Authors: Ginn Hale
iram woke as the carriage jolted against the rough cobblestones of the country road.
After six days of sleepless travel he couldn't believe that he had dozed off today of all days. He frowned at the creased front of his white linen shirt and tucked a loose edge back into his dark pants. His curly blonde hair was always a wild mess after he had slept on it. He tried to smooth it with his hand, feeling the tight spirals spring back as his fingers brushed over them.
His book, Modern Mechanism, lay on the carriage floor. Dozens of strips of paper protruded from between the pages, displaying Kiram's notes and diagrams. He retrieved the book, straightened his notes, and carefully wrapped the book in the remains of his parchment and tucked it into the wide pocket of his new Cadeleonian wool coat.
Kiram had packed very little clothing and only a few of his favorite books. Tools and crated machine parts filled most of the space in the carriage. Many heavier crates groaned against the ropes securing them to the roof of the carriage. The driver had charged Kiram's mother twice the normal fare because of the weight, but she had been proud to pay it. Those heavy, oily pieces of metal had won Kiram the right to attend Academy Sagrada.
No full-blooded Haldiim had ever before been accepted into the school, and a century had passed since the half- blood Yassin Lif-Harun studied there.
Lif-Harun's formulas had altered the very heavens. A statue of the man stood in the Royal Park. Kiram's father had already pointed out the spot where he thought Kiram's own statue would one day stand. If his parents had been allowed to, they would have sent another half-dozen carriages filled with praise dancers and red-dyed doves to announce their youngest son's arrival. Fortunately the school permitted only one carriage per student.
The carriage struck another bump and Kiram shoved the stack of rocking crates back against the carriage wall. Sunlight streamed in through the red carriage curtains, filling the space with a warm glow. The dark wood radiated a late afternoon heat. The brown coat he'd worn for the trip over the mountains felt sweltering hot now and smelled of his sweat. Kiram stripped it off and stretched his long legs as best he could in the cramped confines.
He couldn't be far from the Academy Sagrada now. Maybe an hour, possibly less.
He pulled the curtains aside and gazed out at the walls of wild, green forest that arched over the road. There was a flash of brilliant blue wings as a flock of jays took flight from the overhanging branches. He thought he caught a glimpse of something white moving fast between the trunks of trees but he lost sight of it as the road turned away.
As he rode further, the dense brambles and towering oak trees gave way to groomed hedges and open fields divided by low stone walls. A flock of white ducks waddled along the roadside, tended by a young, bored-looking boy.
Far across a fallow field, Kiram spied a horse and rider. The horse was brilliant white in the bright sun and rider's skin seemed almost as pale as the horse's hide. His black hair stood out in sharp contrast, as did his deep blue Academy Sagrada uniform.
Kiram doubted that his own uniform, well made as it was, would look so good on him. He wondered if the rider was an upperclassman or even an instructor. Kiram stared in amazement as the lean man urged his horse ahead and the two of them seemed to fly over the stone wall then raced across the road and through the opposite field.
He didn't spare a glance for Kiram's carriage, the herder boy, or even the flock of now startled ducks. A few moments later both the horse and rider were little more than a distant haze. Kiram tried to keep track of the rider's blue jacket, but eventually he lost sight of it amongst the fields of blooming sunflowers.
Kiram felt his pulse surging through his body. This was exactly what the academy promised for his future, such fearless prowess, such determination and beauty. Perhaps even adventure.
Kiram had been patient for days but suddenly he felt as though this slow, creaking carriage would never reach its destination and he needed to be at the academy now. Desire and excitement coursed through him like a physical pang.
As the carriage rolled up to the heavy stone walls that surrounded the academy, Kiram gripped the latch of the carriage door. He hardly took in the fortress-like towers of the main building or the chapel's brilliant blue spire. He stared at cobblestone paths and green lawn of the grounds, searching for his fellow classmates. Several boys dressed in academy blue strolled toward the chapel, but none of them captured Kiram's attention the way that single rider had.
The carriage jerked to a halt, and Kiram slipped slightly forward, his hand pulling the door latch. Instantly the carriage door sprang open and he spilled out onto the muddy ground in front of the stable. He struggled up to his feet to see two older men in gray scholars' robes gaping at him. Just behind them, leading his brilliant white horse by its reins, stood the rider.
