body—but I doubt it. She hasd become a beautiful diamond, cold and hard and sharp in elegant shades of gray, since she left the house in Sarsen where she had lived with father and came to Aquila. She never smiles or cooks or hums anymore. Instead, she sparkles correctly for her friends in society. I think she must have loved my father very much.

Talent Issaka died trying to hold up the ward.

They say that Talent Issaka had the strongest Talent of anybody in the Empire and so he took it upon himself to defend the ward when it came crashing down. It crushed him anyways.

Why the ward fell in the first place was anybody's guess. There are rumors, of course; there were always rumors. Some said that the Dark King has risen, that the great dragons are displeased, that a sliver of the sun has fallen through, or something as dramatic and outlandish. All the rumors agree, though, that there is magic in Aquila, although sometimes it’s unclear whether the Talent entered before the ward broke—and caused it to break—or after, when the ward had already broken.

It’s odd to think of magic in Aquila. All I can imagine are Talent-warmed streets during winter and fire shows in the summer, but I doubt that anybody who took the effort to force magic into Aquila would use it so frivolously. Still, people I know who are Talented never talk much about what they do in the other half of the school beyond the ward, and left to my own devices, I can imagine nothing more exciting than fire shows or more useful than warmth.

As for the fallen ward, some people think it has disappeared, as failed magic are wont to. Some people think that it has reformed itself without any major damage, as old magic are wont to. Nobody knows for sure, not even the Talents, incapacitated as they are by their Emperor’s Spell.

I have only ever lived in the half of Lancer's lit by sunshine and candlelight, but they say that in the other half, darkness reigns. Without magic, the Talents have no light and do not remember candles. They lose themselves in the labyrinth of their own academy. Things transfigured remain transfigured, and things shrunken remain shrunken and useless. At least the kitchen is for the entire academy and has no need of magic, or we would surely all starve to death.

The lack of magic is due to, of course, the ward falling and triggering its last trap to inhibit the magic of anybody with the Emperor's Spell, which is any Talent in the Empire, from performing magic. The fact that it has activated was another point of controversy. It proves that the ward no longer exists and therefore the spell is actively prohibiting the Talents from performing magic, or it proves that the ward still existed and was supporting that last spell and therefore the Talents cannot perform magic.

I hear that we were running out of bread in Aquila—here, in the capital!—because nobody knows how to transport bread without magic. I never liked bread anyways.

We all shuffled inside after the wind carried away the last words of the priest and the first raindrops had begun to splatter and darken the ground. It might shower for two minutes or pour for two hours. That was Aquilan winter. A quiet buzzing surrounded me, although both Boryk and Saaria remained in their sunken silence.

I stood with all the Untalented students, waiting in line, as the Talented ones disappeared behind the warded—or at least used to be warded—stone door. They could eat or sleep now that the ceremony was over—or grieve, if they had known Talent Issaka personally. The rest of us stood and waited for another hour or two or three, on tired feet and worn-out patience, to be tested for "undiscovered Talent."

After any sort of upheaval in Aquila, they would test each of us. It was all very perfunctory and useless. In this case, what they really wanted to find was people unencumbered by the Emperor's Spell. If they had enough people and if they taught these students fast enough, perhaps Aquila might not tumble into total disrepair. Of course, they were also searching for the person who caused the ward to crash in the first place.

"Try to light the candle," Talent Diesus, the Talent overseeing new Talented students, asked of me.

I couldn't, of course.

"Try to move the feather."

The feather sat serenely on the bare wooden table.

"Look into the scrying pan."

I looked. Those who were talented would sometimes see true visions. The rest of us saw whatever the examiner chose to put there. This time, the examiner put an image of me with a man, with robes as dark as his hair and green, glittering eyes. I told him what I saw.

He smiled then and I felt uneasy. "Rowana Craine?"

I nodded hesitantly.

"You are Talented."

I stared at him, for longer than necessary. "But I'm not."

"You saw yourself with a Talent, or your future as a Talent."

"But you put that vision there, Talent Diesus," I felt obligated to point out.

He shook his head. "I couldn't have; I am bound by my Emperor's Spell."

