Authors: Dave Duncan
An archivist was more important than a recorder. How did she know that?
“Have you any idea what Im talking about?”
“Not the muddiest! ” she admitted.
He laughed. “You’ll learn all that soon enough.”
Most of the people in the glade wore long cloaks and wide hats like his. And she … she was wearing a thin, brown thing that was oddly familiar, and yet she couldn’t quite remember …
“I’m sure you’ll love it here at the College,” Jain said. “Just remember how important it is. Did you have a good journey?”
“Journey? Oh, fine, ” Thaile said vaguely.
“We have a Place ready for you, of course. I think you’ll like it. Mist’ll be here soon.”
“Another novice. He’ll show you around. Give him something to do.”
If what the College did was so important, then why did this Mist person need something to do? She supposed the answer must be obvious, so she didn’t ask.
“Normally you would be welcomed-and shown around-by the mistress of novices, Archivist Mearn. She’s tied up today on a matter of some importance. She sends her apologies. “
Thaile muttered a polite-sounding nothing. A novice would be better company, likely. She rubbed the back of her neck, which felt oddly cool as if there were a draft blowing on it. She ran fingers through her hair.
“If you’re not too tired,” Jain continued, “Mist’ll help you pick out some new clothes.”
He meant that she was wearing a rag. He was contemptuous of her poverty, although he’d told her once that his family had been poor, too. That should have made him sympathetic, she would have thought. Probably he was trying to be kind, as best he could, and make her welcome, and she shouldn’t be just sitting there like a pillow, paying more attention to the swans than to him. He had frightened her when he came to the Gaib Place back … how long ago? He did not frighten her now, and if he still spoke to her as if she were an ignorant, willful child … well, compared to him she probably was an ignorant child. She still did not trust him, although she could not imagine why. He had a quiet voice and a nice smile. He was tall, and goodlooking, with very pointy ears. He was wearing a green, furtrimmed cloak that she remembered. Together they had eaten a picnic off that cloak.
Thaile shook herself. “That would be wonderful, but I have nothing to trade. “
He chuckled softly. “No need to trade. You’re a novice now, and the College will look after you … Why so solemn, Thaile? Where’s the bubbly, happy girl I met at the Gaib Place? Missing your parents, are you?”
She did not need occult Feeling to hear the sneer in his voice. Jain of the College thought very little of Gaib and Frial. It seemed like a long time since she had said good-bye to them. “Not missing them much.”
“Well, this is your first day at the College, and you should be thrilled. I promised you all sorts of wonderful things, and now you’re going to see them, or some of them. You ought to be excited. “
“I’m sorry,” she said. Why sorry, though? He knew she had never wanted to come, so why should he expect her to be excited now?
“I told you how important our work is here. You haven’t forgotten your catechism, surely?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you know how the Keeper and the College defend Thume from all the demons. You’re part of that now, Thaile. Mearn will explain more tomorrow, but it’s very important. You’re important!”
“I understand. ” Now she was here, she must make the best of it and do what was required of her. All her childish dreams of finding a young man with a nice smile and bulgy arms were just that-childish dreams. She must forget those now. The College was important. She had Faculty, so the Keeper wanted her, for some unimaginable reason. There was an escaped thought at the back of her mind … Her head was stuffed with feathers.
“It’s just … Do you know that funny feeling when you wake up and you’ve had a nightmare and you can’t remember what it was, but it still bothers you? I feel like that. “
Jain grunted, not looking at her. “Well, it’ll pass. Here comes Mist, I think.”
But Thaile had already Felt someone new. Now she saw a tall young man striding along the path, emitting boredom and pique, with hints of nervousness pushed down underneath. He was swathed from neck to ankles in a cloak of gold and blue and scarlet, very dazzling. Its fur-trimmed hem swirled around his boots as he marched, a long, fur-trimmed hood swung at his back. He held his bare head high, scanning the glade, as if searching.
Jain waved. Mist changed direction, heading for their bench, his boredom abruptly replaced by surprise, pleasure, maninterest …
“Novice Mist seems to have been expecting a person of some other gender,” Jain murmured, amused. “Could Mistress Mearn have misled him, do you think?”
