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THE storm that had raged two days, tearing at the willow trees along the shore and stirring shrieks of indignation from the ospreys, was at last swept out to sea the morning Archmaster Myre was found dead. He was in a chair by the window of his chamber, wrapped in a cloak, eyes turned toward the sea. The mark of the Seer black around his eye as if it had been set aflame. Perhaps that was what happened when a High Master died, the student who told of it to a crowd of others suggested, looking awed, a first-year boy of thirteen. In her corner, silent, Julien Imara thought it a strange story.
It was a morning of quiet after the long tumult of the storm. As the winds departed, they bore away the soul of a Seer.
In the dining hall shortly after sunrise the students were assembled. From the rose window above the high table a spear of sunlight sliced the length of the room, blinding the students who looked up. The Archmasters sat in great chairs at that table, the largest chair at the center gaping empty. In a voice that quavered, Archmaster Hendin announced the cessation of lessons for the next week. The poets in Vassilian—those who already had their rings, who had gathered in that northern castle to study the recovered enchantments—had been summoned to Academy Isle. Rites of burial for an Archmaster must be observed with rigorous adherence to law. For a High Master, all the more. Such a thing had not occurred in nearly thirty years. To the students, the reign of Archmaster Myre had seemed eternal as the oak groves and rock of the Isle itself.
As Julien observed it all she felt like a sparrow perched on a windowsill, peering into a space where people fretted and wondered among themselves. She did feel regret for the loss of Archmaster Myre, whose voice, for all his years, had resounded with force in the raftered halls. In his bearing he had been noble as any king. It seemed impossible that such a presence could be snuffed out. Become a corpse in a chair, gazing sightless at the water he had not crossed since his youth. His window offered a view past the forbidden boundary, to darkened woods on the mainland shore.
Julien often thought of leaving. It was a possibility—to return home, allow that she had erred in coming here. That she was ready to become useful. Perhaps even marry. Her mother would sniff, and her father’s eyes would scan past her shoulder; but she would be home in familiar rooms, sun and olive trees at the window, her sister embroidering beside the hearth. There would be the bedchamber with the furnishings she’d had since birth, the mirror with its hairline crack, the dolls, a shelf of books. By contrast, the halls and galleries of the Academy with their elaborate ceilings massed in shadow were impervious, would never hold evidence of her. The library that extended in caverns beneath the castle would bide its secrets another year, another century; it mattered not.
At home were fewer ways to fail.
Two other girls were in the Academy besides Julien Imara, but they had no interest in becoming poets. Miri and Cyrilla were youngest daughters of lords who had too many daughters. These lords saw an opportunity in Lady Amaristoth’s directive to the Academy to take girl students—for which the Crown would pay. The girls chafed at the surroundings and dull lessons, anticipated eventual rescue in marriages. Some of the boys at the Academy were lords’ sons—this, too, presented an opportunity for the girls’ future. But that was not enough of a draw for most to send their daughters to this cheerless isle. In the eight months since the Academy had begun to take girl students, there were only the three. And all too old—at fifteen, Julien should have been in her third year, not the first.
She had seen the Court Poet once, from a distance at a festival. A slight woman who held herself erect, a banked fire in her eyes. Her mark of the Seer a gleam like silver thread. When Julien thought about her reasons for coming here, to the Academy, Lin Amaristoth was at the heart of them. For the first time it was planted in Julien’s mind that there might be possibilities for her, out in the wider world. Perhaps even in the capital, in Tamryllin. To be a woman with a straight spine and formidable presence, instilling awe in those surrounding.
Possibilities that seemed a joke when Julien caught sight of her own reflection in a glass. That was one advantage of the Academy—there were few mirrors, and no one saw her. She could imagine herself as she pleased, at times. Deny what she knew.
This was a place where it was possible to lose oneself in a variety of ways—in the maze of the library, in halls of historic carvings, in tower gardens overgrown with hedges and weeds. Yet it seemed to Julien no matter how lost she became, she could not escape herself.