"I'm fine!" Kiram announced, though no one had asked. "I just…the door opened and I wasn't looking…"
Kiram could feel his face flushing bright red. Not even his dark skin could hide such an intense blush. He regained his feet quickly but to his horror the rider's expression shifted from slight concern to amusement. His handsome smile somehow made Kiram's humiliation far worse. He glared at the rider and then dove back into the cover of the carriage to retrieve his coat.
When he turned back the rider had disappeared into the stables. The two scholars hurried to Kiram's side. They were both typical Cadeleonians, pale skinned and thickly built with brown hair and eyes.
One of them was older, probably in his late forties with shots of gray scattered through his close-cropped hair. The other scholar wasn't more than a decade past Kiram's own age, perhaps twenty-seven. He wore his hair a little long and his cheeks were dappled with freckles.
"I'm Blasio Urracon," the younger scholar introduced himself, "and this is my honored brother, Scholar Donamillo Urracon."
Kiram bowed to both men. Cadeleonian names often sounded odd to him, so he made special note of their pronunciation. Many Cadeleonians found Haldiim informality rude and so Kiram was careful to use proper titles as he addressed his new teachers.
"Scholar Blasio and Scholar Donamillo, it is an honor to meet you. I'm Kiram Kir-Zaki, your humble student."
Scholar Blasio smiled at Kiram's politeness. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last. Javier was just saying that he'd seen your carriage so we came to greet you." Scholar Blasio gestured back towards the stable where the rider had been standing. He frowned at the empty spot. "I suppose he's brushing down his horse. We're short a stable hand at the moment-"
"It's no matter," the older brother, Scholar Donamillo, cut in. "Kiram will be formally introduced to staff and students at dinner tonight."
Scholar Donamillo's tone was much more reserved than Scholar Blasio's, and his expression stern. Kiram couldn't help but think that the older man had taken a quick dislike to him. Probably because he was supposed to be a gifted thinker and he'd just fallen out of a carriage onto his face.
Scholar Donamillo looked a little past Kiram to the crates stacked atop and inside the carriage. "Are all of these yours?"
"Yes, sir. They're the components I've fabricated for the Crown Challenge."
Scholar Blasio grinned. "You brought them all the way from Anacleto? What dedication. That's fabulous!"
Kiram warmed to Scholar Blasio for his enthusiasm but he also noted Scholar Donamillo's expression of disapproval.
"I'll have the groundsmen unpack these," Scholar Donamillo stated. "I suppose that one of the tack sheds can be spared to provide a workshop for the project. No doubt it will take a great deal of space."
"Thank you, sir." Kiram bowed again to the older man. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience."
"Yes, it's good that you realize that this does inconvenience us. It is not common to accept a new student directly into the second-year courses, much less accommodate his individual studies." Strangely, Scholar Donamillo's stern expression seemed to soften as he looked over the wooden crates. "I can only hope that you will prove to be the mechanist genius your teachers claim you are."
The label 'genius' brought a second flush to Kiram's cheeks and also a gnawing anxiety to the pit of his stomach. At seventeen, most of his achievements were still built upon his father's innovations. This would be the first time he would have to rise to a challenge alone.
"I will do my utmost to win the Crown Challenge in the academy's name," Kiram assured Scholar Donamillo. The older man offered him a slight smile in return. He reached out and brushed a clump of mud off Kiram's shirt.
"No doubt you will want a bath after your long journey. Scholar Blasio will take you up to your room."
"Yes, sir." Kiram snatched up his coat and his gray trunk and followed Scholar Blasio across the lush, green lawn to the three-story stone building that dominated the grounds.
"This is the dormitory. First-year students are all housed on the first floor of the west wing, in the old armory room." Scholar Blasio pointed to where the west wing jutted out from the main building. The windows were barred. "With everyone in a single room the night wardens can keep them out of trouble more easily."
Kiram was glad that he hadn't been forced to come as a first-year student. He couldn't imagine sleeping while crammed in a single room with a hundred noisy Cadeleonian boys. The smell alone would have driven him mad.