A twinge of worry penetrated Thaile’s strange lassitude. “Can I trust him?”
Jain snorted. “If I had your looks, I would trust nothing that spoke below a high soprano. But you’re in no danger here in the College. Any real fright would bring a torrent of sorcerers to your rescue. Anything less-slap as hard as you can. ” He paused, studying the approaching youth. “No, this one’s all talk. Fancies himself a lot. “
Mist arrived, and he was even taller than she had expected. He swirled his splendid cloak as he bowed to the pair of them. “Archivist Jain?” he said, but his eyes were inspecting Thaile. He had nicely slanted eyes-big and innocent and pale as butter. The man-interest became stronger, mingled with approval as he registered from her short hair that she was still single.
Jain introduced novice to novice. Thaile had an odd sensation of waking up … Bright sun and wind on her face …
“You must be frozen!” Mist exclaimed. He unclasped his cloak and swung it off. “Here, you need this!”
“No, I’m fine,” she said, disconcerted by a huge rush of amusement from Archivist Jain. He must have lowered his defenses to let her Feel that amusement, inviting her to share it with him. What was so unspeakably funny? Ah, Mist’s clothes, of course.
Fancies himself a lot …
The tall young man was almost as colorful as the flowerinfested glade itself. Gold buckles adorned his half-boots. Above them came tight white stockings, full pantaloons of green and blue, and a sleeveless shirt of silver cloth patterned with red sequins. The stockings displayed nothing special, but he did have unusually wide shoulders, and he had obviously chosen the skimpy shirt for that reason.
“You’re too tall to be an elf, Novice,” Jain said, rising. His face revealed none of the laughter inside him.
“Archivist?” Mist said blankly.
“Nothing. You’ll show our new hatchling around, then?”
“It will be a pleasure and an honor,” Mist agreed. Thaile Felt sincerity and an alarming eagerness in that statement.
“I shall leave you to it,” said the sorcerer. “Welcome again, Thaile. We’ll meet often in future, I’m sure. Soon you must come to my Place and meet my wife and our, er, … and try her cooking. Well, I’ll see you around. ” With a flourish of green cloak, Jain turned and headed down the slope to the path.
Novice Mist slid into the place the sorcerer had vacated, but he twisted around to look at Thaile, leaning a bulgy arm on the back of the bench for her to notice. He gazed at her solemnly with his butter-yellow eyes. He had a very plain face, and his ears neither especially pointy nor especially round. He reminded her a little of her father-solid. It would take a strong wind to ruffle Mist, she thought.
“Been here long?” he demanded. “Er … no. You?”
“Ten days. Very dull, mostly. It’ll be better from now on, though.”
He grinned. “You’re here. You’re Novice Number Five at the moment. The other three are pimple-faced brats. One more and we start lessons. Need at least six for a class, the old bag says. Have a good journey?”
Thaile did not want to talk about her journey. “Fine,” she said quickly. “You?”
“I was this much taller when I arrived,” Mist said solemnly, gesturing with his fingers.
She was startled, then laughed as she realized that his blank expression was intended as humor. She Felt his satisfaction. Mist was not quite as simple as he looked.
“Which Gated you come to?” he asked.
Gate? Why did everyone keep asking her about her journey? She did not want even to think of it. She was here, wasn’t that good enough? “Oh, let’s not talk about that! Tell me what happens next, and what did you say about lessons, and what you’re going to show me.”
“Where do you want to start?” he asked.
“I don’t know. What am I supposed to see?”
He shrugged those big bare shoulders, making the sequined shirt twinkle in the sunlight. “I can only show you the bits I’ve seen, and that’s only a small part of the College, I’m sure. Your Place, of course. And this is the Meeting Place. The Market, the Commons, the School. I can show you my Place, or where the three spotted warblers nest, but I am absolutely positive you don’t want to meet them. “
“Market first, then your Place. You like canoeing?”
“Er … I’ve never been in a boat. ” Why did that feel wrong? “At least, I don’t think I have.”
“I love canoeing,” Mist said, closing his eyes dreamily. Then he opened them and regarded her appraisingly. “There’s a lake at my Place-a little lake, but a lake. I’ll take you canoeing.”
