A young man, dying of a fierce illness, is visited by a saviour and drawn to follow him. (Set in the "Stone and Board" original universe.)
It was bad Suran dancing. The dancers had probably last seen Suranka in a travel brochure, not a one of them was under forty-five, and they continually looked at the camera and laughed self-consciously. The piper was either too drunk or not drunk enough. I'm sure that, if I knew about caste patterns and proper Suran tailoring, I would be able to complain about the fake robes on those grounds; as it was, I took offense at the fact that they were plainly artificial fabrics. I knew from experience that every other channel I could receive was worse, though.
My hospital was a good one, but living in it was a nightmare. I had two options: watch bad television, or wait to die. Melodramatic but true.
The first doctor I'd seen had been very clear on it. Your son is sick - something like a permanent fever. I'm afraid we've never seen anything like it, and we've no idea how to treat it. Yes, it's almost certain to be fatal. I'm afraid all any hospital could do is to make him comfortable for the last few months.
My parents wanted the best for me, but they couldn't honestly afford it. I ended up in a hospital run by a local academy, who promised the best possible care for me - and, all the better, would do it just for the knowledge of this seemingly unique illness. The Lysian Sattir Academy was a blessing for my parents.
For me too, I suppose. But from my perspective, the Lysian Sattir Academy was a bed I had to keep the curtains wrapped around in order to block out the dying men and women around me, and an occasional nurse with an inexplicable bag of tiny coloured stones at her belt serving me dinner. Even the lightest exercise set fire to my blood and left me gasping, and under those circumstances, no place looked good. For all I could tell, the gate to the Miracle Lands was three feet outside Lysian Sattir's door. It didn't help me.
"Hello, Lanni," came the caring voice of one of the nurses. They spoke like cocoa: warm, dark, comforting. It must have been one of the job requirements.
"Hello," I replied, sounding as friendly as I could under the circumstances.
She pulled the curtain partway open, and stood in the gap herself - large and capable, she reminded me of one of my aunts even though she couldn't be older than twenty - with my lunch tray. "Here you go, then," she said, placing it carefully on special props made specifically for the purpose. "Eat well!"
"I can eat all I want and I still won't be /well/," I said, a trifle snappishly, I admit. I was trying to get her to stop saying that. It grew to sound like an insult.
"And without your food, you'll be sicker," she said, reasonably. "Starving's unpleasant, Lanni-lad, from what I hear. The alternative's always better." She had a net bag of stones at her belt, like all the other nurses. Hers were a sea-green: a pretty colour, really. They fell against a metal plate with a strange star of lines cut into it. I'd never asked about it: it seemed that if it was something I was meant to know, I'd know it already.
She checked a couple of things around my bed, asked me if I was comfortable, and left. I settled down to eat.
A few minutes later, when I'd finished my dinner, a voice cut through the halfhearted music of the tiny television. "She's right."
I hadn't heard him come in. And he couldn't have been there already, or my nurse would have said something. His accent was Suran, a thousand times as authentic as the dancers on my television - which was, admittedly, not a difficult feat.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"My name is Almenten," he said, which wasn't really an answer. "And yours is Lanni Edvitta. You have a blood fever that doesn't fade."
Which was true enough, and I acknowledged that.
"To stones, then," he said. "You'll play red."
I got no reply.
In fact, he said nothing for some time: all I heard was a steady pattern of scratching and clicking, in order, at apparently predetermined intervals. After ten minutes, even that stopped, and I could only assume he had left.
When the nurse came around to check on me at 2 o'clock, I asked if she'd seen a visitor in the meantime. She'd smiled, and said, "Do you think we wouldn't tell you, if you'd had a visitor?", and left before I could realise she hadn't answered my question at all.
My mysterious visitor - Almenten - was there again the next day.
Again, he was behind the curtain, and I didn't see him. There was a window casting light from behind him, though, and I could see a shadow: even seated, I could tell that he was taller than I, and that he wore a Suran topknot.
"Good afternoon," he said.
"You're a little late," I said, defensive and trying to score a point. "It's still morning."
His shadow gestured, and I turned to the tiny clock by my tiny television. 12:02 flashed at me.
"Let the time get away with you?" he asked.
"Of course," I replied. "Life in here is so hectic it's amazing I even know what day it is."
"Sarcasm," he identified.
"It's what I've got. What do you have?"
No reply, and a moment later, the scratching and clicking began again.
I don't know why I started talking to him. Perhaps I wanted someone to talk to. Perhaps I wanted to dispel Almenten's mystery, make him just another man. Most likely, knowing that he was there and silent made me uncomfortable.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I can't tell you."
"You're distracting me."
"Is that the reason, or just something you're saying?"
Scratch, click, scratch, click.
"Why do you visit me?" I tried.
"I'm only about a year older than you, you know."
"Two years, then. You look older than you are."
"How would you know what I look like? You've never seen me, the curtain's always in the way." I reached up to grab it, pull it hard out of the way. Sure, it would expose me to the rest of the ward, but I'd see Almenten.
"Don't do that," he said, in a voice of hard command.
After that, I had to. I grabbed the curtain and started to pull it aside - and with surprising strength, strength in a /curtain/, it flew out of my hand and dragged itself around to close again.
Dumbfounded, I reached out to take hold of the curtain again, and it was hard - unyielding as steel.
"I told you not to do that," Almenten said. Scratch, click.
Completely without my consent, I found that my arms had found their way around my shoulders, and that I was trembling so violently that I almost feared the fever was flaring up. This was certainly not the disease, though. Quite calmly, my brain told me that Almenten was one of the Judge's nine Child-Takers, and that he was here to drag me into eternal torment. "I'm sorry," I said, not knowing what else. "I didn't mean to do wrong, I never meant to do wrong, please don't take me."
Silence from Almenten's side of the curtain, as if he'd left - I couldn't decide if I wanted him to leave or if I'd rather know exactly where he was at all times. Then he spoke. "What are you asking me? Take you /where/?"
"...To the Fields," I said. "Aren't you here to take me to the Fields?"
A pause - and then scratch, click, scratch, click. "I'm here to take you from your bed, and if I take you anywhere from there, it will be to Lysian Sattir Academy." Scratch, click. "It's not fair that someone as young as you should be dying in a hospital. It's /unfair/."
A Child-Taker, I remembered my grandmother's stories, would offer an impossible bargain, and if its victim accepted, it would drag him to the Fields of a Thousand Pains. "Please, no, I can't be taken from here. My fever. I'll die. I'm happy here, I really am, please don't take me away."
"Either you're lying, or you're regularly highly sarcastic about places you honestly love," Almenten said, wondering.
I must have whimpered there. I'd lied to a Child-Taker and I was dead a thousand times over.
"I don't know what you think I am, but whatever it is, I'm not," Almenten said. "I'm just human. Stop panicking." Scratch, click.
"Then... what's that sound?" I asked. If it wasn't his taloned feet scraping and tapping against the floor of the hospital, then /what/?
It came five more times, with silence from Almenten, and then he spoke. "Goodbye, Lanni Edvitta."
Again, I didn't hear him leave.
The next day, I dropped my lunch tray on the floor.
Stupid little incidents like this served to remind me how weak I was, how removed from humanity. Anyone else would pick the tray up, set it back on its props, laugh to the people around about how clumsy they are, and then completely forget about the matter. I do most of that, too - it's amazing how difficult it is to unlearn a reflex habit like that - but even that much effort causes me such sweat, such trembling, such /pain/, that I'm not going to be able to completely forget about the matter any time soon.
This time, too, I reached down, and had grabbed hold of the tray before I realised exactly what I was doing. Even so, I grabbed hard and started to lift it - just touching the tray and then leaving it there would make me look stupid, and that seemed much more important than it really was at the time. Taking things as slowly as I ever did, I lifted the tray slowly, let it fall down onto the props, and lay back, waiting for the trembling to come.
Ten minutes later, I was starting to wonder what was wrong. Right. Different.
Out of something that was part curiosity, part surprise, and part simple masochism, I braced my hands against the mattress and pushed slowly, lifting myself gently into a half-sitting position. My body was heavier than the tray - though, after eight months of the disease, it didn't seem to be much heavier - and I knew that this was going to bring on screaming pain.
I sweat, and hurt, and trembled. That much was expected. What was strange was that... I should have felt like an apocalypse, like the Judge's Last Proctors were riding out from my heart to all the farthest points of my body. Instead, it was just painful. Unpleasant, even abhorrent, but not agonising.
I lay back down. Not all the trembling was from pain.
When the nurse turned up to take my tray and asked if everything was all right - "You've been exerting yourself again, haven't you? You simply mustn't do these things, Lanni-lad" - I told her only that I'd picked up a tray. I didn't say anything about sitting up, or about the pain that hadn't come.
