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“I think it’s barley porridge.” Cale gestured with her chin toward the pot Eldan was peering into while scooping scrambled eggs onto her plate.

They stood in front of a table laden with steaming platters and pots, and trays of breads and fruit. Eldan studied the thick porridge a moment longer before filling his bowl, topping it with gooseberries and a splash of milk from a cold jug, wet with condensation. At the end of the table sat a tray of earthenware mugs and tin cups, along with pitchers of cider and hot tea. He filled one of each, then turned to face the room, awkwardly balancing the bowl between his arm and chest while picking up his beverages.

“Let’s take that spot in the back corner?” Eldan motioned with his mug while Cale finished pouring a cup of cider. She nodded, picking up up her plate, which he saw now also held a small tart nestled against her eggs, and began leading them through the crowded dining hall.

The large incoming class was jammed into long tables and benches in the center of the room, while the second through fourth year students spread out, occupying the choice spots at shorter tables under a bank of large windows along the side of the room. Cale and Eldan picked their way toward a short table in a shadowy corner that sat unoccupied. The reason for this became clear as soon as they sat down, discovering the corner was cold and drafty, the table situated over a vent that funneled a constant chill breeze around their legs. They tucked into their breakfasts anyway, rather than attempting to find two open seats at another table.

Eldan was ravenous, he drank his cider in a single gulp and was soon scraping the bottom of his bowl clean before setting it aside with a sigh. He wrapped his hands around the rapidly cooling mug of tea and sipped while Cale ate at a more measured pace. He noticed two people walking toward their table and straightened up, studying them more closely.

To his surprise, one was the red-headed mountain girl they had seen outside the tavern on their journey to the Court. She was dressed nearly the same as she had been that day, in leathers and skins, though he saw she no longer carried her knives on her belt. The boy behind her was tall and broad-shouldered, with short-cropped black hair, dark bronze skin, high cheekbones and deep, black eyes with long, full lashes. He walked with a feline grace, giving the impression of a body coiled with strength, while his face could only be described as beautiful. He wore a white, hooded robe that fell almost to his ankles, cinched at the waist with thick, silk cord.

The girl reached the table first, setting down her plate and cup and unceremoniously dropping to the bench beside Cale, who nodded and raised a hand in greeting, her mouth full. The boy stopped at the end of the table, his attention on Eldan.

“I apologize for the presumption of my friend. I believe you must be our suite-mate. My name is Stal, may we join you to take our breakfast?” His voice was melodious and faintly accented, and he dipped his head in a respectful greeting as he spoke.

“Eldan, and yes, of course.” He scooted over slightly on the bench as Stal sat down, his eyes flicking to the girl.

“Amuel. Hullo.” She grunted, thrusting her chin up in greeting then returning to her food, eating nearly as quickly as Eldan had.

“Sorry, Eldan. These are our suite-mates. We haven’t had much opportunity for introductions.” Cale glanced up apologetically, looking around the table.

Stal paused in between bites. “Amuel and I are delegates of a sort from outside regions. I hail from Helios while Amuel represents the mountain tribal coalition. We are to spend a term or more with the Court and return to our homelands in the spirit of strengthening relations through the sharing of information. I myself hope to pursue the path of scholarship.”

“Gon’ join military.” Amuel spoke around a mouthful of bacon, not looking up from her plate.

“Eldan and I are doing the circuit. Did you and Amuel test into your areas?” Cale pushed her empty plate to the side, leaning her elbow on the table.

Stal looked at Amuel to reply but she kept her head down, focusing on her food with single-minded intensity. He took a sip of cider and cleared his throat delicately. “The nature of our program requires that we join the entire circuit before requesting specialization.”

Eldan could not stop the question that formed on his lips, even as he worried it might be impolite. “Do you have a gelik? We saw one on our way to Court, is that yours?”

Stal chewed on a bite of fruit slowly, seeming to choose his words carefully before swallowing. “I had been intended to bond with a war steed, but that did not happen. The steed you saw was not mine.”

“Oh. I apologize, I should not have asked.” Eldan felt a flush of embarrassment rising in his face.

Stal regarded him with what looked like sympathy and a hint of amusement. “You asked nothing wrong. We are well aware of the fascination geliks hold for those beyond our sands. You likely saw my parent and their bond.”

Three sharp tones from a bell rang out at that point, and suddenly the dining hall became a mass of confused activity as students jumped to their feet and raced to clear their tables. Apprehension settled in Eldan’s gut like a stone, it was time to report to class.

They joined the line of students returning their dishware for cleaning and then hurried from the hall. There was no question of where they should be going as they followed the sea of students making their way toward the first class in circuit studies, tramping down to the first of the lower floors while much smaller streams of individuals who had successfully applied into their fields of study split off in other directions. They finally reached the double doors of a large classroom set up like an auditorium, with tiers of desks descending to a brightly lit platform at the bottom. The foursome selected desks in one of the middle tiers, rushing to pull out their notebooks, pens and inks before the first bell tolled.

A nervous silence descended over the room at the sound of that peal, broken only by shuffling papers and the occasional groan of a wooden seat as someone shifted their weight in their chair.

An absolute mountain of a man with a full head of salt and pepper hair pulled back at the nape of his neck and a neatly trimmed, thick beard strode onto the stage at the bottom of the room, followed by a severe older woman with steel gray hair pulled back into a bun. The man was dressed in a crisp tunic with the blood red military insignia stitched to the front over leather pants and boots. A wool cape in brilliant blue hung from his massive shoulders and he wore a sword so large Eldan thought it might be longer than he was tall at his waist.

