The climb up the stairwell to the Dean’s quarters wore on her mind more than her legs. Had her transgressions been discovered, or had she been promoted? Each step was a question that rocked between two equally horrid possibilities. It reminded her of plucking daisy petals and chanting; He loves me, he loves me not. Neither of those options worked out well when she was a girl. The average field daisy had thirty-four petals. This skewed the results of the outcome, but not the truth of it. In her experience, young love returned was just as painful as the unrequited variety. No matter what the approaching result would be, Novice Kettna took each stride in a steady rhythm, determined to have her review over and done with.
At the top of the stairwell, her resolve faltered. The door to Dean Fynze’s chamber was open, as was his custom. Kettna would have appreciated a shut door to linger behind, to gather her thoughts and tick and tock between the same questions that had worried her at each step. Instead, her worry was assaulted by the Dean’s robust and cheerful greeting. “Novice Kettna! Welcome. Don’t dwell at the door now. Make your way forth. Mind your step past that book stack. It received a bump earlier from the cleaner trying to muscle around the place like an ox in a paddy.”
The stack of knowledge leaned like a rotten tree trunk, ready to fall at the slightest sneeze. Kettna reached out to right the stack then thought better of it, not wanting to risk death-by-bookfall should she nudge it the wrong way.
“I thought you’d scared off all the cleaning staff, Dean.”
“No such luck! This new woman is a relentless monster, poking her nose in here every day for the last month. With her penchant for symmetry, I would have sworn she was part elf, but her pig-headed disregard for my instructions lends favour to my certainty she is of a lesser species.”
“You always taught us that diligence was a virtue to be rewarded. Her duty and your chambers are at odds. Why not reward her virtuous persistence?”
“Pfft! I’ve heard enough about the state of my chambers today, thank you very much. All is where it should be. Now, there are matters we must discuss. Have a seat.”
Given that mounds of paper and piles of books occupied each of the seats, Kettna raised her eyebrows at the request.
“Here then,” offered Dean Fynze, waddling around the desk to bisect a tower of solid tomes and drop them into a chair sized stack. “Don’t say a word. We must appropriate function from all objects, no matter their inherent use.”
Kettna sat carefully upon Dissecting Duplicant Behaviour: Enduring Replications of Temporal Subjects and concerned herself with claiming a measure of poise from the hefty tome, as Dean Fynze advised. At any rate, it was not as uncomfortable as the title implied.
Dust motes ascended in a frenzy from the impact of the Dean’s ample weight and settled upon his plush velvet high-backed chair. “You are aware that I have called you here to discuss your review, yes?”
“I am,” said Kettna, preparing herself for the bad news.
“You’re an outstanding student. Your grasp of complex technical calculations and your critical engagement with magical and alchemical theory is on par with our senior adepts, yet here you are again, under review for a flagging practical performance.”
“So, I don’t qualify for the trial this season?”
“No. It would be irresponsible to send you into such danger without adequate proof of the required talent.”
Kettna relaxed her balled fists. The novice was glad of it, for she knew the trial was a death sentence for those with unreliable talent. It was an honour to be awarded the right to take the trial, but she knew no matter how long the Order of Calim delayed her promotion, she would never be ready to claim a higher name. Novice would be her pinnacle rank and she would fade to grey and perish amongst the labyrinthine archives of the Great Library. Better that than getting caught using unsanctioned aides.
“I understand,” she announced, attempting to cover her delight with a mask of measured respect for the elders’ judgement. “Perhaps by next season I will have improved. I won’t take up any more of your time. I’ll take my leave.”
“There is something else,” the Dean’s expression tightened. “Please, keep your seat.”
This was it. They’d finally found her out. Child prodigy no longer, just a fizzed out talentless hack, poaching to stop-gap her failing connection to the weave. How had they found out? No one else knew except Rix and he’d never rat on her. He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. They must have detected some residue or found her hidden stash. The punishment was worse than death; it was a life of shame. She’d be banished, her name taken, her ink blacked over. “Shouldn’t this be coming from the Archmagus?”