Twenty three minutes later, though - I counted every one - I heard Almenten's now-familiar voice. Even if I hadn't been Yotikarn and unused to a Suran accent, I think I would by then have managed to memorise that tone pattern before even my mother's.
"Good morning," he said, and this time I heard the scratching and clicking nearly immediately afterwards. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm starting to think you'd know better than I would," I replied, softly.
"Really?" he asked. "What would make you think that?"
"Three days ago, I could barely move without a lot of pain. Yesterday, you told me that it was unfair that I was dying and that you'd come to take me out of my bed. And today, I found out that I can do things without hurting. The disease - the incurable disease that's going to kill me - is going away."
"That's very lucky for you," he said.
"/No./ There is no way this is luck."
"You also told me you were just human," I said. "I don't believe that."
More silence, but this time he broke it.
"So far, I've been playing twenty and five and six. But red is weakening. I think I can move up to forty and fifteen and ten now. If things continue the way they are, Lanni Edvitta, I can have you out of this hospital within the week."
"/What are you doing/?" I asked. "I want to know! What's making that noise, what are you doing, what are you?"
It was some time - with the recurrence of the scratching and clicking - before he answered.
"I am truly just human,' he said. "Truly."
And then he was gone.
He visited me again for each of the next two days, each day bringing a similarly fruitless conversation. I was starting to feel stronger every /hour/, and thought to myself /forty and fifteen and ten/. It meant nothing to me, but I thought it should. After that - after he'd visited me for five days running, each time making that scratching and clicking sound - I was strong enough that I could pull myself from a lying to a sitting position and back six times in a row, with no pain whatsoever. After eight months of fevered agony with no recovery at all, Almenten had apparently been able to heal me in less than a week, and had done so without ever touching me.
The day after my six sitting experiments, he didn't come by.
The day after that, he didn't come by.
The day after /that/, he didn't come by. But something else happened.
My nurse came around, out of her normal order - it had been breakfast hours back, and it wasn't time for lunch yet, and this wasn't one of the "random" times the nurses checked on their patients. She pulled my curtain completely aside, revealing the almost-empty ward I'd been blocking out, and stood at the end of my bed apparently searching for words.
"You..." she started, and stopped. "You..."
Giving speech up, she laid a paper on my chest, handwritten in ink. I picked it up, unfolded it, read what it said.
By my sign and mark, the patient Lanni Edvitta is to be released from Lysian Sattir hospital immediately. Any complaints should be addressed to me directly. And after that simple text, an incomprehensible mark, painted in strangely iridescent ink.
"So you're to release me, then?" I asked, trying not to feel too much hope.
"Were it to me, Lanni-lad, I wouldn't let you leave this place for anything!" she said. "But that sign and mark... There's no denying it." She leaned closer. "You say the word and I'll fight any who try to take you. /Anyone/. Even himself."
"Would you help me to my feet, please, nurse?" I asked, failing not to feel too much hope.
"You don't even want a /wheelchair/?"
I shook my head.
"You'll fall in a heap," she said, grimly, but she came around to the side of my bed, and lowered the railing, and put a capable hand around my shoulders. She lifted me to a sit very gently, and I felt no pain whatsoever - if anything, I felt /energy/, as if my body was getting ready to run. Even if my fever had passed naturally, I shouldn't feel this good after lying abed for eight months.
She let me sit at the edge of the bed, legs swinging over the side, for some minutes. When I told her I was ready to stand, she shook her head and muttered, but she put her arm under my shoulders and lifted me, and I /stood/. It took me a moment to get my balance, and I swayed like a falling tower, but I finally managed to stand on my own accord for the first time in the best part of a year and it took all I had not to cry.
"You're standing," said the nurse, dumbfounded.
I nodded. I didn't trust my voice.
"You're standing on your /own/..."
"I don't know your name," I croaked.
"You've taken care of..." I stopped, and caught my breath. "I'd like to know your name."
"I'm... I'm Natiya," she said. "Natiya Saadakh."
"That's a Yotikarn name, isn't it?" I asked her.
Natiya nodded. So I spoke Yotikarn.
"Thank you," I said. "Thank you so much and goodbye." I think I cried a little then.
Natiya hugged me gingerly, as if I was made of glass, and after checking that I didn't need anything else, she left. She probably headed back to the nurse's station to tell everyone of the miracle she'd experienced. I was left in the ward, standing on my own feet, holding the paper that could not be questioned, that apparently cut through all other paperwork.
I went to the lobby, walking like an old man. The nurses stood back, either afraid of the miraculous reborn man who walked their halls or of the piece of paper I held, and while I was sure any of them would help me if I asked, I was equally sure that none of them wanted anything to do with me if I didn't.
In the lobby, I picked up a payphone, and put in thirty cents, and called my parents. There was no answer at home - they sometimes went on long camping trips, and were probably out somewhere being rained on even then. Won't they be in for a surprise when they get home, I thought, and turned towards the door to call a taxi.
Three things occurred to me then.
I probably hadn't the money for a taxi.
I'd never actually made the decision to go home - I'd just taken for granted that this was what a fourteen year old did.
And Almenten had said that if he was going to take me anywhere from the hospital, he would take me to Lysian Sattir Academy.
Am I to be healed and not know the reason why? I thought to myself, my brain giving me the half-image of Almenten as some magical being that, if not chased, would disappear. I'll call my parents again, or send them a letter. They can't do anything yet anyway - there's no way to reach them on whatever mountain they're climbing now. For now... for now...
Slower now, I headed out the door, but it wasn't a taxi I was looking for.
Lysian Sattir Academy.
It surprised me, when I walked through its massive gates. After months of a too-bright white hospital, this flood of people in their blue uniforms walking around the dark stone of the Academy was like a sudden burst of light. I could feel a headache coming on, and for a moment, I had a horrible feeling that Almenten's cure had been temporary and that I was about to fall backwards to puddle in a heap in Lysian Sattir's gates. That feeling passed within a few minutes - a mercy - but the sensation of being overwhelmed did not. I wondered, for a moment, if I would have felt the same had I not been in Lysian Sattir's hospital for so long.
Apparently, I looked as lost as I felt, as a Jitsayui girl who was probably a year or two older than me - maybe Almenten's age - held up a hand to attract my attention and half-ran over to me. "Hey," she said. "You look like a Suran in Orlestok." At my blank expression, she clarified. "/Lost/. Confused. Don't know where to go. Can I help?"
"I..." I stopped. Oh, I was dying in a hospital and then a nice young man brought me back from the dead so now I've come by and I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing so could you perchance make everything work out for me? "I think I should go to the admissions office."
"New student?" she asked, cocking her head. "You've made a good decision. Lysian Sattir's probably the best place for people our age to be: you learn by /thinking/, not just having the same thing drilled into your head over and over. Follow me."
She turned, and started to walk away, looking back to make sure I was following. I did, though it was still taking me a while to get used to the concept of walking.
"You know there aren't any teachers here?" she asked. "Well, 'course you do, you've got to know something about this place..."
"I don't," I said, honestly.
"/What?/" She turned to look at me, and I nearly ran into her, and in stopping nearly fell over. "Look, the mentoring system is the most basic part of the Lysian Sattir Academy. How can you know you want to study here if you don't even know what it is?"
"I'm sort of... following in someone's footsteps."
"Well, that's a habit you're going to have to break quickly. C'mon."
Apparently she didn't notice the irony in her speech. I followed her regardless.
"See, we teach each other. Classes are discussions. You tend to get a Mentor and stick to her, and she teaches you everything she knows, and then if you want, you get another Mentor. Most people stick with their Mentor anyway, though. And it works. When I think of everything Falian taught me..."
"Falian's your Mentor?"
"Well, she was my Mentor. She started getting distracted by other issues, and she couldn't really devote much time to teaching me. So we split. Could say I'm between Mentors at the moment. Thinking of taking a student myself - I could teach her to game."
"Oh, sure, that's the other great bit about this Academy. See, however-many-years-ago, our founder Whatever-His-Name-Was decided that an easy way to teach people to think was to teach them to strategise. So he made this game, with half a hundred different ways to strategise a win, and then he delivered all these parables based around the game. Pretty much everyone here plays it. It's partly so you can understand Whatever-His-Name-Was' parables, partly to teach you how to think strategically, and partly 'cause it's just fun. Hey, I'll give you a game after your admissions meeting. It's just a couple more corners, by the way."
"Am I boring you?"
"That's probably a good thing. If we can understand everything we see as we run, we're not running fast enough. That's my opinion, at least."
"Does everyone here share your opinion?"
"Weeping God no/. No one here shares /any opinion. It's the best thing about this place. Here's the office!"
