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For the first time in five years, Rolland walked down the cobblestone streets of Ashrennon.

A gentle breeze tugged on his robes and he sighed. It was spring, and the day was nice. He raised his head and wondered how he’d navigate the city looking at the ground the entire time. He settled for his head down, eyes up, as he walked out of the academy’s grounds. He ran the map of the city through his mind. The academy was in the centre of the inner city. The place he wanted was also in the inner city. But the inner city was a lot bigger when you weren’t looking down on it from atop a tower. It might be a long walk for all he knew.

He walked down streets he knew the names of, streets he’d read the history of, but had not seen up close in far too many years, or not at all. The streets were already busy. Ashrennon woke early. People glanced at him, but no one looked at him. It almost felt as if he weren’t there, but he knew he was, because people parted when he walked through crowds. Kids hid behind their parents. He remembered doing the same at their age. He avoided people’s eyes. There were few people he made eye contact with. Martin, Jesrae. Or other students in Reading class when Elrayi made them play one of his ‘games’.

He couldn’t help his eyes darting around at all the things. The market stalls and the people bartering around them. The food stalls looked especially enticing, as they were filled with non-bland food, the type of food you would never find inside of the academy. Foods in an abundance of different colours. Not just oats and rice and handfuls of vegetables. When Rolland saw a mother, her son walking tall by her side with a wooden sword tucked into a rope belt, he got a pang of homesickness.

Homesickness, something he’d long bottled and tucked away at the bottom of his mind. What if he walked straight out of the city, all the way to his old home, and found his mother? Would she be happy to see him? Would she recognise him?

Except, she wasn’t allowed to see him. Lighttouched aren’t allowed to have families. His mother couldn’t welcome him with open arms, even if she wanted to. They could correspond by letters, that was permitted. But his parents couldn’t read. He took the pang of homesickness he felt, looked away from the boy with his mother, and tucked it back in the bottom of his mind.

It was easier in the academy. He never had a chance to run home. Now he was outside its walls, he could turn around and walk right there. Assuming he could remember where home was. He stopped when he made it to the end of the long line of market stalls. There was a tavern on one side of the corner, and a small blacksmith on the other.

The smithy made him think of Master Willem, back when Rolland used to climb to the top of the Lighttouched Academy’s tower and sit at the edge, staring off at the Tall Wall. The master had caught him there, spoken to him. Rolaland was there again, in his mind, sitting on the bench, trying not to look up into Willem’s eyes, remembering the words he’d said.

We must tread the path we are given, no matter how much we may want to walk another.

Rolland latched onto those words. He blinked, bringing himself back to the present, staring at the anvil sign above the smithy. He couldn’t go gallivanting around Ashrennon in hopes of finding his parents. He had a different path to walk.

He pulled up his mental map. The students of the academy always had access to an updated map, as businesses changed names and new buildings replaced old ones, and the inner city broadened its boundaries. Still, it was difficult for him to tell where he was. Nothing looked exactly how he’d imagined. He turned back around and stared up at the academy, the tower pushing up into the sky. It was a good landmark to work from.

He turned right at the small blacksmiths, and walked on.

The inner guard station was huge. The stone walls around it making it seem more like a fortress. There were good reasons for that, as once it was one. Before the Tall Wall, when Ashrennon was smaller and called by another name, the inner guard station was home to the ruling lord. Though that was long ago, and many new buildings ran beside the old stone walls. Rolland walked toward a large archway that looked to be the entrance to the training yards. Beyond the training yards would be the offices he was looking for.

The archway’s two guards eyed him suspiciously. Rolland kept his eyes on the ground, but watched them from the top of his vision. Their gazes did not fall on his face, of course. No one would look a lighttouched in the eye on purpose. Rather, they looked at his hands, tucked away in his long purple sleeves. As Rolland neared he brought his hands out of his sleeves and clasped them together in front of him, as was proper.

He stopped walking. Hands together, eyes down, he waited. They looked him over. It seemed more for routine than any real suspicion. Like Rin, these guards wore swords. Though they couldn’t have been much older than Rolland. The younger guards must get this duty. They wore the same uniform as Rin, but where her tunic was black, theirs were purple. Just like the students of the academy, the colour of one’s uniform often depicted their rank.

Though Rolland knew there was more to it than that. The headmaster wore the same black robes as an ordinary adviser, yet they weren’t considered to be of the same station. Rin wore a black uniform, as did the master of the guards, and they were certainly not on the same level. Rolland glanced at the guards. They each wore a single black strap, buckled to their upper arm.

The guards finished looking him over and one of them nodded. Rolland unclasped his hands and pulled out the letter Headmaster Kell had given him. He handed it to the guard who’d nodded. The guard glanced at Adviser Jolm’s name, gave the letter back, then nodded toward the archway. Not a single word was exchanged, and Rolland had to wonder if Rin’s casual demeanour was anomalous amongst their ranks. She must have grown used to being around lighttouched.

Rolland walked through the training yards. They funnelled down toward another gate. The wall of the main building still bore holes large enough for an archer to shoot through. He tried to focus on those little holes as small groups of inner guards trained around him. He felt even more out of place than he had in the market.

As a child, this was where he’d wished to end up. This was the path he’d seen for himself before another had been given to him. He could have been one of the guards looking over a lighttouched apprentice, peering suspiciously at their tattooed hands. Or one of the guards going through their telans, sword swishing as they moved, jumped, and spun. These guards didn’t eye him like the other’s had, they were far too focused on their fighting patterns, and he wondered if many of them even noticed him walk down the path that ran through their yard. It still made him feel uncomfortable.

He showed another pair of guards his letter as he made it to the main building, letting out a sigh of relief as he pushed the doors open. As much as he’d longed to be outside, the stone walls he stepped into made him feel a familiar comfort. A comfort he didn’t realise he’d missed when he’d walked out of the academy just a half hour ago. He’d grown to being cooped up inside.