“Market first,” Thaile said firmly, and jumped to her feet. She staggered, almost falling to the grass. Mist sprang up and caught her, and held.
“I-I don’t know! I feel sort of off-balance. “
“No, no blisters.” She pushed away his hands, feeling very annoyed at being so stupid. She tried a step, then another, and decided she had a mysterious compulsion to lean over backward. Mist’s arm hovered nearby. “Let me help?”
“No, I’m fine.” Placing bare feet carefully on the grass, she marched down the gentle slope to the path. Mist strolled at her side, still eager to provide support.
He stopped at the path. “This is the Way,” he said, waving a hand. He had big hands-useful for wielding paddles, no doubt. “You’ll see it everywhere in the College.”
The Way was wide enough for two people to walk abreast, paved in very fine, sparkly white gravel, smooth and level. Thaile didn’t like the look of it. Why so wide? She mourned for all the grass that could have grown there, or flowers. Paths should be one narrow strip of moss or pine needles, just wide enough for feet, squeezing in and out between trees and bushes. A few deadfalls and gullies always made a walk more interesting. The Way went racing off over the grass, up and down the hillocks, so smooth you could roll a melon along it. Oh, it had some curves and slopes, but it seemed nastily artificial to her.
“Left or right?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Mist said, watching her as if waiting for her to see a joke. “You choose.”
The Way seemed to circle the pond, all around the clearing. To the left were the mooning lovers, who had adjourned their mutual adoration to a bench. Thaile turned right, looking up at Mist’s smile distrustfully as he fell into step alongside her. The sun slid behind a cloud, shadowing the world.
“The way out is exactly at the far side? I mean, the path goes all the way around?”
He smirked. “You’ll see. Sure you don’t want my cloak?” Clearly there was something about this mysterious Way that he expected to surprise her. She did not want to be surprised by this overlarge, fancies-himself canoeist. His obvious man-interest was flattering, and not entirely unwelcome, but somehow it felt like trespass, usurpation … like wrong man. Tugging at her hair in confusion, she refused the offer of his cloak and just strode along in silence. Puzzled and a little hurt, Mist paced at her side, taking two steps to her three.
Apparently the Way did not go all around the Meeting Place as she had thought. Soon it abandoned the parkland, and led them off into the forest. Mist continued to carry his cloak over one shoulder, although the air was much cooler here in the woods. Obviously if Thaile was warm enough, then he must show that he was. He had enough tact to remain silent, and the half-tasted memory at the back of her mind began to niggle at her again. So it was she who spoke first.
“Three other novices, you said?”
“Grub, Maggot, and Worm.”
She laughed. Just when Mist’s placidity was most reminding her of her father, he would make a genuinely funny remark. Had Gaib possessed a sense of humor at Mist’s age? “What’s wrong with them?”
Mist shrugged. “They may be bearable in four or five years. Two of them, anyway. “
“How old are you, Mist?”
He glanced down at her thoughtfully. “Nineteen. You?”
“Er-Sixteen.” She meant she would be sixteen at the beginning of the rainy season, but obviously this was late in the rainy season, because the leaves were green and all those flowers … Yet she was sure she was sixteen already. Birthday? Winterfest? God of Madness, why was she so confused today? She shook her head, half expecting to feel hair swinging against her neck. “I’m old for a novice, of course,” Mist said, and she Felt his embarrassment. “I was late getting my word, because there weren’t many Gifted families around Dad’s Place. I was scouting out Places of my own already. Then a recorder came by and said I mustn’t, not yet. Sent me on a three-day trip up the Fastwater Valley. I had to hang around for months before the old relic finally got around to dying. After all that, he decided I didn’t have Faculty-the recorder did, I mean. So I started exploring again. Took my time, though. Don’t rush into things, usually. “
Thaile thought Novice Mist would never rush into anything. He had a large sense of inertia about him.
“Why are you here, if you haven’t got Faculty?”
“Another recorder came by. Decided maybe I did. ” He shrugged again-more embarrassment. “So now I suppose I get told another word, and then they decide for certain.”
“Do you want to stay here or go home?”
The pale yellow eyes looked down at her again. “Might be nice to be a sorcerer. Easier than picking cotton. “