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Four years later…

Finally, Rolland thought. I get to set foot outside of this place.

He’d spent five years cooped up in the academy. Five years where he only saw the outside through a window, or from the roof of the tower. Now, at sixteen, he would be apprenticed to an adviser. For three days of the week, he would work at an experienced lighttouched’s side.

Outside of the academy’s walls.

He didn’t know who he’d be apprenticed to. He didn’t care. It was the prospect of freedom that excited him. It had been a long time since he’d stared at the Tall Wall with longing. Now, he simply longed to get out of the academy.

A smile planted on his face, he threw on his apprentice robes, which someone had laid out in front of his bed during the night. Unlike the simple student robes, they were purple instead of red, and long in the sleeves to hide his tattooed hands. He wondered at the reason. It was obvious, from the robes, what he was. Why did he have to hide his hands? He pulled them out of the long sleeves. His right hand was tattooed full, like the masters. His left, however, was mostly bare, but for his pinky, pointer, and palm, where intricate designs swirled in an incomprehensible pattern.

Rolland strolled out of the boy’s dormitory with a spring in his step, new robes dragging on the ground behind him. He was tempted to head to the tower’s roof and sit at the edge as he did when he was younger, but he thought better of it. He didn’t want to get into trouble with the masters. Not today. He didn’t need to stare out at the city when he would soon be walking in it. He sauntered into the mess hall half an hour before breakfast was usually served and bothered the cooks setting up to make him something. The head cook frowned, disappearing into the kitchen. A few minutes passed before he returned and plopped a bowl of porridge and cup of root tea on Rolland’s table. Grumpy service wasn’t about to wipe the smile from Rolland’s face.

Rolland spooned the tasteless mush into his mouth and winced as he sipped the bitter tea, all the while wondering what he would be doing during the day. Would he be helping in the advising of a great noble merchant who owned half the city? Would he work in the gamblehouse, watching men and women play cards and pointing out those who lied and cheated their way to a win? Or maybe he would work with a prince and learn to navigate courtly intrigue. Though, it was not the work that mattered, but where it brought him.

The mess hall filled as Rolland finished his breakfast. Fifty some students sat at the tables, eyes mostly downcast. Some of the younger students glanced at Rolland with a jealous scowl. The robes, he thought. They’re jealous.

Rolland left the mess and tried to walk slowly up the stairs toward the headmaster’s office. Headmaster Kell would likely still be eating breakfast. The faster Rolland walked the more standing and waiting he would have to do outside Kell’s heavy door. He was already imagining the assistants scrutinising gaze as he walked up the curving steps. Why did wake up early? It just meant more waiting. Fortunately, one quality heavily instilled into the students at the academy was patience, even if sometimes the masters did not seem to have any. Rolland smiled to himself, perhaps that is why the masters teach, not advise.

The headmaster’s assistant didn’t look up at him as he walked into the small waiting room. Instead, she kept staring down at her desk, which was piled with parchments and letters. He glanced at some of the letters as he approached. Many bore seals from noble families, the rest looked to be from merchants and the like. The headmaster’s assistant was more than just a headmaster’s assistant. She kept the academy running smoothly. She bought the parchment, the quills, the ink. She ran the payroll for the masters and servants alike. This all above her duties to the headmaster. Rolland wondered what would come of the place without Rayta.

Rayta waved a hand in the direction of a bench lining the wall outside the headmaster’s door. Rolland sighed silently and sat. Rayta looked at her letters. Rolland stretched out his arm. Rayta took out some parchment, tipped her quill, and wrote something down. It went on like this for a while.

Was the master even in his office yet? Did Rayta know why Rolland was here? Rayta looked at another letter, sighed, then shoved it in a draw. Rolland stroked his stubble heavy chin.

The headmaster’s door creaked open. Rolland got up fast, almost tripped on his longer robes, composed himself, then stood tall, hands clasped together, gaze cast to the floor. Rolland didn’t see the headmaster often. He taught a class of older students, those past the age of eighteen. He wore dark robes like the other masters and lighttouched advisers, the only noticeable difference the golden key attached to a silver chain around his neck, where the other masters only had the silver chain. He wasn’t especially tall, like Master Willem, or especially short, like Master Elrayi. Rolland had sprouted recently and realised he and the headmaster were of the same height. But where Rolland had stubble on his chin, Kell had a full grey beard.