“A new Court begins!” He barked, and around the room students shifted anxiously, sitting upright in their chairs.

“You should all understand how this will work by now, but I will explain the basics regardless for those foolish enough to ignore the papers you were given upon arrival. This will be the last time I account for failure to inform yourselves by repeating information.” He glared around the room balefully, as though attempting to ensure he stared down the uninformed by letting his accusatory glaze pass over every individual in the room.

“Everyone will pass through the circuit studies at different rates, and few of you will complete the entire circuit. You may receive an offer to remain in a certain field longer to assess suitability for an apprenticeship track at any point, and those who are inept in a field will be summarily dismissed and moved on.

The trades studied will progressively increase in terms of the level of skill required. Those of you who excel in a field may choose to move forward rather than accepting a placement in the hope of obtaining a higher skilled placement, and the rare few who complete the entire circuit with distinction will find unique opportunities available. Turning down an offer does, however, carry the risk of the apprenticeship track offer being withdrawn should another suitable candidate secure the position.

Anyone who fails to perform at a satisfactory baseline level in three consecutive fields without a previous placement offer remaining open will be withdrawn from the circuit and assigned to apprentice in what we call the unskilled trades, though as we get further in the circuit some may instead be recalled to an earlier field where they showed promise should there be a mentor willing to accept an additional student.

Hear me when I say that there is no guarantee this will happen. I have witnessed students who received more than one initial offer push beyond their skill sets and end up in the unskilled trades.” He paused here, sweeping his gaze around the room again.

“It should be noted that there is no dishonor in the unskilled trades. Our great city is built on the backs of those who sweep our streets, clear our riverbanks, light our lamps and fill the many other roles that go unseen and unnoticed but keep our city and annexes clean and healthy. Do not despair if you find yourself among this number.” Eldan lowered his head slightly and closed his eyes, grateful to this man for the kindness of saying those words, but saying a silent prayer that he would not fail out of the circuit entirely all the same.

“But!” The military man barked again, startling Eldan back upright. “The first two fields in the circuit you will all pass through together, and while success may see you find a field, failure will not count among your three. Who here can tell me which fields these are, and why they are done first and as a unit?”

He stared at the students expectantly, and slowly a few hands were raised. Eldan was unsurprised to see Stal confidently lift his hand, staring directly at their instructor.

“You there.” The man pointed at a boy with a shock of blonde hair, who seemed to immediately regret volunteering as he glanced around in the hope the finger was pointed at someone else. Finally he stood up and began speaking in a shaky voice.

“We will first undergo military training, and then study in areas of scholarship. These are done first because they require the longest terms of study and together so the largest pool of potential may be assessed?” He spoke as if he were reciting the words but his voice lilted up at the end in question.

The man opened his mouth to reply, but to Eldan’s utter shock the woman beside him drew a rod from her belt and struck him sharply on the arm. He showed no reaction to the blow, simply closing his mouth and stepping back to let her speak.

“Sit, boy. That is mostly correct, if simplified.” She sniffed, giving the boy a moment to slump gratefully back into his seat.

”Without our military the city does not stand, and without our scholars we do not advance or learn the lessons of what has come before.

While it is true that most scholars and members of the military come to the Court already prepared to pursue those courses, we sometimes find great talents and minds among those who had not considered these paths.

Additionally, it is vital that all our students to leave the Court with training and knowledge in these areas as it strengthens the city and annexes as a whole. Those of you in the annexes may be required to both take a trade and be a reserve member of your militia.” She stepped back, and the bearded man stepped forward again, nodding at her respectfully.

“Today we will begin your military training. You will spend a full cycle in both this training and scholarship for the reasons outlined by our esteemed Ironkeeper and Weapons Master.”

Eldan heard a few surprised gasps from around the room, and his own attention immediately returned to the woman on the stage. It was likely that many of the students had never been in the same room as a Keeper before, and even though Eldan had, he had grown up thinking of the Ironkeeper as something of a legend. His chest constricted painfully at the memory of listening to his mother regaling him with larger than life tales of the woman who now stood before him.

The man cleared his throat emphatically, and the whispers and rustles around the room died down.

“As the Master said, some of you will be selected for ongoing military training even as you continue into the remainder of the circuit.

I will be leading this training in tandem with the Ironkeeper, and you will be divided into squads led by our fourth years on the officer track.

My name is Captain Gelth, you will refer to me only as Sir or Captain. You will refer to our Master only as Master or Ironkeeper, and you will refer to your squad leaders as Sir or Seargent. Is that clear?”

A few muttered yes‘s and yes sirs came from around the room, along with some nods and even one sloppy attempt at a salute. Eldan nodded numbly, still stunned by the fact that he was sitting in front of the Ironkeeper.

“When I ask a question I expect a response!” Captain Gelth bellowed, a vein popping out on his forehead. “If you understand me you say ‘Yes Sir!’ Now let’s try that again. Are you clear on the terms of address for your superior officers?”

This time there was no hesitation, the “Yes, Sir!” ringing out in unison around the room, students shifting to sit bolt upright. The Captain nodded in satisfaction, clasping his hands behind his back.

“We will begin with physical testing to assess your current level of conditioning. The squads will be assigned according to your ranking and you will develop alongside the members of your unit. Assuming you all prepared according to direction you should have exercise clothes and swimwear with you. We will now depart for the training grounds.”

The Captain strode forward without further ado, the Ironkeeper directly behind him as they ascended the tiered rows and opened the double doors to exit into the hall. The students rushed to repack their notebooks and crowded into the aisles to follow.

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Foxfires

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