This chapter was cut from the last one due to length, so there's no journal entry at the beginning of this one :)
METANOIA: SUMMER SANDS
Sometimes the little girl who is afraid of the dark becomes the thing she fears most... just so that she isn't afraid anymore—Nikita Gill
When the city limits were far behind them and there was little sight of greenery to be found, Ellis—as he had introduced himself while they finished his errands—peered at her from the corners of his eyes. "So, I thought I'd give you a heads up before we reached Desert's Edge. The rules have changed since Crim was around."
"Challenging one of our members to a fight and winning—or at least showing promise enough that they decide you're worth it—isn't enough to get in anymore."
Alinora sighed. "Of course it isn't," she muttered to herself. Nothing would be that easy. "What else do I have to do?"
"Get a sponsor."
"Is that your way of saying that you won't sponsor me?" She raised an eyebrow.
He snorted. "I don't sponsor trainees."
"Not even the ones who kick your ass?"
Another snort. "Never had that happen before."
"Mm. I'd imagine not. No one'd challenge you. They'd see an easy target."
He glared at her. "If this is your roundabout way of asking me to sponsor you, that's not the way to do it."
Alinora cocked her head to the side. "Are you one of those grouchy types who doesn't like compliments?"
"Compli— How in hell was that a compliment? Did that scuffle knock a few bricks loose, or are you always like this?"
Alinora frowned. "No one would look at me and see a threat either," she said. "Thanks to my elven heritage, I'm not done growing yet. I don't eat much, so I'm small. My eyes are a little too large for my face. My ears nearly dwarf my head. I'm all pointy ends. I don't… I don't radiate power like other elves do. I slouch when I walk." She listed one thing after another, ticking them off on her fingers. "I'm not a threat. Or so they think. Then I kick their asses. People look at you and they don't see a threat. It makes you good. You can walk through the streets and people will assume the merchants are intimidated because of the merchant's guild—because you have contacts. Because you can swing a heavy axe. Not because you're fast and quick witted and sharp."
Ellis was quiet for a few beats. Then, "Hm."
"That's… not a bad point, really. Don't find many people who catch onto that."
"I'd imagine not. Dwarves are entirely too stereotyped."
He snorted. "Aye. If I had my flask, I'd drink to that."
"Of course… some of those stereotypes are true."
"Oi! I'm not drunk of my arse now, am I?"
Ellis glowered at her.
She smiled sweetly.
He harrumphed through his nose and faced forward again. "You're a pain in the arse, you know that?"
"It's been said."
About ten minutes of walking later, Alinora brought up their previous conversation. "You mentioned that there was more I needed to do before I could get in. Other than a sponsor, what do I need to do?"
"Once you have someone sponsoring you, you inform the headmaster. The headmaster will then contact the other teachers and set up a… challenge to test your various skills. Get a high enough score—and or impress enough people—and you're accepted in. Otherwise…" Ellis shrugged. "They mainly look at stuff like combat prowess and stealth. Nothing too difficult."
Alinora nodded. "I see."
"Finding a sponsor will be the difficult part," he warned. "Written down in the rules or not, this has been a boys' school for several years now—at least a decade. There's a good chance you'll have to cross the desert after all."
Alinora cracked a half-smile, despite her unease at the thought. "Are you that certain I can pass the test?"
Ellis grunted. "Don't go twisting my words into something they're not."
For Alinora, that was as good as an admission.
"So… I don't believe that you gave me your name."
"I suppose I didn't."
"I'm going to need that, you know."
"Of course." She inclined her head. "My name is Jezebel Eramyn."
Ellis eyed her suspiciously, as if he didn't believe that was her real name. He wasn't wrong—Eramyn was completely fake and Jezebel was her middle name, not her first.
"Well then, Eramyn. I hope you're ready, because we're almost there. Be warned—Master Vernus is probably going to pitch a fit when he finds out anyone is even considering letting you in." He cocked his head to the side. "Of course, he pitches a fit over everything, so it doesn't matter much—but best you be prepared. He's a bit of a drama queen."
Alinora snorted. "Sounds pleasant."
Ellis rolled his eyes. "Very."
As Ellis had said, it didn't take much longer before the school was in sight. Nestled behind a rock formation, it was an elegant building. Smooth, off-white walls made up the exterior, topped with a red tied roof. Windows broke apart the walls; curved on top and straight on the bottom. The building was surrounded by a grey wall with a red tile top. This formed a courtyard in the front.
In the center of the courtyard was a fountain—which Ellis explained was pulled from the hot springs located beneath the rock formation. (The baths were housed within the spring itself.) Either side of the wall was lined with stables. Beyond that, the courtyard was mostly sand creeping through off-white cobblestones.
The inside of the school was far grander.
The front door opened directly into a hallway. A red carpet lined with golden thread spilled across the center. Dark wood peeked out at the sides—she couldn't imagine what that must have cost to import. The walls were lined with portraits and news articles; plaques with names painstakingly carved into them. Black swan tapestries (and carvings, and paintings) were everywhere. It was—
Well. It was an excellent display of wealth and power, even if the only people who would ever see it were the assassins themselves.