Without lessons that day, she wandered. The students maintained a hush out of respect for the dead—when they remembered. The older ones, who were permitted outside the grounds, went out to the woods to enjoy the absence of rain. Others practiced at harps or huddled in groups in the dining hall. Julien sought the quiet places. In the chapel she came across one of the Archmasters kneeling at the altar of Kiara, head bent towards his chest. She could not see who it was; the lines of his body evinced genuine grief. She passed the Hall of Harps, saw some of the older students using ropes to hoist a new pillar in place alongside the old. Archmaster Myre’s harp would be displayed.
In lessons she had learned some of the history of the Academy and its customs. Archmaster Lian delivered the lectures in a level intonation that lulled many young first-years to sleep, invoking names, events. Wars. Julien’s eyes grew round when he told of the siege of the Academy carried out by King Eldgest centuries ago; of poets sacrificed to torture or the sword. The spell of the Seer Davyd Dreamweaver that had changed everything—driven the enchantments from the world to appease the king. And Darien Aldemoor, who had given his life to change it all back. It was said the Court Poet, Kimbralin Amaristoth, had accompanied Darien in the Otherworld. None knew what they had seen.
The wall carvings in the Hall of Harps were old as the castle. There were hundreds, and each different. One might show a knight on a horse passing into the mouth of a creature with enormous teeth, his lance upraised; another a crowned woman who ran a sword through the strings of a harp. Yet another, a dancer with a torch in each hand, wild hair like snakes. There were disputes among Archmasters, through the years, whether these carvings arose from a language of symbols, now lost, or were mere decoration. In time, theories had accumulated. Julien could spend hours with a candle in hand, staring at the carvings, discovering new images each time.
Some nights she wandered the halls, explored intersecting passageways. No one had caught her yet. The Archmasters prohibited what they referred to as “mixing,” so the girls’ rooms were in a different wing from the other students. It wasn’t boys Julien was after.
In the night, she could pretend. That she was slender and regal, a mark of the Seer around her eye. That the immensity of the place and its secrets belonged to her. No one knew this castle as Julien did, she was sure. At night it became hers.
It was dusk, the sky stained violet above the dark arcade of trees when she saw lights. She was standing at the window of a crumbling tower and spotted them below, yellow and casting bright ripples on the water. She watched. The lights were lanterns, affixed to boats. The poets from Vassilian were coming.
* * *
“SO you’re chosen.” A mild tone, possibly amused. Dorn Arrin couldn’t tell, not without seeing his friend’s face, and it was nearly dark. They sat at the window of the room they shared, and watched the boats come in. Night was growing. By now the line of red in the western skies had turned cobalt, and on the water they saw the lights.
“You make it sound important,” Dorn said. “Instead of a bloody inconvenience.”
Etherell Lyr laughed. Now Dorn could imagine his grin, the shake of his head. “An inconvenience.” He didn’t seem put out as Dorn had feared ever since they’d been informed of the choice. Being among those selected to sing at the High Master’s funeral rite was an honor worthy of recounting to children and grandchildren—should Dorn ever be so reckless as to have any. Most of those chosen were poets arriving from Vassilian. Though at twenty, Dorn Arrin and Etherell Lyr were in their last year of the Academy—very nearly poets, themselves.
It was true Etherell didn’t work as hard as Dorn did at lessons, nor was his singing as remarkable. Etherell had a winning voice, diamond-clear, like a prince in a pageant play. He relied on charm. A lord’s son had less need to invest effort in success. Without the benefit of such a background, Dorn knew whatever he himself accomplished would need to be on his terms. He would not return home to an apprenticeship in bookmaking if he could help it. Songs would be his bread and wine.
“Yes … an inconvenience,” Dorn said. “Singing all the night until dawn.”
“If I understand it right, you’ll be spending the hours before that in prayer and fasting,” said Etherell. Now Dorn knew for certain his grin was merciless. “I’ll be sure to keep you in mind tomorrow at dinner.”