The door was wooden, thick, and vaguely uninviting.
The girl stuck out her hand. "Tegustem Qarade, by the way. Clan name Tegustem, first name Qarade, everyone gets it wrong."
I took it, shook it gently. "Lanni Edvitta. I hope to see you again."
"You're going to see me right when you come out/. Because I'm going to /game with you."
"Oh." I'd forgotten. "Right." With a fairly poor wave, I turned around, pulled the door open, and entered the admissions office.
There was a Yotikarn girl at the counter. She looked my age. I remembered what Qarade had said about the lack of teachers, and wondered if that applied to lack of staff as well. "With you in a moment," she said, and shuffled through some stacks of paper before turning back to me. "Hey. Are you a new student?"
"I'd like to be," I said. I almost wondered why I would like to be, but I was still vaguely in awe of my magical healing saviour.
"Right, well." She looked at a few more papers. "Well, you've come to the right place. We can get you in within three days, and have a dormitory room set up within seven. If you'll just fill out these forms..."
She handed me a sheaf of paper. My heart sank, a little - I'd expected to be a Lysian Sattir student by the end of the day. I decided to call my parents again, to ask them where I should look to live, and didn't wonder why I'd outright rejected living at home.
"By the way, what's your name?"
"Lanni Edvitta," I said, as I scribbled the same name onto the forms.
"/Lanni Edvitta?/" She grabbed the papers out of my hands. "You should have said! You're completely processed: little late, actually. We've got a package set aside for you - some uniforms, your dorm key, some manuals..." She paused in thought. "Hey, there's a letter for you, too. Probably whoever started your forms going. Your uncle or something?"
"Someone like that," I said, dazed.
She handed me a letter, and vanished to get my package. Carefully, I teased it open, pulled out two sheets of paper.
The first, I'd somewhat expected.
I am glad to note that you're well, and that you followed my advice. I never expect to fail, but there was always a chance: your disease was strong and well-organised.
You will not see me for a while. That's as it should be. Don't take a Mentor until we meet again.
I have left a gift for you in your package. I hope you make good use of it.
The second, however, was a total mystery - a simple scrap of paper, with only six words written on it, and then the same incomprehensible mark in the same iridescent ink that had been penned on my hospital release papers.
I expect great things of you.
The simple words were worrying enough, but something about them sent bristling waves down my spine and left me short of breath. Either the words, or that mark. I would have thrown it away, but that would have been as incomprehensible as mocking the Judge herself.
It was then that the girl came back, carrying a very bulky package that she set down in front of me. "There you go!" she said. "That should be everything you need. Actually, there's something else in there, according to the manifest - just says 'gift'."
"Does it say who sent it?" I asked. I had a horrible image of opening the package and finding within /that mark/, burning in the electric light.
"Oh yes. Almenten."
"Do you know him?" There was desperation in my voice.
She didn't hear it. "Never heard of him. You?"
"No," I said. "Me neither."
She shrugged. "Random kindness. That's kinda nice, really."
"May I open the package here?"
"Sure; just head to a corner and try not to spill over everything. We gotta present an image of professionalism, you know?"
I headed to a corner, tried not to spill over anything, and started untying the knots. She returned to her spot behind the desk and went back to her filing. Finally, I managed to untie the package, and opened the lid of the box with some trepidation.
Within were my uniforms. Five neatly pressed white shirts, five pairs of black socks, two deep red ties, two pairs of black trousers, a neatly folded blue blazer, a neatly folded long blue coat, and a pair of polished black lace-up shoes. A stack of books lay next to the uniforms, four about the Academy itself, and one by a Hanjodvarian philosopher. There were also two boxes: one small, that would be the key to my dorm room - and, I hoped, would also contain a map - and a larger one. Almenten's name was written on it, in small print. Fortunately, it didn't also have the mark.
I set aside the small box on top of the books. At the time, they didn't interest me, my uniforms didn't interest me, my dorm room didn't interest me. All I wanted to know was what Almenten had thought important enough to give me.
The box opened easily, almost too easily for something I considered to be of such importance. Within, I saw a thin metal square, with eight lines cut into it in a perfect star pattern, and a net bag. The bag contained stones; tiny, translucent stones, as red as my ties, the same stones the nurses in Lysian Sattir hospital had worn clipped to their belts.
I stared at them for some time.
"I got you some stones," Qarade said, when I came out. She was holding aloft another net bag, full of smoky white stones. A student nearby was watching her anxiously, and I worked out that those were his stones quite quickly. "You'll need them to play."
I'd almost forgotten that Qarade had promised me a game - the iridescent mark was taking up all of my thought, and I very nearly accepted the smoke-white stones gratefully. Then I remembered the bag I'd been given - the red stones, in the exact same design of bag, of the exact same style. They were for this game, apparently. "Wait a moment," I said, and laid my box down to dig out the bag and hold it aloft.
"You've got some stones?" Qarade said. "I thought you said you'd never played before."
"I haven't," I said.
One of the first things Almenten had said to me, I recalled, was: To stones. You'll play red. I looked down at the bag I held in my right hand - stones. Red ones.
"I really haven't," I said again.
"All right, then," Qarade said, and gingerly handed the bystander his stones. He looked very gratified to have them back, and after a quick sideways glance at me, he walked off. Qarade, meanwhile, was pulling a piece of paper and a thin block of wood from the large bag at her side. On inspection, the paper was covered with a one-inch grid of dots. "I'll explain the rules."
She did. They revolved around drawing lines between the dots and laying down stones, and using the stones and lines to control as much of the board as possible. At first I struggled to comprehend, but after Qarade had laid down a few practice plays, I started to pick it up. Before too long, Qarade said I was ready to play a practice game.
"We'll play ten and three and zero," she said. "That's the winning conditions - at least ten stones on the board, at least three stones captured, and you don't need to surround any area. Pretty simple, pretty quick. Should make for a fun beginner game."
/Forty and fifteen and ten/, Almenten had said. Something was becoming very, very clear to me, and it only became clearer when Qarade played her first move.
The scratch of the pencil as she drew a line. The click of the stone as she laid it down.
"Now that I think about it..." I said.
"What?" she asked, handing me the pencil.
I pulled out the star-disc - a measuring tool for drawing the lines, apparently - placed a handful of stones by my side, and contemplated the board.
"/What?/" Qarade asked, rocking backwards on her heels.
"It's not that important," I replied, drawing a line and laying down a stone.
"You don't get to get away with that. I ask 'what' twice, you have to tell me."
"Is that a rule of the game?" I handed her the pencil.
"House rule. Or I get to take your stones. Then I'd only need eight more on the board and one more of yours to win, while you'd be screwed."
"I was just thinking I've seen this before."
"Huh?" Qarade said, making her move. "You have? Where?"
"Well, it's not so much that I saw it..." How to explain the apparent magic? Oh, yeah, I've played this before. Or rather it was played against me and now I'm not dead. "I've heard of it, around the Lysian Sattir hospital. I was there for a while, you know."
"Should I offer condolences?"
"I don't think so," I said, making a move that I thought was very clever. Qarade immediately grabbed the pencil from my hand and made her move, which ripped open the entire formation of my stones and handed her the game within five moves. I felt slightly downcast, making a pathetic attempt to shore up my defences on my own move. "It's just... I heard that..."
"You know what? I think I know what you're asking about," said Qarade, with what was unmistakeably a smirk. She made a move that seemed to have little impact on the game, and while I watched, the stone I'd laid down to shore up my walls slid back into its pile, and the line I'd drawn dissolved from the paper, leaving a half-visible shadow, and Qarade looked very, very pleased with herself.
It was impressive, but it didn't seem to have much of a relation to my miraculous healing. I was too consumed with that question that I didn't ask if magicking your opponents stones away was strictly legal, and simply remade my move. "Well, yes," I said, trying to phrase it diplomatically, "but I heard... more."
Qarade bridled. "I'd like to see you do it," she pointed out, and made another devastating move. This one didn't involve the movement of any of my pieces, though she looked very close to capturing one of my outlying stones.
"Well, point taken," I conceded.
"No one knows how it works," Qarade said, as I contemplated my position and if there was any way of at least forcing a draw. (There was not.) "And no one knows who first used it or why or if this was the purpose of the game to start off with. But, some of us know that it works, and we know how to do it, and that's good enough. Some of us know that it works and how to do it and that isn't good enough, and they spend all their time here studying the game. No breakthroughs yet. It's not earthshattering, anyway - just parlour tricks."
You're wrong, I nearly said.
Qarade went on to capture three of my pieces in quick succession and win the game. Nothing spectacular happened, no lights flashed or bells rang, and I was almost disappointed.
"Well!" she said. "I think you've got potential."