The hallway was, of course, lined with doors. There was also a hallway that extended horizontally from the entrance—she could just see a stairwell at the end of the right side of the hall.
"This way." Ellis walked off at a brisk pace. "I need to report in to the headmaster with the supplies… and we'll need to see if the headmaster will consider sponsoring you before you bother talking to the teachers. It will also be easier just to summon them to his office and get it over with."
Alinora wasn't sure how she felt about that plan, but she followed him anyway.
The headmaster was… not as intimidating as Alinora had expected. Of course, the entire building wasn't what she had expected.
He had deep brown skin and large brown eyes. His hair was carefully styled into hundreds of small braids, each one tipped with three clay beads. Spectacles rested on the tip of his nose. A golden earring glinted in his right ear. He wore dark red and bright gold robes.
When Ellis walked in, Alinora in tow, he peered over the stack of papers clutched in his hand and raised one eyebrow. "Ellis. Returned from your errands so soon?"
"What can I say, boss? I'm efficient."
"So it seems. You even picked up an item not included on the list." He observed Alinora carefully. "Can I ask why it is you have an elven shadow?"
"She's an apprentice of Crim's. Show him the swan." He jerked his head toward the desk.
Alinora stepped forward, withdrawing the swan figurine from her pocket. With some reluctance she passed it to the headmaster.
He inspected it carefully before handing it back. "Yes… He did say something about heading up north. I wouldn't have thought he would have settled in Mynera, but… It does make a certain degree of sense." He turned his gaze towards Alinora. "You are aware that this is a boys' school, yes?"
"When I spoke with Redd—er, Crim—he seemed to think that it hadn't always been that way."
"He… isn't wrong, no."
"He also said that there was no 'official rule' that said this was for boys' only. It isn't even in the name," Alinora pressed.
"That is also true."
"I don't see any reason why I shouldn't be allowed to attend."
"You're certain you wouldn't be more comfortable attending the Hidden Oasis school? Last I heard, their school was made entirely up of girls."
Alinora shook her head. "I… No thank you, sir."
She wasn't sure she wouldn't see Liera around every corner—it was hard enough not seeing the faces of people she had known and love in random passerby. She hadn't been close to any boys her age. It would be far less painful to attend Desert's Edge. "First of all—I've no wish to traverse the desert. And second of all… I'd like to stay in Verdani. Redd and I were separated during an attack. If he comes looking for me, I'd like for him to be able to find me as quickly as possible. Besides. He told me that if I ever needed to, I would find help at Desert's Edge."
"Such manipulations are more inclined to get you in trouble than earn you favor around here," the headmaster said shrewdly.
Alinora cocked her head to the side. "Manipulation? Of course not, sir. I was simply repeating what he had said."
"Hmm." He let it go. "If one of our staff will sponsor you… then I suppose you may take the entrance exam."
Alinora tried not to let the relief show on her face. "Thank you, sir."
He turned to speak to Ellis—then paused. "I don't believe I asked your name."
"You did not."
He raised an eyebrow.
She blinked at him.
He pursed his lips. "What is your name, girl?"
His lips tightened for a moment, but he said nothing. It would seem he wasn't fooled by her alias either. But he didn't press. She was grateful.
"Drop the supplies off in the kitchens and have one of the servants fetch the teachers."
"Of course, headmaster." Ellis inclined his head, then left.
Alinora, hands folded primly in her lap, clenched the fabric of her trousers until her knuckles turned white. Something about being in the headmaster's presence made her uneasy. Ellis's presence had made it easier to tolerate, but… without him here as a buffer… She couldn't help but be nervous.
You're overreacting. You've nothing to fear here.
She could tell herself that all day long. It wouldn't help.
Silence reigned over the office for the entirety of Ellis's absence. The headmaster had returned to his paperwork while Alinora stood rigidly by the door. When Ellis returned, teachers in tow, she nearly collapsed to her knees in relief.
There were three teachers. The first who entered wore deep violet robes. He looked to belong to the Serai—the desert elves—with dark brown skin and monolid eyes. His long hair was pulled into a ponytail. His ears, not as large or as pointed as Alinora's (despite her half elf status), were adorned proudly with three earrings each. A star tattoo adorned his brow. If she recalled her teachings correctly, that was the symbol of the nomadic clan he belonged to.
Behind him was a human man in deep orange robes. Alinora imagined, despite his light brown tan, that naturally he was quite pale. His hair, pale blond, was cut short. He stood tall and thin.
The last wore green robes. If Alinora's eyes were not mistaking her, he was one of the very rare half-dwarf, half humans in the world. His reddish brown hair was pulled back into a braid. His beard was trimmed close to his face.
"So, Ellis said you had a transfer student for us?" Purple said.
"Yes." The headmaster gestured at Alinora.
Orange's face twisted into an expression of disgust. "A girl? Are you serious, headmaster? I was under the impression this was a boys' school."
"As you well know, it hasn't always been that way, Vernus." Green surveyed her. "Though I admit… with the amount of male students we have right now, adding in a girl seems… unwise."