“All the same,” Dorn began, hesitated. They so rarely spoke of serious matters. “All the same … It’s a damnable thing. About Myre.”
“He was old, wasn’t he?”
“You don’t find it strange?”
For several moments Etherell was quiet. From the window they heard distant shouts—the men from Vassilian pulling ashore. The students would be expected in the dining hall to greet the guests.
At last Etherell said, “I don’t know. I thought that was something the tadpole invented. For attention. You think…”
“You know what I think.” Dorn was grim. “Who knows what Myre got himself into … what sort of enchantments he was playing with? We were better off before all that flummery. When music was music, and words were words. And those who wanted power planned to live off the court like leeches, or wield a sword someplace. Leaving the art to itself.”
“You’ve said it often enough.” As ever, Dorn’s fuming left Etherell untouched. Dorn often felt unkempt, crude, beside him. He was always too aware of his origins. Yet his path to the Academy had begun in his father’s workshop, where as a child he had spent late nights poring over manuscripts by the light of sneaked candles.
But now his friend pursued a different line of thought. He leaned forward, grey in the twilight. “In autumn we’ll have our rings. Dorn Arrin, what will you do?”
The question took Dorn aback, then sank in his stomach like a rock. What will you do? The voices outside had faded. Now all they heard was the murmur of waves, the call of an owl as night fell; sounds that made the peaceful backdrop of their lives. Though if Dorn were honest, he didn’t know much of peace. Only his studies, and the words he wrestled by candlelight in the Tower of the Winds, at times kept torment at bay. A reason, perhaps, that he excelled at his studies.
“What will I do?” He was pleased with the tone he managed, a balance of whimsy and cynicism. “I will take to the road and sing. And hope for a meal and a bed at night. Perhaps the last poet to live that way, it’s true.” That came out more melancholy than he’d intended. Hastily he added, “And you?”
“I?” Etherell reclined in his chair. “I believe I will take up hunting.”
“You’re far too lazy.” What Dorn would never say was: Come with me. He had seen his friend’s face when something irritated or disgusted him; the way it froze into pure perfection of form, without expression. Dorn never wanted that face turned his way; there was no wit or art he had against it.
Meanwhile Etherell had stood, lit a candle. His face serene in its light. “We should go downstairs,” he said. “They’re here.”
* * *
DINNER was a great affair, with food more festive in honor of the poets who had come, led by Piet Abarda. There was meat, wine, and speeches—these last barely audible to the girls at the far end of the table. Julien gathered that the next day would be dedicated to the mourning rites for Archmaster Myre, culminating in a night of song by the fifteen poets who were chosen. Dawn the following day would mark the final rite, when the High Master would be set adrift to sea.
Piet Abarda was a lithe, dark-haired man with a confident stride. There was something smooth about him, she thought. When he expressed grief for the passing of the High Master—his teacher—it was with controlled sophistication. The poets of Vassilian were under Piet’s guidance, if not exactly leadership; he was in service to the Court Poet, reported to her through Valanir Ocune. Many poets, long finished with their studies, had gathered at Vassilian since the return of the enchantments.
Students whispered among themselves that Piet Abarda had a pet demon that rose from the Underworld at his command, and for this reason Julien was disinclined to believe any of the stories she had heard of Vassilian. What she saw were ordinary men, mostly young, dressed in the formal grey of the Academy. There was no telling, from the look of them, if they consorted with supernatural creatures—demonic or otherwise. But she doubted it.
At the conclusion of the meal, one of the final-year students was asked to sing for the company. Tall and lank so he appeared awkward, his shaggy hair nearly hid his face. But with dignity he stood, allowed a silence to fall before he began to sing. His voice was deep. The ballad he chose was a lament for a hero’s passing, a warrior of long ago. No emotion stirred in the student’s angular face, but Julien felt an impulse to weep. When he was done, the emptiness where the music had been seemed a tangible thing. Archmaster Hendin rose and bowed in his place at the high table. “Thank you, Dorn Arrin.”