"Really?" I replied. It looked to me like I had shown only the potential to have my formations ripped open by experienced players.
"Yeah, there were some fairly smart moves in there." She hardened, but only a little, and mostly - it seemed - as a joke. "Besides, it'll be more fun to beat you hollow when you're good at it. You're the first person I've ever showed that trick to who hasn't fallen at my feet in glorious adoration."
"Sorry," I replied, because it seemed to be the thing to say. Then I blinked. "/When/ I'm good at it?"
"How do you know I'll be good at it?"
"Because I'm going to teach you. Like I said, it won't be fun to beat you regularly until you know at least some of what I know. What's your dorm number?"
I pulled out the key, slightly dazed. "312," I said.
"Well, I'll give you a call some time, help you settle in." She packed up the game, cleanly and efficiently, and I put the red stones away myself. "Gotta be off, anyway. Discussion group on Alteccionese politics. Good luck meeting your roommate."
"Roommate?" I blinked again.
She frowned. "You expected to come to an elite-yet-populous academy that promotes strong student bonds and not have a roommate? You've got to move to the real world, Lanni Edvitta." Her tone made it sound unpejorative.
"Yeah," I replied. "Maybe I do."
Qarade left, waving a hand and promising again to call, and I started walking towards my dorm room, in order to meet with the real world.
I'd believed that my Room 312 was the three hundred and twelfth room in the Lysian Sattir dormitories, and had been basing my shaky reasoning of how many students lived at the academy from that. My first look at the map, however, had revealed that it was actually the second room in the first block of the third building. Everything in Lysian Sattir, I reasoned, was far too complicated and far too cryptic.
The block itself featured an entryway, with three couches, two televisions, and a tiny kitchen, which led into a hallway from which the rooms peeled off. I waved to the two young men in the entryway, playing a racing game on the larger of the two televisions, and walked down to the door with "312" written on it. I turned the key, opened the door, and let myself in.
The room was clearly divided into two halves. The half closest to the door, which I saw upon coming in, was empty: a bed made with plain sheets, a desk with a Lysian Sattir mug on it - which I gathered was complimentary - and bare walls. The other side was more highly decorated. The walls were lined with posters, mostly art pieces with the occasional obscure movie star; the desk was covered in paper and the same kind of Lysian Sattir mug, this one filled with pencils; there was an end table with a small stereo, playing a melancholy piano piece, and a picture; and the bed featured decadent-looking dark purple sheets and a killingly pretty Hanjodvarian girl, reading a book.
When I entered, she turned to look at the door. "Hey," she said, by way of greeting. "You're the new roommate?"
"Uh... yes," I replied. "I think so, at least. Lanni Edvitta."
"Xifa Nareku," she replied. "I'll let you get set up." She gestured at the stereo system. "Would you like me to wear headphones?"
For a moment, I thought she was asking from a fashion perspective, and then enlightenment dawned. "Oh. No, no need. It's... it's very nice music."
"Hmm," Xifa said, and turned back to her book.
I unpacked my uniforms into the closet, stacked up my books at the back of the desk, and placed the box Almenten had sent, with my gaming pieces in it, on the corner of the desk farthest from the door. I couldn't have said why I put it there, or why I didn't open it.
Even with everything I currently possessed lining my half of the room, it still looked barely less sparse than my hospital room, and I decided to go shopping as soon as possible. That raised, of course, the immediate realisation that I had twenty five Yotikarn tukar in my pocket, which might buy me breakfast if I ate frugally. I resolved to call my parents again.
"Does the phone work?" I asked Xifa.
"Perfectly. Everything but international calling is free, too." Xifa didn't turn away from her book. "Of course, since we live in an academy town on an island on which there's /nothing else/, that's not saying much."
"Oh," I said. I'd known that Lysian Sattir was on an island. I'd spent eight months in its hospital. I'd just... forgotten. I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and looked through the tukar, wondering if I could afford a call to Yotika. Of course, I couldn't afford not to call Yotika, either...
"I have two hundred credit unused on my account and it's nearly the end of the month," Xifa said. "Go ahead. I only call within the dorms anyway."
"Thank you," I said.
"Mm. Do you really have so little money that you're worried about one phone call?"
"Yes," I admitted.
"You're not well-prepared."
"You don't know the half of it," I said, a little stronger than perhaps I would have otherwise. It was just dawning on me how, perhaps, phenomenally stupid I was being.
"Shouldn't be too much of a problem, though. Lysian Sattir provides for our every need."
"Read the manual. /Lysian Sattir Services/. Chapter four should prove particularly enlightening." She herself was reading /The Desert of the Mind/, by an author with an Alteccionese name of whom I hadn't heard.
"Thanks," I said, and picked up the phone. Fortunately enough, the calling instructions were listed on the phone. I quickly dialled out to my parents' house in Yotika, and waited five full minutes for the phone to ring out. Still not home.
I picked up /Lysian Sattir Services/, slumped on my bed, and flipped to Chapter Four.
"/All residents of Lysian Sattir Academy,/" read the opening sentence, "/are provided with breakfast, lunch, and dinner by the Academy, free of charge./"
That was a load off my mind.
"Hey," Xifa said. "Do you have the time?"
I leaned over and read it off her stereo. "Quarter past three," I said. The picture, I noticed without trying, was a photograph of Xifa with a friendly arm slung around another girl - tall and silver-haired, with the no-nationality look that, ironically, came only of Alteccio. Xifa was smiling. The other girl wasn't.
"I thought so," Xifa said. She put a bookmark in /The Desert of the Mind/, let it shut, and turned off the stereo. "I've got a gymnastics meeting," she explained, standing up.
"Oh," I said. "See you again."
"Well, /yes/," she said. "See you." After a brief look around the room - obviously considering whether she really wanted to leave her possessions in the care of a Yotikarn she didn't know - she waved briefly, and left the room.
For want of anything else to do, I read through /Lysian Sattir Services/. After that, I read through /Code of Conduct in Lysian Sattir/, and then /Lysian Sattir Student Responsibilities/, and then /Major Meetings for Lysian Sattir Students/, and finally I made a start on /Harvesting Reality/, by the Hanjodvarian philosopher.
I was halfway through the first chapter when the door opened, and Xifa came back in. "There's a package for you out here," she said, crossing to her side of the room.
"Oh," I said, laying Harvesting Reality on my desk. "Thank you."
"I'm going out tonight," she said, laying a rather fashionable outfit and a towel over one arm, and grabbing what I assumed was a toiletries bag with the other hand. "I won't be back until after ten. Do you go to sleep before then?"
"I might," I said, shrugging. Without meetings or anyone I knew in Lysian Sattir, the alternative appeared to be rereading Harvesting Reality a few times over. I thought, as well, that I should be careful with my newfound and possibly delicate health.
"If the light's off, then, I'll be quiet when I come back in."
"Thank you again."
"Mm," she said, and left the room again.
I have no doubt we'll be fast friends, I thought to myself, with more than a little sarcasm.
Then I headed out after her, and picked up the package. It was thin, but at least two feet long, and surprisingly heavy. Finally, I managed to manipulate it onto my bed, and stared at it for a moment. I wanted to know what was in it, but at the same time, I was starting to think that I really didn't want to know what was in it. The obvious belief was that Almenten had sent it, or it was something Lysian Sattir had forgotten I needed. But then, there was the mark to consider... I couldn't help but think that if I opened the box, and the mark shone in it, I would run mad.
Finally, I flipped open the top. Within was a slightly smaller wooden box, and a note. The iridescent mark was nowhere in evidence. I considered myself lucky in that much, and picked up the note. As I'd expected, it was from Almenten.
You will understand, I hope, why I could not include this with the rest of your gifts.
I would appreciate it if you attended fencing meetings with Socora Sanne. She is, in my opinion, the best fencer in the school, and accepts all pupils at her meetings. I remind you, though, do not take a Mentor until we meet again.
I have also included twenty thousand-credit notes. These are legal tender at the academy and the nearby town, and should keep you for at least a few months, by which time I hope you have made contact with your parents.
I hope you will enjoy your time at the Academy.
The first two paragraphs had already told me what was in the box. When I flipped it open and revealed a beautifully wrought sword, I was entirely unsurprised.
This particular design was called, I believed, a /schiavona/. A basket-hilted, wide-bladed cutting sword. The swords originally came from Alteccio, I thought, but were carried by many Yotikarn officers. They were mostly ceremonial, of course, like all swords.
Resting by the hilt, as promised, was a roll of currency, secured by a rubber band. I took it gingerly, worried on some level that the schiavona would bite me somehow.
