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All together, there were nine orders of wizardry. Nine schools scattered throughout the five great kingdoms. Some were more prestigious than others, but each one offered essentially the same education—the foundations of magic that every wizard needed to know before he or she chose their specialty and joined an order. Most gifted children ended up at the school closest to home, but those who came from wealthy or otherwise privileged backgrounds could be sent halfway across the continent to go to what was considered a better school.

The school Korin attended had been small. The Crystal was remote and isolated, on the least populous edge of the least populated kingdom in all the world. The years Korin had been there, the most students they’d had at any given time was twenty, plus about half that many graduate wizards of the Crystal in residence to study their own arts.

The school of the Balance was nothing like that. The order of the Balance was one of the first orders created and carried all the status that history implied. It was a popular order, a wealthy order, and its Archwizard led the Council of Nine that governed all the wizards in the world.

Even knowing all that, Korin hadn’t been prepared for the sheer size of the grounds surrounding the tower and the school. As he stood outside the gates, staring around at the campus, he felt completely overwhelmed.

The tower alone was huge and could probably hold three schools of the Crystal just by itself. Surrounding it, across the sprawling grounds, were dormitories, classroom buildings, parks and practice arenas. It was like its own little city in the middle of Triome.

And people. So many people. They couldn’t all be studying magic. There weren’t that many wizards in the world.

Korin’s hopes and plans crumpled as he stared through the iron bars. Where would he even begin here? How many people would he have to talk to before he even found out if they could help him?

It was too much. Korin couldn’t do it. Not today. Not yet. In defeat, he turned away.

The streets around the Balance were full of storefronts, a number of them bearing wizard sigils. Not far from Korin’s vantage point, there was a little shop with a sigil of the Crystal hanging over it. A flood of relief washed through Korin. The Crystal was home. After seven years around Crystal wizards, Korin knew how to talk to them, what to expect. And maybe the wizard in there would be able to help him figure out the school.

It was a strategic decision. He wasn’t hiding. Not at all.

He pushed through the door, into a well-lit, but cluttered shop. He could barely fit through the narrow aisles between shelves that reached up to the ceiling and were filled with utterly random assortments of knick-knacks. “Hello?” he called out.

“Hello!” a woman’s voice answered from somewhere beyond the shelves. “Hello? Wait just a…hello!”

Korin homed in on the voice, made it through the shelf maze to the back counter where a woman in a plain brown shirt and trousers with a white apron and a silver sigil around her neck leaned over a nest of copper wires she was working to detangle. She looked young, no more than thirty, but looks were deceiving with wizards. “Oh hello!” she looked up at Korin. “Have you been standing there long?”

“No, ma'am, I just got here.” Korin couldn’t help but smile. Her bright, curious eyes demanded it.

She sat up and pushed back the bits of long brown hair that had pulled free of her braid. “I’m Renée. Of the Crystal, obviously. And you must be new to the city.”

“Korin of the Staff, and yes.”

“Pull up a stool, Korin.” Renée looked around, frowned. “If you can find one.” Korin didn’t see anything that looked like it could be used for sitting, so he simply leaned against the counter. Renée nodded. “So what can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for information, or maybe advice. I was going to go to the Balance, but it’s so big, I have no idea where I’d go in there or who I’d talk to.”

Renée’s eyes were on Korin, but her hands were still buried in the wires, working strands free as she talked. “Just have to learn your way around, is all,” Renée said. “Where’d you go to school?”

“The Crystal, actually.”

“Ah, a boy with a real education. Good to know.” Renée smiled. She had a kind smile. “But you’ll be used to a more casual environment. There’s bureaucracy you have to learn if you want to do anything inside the school here. Or…” Her smile widened into a grin. “You make friends with one of the teachers.”

“Am I doing that right now?” Korin asked.

“You’re working on it. If you really want to be friends, you’ll keep me company for a while and tell me how old Perry’s doing. Haven’t seen him for years.”

By which, Korrin assumed, she meant Archwizard Perrault, the head of her order and master of the school. Korin answered her the way he’d heard plenty of the Crystal wizards joke amongst themselves. “He’s still got all his fingers and most of his toes.”

“Ha! Well done. Now take some wire and make yourself useful while we chat.”

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Barbara J Webb

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