“Well, it does come from her in a way,” replied Dean Fynze with a quizzical look before returning his attention a stack of sealed letters.
“Don’t I get a right of reply?” She’d be damned to take banishment unless she heard it from her mother’s own lips.
“Of course you can reply, though I think you’d want to read it first.” The Dean pushed a letter across the heavy desk, ploughing a path through the clutter of dried orange peel, sunflower seed husks and scrunched up sweet wrappers.
The Order of Calim’s wax seal stared at her like a swollen red eye, gloating at her inability to guess what message was contained within. Kettna cracked the seal open and digested the bitter serving. Swallowing the edict injured her pride. She folded the letter and picked at the broken seal, dropping bits of wax on her green robes.
“I’ve never known you to be without a response. What of the instruction? Isn’t it what you wanted?”
“I wanted permission for a brief sabbatical in the city. Not to serve with the odious city watch!”
Shocked by the outburst, Dean Fynze wrapped his knuckles on the desk. “Calm yourself, Novice. What does it say? It can’t be as bad as that. The watch isn’t for the likes of you.”
The novice reluctantly handed the missive back to the Dean, who pulled his monocle out and read over the contents. “No, no, no. It doesn’t say that, not exactly. Your graces here with the Order have not plummeted so low as to be offered up as our tribute to the city guard. You are there to assist the Constable with investigations of special importance.”
“That is just Mother making pretty words for my ugly exit.”
“Take it as an opportunity.”
“What? To lean on a pike all day and help imbeciles count beans at market?”
“What then? How will I find Rix if I am running errands for the Constable?”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that name.” The Dean unwrapped a sweet and offered it to Kettna, who refused. “First, I think you need to find yourself before you chase after past mistakes,” he said, popping the lemon drop into his mouth.
“I know who I am. I know where I am and where I’m going.”
“Then how is it that magic evades you?”
“I know everyone expected me to follow in Mother’s footsteps, but what if this is everything I’ve got? What if I’ve peaked already? The magic just isn’t coming. Nothing works.”
“‘What if’, is not how you understand ‘what is’. Clutching at water with a fist will leave you thirsty. An open palm will fill your needs. You should accept this task with the grace it deserves. Represent the Order of Calim with dignity and serve the citizens of Calimska with honour. Never before has a novice been assigned a post so close to the Constable. This is quite a feather for your hat, Kettna.”
Dean Fynze offered her another sweet and this time she took it. Perhaps there was wisdom in his advice. “I’ll go, though don’t expect me to be foolish enough to believe your talk was motivated by compassion for Calimska’s citizens. I will be using my personal time as I see fit.”
“As is your right.”
“And when I find Rix, what then?” She didn’t care what people thought. She’d say his name until Nathis claimed her soul. No one would forget.
A dark frown wrinkled across Dean Fynze's brow like a storm front. “That is for you to decide, but don’t sacrifice your future here to spite your mother.”
Kettna rose from her book-seat and bowed to the Dean with as much grace as she could muster, dusting her robes of the dust she accrued in his chambers. “I will pack my things and catch the afternoon ferry.”
“There is no rush. Say your farewells before you go.”
“This letter is as much a farewell as I will get. The Archmagus holds duty to the Order above her family.”
The uncomfortable look on the Dean’s face was proof enough that her mother was likely too busy to wave her off at the docks. In any case, Kettna was a woman grown. She didn’t need the pointless tears of a sentimental mother to make her feel loved.
“Return safe, Novice.” Dean Fynze handed her the edict and she tucked it into an inside pocket amongst the folds of her robes.
“The Constable might not be so eager to keep me on. I’ll be back before the first dragon shadows the city.”
Kettna bowed to her senior again then left the chambers, taking each step down the stairwell, swinging on a pendulum of new worries. What if I find him? What if he’s dead?