* * *
SHE thought of her sister that night, when she couldn’t sleep. Though she felt sorrowful for Archmaster Myre, the mood stirred in her by Dorn Arrin’s song came from a different place. There were times when Julien was forced to admit that however accustomed she might become to this castle and its warren of hallways—however expert in its secrets—it would never be home. The Archmasters didn’t want the girls here and ignored them in the lessons. Catching on to this, the boys ignored them, too. The Court Poet might be able to force the girls’ admission; their acceptance was another matter. It would be reasonable, perhaps even wise, to leave. Julien was here by her own choice, rather than that of her parents. She could exercise that choice again.
But in the house of her birth, of her childhood—which had mostly been happy, despite everything—Julien was not welcome unless she could meet certain expectations. If she could forget the desire that had brought her here.
Her younger sister Alisse had understood. Content to spin and sew, Alisse was the only one who knew her sister’s heart. Who had said once, smiling, “You are meant for a different life.” Though they looked alike—short of stature and rounded, with brown curls and eyes—that was the only similarity between them. Most of Julien’s clothing had been sewn by her sister. Alisse favored embroidered hems, buttons of onyx and pearl, on dresses that enfolded Julien in protective warmth. But Alisse would soon be married and sent to another home.
These were thoughts Julien tried to avoid. She spent hours in the library combing through the scrolls and books. Practiced the harp until her fingers ached. Yet sometimes the draft that rilled through the castle in long sighs was like a question. Or else it was in the evening call of the whip-poor-will: Where is home?
When it was very late she knew she wouldn’t sleep. She crept from her room out to the hall, where moonlight seeped through apertures. At the end of the hall a staircase rarely used, a narrow spiral in the dark, with cracks and gaps she knew by heart. When she reached the ground level, Julien made her way to the entrance hall, which opened onto the Hall of Harps. She liked to visit it at night: to be alone with the sacred objects, the wall carvings in candlelight. But tonight she heard voices coming from one of the meeting chambers nearby, saw light under the door.
Alisse might have said something cautionary, in that moment, about the perils of curiosity. The peril was real—there was nothing imaginary about the birch rod the Archmasters used to administer discipline. And there were other punishments, worse ones, that Julien had only heard hinted at.
She thought quickly. There was a small passage that cut past that chamber on the other side, connected it with the kitchens. There she would be less exposed than if she lingered in the entrance hall. Making her way to the kitchens first, she snatched a biscuit, which would give her a pretext for wandering if she was caught.
From the kitchen she found the passage, a corridor of doors—most of which were used only by servants. The glow beneath one of the doors lit her way as she pressed against the wall. Across from her, a leering face carved in the stone stared back. The Mocker. It was everywhere in this castle, along with other faces. The King. The Mourner. The Goddess. And of course, the Poet. Faces half-melted into the stone, that saw everything.
She heard Piet Abarda first. “He is hardly cold, and you speak of this?”
“Delay is a pastime for lovers and fools, it is said.” A voice she knew, one of the Archmasters. She struggled to recall the name. Kerwin, that was it. The youngest of the Archmasters, she had never liked him, though Cyrilla and Miri thought him handsome with his trim black beard and broad shoulders. “Lord Abarda, if we can depend on your support, you will not regret it. Whereas if not…”
“Threatening me, Archmaster Kerwin?” said Piet. “Do you forget I have the ear of the Court Poet?”
“None could forget,” said Archmaster Kerwin. Julien now recalled why she disliked him—he always seemed to be sneering. His voice became oily, what perhaps he imagined as persuasive. “You are in a unique position, Lord Abarda. So much power and prestige … yet so precarious. Your protector is not looking our way at this time—is preoccupied with politics in Kahishi, as it happens. Here is an opportunity much nearer to hand.”
