Tuning the Symphony

By William C. Tracy

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Action & adventure, New adult fiction

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396
20 mins

TUNING THE SYMPHONY

Tuning the Symphony by William C Tracy
Copyright © 2016 by William C Tracy

This is a work of fiction. All events portrayed in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form without the express permission of the author and the publisher.

Space Wizard Science Fantasy
Raleigh, North Carolina

First Printing: 2016

Cover and interior art by Micah Epstein
Cover design and layout by Cheryl Perez

Library of Congress Control Number: 2016902451
ISBN 13: 978-0-9972994-0-3
ISBN 10: 0-9972994-0-3

Visit the author’s website at williamctracy.com




For Mom:

Who always stopped reading to me just before the exciting part, so I would come back for more the next day.

MAJUS

- Maji have a long tradition of training suitable apprentices and, after many years of dedication, testing them in pairs to determine the better candidate. There is no rule saying one who can change the Grand Symphony must belong to the maji, but where else would they go? The maji control passage between the ten homeworlds, regulate disputes, and give aid during natural disasters. It is an honor to belong to their order.

From “The Houses of the Maji,” by Ribothari Tan, Knower, later of the Council of the Maji

Rilan Ayama stood at the great crystal wall. It stretched both left and right, taking up the entire fourth side of the testing room, like a tremendous shop window. She was in the largest single chamber in the Spire of the Maji, occupying nearly the entire twenty-first floor, but the room on the other side of the wall was even larger.

Hesitantly, she placed one hand against the cool surface. On the other side, the six councilmembers stood, waiting on the wood floor constructed inside the hollow crystal column adjacent to the Spire. They were the highest ranking maji among the ten species. And they would all be testing her today. Her and Vethis. Only one would come out a full majus after today. The other would wait until the next quarter, though with another apprentice as a challenger. Rilan had heard of poorly testing apprentices waiting for three or four cycles while others were raised in favor of them.

She looked down at the crumpled piece of paper in her other hand. The note had been terse, unsigned, but she knew it was from Origon. How could the man write such a cryptic note, when he talked so much?

Just received news of family matter. May be late. Come see me after. Important decision to discuss.

As if she was raised to majus already, when she still had to test. She was alone in the testing room, for now. Vethis was late as usual. The audience would file in later, including her and Vethis’ mentors. It was a tradition. In a society of ten alien species, coexisting in the Nether—the common place to which all ten homeworlds connected—traditions were important.

Rilan had read the note over and over since a panting apprentice delivered it to her while she climbed to the testing floor, but hadn’t been able to untangle any new information. She shook her head and stuffed the paper back into the pouch at her belt. Origon had promised to watch her test. She hoped he wouldn’t be too late. Her insides were twisted in nervous knots quite enough. Vethis was lazy and narcissistic, but he had areas where he outshone her, if she was being honest.

Zsaana, the old councilmember for the House of Healing, her house, beckoned with a gloved claw. It was a perfunctory gesture for her to enter the immense crystal column standing adjacent to the Spire of the Maji, like a tree supporting a slumped bear. Many rooms of the Spire opened to the column. But the column vanished out of sight in the distance above. The Spire was merely forty-two stories tall.

Rilan took a deep breath and pushed her hand gently against the crystal surface, dark flesh against unbreakable material, willing it to give way. She had only passed twice before into one of the columns, big around as buildings, that supported the expanse of the Nether. It was a thing only maji could do, ensuring they were the only ones present inside the column at an apprentice’s testing. She listened for the Grand Symphony of the universe, or that portion she could hear. It came after the briefest moment, a single high vibrato string that split into an entire orchestra, and then an orchestra of orchestras. Most of the notes rushed past far faster than she could comprehend. It was the music that underlay the universe. Change one chord, one note of the Symphony, and the universe changed with it.

She let the sound fill her, listening to individual notes and phrases in the melody of the House of Healing. She heard music defining her breath and movement, her skin, and her thoughts. Her senses extended to everything biological within range, from the shifting rhythms and accelerandos of the Councilors, to the brisk notes describing insects living in the wood and stone walls of the Spire. She heard her own song—that composition which both defined her existence and let her change the Grand Symphony of the universe—blend with the column as her hand sank into the crystal surface. Harder than diamond, yet yielding to her, she heard snatches of music making up the essence of the Nether itself. It was, in some part, also a biological entity. No one knew where it came from, or even where it was located, in relation to the ten homeworlds, but it was where the early maji met others of their kind and began relations between the different alien races. Now it was the heart of the Great Assembly of Species.

She pushed into the outer wall of the column, its material parting before her. Colors sprang into existence, running along invisible paths. Emerald green for the House of Strength. Diamond yellow for the House of Communication. Blazing orange for the House of Power. Cool blue for the House of Grace. Pure white for the House of Healing—her house. And finally Rusty brown for the House of Potential. The column wall was several strides thick and she passed through as if walking through thick syrup.

As Rilan emerged into the open interior column, she sucked in air, though she hadn’t felt the need within the wall. A smell of old wood and stale air tickled her nose as she stepped onto the floor built inside the column. It was high above the ground, but there were other floors in the column, above and below, each with its own specific purpose, connecting to a floor in the Spire of the Maji. The bottom of the floor above her was several stories overhead.