All Talented students began with general classes, of course, and there were usually twenty or thirty students in each class. Students who wanted to disappear strove to be average and those who wanted attention were the best, or failing that, the worst. I thought that I would be average... or maybe the worst, since it was already months into the school year and even the raw beginners had had practice.

It turned out that I was overly worried. They had already found a Talent to teach me. When Talent Diesus told me of this, I had thought that they had meant a tutor to help me catch up—what he had meant was that I would be tutored separately. I wanted to tell Talent Diesus that I wouldn't mind having to catch up with classes, but I didn't, because it was such a privilege to have a tutor early on; most students only received one-on-one training their last year or two.

"You should appreciate this," Talent Diesus warned me with a disapproving brow. "Talent Kae is not even a graduate of this school, but we had none to spare to teach a new Talented student, with everything that has happened. We found him to tutor you only because you are the only one with Talent we have found unbound by the Emperor’s Spell."

I nodded quietly and kept my eyes on the rug.

"Make sure you listen to Talent Kae," he continued. "But don't lose your common sense. Talent Kae is known for unconventional methods; he never underwent formal training."

I looked up sharply at him and looked away quickly. He had surprised me, by telling me that he didn't completely approve of Talent Kae. Of course, one school of magic never quite approved of another—and Talent Kae was rogue, but Talent Diesus insinuated that Talent Kae was not only unconventional, but sometimes uncaring of the consequences of his actions.

"Yes, Talent Diesus," I promised.

He smiled wanly. "Don't let his charm blind you the way it did Princess Sophia."

"Yes, Talent Diesus."

I stared at myself in the mirror for a long time the next morning before I went downstairs to pledge myself to High Talent Kae. My white dress was tied simply with a golden sash. I had never thought that I could miss a color, but symbolism was everything to the Talents, and only those with raw, unformed Talent could wear white.

I wondered if I was still a student at Lancer's Academy. Talent Diesus had not asked me to pack or leave, so I assumed that I would still occupy my room. But I was not pledging myself as a student to Talent Linnings, acting High Talent of the academy. Instead, I was pledging myself to Talent Kae, a rogue Talent. I wondered if I was his first student... if he would have other students.

After a final tug on my dress, I put on my cloak and realized that I was running late. I hurried through the corridors, my white satin slippers pattering along with the raindrops outside.

In front of the alder door, I paused. I looked at the carving on the door of the dragons first giving Jenoi the Talent, and I had an inane thought that maybe I could run back to Sarsen with my mother. Nobody could track us; nobody could use magic. To this day, I still don't know why I hadn't run away.

But I did push open the door. I was actually quite proud of how calmly I stepped inside. Nervousness churned in my stomach so that I could barely focus on anything I saw. Two Talents stood inside, one of them Talent Diesus, and I focused my attention on him. All that I knew of the other Talent was an impression of height and shadows hidden in his cloak. That was how I saw Talent Kae.

Then, I knelt down in front of him to pledge myself. Did I come of my freewill? Yes, I come of my freewill. Would I do my best to learn? Yes, I will do my best to learn. And to serve His Majesty, the emperor? Yes, and to serve His Majesty, the emperor. And so on and so forth the questions and the answers came. I never felt anything more than a sore knee, or maybe it was because nobody could actually perform magic.

After the pledge, I hesitated before I stood up, and when I did and I saw the face that the shadows had hidden, I found myself immobile. The dark hair. The green eyes. But his little, lost smile—how I had remembered him—had disappeared.

Talent Diesus waited patiently until I finally found my voice. "Tiernan...?"

Talent Diesus cut me a glare for my disrespect to a Talent, and I suppose, for embarrassing him. Tiernan's green eyes narrowed a bit at me before he let out a dark chuckle.

"Talent Kae, I ap—"

With a wave, Talent Kae cut off Talent Diesus's apology. "Yes, Rowana." Somehow, I found his steady gaze unsettling. "But you must call me Talent Kae now."

I nodded numbly.

"Follow me." He turned with an impressive swirl of his dark cloak. I felt loud and clumsy stumbling after his gliding shadow. "You have things to learn."

The alder door creaked a little before slamming shut behind us. I used both hands to pick up my cloak and my dress so I could catch up with Tiernan's long strides.