With just one catnap, I sinned twice against my gods. First, I fell asleep in the middle of the most important sorcery exam of my life. And worse, I dreamed of kissing another man. This second sin the gods would burn me for, and then I wouldn’t be able to save him from the devouring darkness. I muttered, half-asleep, “I have to save him.”
“Daniel Travere!” A yardstick slapped the rough wood table, landing only an inch from where I pillowed my head on my hands.
I jerked upright and nearly swooned off the other side of the spindly stool. My fingers clenched the edge of the work table, and for the moment I held my breath, it seemed like that and my shapeless body wasn’t going to be enough to save me. Then I yanked on the table hard, jostling the iron plate and tools, and managed to straighten.
A soft whizzing undercut the sound of metals clinking. A bad sound, my sleep fogged brain told me, but blanked on why exactly.
At the front of the barren classroom, on the blackboard, the Practicum master had scrawled ‘Practicum Final Exam’ across the top, followed by, ‘Using sorcery, demonstrate the principles of thermodynamics.’ Next to it loomed the damning words, ‘25 minutes remaining.’
I squeezed my eyes shut and whispered, “Le Savant, please let this all be just a nightmare. Please let me wake up.”
“Daniel Travere.” Master Roux, our Practicum teacher, stepped into view, his massive girth blocking my doom. In his cobalt blue robes, Roux resembled nothing more than a giant blueberry. Or so he had seemed in the first two minutes of my very first Practicum class, before he’d had me stand up in front of fifty other students to answer question after baffling question on advanced theory, reducing me to a quivering mess. All calculated to intimidate his fresh batch of students. Then I’d known the truth – he was a blueberry hiding fangs wet with cannibalistic strawberry juice.
“Er, yes, Master Roux?” I offered him a smile.
Roux coughed, then pointed up at the ceiling. I followed the gesture up, then actually fell off my stool. The other students promptly burst into laughter, and Roux turned around to shush them all. Despite the pain lancing up my side, I did not wake up. I gingerly stood, groaning.
I looked up. Swirling concentric gold rings hung from the ceiling all over the classroom, measuring the flow of Le Savant’s power, what we channelled through the practice of sorcery. Each of the astrolabes’ movements was a precise indication, and those training for the Sorcerer’s Guild learned to read their warnings.
Except, of course, when all the astrolabes above one’s head spun out of control, as the ones above me did. Then it clearly meant that something – like my project – was about to explode and kill us all.
All right, that may have been an exaggeration. From ceiling to floor, the Practicum classroom was threaded with spellwork wards fashioned from silver, gold and steel to protect its students from any explosions. Such flare ups were common place as one learned to wield Le Savant’s awesome power. Just usually not from a student in their final year at West Ridge Academy who should know better than to fall asleep while connecting circuits. Sleep still tugged at my eyes, feeling as red veined as when I’d glanced in the mirror this morning.
“Travere, for Le Savant’s sake!” Roux whirled back around. “Fix your project!”
“Er, yes, sir.” I swallowed down the thick saliva that had dried in my mouth. My own astrolabe, a board of gold and silver dials instead of rings, sat next to my half-finished project. I read the symbols the dials pointed to and blanched.
Roux wobbled to the front, unveiling the worktable in front of mine, and the object of my second sin. My hand slipped and shoved my torch off the end of the work table, and I whimpered. The torch bounced on the ground, but not a single silver hair on his head moved as Valere continued to torch his circuit in deliberate and efficient movements. He probably hadn’t even noticed when I’d fallen off my stool.
He spelled off his torch, then without even glancing down, leaned down and picked up mine. When he turned, I whimpered. His long silver locks slid over a cheek as fine as marble as he turned his sapphire eyes onto me. His expression was cold, as I tried not to blush and failed miserably. A god of winter storms trapped in human flesh. He must be. Completely untouchable.
Except for his lips, soft and plump. My cheeks heated as I stared, unable to turn my eyes away.
Firm lips touched mine, yielding, letting me push Valere away.
I didn’t want him to go away. I wanted him closer, closer and more wicked than the companion Oswin to his god Le Savant.
I stepped into him, my lips pressing on his so hard they’d surely be bruised in the morning.
Valere wrapped his hands around my jaw. No more yielding — now he demanded of me, ate at me like I was his favourite pudding. And I let him, needing the taste of him more than I needed air, than I needed—
But he was yanked from my embrace, stolen from me by the darkness, his beautiful white flesh eaten away by hell itself. Stolen, eaten, destroyed, like death had stolen Oswin from his god—
If only I had woken up naked instead of dreaming that.
What right did I have to blaspheme Valere in my dreams at all? The kiss had been real enough, but it hadn’t been Valere. I knew that much, even if I had blocked who the kiss had actually been with from my memory. It couldn’t have been Valere. I didn’t even remember him before the start of this school year, while the kiss had happened right before summer break, right before my father had ripped my grades in front of me, right before I had disappointed him for the last time.
I wrenched my eyes down to the safety of my worktable. “Er, thanks.”
Without a word, Valere turned back to his own work, for all the world like I didn’t exist.
“Travere!” Roux yelled again, standing by his desk.
Oh right, my astrolabe still whirled. I slid the iron plate I’d been working on back into place, having pushed it forward in my sleep. I’d already carved in a circle a dozen round and swirling symbols.
I couldn’t tell what the brighter students were building. Probably something grand and abstract I could never understand even if I stared at their devices for days, their parts and spells laid bare before my eyes.
But I had gone with something much simpler. Hardly worthy of my final year’s exam, but something I could pass with. My eyes flicked to a paper spread next to the astrolabe, my school subjects written down on one side, my final exam marks on the other. One blank spot left, circled with an exclamation point in red. If I didn’t pass this exam, I was done. Expelled. I had to pass.
Focus, Daniel. Focus before Roux yells at me again. I’d decided to make an iron plate that could boil an egg. Incredibly simple, sort of following the instructions, and yet I still couldn’t make it work, and had set off the monitoring astrolabes to boot.
Oh yes, that top grade was sure to be mine.
My friends started leaving, one by one. Roux never made us stay to the last moment.
I picked up my torch, my left hand shaking as my other hand, trembling just as badly, tried to sign the torch on. My finger kept slipping.
“Gloves!” a voice behind me hissed.
I glanced around, the torch slipping to butt against the back of my hand. I slapped the torch onto the table and exhaled. If I’d succeeded in turning it on…
“Put on your gloves,” Blaise whispered again. I glanced back, his back bent as he wiped his bronze cube with a damp rag, removing any stray metal dust and scorch marks. But he was looking up at me as he bit his lip.
Normally, with his bronzed skin and even brighter golden hair, Blaise reminded me of a lazy autumn day, where all the responsibilities one had was to walk in the gold wheat fields, feeling the hot sun warm your skin.
The metaphor foundered when he worried I’d torch my hand off. I offered him an apologetic smile and found my magically reinforced gloves, proof against all things dangerous, especially the business side of a torch.
At the front of the room, Roux erased the number and rewrote, ‘15.’
I nearly swore out loud. No, no, I did not have time to panic. I signed the appropriate symbol on my torch, and bent over my project. I just needed to continue cutting the symbols. I believed. I thought. All right, I rather hoped that was the case.
My monitoring astrolabe calmed down, the ones overhead slowing. A good sign at last! The dials re-ordered themselves, pointing to entirely different symbols, and if I had more than fifteen minutes to complete my exam, I might have actually stopped to double check what they meant. I just had to hope it was good.
No wonder my father had given up hope.
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