Tavi went first into the old grey stone study–a building of only a single story and perhaps twenty paces square residing in the western courtyard of the Academy, which was otherwise unused. No windows graced the study. Moss fought a silent war with ivy for possession of its walls and roof. It looked little different from the storage buildings but for a plaque upon its door that read in plain letters, “Maestro Killian – Remedial Furycrafting.”
Several worn but well-padded old benches sat around a podium before a large slateboard. The others followed Tavi inside, Max last. The big Antillan shut the door behind them and glanced around the room.
“Everyone ready?” Max asked.
Tavi remained silent, but Ehren and Gaelle both answered that they were. Max put his hand flat against the door, closing his eyes for a moment.
“All right,” he reported. “We’re clear.”
Tavi shoved the heel of his hand firmly against a particular spot on the slateboard, and a sudden crack appeared, straight as a plumb line. He set his shoulder to the slate, and with a grunt of effort pushed open the hidden doorway. Cool air rushed over him, and he peered down at a narrow stone passageway, its floor all of stairs, that wound down into the earth.
Gaelle passed him a lamp, and each of the others took one as well. Then Tavi set off down the stairs, the others close behind.
“Did I tell you? I found a way down to Riverside through the Deeps,” Max mumbled.
Tavi snorted. The stone walls turned it into a hissing sound. “Down to the wine houses, eh?”
“It makes sneaking out to them simpler,” Max said. “It’s almost too much work to be bothered with, otherwise.”
“Don’t joke about such things, Max,” Gaelle said, her voice somewhat hushed. “The Deeps run for miles, and great furies only know what you might run into down here. You should keep to the paths laid out for us.”
Tavi reached the bottom of the stairway and turned left into a wide passage. He started counting off open doorways on his right. “It isn’t all that bad. I’ve explored a little.”
“Tavi,” said Ehren, his tone exasperated. “That’s the whole reason Master Killian loads you up with so much extra work. To keep you from getting into trouble.”
Tavi smiled. “I’m careful.”
They turned down another hall, the passage slanting sharply downwards. Ehren said, “And if you make any mistakes? What if you fell into a fissure? Or into an old shaft filled with water? Or ran into a rogue fury?”
Tavi shrugged. “There’s risk in everything.”
Gaelle arched an eyebrow and said, “Yet one so seldom hears of some fool drowning, starving, or falling to his death in a library or at the baker’s.”
Tavi gave her a sour look as they reached the bottom of the slope, where it intersected another hallway. Something flickered in the corner of his vision, and he turned to his right, staring intently down the hall.
“Tavi?” Max asked. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure,” Tavi said. “I thought I saw a light down there.”
Gaelle had already started down the hallway to the left, in the opposite direction, Ehren following her. “Come on,” she said. “You know how much he hates to be kept waiting.”
Max muttered, “He knows how much we hate to miss a meal, too.”
Tavi flashed the larger young man a quick grin. The hallway led to a pair of rust-pitted iron doors. Tavi pushed them open, and the four academs moved into the classroom beyond.
The room was huge, far larger than the Academy’s dining hall, its ceiling lost in shadow. A double row of grey stone pillars supported the roof, and furylamps mounted on the pillars lit the room in a harsh, green-white radiance. At the far end of the hall was a large square on the floor, composed of layers of reed matting. Beside it sat a heavy bronze brazier, its coals glowing, giving the room its only warmth. To one side of one row of pillars was a long strip marked out on the floor for training in weaponplay. On the opposite side of the room was a cluster of ropes, wooden poles, beams, and various structures of varying heights–an obstacle course.
Maestro Killian sat on his knees beside the brazier. He was a wizened old man, his hair little more than nimbus of fine white down drifting around his shining pate. Thin, small, and seemingly frail, his black scholar’s robe was so old it had faded to a threadbare grey. Several pairs of woolen stockings covered his feet, and his cane rested on the ground beside him. As the group came closer, Killian lifted his face, his blind, filmy eyes turning towards them. “That was as soon as possible?” he asked, his voice annoyed and creaking. “In my day, Cursors in training would have been lashed and laid down in a bed of salt for moving so slowly.”
The four of them moved forward to the reed matting and sat down in a row, facing the old man. “Sorry, Maestro,” Tavi said. “It was my fault. Brencis again.”
Killian felt for his cane, picked it up, and rose to his feet. “No excuses. You’re just going to have to find a way to avoid his attention.”
“But, Maestro,” Tavi protested. “I just wanted some breakfast.”
Killian poked his cane at Tavi’s chest, thumping him lightly. “Going hungry until lunch wouldn’t have hurt you. It would at least have demonstrated self-discipline. Better yet, you might have demonstrated forethought, and saved some of last night’s dinner to eat in the morning.”
Tavi grimaced and said, “Yes, Maestro.”
“Were you seen coming in?”
The four answered together. “No, Maestro.”
“Well then,” Killian said. “If you all don’t mind too terribly, shall we begin the test? With you, first, Tavi.”
