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Eldan joined the throng of students heading toward class from a side hallway, staying close to the wall so his slow pace would not hold up the flow of movement. He carried his pack, which had been delivered along with his boots and fresh clothing, on one shoulder, and hunched protectively over the wounds on his stomach. His borrowed tunic hung a little loose, and he had to roll the soft, wool flannel pants at the waist to keep them from dragging the floor, but the clothes fit easily over his bandages. Usher Wen had huffed indignantly when he saw that the second set of clothes delivered were for exercise, and lectured Eldan at length about the dangers of pulling his sutures loose.

Despite his exhaustion, Eldan had slept poorly. His thoughts were troubled and intrusive, and every time he began to drift off he had the sensation that he was falling, tumbling out of control into an abyss. He would wake with a start, clutching the sheets and lurching upright only to be hit with the agonizing pain of straining his stitches. Several times he climbed out of bed to check on Cale, putting his hand on her back to make sure she was still breathing, and gently squeezing her shoulder in the hope that she might wake. Usher Wen had charged in cheerily with fresh bandages and a tray of porridge and fruit at dawn, waking Eldan from a sticky half-sleep with enough time for him to wash himself with a basin of water and go through the slow process of changing his dressings and clothing.

Eldan kept his head down in the hall, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, but he could hear the whispers and feel the stares of other students as they passed. He caught a glimpse of red hair out of the corner of his eye and Amuel fell in step beside him without a word, positioning herself so she blocked some of the curious oglers. “Thank you,” Eldan said softly, giving her a glance before dropping his head back down.

Amuel busied herself with checking the contents of her pack, the activity taking attention away from Eldan’s slow limp, ignoring the handful of irritated looks thrown in her direction as traffic curved around her to pass on toward the classroom. “Not anyone’s business what happened to you,” she muttered. “Needed to make sure I brought everything, anyway.”

They took seats in a mostly open row at the back of the classroom. Stal was already seated at a desk closer to the front but saw them enter and waved, quickly gathering his supplies and moving to take the seat at Eldan’s other side. He gave them both a nod and smile in greeting and went about neatly organizing his desk as the bell for the first session rang out.

Eldan did not know the two foreign student delegates well enough to call them friends but they were certainly the friendliest among the sea of strangers. He welcomed the protection afforded by his seat between the two even as he wondered why they had made the effort to seek him out this morning. He knew that some people in the city and annexes viewed foreigners with suspicion or outright hostility, so perhaps they needed the tenuous connection formed from their shared room assignment in some way, as well, though he found it difficult to get a read on either of them. Stal’s polite and formal manner felt like a carefully structured facade that Eldan could not pierce to see what lay behind, and while Amuel’s gruff demeanor seemed genuine it gave little away, though she had been a loyal, if silent, partner throughout the first physical assessment.

Captain Gelth and the Ironkeeper strode onto the stage, followed by the twelve Sergeants, interrupting Eldan’s rumination. The Ironkeeper’s rod was clipped to her belt but her steps did not falter without support. When they reached the center of the stage the Sergeants turned smartly, standing in a neat line behind the Captain and Weapons Master.

Captain Gelth’s gaze traveled around the room, his eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly as they briefly rested on Eldan before sweeping onward. “Yesterday our Court saw both a terrible tragedy and a triumphant response.” The Captain began solemnly, without his usual bombast. “Two of our students suffered injury in an entirely unprecedented wild animal attack. The animal in question was a delta ape, but,” he paused to let a few surprised gasps die down, “its presence in our waters was no accident. A vessel captured the ape in the delta and brought it back with the intent to exhibit the caged beast, and it broke loose to escape into our harbor. Be assured that the captain of this vessel will be tried and likely hanged for his crimes.”

Eldan wondered if this story was true, given how much he knew the events were being falsified. Under the circumstances, people would demand a public trial, so surely they must have someone guilty of this crime in order to make such a statement? It did make a certain amount of sense, people did cage and exhibit other wild animals for coin and he supposed a delta ape would be a very profitable exhibit, though it was hard to imagine anyone thinking they could manage keeping a delta ape secure. The thought of someone being hanged under false charge was unnerving, raising questions Eldan did not want to ask about the integrity of the Court.

