Every footstep echoed as they passed between the pillars that hemmed in the practice courts. They were high in the palace, more of the outside breeze than usual meandering into the open hall, and still the walls and floors and ceiling were made of hard stone. As empty as it was, the long streak and dark star-patterned burns were obvious against the smooth gray surfaces.
Brance spun once on his heel as he entered, hands in his pockets. He had been here dozens of times before, but never seen it without a crowd. The ceiling looked higher. The walls seemed wider. And he liked it.
It was a good, clean space. He would have liked to reach back, tag his sister and race her across the length of it.
Behind him, Kadelyn was stepping lightly. Glancing back at her with a smile, he thought she must have known what he was thinking. Hands folded carefully in front of her, she stayed just out of his reach.
Haldard, their bodyguard had come in a few steps to the right of her, spaced equally between them, as he usually was. “Good luck, my lord,” he told Brance.
Brance smiled at him. “Am I going to need it?”
Haldard chuckled to himself. “I doubt it,” he said. He nodded Brance toward the center of the hall, then waited for Kadelyn to turn before he followed her around the outside columns. There were benches set in long rows along both sides, and they aimed for the closest ones.
Brance turned back in the direction Haldard had pointed him. Donnemey was waiting for him there.
When he approached, Donnemey bowed from the waist. He was dressed in a long leather coat without sleeves, a smaller, similar coat hanging from one hand. The light cotton shirt he wore underneath was rolled up to the elbows, and the skin of his forearms was marked with smooth, white scars.
“Good morning, my lord,” he said.
Brance nodded in response. “Good morning.”
Donnemey straightened. Then he stood still for a moment, looking Brance up and down. “Are you nervous?” he asked.
Brance blinked at him. Then he shook his head.
“No,” Donnemey said. “Why would you be? You’re ten years old. You’re in an empty room, and you think you’re about to get permission to light a lot of things on fire.” He leaned his head toward Brance, eyes narrowed over a crooked smile. “They told you this was going to be work, right?”
Brance nodded and grinned back at him. “Yeah,” he said. “But you’re still going to let me light things on fire.”
Donnemey’s smile matched his, if it kept its tilted line. Leaning back on his heels, he nodded toward the corner. “Just remember, your sister is here. Don’t light her on fire.”
Brance didn’t bother responding. That wasn’t a rule he would have any trouble following.
“You’ve stopped taking purphagus?” Donnemey asked.
Brance nodded. “I haven’t had any for a week.”
“How do you feel?” Donnemey asked.
Looking down at his fingers, Brance stretched his fingers as far as they would go. Then he relaxed them again. “Good,” he said.
“Right,” Donnemey murmured. “Ten.”
Donnemey met his eye again, sharply. “Do you know why we take purphagus when we Show too early to begin training?”
“To keep from hurting ourselves,” Brance said.
“No,” Donnemey said. He shook his head. “To keep from learning bad habits that our teachers would have to unteach.”
Brance’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t sure why, but that sounded a thing that Donnemey made up.
If Donnemey noticed his doubt, he didn’t care. He held the coat out to him.
“Do you know why we wear these?” he asked.
Brance answered a little more slowly, looking up at Donnemey’s face before he did to make sure he actually wanted one. “To keep from hurting others,” he said. “To warn them about what we are.”
“No,” Donnemey said, just as quickly.
Brance took the coat from him, and tried to decide whether it was worth it to glare at him. He settled on yanking the buttons open on his jacket with his free hand and dropping it on the floor. Then he pulled the heavy leather on and started tying it tight to his chest.
“We wear it to protect ourselves,” Donnemey said. That sounded like a lie too.
Donnemey held out his arms, showing Brance the white scars. They wound around his arms, flat as tattoos, curling old burns.
“Your energy is safe to you right now,” Donnemey said. “But the first thing that I’m going to teach you is how to make it hot, and fast, and hard, and it won’t be safe any more. You’ll get scars of your own, but that coat will keep you from hurting beyond healing. So long as you’re careful.”
Brance tied off his last knot, and dropped his hands to his sides. He met Donnemey’s eye firmly. “That’s why the coat is hard leather,” he said. “But if that was all we wore them for, we would just wear a guardsman’s armor.”
Donnemey raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Yes,” Brance said. He tugged at the collar of his new coat. It stood higher than his jacket’s.
“So, you’re going to argue with me when you think I’m wrong?” Donnemey asked. He put just enough emphasis on the word “think” to make Brance consider glaring at him again.
“Yes,” Brance repeated more firmly.
“Good,” Donnemey said. “Then we’d better get started.” He smiled down at Brance. “Are you ready?”
Brance put his hands down at his sides quickly. He spread his fingers just a little. “Yes,” he said.