Carefully and calmly, I laid the notes in my wallet. Then I shut the schiavona's case and laid it under my bed, and I took Almenten's note and put it in the gaming box, and put the box up against the door in order to take it to the rubbish bins when I left the room, and lay down thinking up some way to lie to Xifa if she asked about the package. Misdirected, maybe. Or just something I had to pass on. Or /something/.
I was literally terrified. I had been dying, and had been brought back to life apparently by a /game/. I had come to an academy where people could use this game to manipulate reality. Now the man who had saved my life was sending me swords and money and pieces for the game - the pieces were starting to scare me more than the sword - and his gifts were occasionally accompanied by obscure messages and a bizarre mark, and I /wanted my parents/.
I tried calling them again. No answer.
So I picked up the box, and took it out to the entryway. The same two men were playing the same racing game, but they'd been joined by two others who were loudly debating who was going to win - though the argument seemed to be getting off topic. The other television was also on, though apparently being ignored, and at a glance was showing hardcore pornography.
"Hey, you're new, right?" said one man, who was, if the other was to be believed in his shouted arguments, half diseased goat on his father's side.
I nodded. "Lanni Edvitta."
He pointed across the couch. "Cholon, Ochiye, Aldin..." Finally, he pointed to himself. "Kobach. Which room are you staying in?"
"312," I said.
"Ah, you're rooming with Xifa, then."
"Good luck with that," grunted Ochiye, and all four laughed.
"Do any of you know Socora Sanne?" I asked, on a whim.
"You don't know Socora Sanne?" Aldin asked, turning to look at me and in doing so, causing his virtual car to crash rather spectacularly. Kobach groaned, and Cholon cheered in a manner that suggested that money would soon be changing hands. "You're rooming with Xifa and you don't know Socora Sanne?"
"...I just got here today," I pointed out.
"He's got a point," Kobach said. "Socora's Xifa's girlfriend."
"No no no," Cholon replied, "/Xifa/ is Socora's girlfriend. You've got to get the possessive in the right place, Kobach."
"She's here a lot of the time." Aldin returned some of his attention to the game, but by this stage, Ochiye had him well and truly beaten. "You know, standing around, being disapproving."
What was going on with the poor Suran girl on the other television made it quite obvious what she might disapprove of. I had more than a little sympathy.
"More often," Cholon said, "Xifa's over there. Best of both worlds, really."
"You're too hard on her," said Kobach. "She's all right."
"Oh, to look at, maybe..."
"You shut up. Nah, she's decent. Can't say I'd want to live with her, though. Sorry, man."
That last addressed to me. I accepted my tragedy with good grace, and took the box out to the rubbish bins.
It was a beautiful night. Even the air around the rubbish seemed fresh and clean, though obviously not nearly as fresh and clean as the rest of it. I placed the box in its appointed position, and decided that with all the freedom afforded to me by my newly found health, it would be criminal to spend the rest of the night lying in bed reading /Harvesting Reality/. Besides, Xifa made me uncomfortable. Not because of her femininity - I was no stranger to mixed-gender cohabitation, due to a mistake on my school camp consent forms from my first school that went uncorrected for four years - but because she quite plainly hadn't taken to me. I knew that I could easily handle her particular blend of indifference, but it certainly wasn't something I wanted to expose myself to too often.
I decided I'd go for a walk around the academy.
Not for the first time since I'd left the hospital - not even for the fiftieth - I revelled in my renewed strength. This was nothing more strenuous than a simple walk in cold air, but I felt like I could lift and throw cars. I felt like /running/, and on several occasions I did. I even attempted to run up a wall and fell rather miserably, but the pain was nothing more than bruising. I laughed aloud and must have looked quite ridiculous.
Just as I'd decided to go back to my dorm room, I turned a corner and saw a green field in the distance, possibly used for sports - or just as a park. I decided it might be nice to look at that, and walked towards it.
About halfway towards the park, I noticed a man, standing in the middle, and wondered how I'd missed him before.
I closed half the distance again, and noted to myself that he was really quite tall.
Half the distance again, and I noted his topknot and broke into a run.
Stupid stupid stupid/, I told myself. /Most Suran are big. If he even is Suran. And a great deal of them wear topknots. It's traditional. He's not who you think he is.
Apparently I wasn't listening. "/Almenten!/" I shouted, and I persuaded myself that he raised his head a little.
I came close enough to touch him, and nearly did - it seemed to me that I needed to grab his lapel, and hold hard, to prevent him from disappearing again. But I didn't grab him, and he didn't disappear. He just looked at me, and I looked at him.
I'd expected him, ironically enough, not to live up to my expectations.
He did. He was tall, and muscular, and I read him as the very image of a young god. His hair fell from its topknot to the small of his back, and was blond and brilliant even in the darkness. His eyes were wide and dark blue, and his face was sharp, and perhaps it was just that he had saved my life or just the awe I felt but I think I was a little in love with him.
"Almenten," I said again.
"Lanni," he said. "It's good to see you."
"You... you..." What to /say/? "You saved my life. I know how you did it. You... you used the game, and you saved my life, and now you're /here/..."
"I won't be here long," he said. "I just came to tell you two things."
"You can't leave now."
"When I gave you the schiavona, I told you to attend fencing meetings with Socora. Make sure you do so - it will be more valuable to you than you think. I also want you to concentrate on your game. Tegustem Qarade is a good choice for a teacher, and I hope she will teach you well."
"What is all this /for/?" I asked him. "Not just the gaming or the fencing or whatever. Why did you bring me here? Why did you save my life? Why are you... why are you doing whatever you're doing with me?"
"I can't tell you. We'll meet again. You'll find out everything you want to know in time, I promise you."
He turned. I didn't try to stop him. It was obvious to me then, foolish as it seems in retrospect, that Almenten could have teleported me to Orlestok at a touch, or simply disappeared if I tried to restrain him. I settled for calling after him, "So, we've met. Can I take a Mentor now?"
He stopped. "I will take you as my pupil before long," he said, and even though he said it with some exasperation it still sent a thrill through me. "There are things you need to do yet."
"You need to find out what they are, for one," he said, with the only hint of gallows humour he'd shown thus far. And then he left, and I said nothing else.
Then I returned to my dorm, much less exuberant on the return trip than I had been on the walk.
I spoke to Xifa.
She had, as promised, come in quietly - the light had been off, but I hadn't been quite asleep. I would have almost sworn that she was completely silent, the only sound being the click of the door, and after she'd come back from changing into her pyjamas in the shared bathroom, the soft sound of her body hitting the bed.
The next morning, she seemed none the worse from her night out, which didn't really surprise me. I could barely picture self-assured Xifa Nareku drinking at all, let alone to excess. She had picked up The Desert of the Mind again when I said her name.
She folded the book again. "Yes?"
"I, er, I need to speak to Socora Sanne." This was perhaps the stupidest way to get in contact with Socora Sanne there was, but I didn't know any others that worked. I didn't know where the fencing meetings were or if one could simply walk into them or even what Socora Sanne looked like. "It's... about fencing meetings."
She looked at me for a moment, and then picked up the phone and dialled three numbers.
"Oh, it's not that urgent, really..."
"Hello, Socora," Xifa said into the phone. She listened for a moment, and then actually rolled her eyes. I had to wonder if she was exaggerating the gesture. "Yes, I've been thinking of you. Socora, I do have a reason for this call. No, it's business. My roommate needs to speak to you, I think about your fencing." And with that, she held out the handset, and what else was there to do?
"H... hello?" I tried.
The voice on the other end was crisp and professional, possibly with greater self-assurance than Xifa. "Hello. Lanni Edvitta, was it?"
"Xifa told me last night. And you wanted to know about the fencing meetings?"
"Yes," I said, on more solid ground now. "Yes. I'd been advised that I should join the meetings, and..." I didn't know what was 'and', so I trailed off.
Socora waited a few seconds, and then spoke. "Feel free. We meet in the Masatjit building every Thursday at three PM. Do you know the Masatjit building?"
"It's the long one-story building with the statue out the front?" I'd never seen the Masatjit building in person, but I'd seen pictures in /Lysian Sattir Services/. It had a map.
"Of the Suran swordfighter. I shall expect to see you. Do you have your own sword?"
"I do," I replied. That much I could be sure of.
"Is it bladed?"
"...Yes," I responded, not knowing if that was entirely the wrong answer.
"Bring it anyway," she said. "I'll want to know how it balances. You won't be allowed to fence with it, of course. Why do you want to join my meetings?"
"I was... I was advised..." I was stuttering. "I was told I should."
Socora clicked her tongue. "By who?"
"I don't really know him... Almenten."
"Almenten invited you? Well, excellent. I look forward to your attendance."
"Thank you," I said. It seemed the thing to say. That or How do you know Almenten? How does Almenten know you? Who is he?