They stood to their feet. Killian doddered out onto the matting, and Tavi followed him. As he went, he felt the air tighten against his skin, grow somehow thicker as the old teacher called the wind furies that let him sense and observe movements. Killian turned towards Tavi, and nodded to him. Then the old man said, “Defend and counter.”
With that, the little man whipped his cane at Tavi’s head. Tavi barely ducked in time, only to see the old Maestro lift his stockinged foot and drive it down in a lashing kick aimed for Tavi’s knee. The boy spun his body away from it, and used the momentum of the motion for a straight, driving kick, launched at Killian’s belly.
The old Maestro dropped the cane, caught Tavi’s foot at the ankle, and with a twist stole Tavi’s balance and sent him flat down to the mat. Tavi hit hard enough to knock the wind from him, and he lay there gasping for a moment.
“No, no, no!” Killian scolded. “How many times do I need to tell you? You have to move your head as well as your legs, fool. You cannot expect an unaimed attack to succeed. You must turn your face to watch the target.” He picked up his cane and rapped Tavi sharply on the head. “And your timing was less than perfect. Should you be on a mission one day and attacked, that kind of poor performance would mean your death.”
Tavi rubbed at the spot on his head where Killian had reprimanded him, scowling. The old man had hardly needed to strike him that firmly. “Yes, Maestro.”
“Go sit down, boy. Come, Antillar. Let’s see if you can manage anything better.”
Max went out onto the mat, and went through a similar sequence with Maestro Killian. He performed flawlessly, grey eyes flashing as he whipped his head around, keeping an eye on his target. Gaelle and Ehren went in their turns, and all of them responded better than Tavi had.
“Barely adequate,” Killian snapped. “Ehren, fetch the staves.”
The skinny boy got a pair of six-foot poles from a rack on the wall, and brought them to the Maestro. Killian set his cane aside and accepted them. “Very well, Tavi. Let’s see if you have managed to learn anything of the staff.”
Tavi took the other staff from the Maestro, and the two saluted, staves lifted vertically before they both dropped into a fighting crouch.
“Defend,” Killian snapped, and the old man spun his staff through a series of attacks, whirling, sweeping blows mixed with low, lightning thrusts aimed at Tavi’s belly. He backed away from the Maestro, blocking the sweeping blows and slipping the thrusts aside. Tavi struck out with a counterattack, but he could feel an iron tension in his shoulders that slowed his thrust.
Killian promptly knocked aside Tavi’s weapon, delivered a sharp thrust to the boy’s fingers, and with a flick sent Tavi’s staff spinning across the room to clatter against one of the stone pillars.
Killian thumped the end of his staff onto the mat, his expression one of frustrated disapproval. “How many times have I told you, boy? Your body must be relaxed until the instant you strike. Holding yourself too tightly slows your responses. Life and death is measured by the breadth of a hair in combat.”
Tavi gripped his bruised hand into a fist, and grated out, “Yes, Maestro.”
Killian jerked his head towards the fallen staff, and Tavi went to retrieve it.
The old man shook his head. “Gaelle. Attempt to show Tavi what I mean.”
The others followed in turn, and they all did better than Tavi had. Even Ehren.
Killian passed the staves to Tavi and picked up his cane. “To the strip, children.”
They followed him to the combat strip laid out on the floor. Killian walked to the center of the strip and thumped the floor with his cane. “And once more, Tavi. We might as well get it out of the way now.”
Tavi sighed and walked to stand before Killian.
Killian lifted his cane into a guard position used for swords. “I am armed with a blade,” he said. “Disarm me without leaving the strip.”
The cane’s tip darted at Tavi’s throat. The boy lightly slapped the attack aside with one hand, retreating. The old man followed, cane sweeping at Tavi’s head. Tavi ducked, rolled backwards to avoid a horizontal slash, and came to his feet to brush aside another thrust. He closed, inside the tip of the theoretical sword, hands moving to seize the old man’s wrists.
The attack was too tentative. In the bare instant of delay, the Maestro avoided Tavi’s attempt to grapple. The old man whipped the cane left and right, branding sudden pain into Tavi’s chest in an x-shape. He thrust the heel of one wrinkled hand into Tavi’s chest, driving the boy a step back, and then jabbed the tip of the cane firmly into Tavi’s chest, sending him sprawling to the floor.
“What is wrong with you?” Killian snapped. “A sheep would have been more decisive than that. Once you decide to close range, you are committed. Attack with every ounce of speed and power you can muster. Or die. It’s as simple as that.”
Tavi nodded, not looking at the other students and said, very quietly, “Yes Maestro.”
“The good news, Tavi,” Killian said in an acid tone, “is that you won’t need to worry about the entrails currently spilling over your knees. The fountain of blood spraying from your heart will kill you far more quickly.”
Tavi climbed to his feet, wincing.
“The bad news,” Killian continued, “Is that I see no way that I can grade your performance as anything close to acceptable. You fail.”
Tavi said nothing. He walked over to lean against the nearest pillar, rubbing at his chest.
The Maestro rapped his cane on the strip again. “Ehren. I hope to the great furies you have more resolve than he does.”