It had been a long time since the inner guards station had been a fortress, but it still looked like one. He stood at the end, or perhaps the beginning, of a long hall. Instead of doors dividing the hall, there were gates. Though all the gates were open with no guards beside them. He had no doubt the place could be locked down in a matter of minutes. A desk stood in the entryway, with two less stiff looking guards sitting behind it. The guards wore black tunics and were older than the ones he’d passed moments ago, their hair already going grey. The first had two white straps on their arm, the second had three. They may not have given him the same attention the younger guards had, but they were not lax in their scrutiny of him.

‘How can we help you?’ said the one with three straps after their look over.

Rolland hesitated. They were actually talking to him. Eyes still down, he unclasped his hands and brought the letter back out.

‘I’m to be apprenticed to Adviser Jolm.’ Rolland passed the letter to the three-strapped guard.

‘Hmm.’ The guard turned the letter around. He touched the seal, though Rolland couldn’t guess why, then passed it back. ‘Five gates down and to the left is where you’ll fine the Detector’s department.’ The guard may have spoken to him, but Rolland felt no warmth in his words.

Is this what his life would be like outside the academy? Never greeted with a smile? Of course, he thought, why would it be any different?

He hoped Adviser Jolm would at least be happy to see him.

Jolm’s office was easy to find. The Detectors division, though important, was not abundantly large. And the halls of the inner guard building were far easier to navigate than the academy’s. He stood outside the door, knocked three times, then waited.

‘Come in,’ a voice called.

Rolland twisted the knob and inched the door open. The office was small. It contrasted the office he’d been in earlier that morning. This room had none of the luxuries the headmaster’s had.

Rolland glanced at Advisor Jolm before lowering his gaze. The lightouched was younger than expected—Rolland was used to the masters, with grey hair or none. This man might be in his early thirties. Jolm straightened a stack of papers. Rolland stated at the adviser’s hands, feeling his eyes boring into him. The man’s hands were tattooed full, of course, though they lacked the distinguishing marks of the masters.

‘An apprentice? You’re not here for me, are you?’ Jolm sighed and waved Rolland to the chair in front of his desk. His office may have lacked the luxuries of the headmaster’s, but the chair was far more comfortable than the ones Kell had provided for his guests.

‘Were you not informed, sir?’ Rolland, passed the letter for the last time.

Jolm snatched it and ripped it open. Rolland stared at the desk.

‘Your story checks out.’ Jolm dropped the letter on the table. ‘I’ve never had an apprentice before. I know all advisers are supposed to have at least one, but a little forewarning would have been nice. Hands.’

Rolland put his hands out on the table like before, and let Jolm inspect them.

‘Hmph. Kell seems to have sent me an accountant, not a reader.’

Rolland’s stomach sunk. Twice in one day he’d been called bad at Reading. He wasn’t as good as some of his classmates, like Jesrae, but he wasn’t the worst. He just didn’t have the knack, is all. Rolland shrunk under Jolm’s gaze. He was used to the master’s scrutiny. He was used to his classmates’, but he had never met Jolm. His gaze made Rolland’s skin crawl.

‘Well, I’m sure I’ll find something for you to do.’ Jolm sighed and leant back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head.

The door behind Rolland creaked open. Jolm snapped his hands back in front of him and straightened in his seat.

‘Good, you’re here,’ said whoever had walked into the room. ‘And who is this?’

Rolland turned in his chair and saw a tall, broad shouldered man with a sword at his hip. He wore the uniform of the inner guard, with a black tunic and three white straps on his shoulder. He also had a purple stripe running down one side of his torso on the tunic. This must be the Detector that Jolm worked for. Rolland kept quiet as the man looked down on him. He had not been the one addressed.

Jolm cleared his throat, bringing Rolland’s attention back to him. The adviser’s eyes were downcast, and his entire demeanour had changed. ‘This is…’ He looked at the letter he’d dumped on the desk. ‘Rolland. The academy sent him to be apprenticed to me. He will be at my side three days per week.’ Rolland saw Jolm’s gaze come up in the top of his vision, he looked Rolland in the eye. ‘I assure you he will not get in the way.’

‘Very well,’ the detector said. ‘Be ready in five, we’re off to the Merchantry. There are a few people I’ve been meaning to chat with.’ The detector left the room, shutting the door behind him.

Jolm slouched back in his chair again. ‘When you’re out with me, you won’t talk to anyone. If you see something, you’ll tell me. You won’t talk to the merchants. You won’t talk to Detector Jedri.’ Jolm stood and walked to a small mirror on the wall. He grabbed a comb from a low shelf and ran it through his short beard. ‘Who will you talk to?’

‘Only you, sir.’

‘Good.’ Jolm put the comb back and stepped away from the mirror. He pulled the hood of his dark robes up and walked toward the door. ‘Well, come along then.’

Rolland’s hopes for his apprenticeship with Adviser Jolm drifted away as he followed him through the halls of the inner guard station. Jolm didn’t want him there. How was Rolland supposed to learn to be a better reader with this man? Why had Headmaster Kell not told Jolm about the apprenticeship? Though, even if he had, it didn’t seem as if it would have helped. Jolm would be an unpleasant teacher either way.

Perhaps Rolland was making too quick a judgement. Adviser Jolm worked for a detector, after all, he must be good at what he did. There had to be a reason he got this job. There had to be a reason Kell sent Rolland to him.

Master Elrayi always said it was impossible to teach someone to be a good reader. He said the power came from within, and you must learn how to use it yourself. Rolland always assumed that was just a convenient excuse for being a bad teacher.

He hoped Jolm’s approach, if he had one, would be different.

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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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