"Don't hang up. Hand the phone back to Xifa."
So I did, and as Xifa started to speak to her girlfriend - to whom she belonged, according to the peanut gallery in the entryway - I thought it might be a good idea to be elsewhere. So I headed back into the entryway, back to the selfsame peanut gallery, and Kobach beat me three times at a fighting game. My thoughts were elsewhere.
The Masatjit building had an entry hall, which hadn't been too intimidating, and a massive wooden floored training room/gymnasium just after it, which had. The room was full of young men and women in fencing gear, moving like liquid with their swords at their sides, chatting unconcernedly among themselves. I'd at least been bright enough to leave my Lysian Sattir jacket and long coat hanging in the entryway, but that left me in a button shirt, red tie, and long black trousers, with shiny shoes that were entirely unsuitable for the wooden floors. I felt ridiculous.
The chatter in the room stopped when a young woman strode in - and she did stride, looking exactly like she owned almost everything in the room and what she didn't own was beneath her notice. I recognised her more quickly than I expected to - she'd been the other girl in the picture on Xifa's desk. Socora.
"We'll begin with simple sparring," she said, without an introduction. "Sort into your assigned pairs and begin."
And that was all. Wonder of wonders, those she commanded - the oldest not quite sixteen, the youngest barely more than twelve - sorted into their assigned pairs and begun, without question. I found myself looking around for anyone spare, to assign myself to and begin. My schiavona's hilt was soaked with sweat, and it felt far too heavy in my hand.
Socora saw me, and headed over.
"Lanni Edvitta, then," she said.
"I'm glad you're here." She looked me over, openly calculating. "This is your sword?"
I lifted the schiavona a little. "It was given to me," I said.
"By Almenten, I presume," she said. "He's left you fencing gear in the changeroom."
I was starting to think of the man as less "magical saviour" and more "depraved stalker". Then I remembered the night in the field, and realised that Almenten was, perhaps, the most non-confrontational stalker ever. It was still a worrying thought.
"May I see the sword?" Socora asked, and I handed it over.
"Who..." I started. Socora looked at me, at that, and I wanted very much to stop talking, crawl under a rock, and die. But it would seem crass not to continue. "Who is Almenten?"
She didn't say that it was the stupidest question she'd ever heard. "Almenten is an old friend of mine," she said instead, lifting the sword to feel its balance. "We've known each other since he arrived at Lysian Sattir, and I was his Mentor for some years. And he's a very secretive man, so anything else you'd want to know is more than likely not your business. We do have a practice sword with a very similar balance to this. Go change - the rooms are that way, and your gear is on one of the benches. I'll have the sword for you when you come back."
I considered mentioning that I didn't see that anyone who sent me ambiguous, half-commanding letters could be "not my business", but she'd already left.
It didn't surprise me at all that the fencing gear fit me perfectly. Almenten may not have been my business, but I was apparently entirely his.
"Of course, you don't have an assigned partner," Socora said, when I returned to the main room. Pairs were practicing all around me, ambiguous humans in form-fitting white and alien masks, slapping swords from each other's hands and striking at each other's hearts. It was almost disturbing. "I'll see about reorganising the roster. More than likely I will set up a rotation. For now..." She handed me the promised practice sword, and when I took it, raised a practice sword of her own in salute. "I'm your opponent."
I gaped for a moment, as she flowed into perfect fencing stance, one balancing arm up behind her and her sword extended.
"Correct your stance," she told me. "For now, mimic mine. You'll likely find another that suits you better."
I attempted to mimic Socora's stance, and after a couple of corrections - "Lift your arm higher." "Your feet are too far apart." - managed to get it into an approximation of Right.
Socora gave a quick drill in fencing techniques, proper parrying, the right way to attack, how to move feet and body. Most of it went over my head, so when she invited me to attack her, I stumbled forward and was quickly disarmed and defeated.
"Stand up, retrieve your weapon," Socora ordered.
That would grow to be an order I was very familiar with. Over the next three hours of the meeting, Socora comprehensively beat me many times over, and always gave the same command afterwards, but for the few instances in which I wasn't disarmed. About halfway through, I felt my fingers trembling, and thought for a few horrific moments that I was sick again and would collapse. But Socora was relentless in her drilling, and my hands steadied themselves after a few minutes.
"Well," she said, towards the end of the evening. "You've some talent. Keep attending these meetings, and it will strengthen. I should point out, however, that I don't think I can train you to my level, or Almenten's, and if you want to reach those levels you would do better to give up now." A group passed by, chatting amongst themselves, and Socora stopped them with a raised hand. She walked one of them away from me, demasking, and a moment before her companion took off her own mask, I realised it was Xifa.
I tried, I admit, to listen in on their conversation, but in vain. Both of them talked quietly, and when Socora pulled Xifa into a surprisingly public kiss, I turned away, a trifle embarassed. My grandmother had always warned me against eavesdropping.
Socora had told me that if I wanted to become a genius fencer, I was wasting my time. I didn't, of course, but it reminded me of exactly what had drawn me to the meetings - Almenten had told me to go.
Which was all the more stupid, of course.
After changing back into my Lysian Sattir uniform, I laid my fencing gear and my schiavona on the bench and stared at them for a moment. Gifts from Almenten. Twenty thousand Lysian Sattir credit in my wallet - gifts from Almenten. Game equipment in my dorm room - gifts from Almenten. My very presence at the Academy - a gift from Almenten. My very /life/, to be perfectly melodramatic - a gift from Almenten. But did that make me indebted to him?
I didn't know. So I didn't do anything about it. What was there to do?
Besides, I still had three chapters left of Harvesting Reality to read.
Two weeks passed and felt like two days.
Qarade called several times - we gamed, and she took me shopping and bought me gifts and forced me to attend meetings she enjoyed. With her help, I managed to become good at the game, and to finally understand /Harvesting Reality/. She bought me a set of clothes she thought I'd look good in ("of course," she pointed out, "you can't wear anything but your uniform around the academy until you've got a Mentor, but I'm damned if I'm going shopping with you in that uniform again") and two books, one of insightful Alteccionese poetry and one featuring ninjas in space. I ventured some of Almenten's money to buy her a scarf, and she proclaimed it wonderful and wore it for the next three days. We got along.
Xifa was less sanguine. Strangely, she seemed at her cheeriest when she'd been in the room for some time; whenever she went out, she seemed to always come back angry. I tried to keep the dorm room clean and keep to myself as often as possible, and she seemed to be angry at me for not giving her anything to be angry about. Staying out of each other's way seemed to be the best option.
Every now and then, I was sure I'd seen Almenten, and ran after the figure as fervently as I'd ran to Almenten in the field. I was always wrong, sometimes pathetically so. Suran with black hair. Tall Jitsayui. Once, I saw a long tail of blond hair, and by the time I reached its owner it turned out to be an Alteccionese girl, less than five feet tall. I apologised.
I did well at my meetings. One of Qarade's critical analysis meetings, run by a Siraki I didn't know, proved to be my forte. I even /argued/. My fencing was improving slowly - I'd joined a rotating group of four, one of us always fencing against Socora and losing. And I'd taken up painting, sitting with a group by the riverside and trying to replicate a wading bird. It was surprisingly calming. Lysian Sattir was starting to feel like home, even with the presence through absence of the enchanting, infuriating Almenten.
At the end of the two weeks, I received a phone call.
I was alone in the room - Xifa was at another gymnastics meeting - and very nearly answered the phone with "Xifa's not here, can I take a message?" It was almost certainly for her, and almost certainly Socora. I knew these things now. Instead, I answered with "Room 312", as I'd grown accustomed to.
No answer from the other end, but I could hear quiet breathing. Someone was there.
"Hello?" I said. "This is Room 312, Lanni Ed..."
"Lanni?" asked the voice on the other end, and I sat straight up in bed.
I'd been trying to call my parents every day of the last two weeks, and never succeeded. Apparently my thoughts didn't cross the telephone line, as my mother - crying openly, and unsurprisingly at that - proceeded to say, "Why didn't you call us? When you weren't at the hospital we were so worried..."
They had come down on one of their visits, and had been turned away at the front desk by a receptionist who had insisted that they had no one of the name Lanni Edvitta there. My mother would not be turned aside so easily, and demanded to see my old doctor. He had apparently been on duty in the intensive care unit, but my parents had managed to see one of my nurses, likely Natiya Saadakh. The nurse had explained about my sudden convalescence, and the release papers with /that mark/, and theorised that I might have gone to Lysian Sattir Academy, as no other possibility seemed probable. No, they hadn't been away, they'd been waiting right at home making calls to the Academy to find out who they should talk to. No, their phone was perfectly fine, why wouldn't it be?