"Second and third years are housed together on the second floor. Those young men who stand to inherit titles, of course, stay on for a fourth year of Lord's Law. They each have private rooms on the third floor."
"What about the watchtowers?" Kiram gazed up at the two jutting towers that rose up from the third floor.
"The west tower is used for storage and the east one is for special cases." Scholar Blasio looked a little uncomfortable. "Let's go in, shall we?"
Inside, the building was dim and cool. Crests of Cadeleonian noble families, all woven in academy blue, decorated the walls. The royal crest of the Sagrada family was inlayed in gold over all the doors. Scholar Blasio led him past a statue of a rearing stallion, through a huge dining hall, and then up a massive staircase.
"Four of the lecture halls are located on the first floor, the rest are in the east wing," Scholar Blasio told Kiram as they walked up the stairs. "The dining hall and common library are directly below us."
"Everything seems so heavy and huge," Kiram commented. "It looks a little like a fortress."
"It used to be one. Three hundred years ago, during the first Sagrada dynasty, this was one of their great strongholds. After the Restoration the reinstated Sagrada king turned the fortress over to one of his favored vassals to train young lords in the arts of war and law. Of course, things have changed since then but we have not forgotten our history. In fact, it's right under our feet." Scholar Blasio paused on the stairs and pointed back down to a radiant, black design that spread across the stones of the floor below them.
"That is exactly the spot where one hundred years ago Calixto Tornesal opened the mouth of the white hell and defeated the Mirogoth invaders."
Kiram studied the fine web of black cracks. He didn't believe in the white hell or any of the other Cadeleonian hells but the sight of the burned, pitted stones still gave him pause. Standing in an ancient fortress, with a scholar relating the story and pointing out its exact site, it seemed almost plausible that a Cadeleonian nobleman had traded his soul for the power to drive back an invading army.
Even so, Kiram couldn't credit it. A soul could not be given up any more than joy or kindness could be bottled and sold at market. Only in death could the soul leave the flesh.
Kiram glanced to Scholar Blasio, searching his face for some sign that he was joking, but his expression was serious.
"Calixto's descendants still hold the pact of the white hell." Scholar Blasio looked meaningfully at Kiram.
Kiram wasn't sure if he should respond with reverence or revulsion. At last he decided to simply be honest. "In Haldiim tradition we don't believe that people are condemned to hells. We believe that in death all creatures pass through a shajdi and then are reborn in a new form."
Seeing Scholar Blasio's furrowed brow, Kiram continued, "Most modern Haldiim, like my family, don't give much credence to the tales of shajdis hidden in sacred forests or the Bahiim who opened them and claimed power over life and death. If shajdi ever did exist, it was in the ancient past, and they have gone now. But really, most of us understand such stories as metaphors for the balance of birth and death."
Only the very religious Bahiim took shajdis as literal gates between life and death, and the last thing Kiram wanted was to be taken for a superstitious ascetic who'd spend hours talking to trees.
"Really?" Scholar Blasio cocked his head slightly. "So, you aren't afraid of the hells?"
"No, as I said, we don't believe in hells. Shajdi make for amusing stories, though."
Scholar Blasio gazed intently at Kiram, studying his face. "So you wouldn't be afraid of a man who had been hell-branded? Who had the gate to a hell burning within him?"
Kiram simply shrugged. "I suppose not."
"It wouldn't worry you at all to, say, sleep in a room with him?" Scholar Blasio sounded almost incredulous.
"So long as he wasn't insane or sick with black pox I wouldn't be afraid to sleep in a room with any man," Kiram replied. It wasn't entirely true-certainly he wouldn't want to sleep in a room with a thief or murder or, honestly, a man who stank terribly.
"Well, that's good to know. Your room is on the third floor, in the east tower." Scholar Blasio continued up the stairs. Kiram followed him in quick strides. "It's away from the other rooms so it will be quiet enough for you to study, and unlike the other rooms, it's very spacious."
Kiram thought he knew where all of this was leading and decided to just get to the point, instead of having Scholar Blasio nervously list the amenities of his living arrangements when he'd already stated the east tower was reserved for special cases.