“So far you’ve presented me with no opportunities, only threats,” said Piet Abarda with scorn.
“If that is how it seems, I apologize,” said Archmaster Kerwin. “I will only remind you that a time is coming to … choose. And to make matters more interesting, I know which Seer has been chosen to complete the ten.”
Complete the ten. Death had reduced the Archmasters to nine.
“Surely, Valanir Ocune…”
“You see, Lord Abarda. You are not acquainted with the way of things. Valanir Ocune may be hand in glove with the Court Poet, but that is no advantage. Once it might have been. Not anymore.”
“What will you give me?” A note of defiance from Piet even as he gave in.
“Surely you know.” Archmaster Kerwin sounded as if he were smirking. “What could Lord Abarda want, other than his high position? And yet—he is not a Seer. The Court Poet has lavished him with importance, yet has not seen fit to give him that power. And there is power in it now, Piet Abarda. After tomorrow night, there will be even more.”
A hand on Julien’s arm made her jump. She whirled, terrified that an Archmaster had discovered her. Found herself staring into the surprised face of Etherell Lyr, which inspired a different sort of terror. He was holding a candle and looked at her with puzzlement. “Julien Imara, is it? What are you doing here?”
“They’ll hear us,” she whispered, inclining her head towards the door. He nodded and walked with her down the hall. All clear thought had left Julien’s head, and she could only think how silly she looked in the prim high-necked nightrobe sewn by her sister, with lace at the cuffs. Etherell Lyr was a fantasy for all the girls, with his golden hair and eyes bluer than the forget-me-nots that bloomed on the Isle in spring. Julien was furious with herself, with the banality of such thoughts. She had not gone so far as to compose a poem about him, but had thought about it—which was bad enough.
“What are you doing?” she said when they were out of earshot, summoning irritation as a defense.
“I was hungry,” he said, unperturbed. “I see you were too.”
“You know my name,” she said. Regretted it instantly.
“Yes,” he said with a quizzical smile. “Well, good night. I think you had best go to bed.”
“Wait—Etherell, what do you think is happening?” It felt odd, presumptuous, to say his name. They had never spoken before.
“Lots of things.” He sounded patient. “That’s the way of it, in places where power resides. Julien, you are not powerful yet, won’t be for some years. Stay out of it now. When you’re ready, well.” He laughed. “Good night. I think I’ll get one of those biscuits.”
She turned with a sigh, back to the dark stretch of hallway. Heard him say, “Julien.”
She turned back, and her throat caught. His expression had become stern, like a lord about to mete out judgment. “You’re fortunate it was my path you crossed tonight,” he said. “Try again, you may not be so lucky. There are dangers here.”
“You mean … like Maric Antrell?”
He surprised her by smiling. “You know, then. That’s good.” With a jaunting step, even a slight hum as if he was off for a picnic, he ambled down the hall and into shadow. She heard a door shut. And then all was quiet in the hall.
Julien sought her room. She felt a chill, as if the wind had got inside her robe. Of the final-year students, Maric Antrell—talented, handsome, with auburn curls—was among the most admired. And most feared. Julien had seen Etherell face down Maric and his friends in defense of Dorn Arrin. But not before the boys had broken one of Dorn’s fingers. They were wealthy, noble—untouchable, though that was supposed to be against the rules. Archmaster Hendin might occasionally have sharp words for them … as had Archmaster Myre. But the others seemed not to see.
Julien had thought such dangers well beyond her. She was no one. Invisible. But the recollection of Etherell’s stone gaze unnerved her. She shivered under her blankets for a time, as the air crisped with the dawn. A blackbird nested in the eaves began to sing.
Stay out of it now.
She had lived in this place eight months, thought she knew its ways. With one death everything had become strange. The skies were light by the time Julien Imara fell asleep, into a chasm of dreams that resounded with the song of Dorn Arrin, lamenting. A great soul was gone from the world.
Copyright © 2018 by Ilana C. Myer