I was trying to think of any explanation of why I couldn't reach them. Maybe there was something wrong with Lysian Sattir's outgoing network, but that seemed unlikely. Two weeks without outgoing calls? The students would run riot.
Mother promised that she and Father would come down as soon as possible, and they would be at the academy within two days, and they expected to hear everything about what had happened. I promised, in exchange, to tell them as much as they could. Mother told me that she loved me, and I replied in kind, and then she hung up.
And I realised something. Mother had never asked if I would come home, because she'd assumed that of course I would. And I'd never asked if I would come home, because I'd assumed that of course I wouldn't.
While I was puzzling over that, the phone rang again, and I picked it up with a distracted "Yes?"
A chuckle from the other end. "I'm sorry, could you tell me what room I have? See, I'm in such horrible doubt even though I had to punch the number in to make the call..."
"My poetry appreciation meeting ended early. No one appreciated the poem we had. So, I'm free for the rest of the night. Want a game?"
I looked at the time on Xifa's stereo. It was around half-past six. "I haven't eaten," I said.
"That's fine, neither have I. We could play after dinner. But I'm not having that horrible stuff the cafeteria insists is lasagna and neither are you. I'll take you out for Siraki food."
"You keep buying me things, Qarade." I stood, and shifted the handset to my left shoulder. "How am I supposed to pay you back?"
"Don't bother. How many times do I have to say this?"
So we met outside the Masatjit building, and took a bus into town, and she bought something I couldn't pronounce for herself and, when I asked her to choose for me, something I could neither pronounce nor identify for me. "It's good," she explained, vaguely. "Try some."
I did. It was.
"So," I said, as Qarade gathered up meat and sauce with her fork, "tell me about Mentors."
"Mm?" she said. "Oh. Yeah."
"My first day here," I elaborated, "you seemed to imply that all the learning that goes on passes between Mentor and pupil. But I don't have a Mentor, and you don't have a Mentor, and we still go to discussions. So what's the purpose of being a Mentor, or having one?"
"Well, it's more encouraged than anything else." Qarade ate a small, dignified portion of food. "Lysian Sattir wants the students to bond one to another. You get priveleges for being a Mentor, or for having one. Don't have to wear the uniform, for one thing. The point of the system, I suppose, is that no single philosophy triumphs over everything. Mentors teach their philosophies, pupils take as much as they want and move on."
"What exactly do they /do/, though?"
"Depends on the pair." Qarade shrugged. "Some people become Mentor and pupil and then they barely speak for the rest of their schooling. That's pretty strongly discouraged. Some people become Mentor and pupil and then they're inseparable. I mean, Suran pairs often bathe together - that's normal in Suranka. My Mentor, Falian, she was Hanjodvarian, from way up in the mountains, and she wanted us to sleep together." She thought for a moment. "I mean, not sleep together sleep together, just that I slept in her bed. It was... weird. I mean, once I got over the weird, it was pretty nice. It just took a while to get over the weird. And, you know, even if we went to sleep on opposite sides, whenever I woke up, she was cuddled against my back." Qarade demonstrated with a brief arm-gesture.
"My roommate's Hanjodvarian. She doesn't seem the cuddly type."
"I got that impression. But from what you've said, I also got the impression she's /weird/."
I hadn't tried to portray Xifa as weird. Qarade's thought patterns were closed to me, at times.
"Are you thinking of taking another Mentor?" I asked.
She pointed her fork at me and issued another mock-challenge. "Are you saying I'm immature?"
I had no idea where she'd drawn that from. "No."
"I'm thinking of taking a /pupil/. I told you that on your first day."
"I just haven't found the right person yet. You're a nice guy, but completely not pupil material."
I was happy she'd said that. It saved me from pointing out that Qarade was absolutely, totally not what I was looking for in a Mentor, or explaining Almenten's bizarre pact with me.
When we'd finished the meal, Qarade spread out a board, laid her bag of dark green stones on the table, and laid a stone in an aggressive starting point. Qarade always played like that - fast, hard attack, which so far none of my defences or counterattacks had managed to stand up against. During the game, she pointed out the flaws in many of my strategies ("Is that formation a fortress or a courtyard? Either way, I'm going to eat it.") and finally beat me, yet again. This time, though, she'd taken a lot longer than the first time, and my formations had stood up surprisingly well to her oncoming hordes. "You've gotten much better," she lauded me, and when I told her that it was all her genius tutoring, she responded, "Well, of /course/."
We took a bus back to Lysian Sattir, and parted outside the Masatjit building. I headed back to my block.
The same four men were in the entryway. The game they were playing was different - a fighting game, that if the discarded CD case served me right, was called Surrounded Forest IV - but if my eye for continuity didn't betray me, the porn was the same. I made a noncommital greeting, and moved into the hallway.
"Ah, you might not want to go back there," Aldin said, and I turned to look at him.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Door's locked," Cholon pointed out, having his digital avatar deliver a punishing five-punch combo to Ochiye's. "So Xifa's probably in there with Socora, and not to put too fine a point on it, that means you might want to be in the room..."
"I think it means we all want to be in the room, Cholon," said Kobach.
"...but they'd definitely rather you stayed out."
I was puzzled. "Why were you trying to get into my dorm room?"
"Well, it was Xifa's side we were interested in..."
"...actually, stop talking, please."
They laughed. On screen, Ochiye's bruiser picked up Cholon's scantily-clad young woman and threw her into a tree; off-screen, Cholon suggested several anatomically improbable things Ochiye could do to himself.
"Oh, hey," said Kobach. "You left your sword out here."
He pointed to a corner of the room, where I saw the wooden case of my schiavona.
"I'm sure I didn't," I said.
Kobach shrugged. "Well, it's out here. Cool sword, too, you know."
"Probably Socora moved it out," Cholon suggested. "You know, no phallic symbols in there."
Ochiye made a counter-suggestion, which was "Shut up." Nearly at the same time, his character threw Cholon's again, and won the match.
"Also," Kobach continued, "you got a letter. We left it on the top of the case."
I went to the case, and looked at the envelope on top. Lanni Edvitta Room 312 was written on the front of it, in what was definitely not Almenten's handwriting. Which surprised me. I picked it up, ripped it open, and pulled out the tiny slip of paper within - and then gasped, and dropped it.
He is waiting for you in the field, it said, and then /that mark/.
"Bad news?" asked Kobach. The other three kept staring at the screen, their own ideas of propriety.
I didn't answer for a moment, and then said, "Something like that."
Then I opened the case, and I took out my schiavona, and without looking at the expressions on their faces, I walked to the field.
He was waiting for me, of course. I'd never doubted that he would be.
He was dressed in his Lysian Sattir uniform, just as I was: black trousers and shoes, blue jacket and overcoat, white button shirt and red tie. But on the belt, under the jacket, I saw a sheathed sword and dagger. Again, I noticed just how large he was, and how his long hair made him seem all the larger, and coupled with the swords, I realised exactly just how terrifying old Suran warriors must have been in battle.
"Lanni," he said. His voice was soft to the point of beauty.
I didn't answer him. My hands tightened on my schiavona.
He had come armed and I couldn't say why. I had come armed and I couldn't say why. I almost wanted to draw the sword then. At the very least it would dispel the tension.
"Tegustem Qarade has been teaching you to game," he said. "I don't know much about her, but I know that she is a good player. I want to see how much you've learned."
"You want to game with me?" I asked, almost laughing. It was ridiculous. Do you always bring swords with you when you want to game?
For a moment, I thought I'd left my stones in the dorm room, and then I remembered the game with Qarade in town. I had them, of course, weighing down in my right overcoat pocket. Was that intentional on his part? How much did Almenten control?
"Follow me," he said, and turned away.
It was ridiculous to ask. I'd done nothing but follow him since I'd left the hospital.
On the other side of the sports field, it was dark. There were no artifical lights, and the night was as close to moonless as to make no difference. So I didn't notice the mound, and the two doors in it, until I was almost a metre away.
"Is this always here?" I asked him. It was a stupid question, but the atmosphere seemed appropriate for it.
"Always. But the doors only unlock one night of every month."
"It's always different. Take the right-hand door." With that, he opened the left, and closed it behind him.
After that, I considered perhaps misinterpreting what he had said, and taking the right-hand door facing from the mound. Of course I didn't. The right-hand door swung open quite easily, and I stepped into the darkness beyond it.
My eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light, and when they did, I didn't see much: it almost seemed that I was in a short cell, with a sloped roof. The walls, floor, and ceiling were /stone/, inside a mound that had seemed to be all dirt. After a moment's panic - why had he brought me here? - I looked down, and saw that a few metres from the door was a spiral staircase.