‘You must be Rolland.’ The headmaster bid Rolland into the office

Rolland had been in the offices of masters before—for good reasons and bad—but the headmaster’s was larger than any of theirs had been. A mahogany desk stood on one side of the room. It had a comfortable looking chair behind it, and some not so comfortable looking chairs in front of it. Tall shelves filled with books lined the walls. From Rolland’s glances, he noticed many of them were in foreign languages. He’d searched the library for information on foreign lands and barely found a thing—had the books been here, all along? There were also a few plush couches in the room, with a glass cabinet full of dark bottles, though lighttouched weren’t permitted to drink. He assumed not all adhered to that rule if they were able, but he wondered at the headmaster’s blatant defiance of it, having alcohol sitting in plain view.

‘Oh, that,’ Kell said as he saw him looking. ‘I get many visitors to the academy.’ Kell sat behind his desk. ‘You’ll learn soon just how much nobleman like their drinks. Even if they don’t drink here, they would see it as a slight if I did not offer them the choice. Now come, sit.’ He waved Rolland toward one of the uncomfortable chairs. ‘Let me have a look at you.’

Rolland sat, eyes downcast, as Kell looked him over.

‘I’ve heard a lot of things about you. Good things, bad things, depending on who’s talking. Hands, please.’

Rolland pulled his hands from his new purple sleeves and placed them on the table. The headmaster turned them around, back and forth. ‘You’re good with numbers.’ Kell let Rolland drop his hands. ‘But in Reading you are lagging behind.’ Kell put his own hands together on the desk. ‘Not enough to worry, though.’ A draw slid open on the other side of the desk. Kell pulled out a letter and plopped it in front of Rolland. ‘You’ll be apprenticed to Adviser Jolm. He works for a Detector in the inner guard.’

Rolland’s brow furrowed. He brought his head up a fraction. ‘Sir?’ The headmaster nodded, allowing him to speak further. Rolland hesitated to speak his mind to the headmaster, but that was part of a good adviser’s job. ‘The Detectors require an adviser strong with Reading.’

‘You think I should put you with a noble merchant because of your skills in Arithmetic? Well, I suppose you might be of more use in that position. But is not an apprentice’s place to be of use, the place of an apprentice is to learn. Jolm is a strong reader, you have more to learn on that. It is good that you think about your place, of course. We’re here to teach you to be thinkers. But you must remember, it is not for you to choose your place.’ The headmaster stood and Rolland did the same, grabbing the letter from the desk. Kell showed him to the door. ‘Rayka will tell you where to go.’

Rolland stood outside the headmaster’s office, clutching the letter in his hand. Apprentice adviser to a Detector. Not at all what he’d expected. He felt a flash of excitement. He might be better suited to the business side of things, but this sparked his sense of adventure far more than counting coins. He walked up to Rayka’s much smaller desk. She passed him a scrap of parchment, and just as before she never looked up.

The parchment read: Adviser Jolm, Inner Guard Detector’s Division, Office Twelve. He knew where the Inner Guard Detector’s Division was. Well, he knew where it was on a map. It had been five years since he’d left the academy’s walls. Not including the times he’d escaped into the garden, but he never ventured too far. Now he was supposed to leave, by himself, and find his own way. What if he got lost out there? He’d wished to leave for so long, been so excited, why was he suddenly afraid?

He tucked the letter away in his robes. It was addressed to Adviser Jolm, with the Headmaster Kell’s seal upon it, and not for Rolland to open. He held the address in front of him and took a deep breath, then walked, not strolled, toward the stairs.

When he reached the academy’s exit, one of the inner guards smirked at him.

‘Purple robes,’ Rin said. ‘Little Rolland’s all grown up.’

Rolland had crossed her path more than once. He felt guilty, now. When he was younger, she, along with the other guards, must have gotten in trouble whenever he was found where he shouldn’t have been. Rolland eyed the sword at her hip. Nobles, and even merchants, were permitted to wear swords, but the guards were the only ones who ever did. It brought back memories from his childhood, when he wielded a wooden sword against the neighbourhood kids and wished to be like his great great grandfather, Cholus, a legendary guard.

Then he turned eleven. A master came. Saw the light in his eyes… Lighttouched. He was carted off to the academy. Taken from his family. Lighttouched aren’t allowed to wield blades. Aren’t allowed to have a family. Aren’t allowed… Rolland let out a breath, pushed away those thoughts. He couldn’t choose his path, but he must still walk it.

Rin stood aside, her and another guard opened the heavy wooden doors of the academy. Rolland walked through them and brought his hood up to shield from the sun, and because that’s how lighttouched were supposed to walk the city. Hood up, sleeves down, eyes cast to the ground.

Finally, Rolland thought. I get to set foot outside of this place.

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About the author

Todd Herzman

Bio: Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.

If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.

He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.

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