The exam concluded after Gaelle had neatly kicked aside the Maestro’s forearm, sending the cane tumbling away. Tavi watched the other three succeed where he had failed. He rubbed at his eyes and tried to ignore how sleepy he felt. His stomach rumbled almost painfully as he knelt down beside the other students.
“Barely competent,” Killian muttered, after Gaelle had finished. “You all need to spend more time in practice. It is one thing to perform well in a test on the training mat. It is quite another to do so in earnest. I expect you all to be ready for the infiltration test at the conclusion of Wintersend.”
“Yes, Maestro,” they replied, more or less in unison.
“Very well then,” Killian said. “Off with you, puppies. You might become Cursors yet.” He paused to glower at Tavi. “Most of you, at any rate. I spoke to the kitchen staff this morning. They’re keeping some breakfast warm for you.”
The students rose, but Killian laid his cane across one of Tavi’s shoulders and said, “Not you, boy. You and I are going to have words about your performance in the exam. The rest of you, go.”
Ehren and Gaelle looked at Tavi and winced, then offered him apologetic smiles as they left.
Max clapped Tavi’s shoulder with one big hand when he walked by and said, quietly, “Don’t let him get to you.” Max and the others left the training hall, closing the huge iron doors behind them.
Killian walked back over to the brazier and sat down, holding his hands out towards its warmth. Tavi walked over and knelt down in front of him. Killian closed his eyes for a moment, his expression pained as he opened and closed his fingers, stretching out his hands. Tavi knew that the Maestro’s arthritis had been paining him.
“Was that all right?” Tavi asked.
The old man’s expression softened into a faint smile. “You mimicked their weaknesses fairly well. Antillar remembered to look before he struck. Gaelle remembered to keep herself relaxed. Ehren committed without hesitation.”
“That’s wonderful. I guess.”
Killian tilted his head. “You aren’t happy that you appeared to your friends to be unskilled.”
“I guess so. But . . .” Tavi frowned in thought. “It’s hard to deceive them. I don’t like it.”
“Nor should you. But I think that isn’t all.”
“No,” Tavi said. “It’s because . . . well, they’re the only ones who know that I’m undergoing Cursor training. The only ones I can talk to about most of the things I really care about. And I know they only mean to be kind. But I know what they aren’t saying. How careful they are about trying to help me without letting me know that’s what they’re doing. Ehren thought he had to protect me from Brencis today. Ehren.”
Killian smiled again. “He’s loyal.”
Tavi scowled. “But he shouldn’t have to do it. It isn’t as if I’m not helpless enough already.”
The Maestro frowned. “Meaning?”
“Meaning that I can learn all the unarmed combat I like and it won’t help me against a strong furycrafter. Someone like Brencis. Even if I’m using a weapon.”
“You do yourself an injustice.”
Tavi said, “I don’t see how.”
“You are more capable than you know,” Killian said. “You might not ever be the swordsman a powerful metalcrafter can become, or have the speed of a windcrafter or the strength of an earthcrafter. But furycrafting isn’t everything. Few crafters develop the discipline to hone many skills. You have done so. You are now better able to deal with them than most folk who have only minor talents at furycrafting. You should take some measure of pride in it.”
“If you say so,” Tavi sighed. “But it doesn’t feel true. It doesn’t feel like I have very much to be proud about.”
Killian laughed, the sound surprisingly warm. “Says the boy who stopped a Marat horde from invading Alera and earned the patronage of the First Lord himself. Your uncertainty has more to do with being seventeen than it does with any fury or lack thereof.”
Tavi felt himself smile a little. “Do you want me to take the combat test now?”
Killian waved a hand. “Not necessary. I have something else in mind.”
Tavi blinked. “You do?”
“Mmm. The civic legion is having trouble with crime. For the past several months, a thief has been stealing from various merchants and homes, some of which were warded by furycrafting. Thus far, the civic have been unable to apprehend the thief.”
Tavi pursed his lips pensively. “I thought that they had the support of the city’s furies. Shouldn’t they be able to tell who circumvented guard furies?”
“They do. They should. But they haven’t.”
“How is that possible?” Tavi asked.
“I cannot be certain,” Killian said. “But I have a theory. What if the thief was managing the thefts without using any furycrafting? If no furies are brought into play, the city’s furies could not be of any help.”
“But if they aren’t using any furies, how are they getting into warded buildings?”
“Precisely,” Killian said. “And there is the substance of your test. Discover how this thief operates and see to it that he is apprehended.”
Tavi felt his eyebrows shoot up. “Why me?”
“You have a unique perspective on this matter, Tavi. I believe you well suited to the task.”
“To catching a thief a whole legion hasn’t been able to find?”
Killian’s smile widened. “This should be simple for the mighty hero of the Calderon Valley. Make sure it’s done – and discretely – before Wintersend is over.”
“What?” Tavi said. “Maestro, with all of my courses, and serving in the citadel at night, I don’t know how you expect me to get this done.”
“Without whining,” Killian said. “You have real potential, young man. But if you are daunted by difficulty arranging your schedule, perhaps you would like to speak to his majesty about returning home.”
Tavi swallowed. “No,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
The Maestro tottered back onto his feet. “Then I suggest you begin. You’ve no time to lose.”