I put a hand on the wall to give me some sort of stability, and started walking down. I quickly lost track of how many steps I had taken, or how long I had walked down. The light stayed at exactly the same level throughout my journey, even though there were no visible sources. There was no noise.
Eventually, I reached the bottom of the staircase, and stepped into a room.
The light in the room was still low, but after the dimness of the staircase, I almost had to shield my eyes. It was /massive/, easily the size of the fencing room, and made of the same stone as the stairway. Along the walls of the room ran depressions - either trenches, or holes, or vents, I couldn't tell, as the floor of the room was blanketed with smoke as if from dry ice. Apart from the trenches, there were only two other items of decoration: a podium on each side of the room, angled toward its door. And on the other side of the room stood Almenten.
"Step up to your podium," he said, and I did. I had a hundred questions to ask him, but I was almost certain he'd answer none of them.
There was a grid engraved into the podium, with a hole at each intersection. It puzzled me for a moment, but then, with the weight of the stones in my pocket, I understood. It was a game board, with the lines pre-cut. I didn't really understand how that could work, but that was the least of my wonderings.
Almenten took a bag out of one of the pockets of his overcoat. He was a good distance away from me, but I could easily see the contents. Yellow stones, translucent like my red ones. His own gaming pieces. He laid the bag on the podium, and shucked his overcoat and jacket, laying them on the floor. Dressed as simply as he was, the sword and dagger at his sides were extremely apparent, and I nervously followed suit. A moment later, we were both at our podiums, with our pieces laid to one side, without our jackets, and with swords in close reach.
"To stones, then. Forty and fifteen and ten," Almenten said, and it had the same ring it had before, of something mysterious about to begin.
He drew a blue stone from his bag, and laid it somewhere on his podium. At almost the exact instant, one of the holes on my podium, corresponding to one of the highly defensive start positions on a game board, started to glow yellow. The light didn't look electric.
"Lay your starting piece," he said. "I'll take the first turn."
With some trepidation, I drew a red stone from my bag, and laid it in an analogous defensive position. Almenten moved quickly, running his finger along the podium and then laying down another stone. Where he'd traced his finger, my own podium lit up yellow.
"The capture rules are different," Almenten said. "It's not simply numbers of stones on each side. A single stone can capture a single stone."
"Then how do you work out who wins a capture fight?" I asked, and the simple terminology made me look to the swords at our side.
It was obvious, really.
"Oh /Judge/. You must be joking."
"Make your move."
Normally, in these circumstances, I would have set up what Qarade called a 'fortress', a double-ring of stones protecting an area of the board. A fortress formation gave the player a good amount towards the first and third victory condition, and were almost more trouble to break than it was worth. For now, though, a certain suicidal curiosity led me to strike towards Almenten's stones, and I was unsurprised when he struck towards mine. Line after line, stone after stone, and finally our two stones were right beside one another. Drawing a line between them would initiate a capture fight.
I made my move elsewhere, shoring up my defences, and ignored that problematic "fifteen" in the middle of the victory conditions. I couldn't make the capturing move.
And as I stared at the yellow line linking our pieces, I heard a rasping leather sound, and looked up to see Almenten with a wicked-looking rapier in one hand and a parrying dagger in the other. His stance was perfect, though almost predatorily claw-like, and I remembered Socora saying that she had been Almenten's Mentor for some years.
He had moved around his podium and was advancing towards me, and in a panic, I drew my schiavona.
When he first attacked, I parried desperately. He drew back for a moment, not letting me take the advantage, and then struck again, this time with his main gauche. When I parried, he struck with his rapier, and I was nearly cut.
He stood back, and so did I.
"You have to attack," he said. "You have to attack me in order to win."
And with that, he stabbed me through the heart, and I was too flustered not to let him. It took a moment for me to acknowledge my apparent death, and a moment more to notice that I was back at my podium, and my red stone was sliding down to join the others in the bag, and that one of Almenten's yellow lights was shining in its place.
From there the game - the Game, I was starting to think - only grew more bizarre. Occasionally Almenten would set up a meaningless formation and several of my stones would fly off the board. Sometimes I'd hold a formation that would normally be untenable through a lucky attack in the capture fight, but always half-accidentally. I still wasn't /fighting/. How could I fight Almenten, a man half a saviour and half a god?
Eventually - we both had forty pieces on the board, and we both had ten points surrounded, and I didn't know how many pieces either of us had captured, and I was sure I was going to lose - I acted out of reckless desperation, and tried to mimic one of Almenten's meaningless formations that had blown away my walls.
In a way, it didn't work. No yellow lights winked out, and no yellow lines disappeared. But for a moment, my perceptions changed entirely, and I saw a weakness in Almenten's pieces as easily as I saw the stone and the smoke. If I struck there, it was clear to me, I'd tear open his formations within three capture fights.
So I moved to attack it.
Almenten saw what I was trying a moment later, and moved his pieces to block mine, and it was only three more moves before another capture fight began.
I drew my schiavona quickly, out of instinct, and caught Almenten's rapier again when he attacked.
"Attack me," he said.
I parried. He pushed me back.
"Attack me," he said, again.
I dodged. He closed the gap.
"/Attack me,/" he said, and struck forward with his main gauche.
I knew it was a feint - Almenten struck with his main gauche to engage my schiavona, and then attacked with his rapier. He'd done it before, several times. But if I didn't block, the main gauche would end the capture fight as surely as the rapier would have. And there was nowhere to dodge to.
So I blocked, and Almenten's rapier came around, and...
I moved in a way Socora Sanne would have disdained utterly, and struck upwards with the schiavona, knocking the main gauche aside with the force of my blow. I intended simply to block the rapier, but due to some angle of intersection, some difference in the sharpness of the swords, I cut through his rapier and onwards, and the tip of my schiavona tore through the side of his neck.
And then we were not back at our podiums.
For a moment, I thought this meant that I'd actually killed him. I reached out and pressed my hand against his neck, and felt something halfway between a static shock and magnetism. Almenten fell, though seemingly willingly, to his knees, and my hand went down as though we were connected with bone and sinew. There was a flow at the point of contact, like water between glasses, and when I looked down at it, there was a riot of colour flowing over his skin and over mine, designs in primarily red and yellow darting over us.
A second later, it was gone.
And the scattering sound of our pieces falling from their podiums said, quite clearly, that the game was over.
The next day I had no meetings, and so I stayed indoors, lying on my bed and reading Harvesting Reality while Xifa listened to the melancholy piano piece again. I resolved not to think about the game, which of course meant I thought of nothing else. Almenten had silently collected his pieces, and walked up his stairway, and by the time I'd reached him in following, his door was shut and locked. So I had gone back down, and collected my own, and left. And slept, though I didn't feel in the slightest like I should, or /could/.
I was three pages from the end of the book when a knock came on the door.
"I'll get it," Xifa said, slightly drearily. "It's probably Socora."
She moved to open the door, and I knew a moment before it opened that Almenten was on the other side.
"Yours," she said, and I put down Harvesting Reality and sat up in a heartbeat.
Xifa walked around him to leave the room, and he walked in behind her, shutting the door quietly as he did so. He was carrying a shopping bag, from one of the clothing stores in the town.
"It's not just a simple amusement, or an illustration of parables. I think you see that very clearly now," Almenten said.
"So what is it?" I asked. This time, maybe, he would answer me.
"Competition. Tournament. Ritual. Magic. Any of those. All of them."
"When you won the Game, you took something from me as your prize."
"I felt that," I said. "What was it?"
"Physically? A tattoo," he said. "It should be at the base of your spine."
I reached up, instinctively, and put a hand to my lower back. I couldn't feel anything, but then, I wouldn't.
"What it also marks," he continued, "is not only your victory but an increase in your power. The more victories you win, the more your power will increase."
"But what /power/?" I asked him. "The magic you use on the stones?"
"That's an expression of it. There are many, many other uses. There are secrets to the power that you'll only learn through playing the Game."
"So... why play the Game?" I asked. "I don't much want power. I don't see the /need/."
"Then if you would," he said, "play because I wish it."
I had no answer to that.
He laid the shopping bag at the foot of my bed. "A new overcoat, of a different design. I promised you, some time ago, that I would take you as my pupil. If you are willing to take me as your Mentor, then say so."
"Yes," I replied, without thinking. "Of course."
He pulled a piece of paper and pen from his pocket, wrote something on the paper, and handed it to me. /526/, it said, in perfect script. "My room number," he said. "Call it and you'll reach me."
He left the room, but this time I didn't feel the need to follow him. This time, it seemed, he wasn't evading me. Now he was my Mentor and I was his pupil, at home in Lysian Sattir, drawn into the game.
"My life was much simpler when I was dying," I said, aloud.
No one answered me.
I tried on the overcoat. It was no surprise when it fit perfectly.