“Our military, including the Sergeants standing before you now, responded decisively and heroically, rescuing those in the water, halting the attack and destroying the animal. We will publicly honor all of the valiant soldiers, sailors and officers who participated, but today I would recognize the Sergeants from our own Court before those whose very lives they protected.” Captain Gelth took two long strides to the side, leaving a space open at the center of the stage.

“Sergeants Filon, Strake and Devis, step forward.” Three of the officers in training marched up, including the man with the scruffy beard who had checked the students in at the start of the aquatics test, a tall, lanky woman with her hair cut severely just under her ears, and a handsome, blonde man with chiseled features, who looked like a drawing of an idealized soldier from a book. They were all dressed in crisp tunics emblazoned with the crest of Servandor, a red shield embroidered with a key representing the Keepers in gold thread, and wore short, red capes. They kept their hands at their backs and stared straight ahead, waiting for the Captain to continue.

“These three Sergeants executed communication, manning the flags to swiftly relay the attack in progress to our ships in the water, and reporting back to the Court to bring further resources to bear.” As the Captain lectured on the importance of the communication relay Eldan thought the Sergeant from check-in, Strake, apparently, looked somewhat embarrassed, and relieved when they stepped back for the next group to come foreword.

The Captain recognized the Sergeants who had kept order on the docks and pulled up the last swimmers as they returned, and then those who had gone into the river as part of the rescue operation. Finally only two remained, the dark haired woman who had attempted to bring Eldan out of the water, and the Sergeant who had inflicted the knife wound on the ape.

“Sergeant Selan, step forward.” The dark haired woman marched up, her eyes flitting toward Eldan and then forward as she took her place in the center of the stage. Eldan slid down slightly in his seat at her glance, remembering the feeling of his foot hitting her ribs, then winced as his slumped posture tugged painfully at the stitches on his stomach, forcing him back upright.

Captain Gelth puffed out his chest proudly as he began speaking. “Sergeant Selan performed a rescue on one of the students who fell victim to attack, electing to take evasive maneuvers in the path of the attack to guide the student to rescue by boat, at great personal risk. This student was gravely injured and in need of immediate medical attention and Sergeant Selan acted without hesitation, making a battlefield judgement, to ensure that need was swiftly met. Afterward, she immediately returned to the water and administered aid to an injured fellow officer. This Sergeant demonstrated enormous capability, fearlessness and true heroism. She is a credit to the military of Servandor.” Sergeant Selan clicked her heels together, standing at full attention as Captain Gelth bowed toward her in recognition, sweeping his blue cape with a flourish.

“Sergeant Bornin, step forward.” Sergeant Selan stepped back in line as the Captain called the last Sergeant forward. Sergeant Bornin’s head was bandaged, his right eye and ear completely covered in thick wadding, and his right cheek and lips visibly swollen and bruised. His hair stuck up around the wrappings and he swept his one good eye around the room. It was hard to tell with so much of his face obscured or distorted by injury, but Eldan thought he looked angry.

This time the Captain walked forward and clapped a hand on the Seargent’s shoulder, causing him to flinch almost imperceptibly. “Seargent Bornin rescued the second of our students to fall under attack, and did so at great personal cost.” He paused, looking around the room for effect. “Armed only with a standard diving knife, Sergeant Bornin faced the delta ape head on, inflicting grievous injury and forcing the ape to release the student. He struck the ape in the eyes and the neck, blinding and weakening it, contributing greatly to its later capture. The cost he paid was the loss of one of his own eyes and the hearing in one ear, a sacrifice he made willingly to protect our Court and the populace of our city. Sergeant Bornin’s life will never be the same but he moves forward with the knowledge that his brave actions saved lives, and that while still in officer training he performed an act of heroism greater than many officers achieve in their entire careers.” As Captain Gelth stepped back to execute another bow the Sergeant’s eye swung, locking on Eldan. As Eldan held his gaze he realized he had been wrong in his earlier assessment. The dominant emotion in Sergeant Bornin’s expression wasn’t anger, it was shame.

The Captain finally released the Sergeant to fall back in line and Eldan lowered his eyes, glad to no longer bear the attention of the wounded officer. His stomach churned uneasily and he wondered what the sequence of events might have been if he had not blindly charged in to reach Cale. Seeing the Sergeant with injuries from which he would not recover was sobering, and while a part of Eldan’s mind told him that event would have played out the same way regardless of his own actions, he couldn’t help but imagine scenarios where the Sergeant had struck successfully and Cale been rescued sooner, if only he had followed the order to withdraw. The story the Captain spun in his recognitions was a better version of how events played out, and Eldan hated that it was not the truth.