"Rolfe makes an excellent point." Purple cocked his head. "How are we to know she's even capable?"
"She beat me in a fight," Ellis said.
Vernus looked down his nose at the dwarf. "As if that is a true test of qualification. Any of my students could take you on."
Ellis snorted. "Doubtful."
"Ellis is one of the top assassins for a reason," Rolfe said. "It's impressive that she managed to beat him."
The headmaster raised an eyebrow at the three teachers. "What say you? Will any of you sponsor her?"
Rolfe hesitated, but shook his head slowly. "No. I cannot see that it is a good idea."
"I must agree with Rolfe," Purple said.
Vernus snorted. "She doesn't belong here, headmaster. That's plain to see."
Alinora clenched her hands tighter. She should have seen this coming—of course they would refuse her. What had she even been thinking? All this time, wasted. She could have been halfway to the other school by now. Her jaw was tight. But, she reminded herself, on the slim chance that Redd survived, at least she left him a trail to follow. That's… something, at least.
"I see." He turned to Alinora. "Well young lady, I regret to inform you, but it would seem—"
The headmaster's eyes widened. He looked at Ellis. "Yes?"
"I'll sponsor her."
The headmaster—she really needed to learn his name; calling him that was going to get old very quickly—raised his eyebrows. "You have never taken on a sponsor before." It was not a question.
"Why start now?"
"And with her!" Vernus wrinkled his nose.
Ellis shrugged. "She's got potential."
"You realize, that as her sponsor, you will also be responsible for her training, yes?"
"You've never had a student before."
"…you have no idea how to teach a student."
"Can't be that hard."
The headmaster looked up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes. "Very well. It's too late in the year to hold another tournament. You may teach her, and come spring, when we compete against our sister school, her continued enrollment will be based upon her skill against her opponents. Understood?"
"Understood." Ellis and Alinora spoke in time.
"Excellent. You are all dismissed."
The five of them left the room. Vernus didn't bother to stay and chat—instead, he walked off down the hall looking as indignant as possible. Mr. Purple Robes also left, though he didn't look like he was walking as much as he appeared to be gliding. But Rolfe stayed.
"Are you sure about this, Ellis?"
"She came here on Crim's word."
"…did she? Why did the headmaster not mention this?"
Ellis shrugged. "He was a mystery to me back during our academy days. I'm no closer to figuring him out than I was then, and frankly—I've given up trying. But she came here because of Crim—hell, he probably trained her. Now that he's retired… I don't see any way to pay him back what I owed him. So…"
"You're taking on his apprentice."
Rolfe sighed. "You've no classroom. No materials. No—nothing."
"The training room schedule is done up. The only sparring partner she will have is you."
"You're not even registered as a teacher."
Rolfe looked at the ceiling. "I'm going to regret this," he muttered. "If you agree to assist me in teaching my boys, I'll add her to my roster."
Ellis grinned. He clapped Rolfe on the back, hard. "I thought you might say something like that. Sure the headmaster thought so too."
"I'm sure he did." Rolfe sighed.
"Hey, with her on your side, you might be able to get enough points to keep your budget!"
Alinora watched the two of them curiously. She had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.
"You will have to work with her on combat. I have my hands full already."
"That's not a problem."
Rolfe shook his head. He looked at Alinora. "I expect you in my office shortly after sunrise. I'll leave Ellis to give you the tour." He turned and walked away.
Alinora turned to Ellis. "…thanks."
Ellis waved his hand. "I ain't doin' it for you. I owed Crim a favor."
"I gathered as much. Thank you anyway."
"What was all that about?"
"Rolfe… he takes on the problem kids. The ones the other teachers don't wanna spend time on. Right now… He's got a halfling who's got more stealth skill than he knows what to do with, but he hates confrontation. He's got an elf who spends all of his time looking like he's a million miles away—if he would just focus on the present, he'd be deadly. He's got a blind kid. A smart kid who can make pretty much any poison you can think of… but can't hold his own in a fight. And a kid who lets anger and frustration rule him."
"He wasn't kidding about having his hands full."
"No. He wasn't. The thing is though… no matter how much he works with his kids, they always have low scores during the spring tournament. The headmaster bases the budget off of who gets the highest scores. Rolfe… is dangerously close to losing his budget. His training room is falling apart. His books are in terrible condition. Their practice weapons are… well. Don't get me started. It's bad. Really bad. If they get low scores again this year… the headmaster said he's going to cut the funding. Permanently." Ellis looked up at her. "That's where you come in, girlie."
"How am I supposed to carry their dead weight?" she demanded. "One score isn't going to make up for five!"
He grinned. "Easy. You're going to help train them."
He waved his hand. "Ah, we'll talk about it later. You should meet 'em and see how they operate first. For now, you need to know the layout of the school."
"Plus, I bet you left some stuff behind in Verdani, didn't you?"
"So we'll need to get that. You'll need a uniform and training clothes. And we'll need to get you the books so you can catch up to the class's current level."
"But—tour first. This way." He beckoned her forward, and Alinora followed.
This… was going to be interesting.