Voss watched Steph work for a moment before rapping on the door frame. He figured it was time for a little interruption. The other boy had been bent over his books every time Voss walked down the hall in the last four hours. Voss might have even believed that he had fallen asleep on them, head on fist, other hand wrapped instinctively around his pencil like a child’s comfort, except that Steph had the constitution of a mountain. He was the only one Voss knew who had never fallen asleep in Master Kiddel’s first-thing-after-lunch history-of-stone-and-sand-and-other-earth-old-mindless-subjects lectures. Still as he was, long as he’d been sitting there, there wasn’t a book on earth that could send him to sleep.
Steph didn’t move when Voss knocked.
Voss glanced at the wooden door frame, then at his knuckles still poised beside them. He was sure he had knocked, but the longer that it rested in memory, the less he remembered the sound, and he began to doubt it.
Steph turned a page. The paper crinkled, loud, or maybe just loud in the silence that stretched as Voss tried to remember if he’d already announced himself.
The sun was coming down, painting the tangle of sandstone rooms at the top of the hill in deep orange. The shadows beside the open archways lost their sharp lines, fading to a dull gray in preparation to sink into the clear coming darkness. Then they disappeared onto clean white stone at the next flash of fire off Toar’s hands.
The air was thick and warm with energy. It dragged across his skin as the breeze threaded through the practice hall and dropped into the open air over the cliff outside. Waves hissed at the bottom, and the air hissed in echo inside the room every time Toar spread his hands. On the other side of the room, Jaera stood calmly, dark hair knotted up in the heat. Her hand hung open at her sides, and she rubbed her thumb and middle finger around each other as if there was something more between them than skin.
Shaking his hands slightly, Toar rolled his shoulders back, and spilled another layer of thin energy into the air. The sheet of ice under the skin of his shoulders and arms grew thicker, and heat whispered through his fingers. He bare felt it leave his palms, and there was barely a sheen in the air. He took on breath, then a second, letting it build up around him. Then he shoved heat out of his hand. It crackled, snapped out brilliant blue light that curled like smoke. The entire wall of energy in front of him exploded into light. Pushing his hands in front of him, he shoved the energy forward, tumbling down the length of the room.
It roared, rolled, ran, and slid smoothly off a slanted invisible wall in front of Jaera.
Late afternoon sunlight held a rough weight which always woke Toar better than a sand-slap to the face. He threw his arm over his eyes, to keep the light out, but it wasn’t enough. The heat still clung to his skin, and stuck his bedshirt to his shoulders with a thin layer of sweat. Another moment, and Toar threw back the covers with a snap.
Sliding his feet to the floor, he waited for his bones to settle back into their proper order, then stood. He felt too tall, his feet too far away from his head. But, he reminded himself, he was tall. He must have been mostly all right.
He pulled off his bedshirt, and slipped into a clean shirt and breeches, before stumbling out of his room. He let gravity drag his feet down the long staircase to his white main hall. Then he hung on the railing to turn himself toward the narrow door beneath the stairs that led into the kitchen.
Inside, Jaera was sitting at the square table in the center of the room. Her head was bent over a book laid flat in front of her. Resting on one elbow, she had one hand buried in her long, dark hair to hold it out of her eyes. Toar stopped just inside the door and looked at her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Jaera finished the line she was on, then tilted her head up toward him, still resting on her hand. She didn’t say anything, but she smiled.
Lediah’s Name Day passed in all the usual ways.
The night before was almost sleepless, and the first few hours of the morning passed between nervous shakes and stifled yawns. As she ate breakfast, she tapped her foot so quickly against the kitchen floor that her mother reached out and stilled her knee with a heavy hand, then stilled the rest of her with a wordless look. Lediah glanced around the table at the rest of her family, and swallowed her rice and broth as best she could.
The tests started mid-morning, deep inside a square stone building that felt as if had been constructed to hold people down to the earth. The walls were plain. The ceiling was high. The windows and doors were scarce. Lediah felt as if she had walked into a cave, the way her voice and motions echoed in the empty space. Her judges felt twice as tall, the way they spoke in the reverberating air. The sun continued its pace in secret, counting time somewhere she couldn’t see. Everything seemed to stretch and press in on her. When they finally announced that she’d passed, she was sweating, exhausted, and muscles slung loose with relief.
She walked out in the daylight, surprised at the shape of the shadows. Then she saw her parents. She smiled. Her momma beamed. Her father grinned. They both wrapped her in a hug, and walked her out past the front wall. Her teacher, Anxo had passed just before them, but had already disappeared, as he was supposed to. He’d left behind her new name, scrawled across the grey stone in clean white chalk. Lediah read it as she walked, facing it until her neck couldn’t bend any farther. Her mother and father read it, and said nothing aloud. The rest of her family followed after, just as silent.
The hour glass sat on the other end of the table, dropping sand with the kind of arrogant indifference that only inanimate objects can achieve. The world spun gently around it, unable to change the hour glass’s attitude, except maybe, with a sudden violence, to make the sand fall a little faster, and shorten the leash on its own activities. Teiden sat at the other end of the table and tried to cultivate the same nonchalance. he read his book, turning each page carefully, as if the slowness of his movements could convince the time piece that he didn’t care and make it abandon its rush.
The hour glass continued to drop sand. Teiden glanced at it, and thought he saw the sand sputter on a scoff.
The stone circle dug into the hill next to it, holding flat as the ground rose around it, so that the whole thing had the feel of a theater. Tall grass rose on the other side in a swaying green backdrop. The path leading up to the circle stayed straight like the aisle between seats. The breeze smoothed small sounds away, hushing the audience.
Toar came to a stop just outside the circle, motioning for Jaera to pass him. She stepped over the line, holding his gaze questioningly. On his other side, Branten pushed his apprentice, Royse into the circle. Royse spun around to face him, suspicious.
“Which of you can tell me where you are?” Branten asked, quick, before Royse could open his mouth.
Royse and Jaera glanced at each other. Jaera turned slowly back to Toar. Royse shrugged.
“Back side of the world’s arse?” he asked, peevishly.
Jace paused before he knocked on the heavy redwood door, deciding for the last and thousandth time that he wanted to knock, wanted to parade into this office, wanted to turn clipped thoughts into clipped syllables and see Master Durrell’s expression in response. Oh yes. He wanted to.
He knocked, firmly. Then he dropped his hand to his side, adjusted the fat papers in his other hand, and waited for the invitation to enter.
“Come in,” Durrell said, almost immediately.
Jace pushed the door open, shut it behind him, and stayed by it.
Master Durrell looked up without moving his head, bent over a large book on his desk.