Eldan felt a soft touch on his arm and looked up to see Stal’s concerned face tilted toward him. He realized he was shaking, his jaw clenched and hands balled into fists. He exhaled slowly, forcibly relaxing his body, and tried to give Stal a reassuring smile, though he suspected it looked more like a grimace. A sharp rap on the stage brought both of their attention forward again and Eldan saw that the Ironkeeper now stood at the center of the stage with her telescoping rod extended, striking it on the floor.

“We will proceed today with the third portion of the assessment,” she began in a clear voice, “and I ask that you carry the full gravity of this attack into that arena.” She settled her broad shoulders back, planting her feet and lifting her head, seeming to capture everyone in the room at once with her gaze. The prim, proper figure she had presented the day before was gone, replaced with that of a stern warrior. Suddenly Eldan had no doubt whatsoever that she retained the full skill of a Weapons Master, and from the subtle shifts of students around the room pulling themselves upright it seemed others were having a similar reaction.

“What I hope you all have learned from yesterday’s events is how great the necessity is for a powerful military, and how tremendous the responsibility borne by its members. For anyone who is hoping to find a future in the military, let this serve as inspiration, and for those whose paths lie elsewhere, keep the memory of this day fresh to remind you there is a human cost for safety and security. I hope, also, that anyone who has glorified stories of battle will have had the scales fall from their eyes as they bore witness to this attack. What you have seen here are the consequences of one careless, greedy act, paid in blood and sacrifice, and innocent lives nearly lost. I promise you the cruelty of man is infinitely greater than the violence of an animal, and the cost of true battle and war beyond what you can imagine.” The Ironkeeper’s expression was fierce as she stared at the rapt faces around the room.

“When each of you leaves this Court, earning your names and becoming men and women of the city, remember this day. Remember it when those whose lives have never been touched by conflict speak glibly about a need for war. Remember it when you witness those who bear blades for naught but status, blithely repeating the oath of duty without accepting the burden of responsibility and consequence. And remember it most of all in the moments when you find yourselves at crossroads of desperation or rage, facing the seductive call of power or violence. Remember the toll that will be demanded and ask yourselves, who will pay it?”

The classroom was utterly silent when the Ironkeeper finished her speech. She had veered into dangerous territory, touching on controversial politics and making a not so subtle condemnation of armed nobles, which could be viewed as radical or even seditious in some circles. Undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the Court and nobility ran through the city and annexes but largely silently, whispered among families and friends. In public the Court was held up as an institution of unparalleled achievement, the underpinning of peace and prosperity in Servandor. Captain Gelth simply stood to the side, his expression placid, but Eldan could see expressions around the room that ranged from shock or horror to admiration. It appeared that quite a few of the students had been moved by her words, and a handful were hastily scribbling in their notebooks, writing down as much as they could remember.

Despite the supposedly equitable opportunities of the Court, it was very rare for noble students to end up in the circuit studies, so the class was likely entirely made up of commoners. Children of nobles who owned the lands of an entire annex had entirely separate paths of study to prepare them to take over governance, and those from houses whose nobility was in position only were typically groomed for succession, or another specialized political or military position. The occasional children who were unsuited for noble or high ranking positions still had access to resources beyond the reach of most commoners, so could be specifically prepared for a position of minor importance that was expected to be vacated. As far as Eldan knew, the only truly powerful positions that could not be accessed by advantage were those of the Keepers. Only those with once in a generation talent and skill would earn the title, regardless of background. Even in political or military arenas where an early advantage might secure a position, ascension to Keeper was locked to all except the superlatively gifted . Flawed though it may be, the Court existed in part to ensure these rare talents were not missed. Sylvan was proof..no, Eldan thought, Sylvan had been proof that the Court could still function as its ideal.

The Ironkeeper struck the stage with her rod again, then snapped it back into shorter form, slapping it against her palm. “As some of you may know or now suspect, the third portion of your assessment will be with weapons. Let us proceed to the training room to begin.”

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Foxfires

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