The councilmembers were arrayed in a line twenty strides away, and she crossed the distance to them, wiping sweaty palms against her dark leather pants. It was a pair her father made for her by hand. Her dark hair fanned out down her back and she swept a hand along it, trying to coax it to lie in a single bunch. She really should have tied it, but hated the feeling of it all bound up.

Speaker Karendi, head of the House of Communication and de-facto voice for the Council, stepped forward. The Kirian’s garish robe flowed across bare knees, her crest of feathery hair flaring to show her welcome.

“I am believing there should be two apprentices testing this day, not just...ah.”

Rilan looked over her shoulder to see Fernand Vethis pushing through the wall of the column, looking for a moment like a man suspended in ice. Once through, he tugged at his sleeves, straightening the blue-black crushed velvet coat. He was dressed as if he had just come from a party in High Imperium, with striped pants, white cuffs and cravat. It was a wholly unpractical thing to wear to a test designed to mentally and physically wear out the participant. But fitting, for him.

Vethis grinned as if he had already been chosen to become a majus today. They had been rivals since the first time they met as apprentices. Vethis was from a wealthy family, she from a poor one. He believed the maji were better than everyone. She just wanted to serve the Great Assembly. He was a social-climbing, toadying, power monger. The only reason he hadn’t tested before now was he was unforgivably lazy, and preferred to cheat off his peers. He was everything that could be wrong with a majus.

Rilan showed her teeth in what could be construed as a smile by someone who didn’t know her. As Vethis came abreast of them, smoothing back his long and oily black hair, Speaker Karendi continued.

“Only one of you will be leaving this chamber as a majus. Apprentice Ayama, Apprentice Vethis, it has been a pleasure for us to be devising these challenges specifically for each of you. Remember, there is always a way to pass each test, even though you are to be pitted against councilmembers.” The Kirian’s speech was less convoluted than most of her species, trained by cycles of acting as the Council’s Speaker to the Great Assembly of Species.

“If you both will be stepping this way, Councilor Huar will be testing Apprentice Ayama first, against the House of Strength. On the other side of the column, Councilor Feldo will be testing Apprentice Vethis, against the House of Potential. The rest of us shall be observing, from a safe distance, of course.” Speaker Karendi flashed her pointed teeth, her feathery hair rippling in what the Nether interpreted as anticipation. The Nether’s translation of social gestures and language fostered cooperation and understanding, for the most part, keeping all ten species in relative peace.

Rilan drew in a shaky breath. The councilors made the tests unique to each aspiring apprentice, so she and Vethis would not have the same challenges. She didn’t want hers to be easy, of course, but she also wanted to pass and become a full majus. Vethis gave her a self-satisfied smirk.

“May the best man win,” he told her. Rilan stared back. She hated his clipped, affected accent.

“Or woman.” Maybe she wouldn’t mind if her tests were easier than his. She turned away. Better to concentrate on her own evaluation. Put the irritating man out of her mind.

Rilan found the head of the House of Strength and bowed. Councilor Huar bowed back slightly, then smiled, teeth open and tongue out. The massive Festuour was dressed in only a bandolier of pockets across her furry green-brown chest, a pair of glasses perched on her long snout in front of bright blue eyes, and a massive floppy pink hat sitting astride her ears.

“Come on girl. We have a match. I wanted to get yours in special, before I retire.”

Huar led Rilan to a large table with two chairs, set near the far wall of the hollow column. Across its diameter, larger than most buildings, Rilan saw the other councilors watching, each at their own post. Vethis was chatting comfortably at Councilor Feldo, who seemed to be frowning back. Behind them, she could see foggy glimpses of the Imperium city, capital of the Nether, outside the translucent walls opposite the Spire of the Maji. She chewed her lower lip, heart hammering against her ribs.

“Now, I suppose we should do this formal-like.” The Festuour settled her girth in the chair on the far side of the table, behind a collection of tiny pots and vines. “Sit, sit. Don’t stand there gawking.”

Rilan sat on a wooden chair opposite the councilor, somewhat heavily. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of dirt and decay. On her side of the table was a collection of vermin, tiny furry or scaled jaws gaping in death, collected from alleys of Imperium city. There were ten of them, each fitted with a small humming talisman.

The councilor touched a button on the side of the board and the little vermin started to twitch, crawling spastically forward. Rilan started at the sudden animation. “I, Councilor Jasrimopobt Huar, Grower, head of the House of Strength, challenge you to overcome my test and show yourself worthy of the House of Healing. Break my defenses.”

Councilor Huar gestured three-fingered hands, her ears cocking forward, sliding across her pink hat’s brim. An emerald green aura enveloped her as she changed notes in that part of the Grand Symphony she could hear. Rilan knew the House of Strength dealt with physical strength, of course, but also constitution, growth, and sustenance. It also dealt with living beings, overlapping somewhat with musical phrases from Rilan’s house.

The plants in front of the councilor perked up as she adjusted the Symphony. A vine stretched forward and snapped at a crawling lizard that spasmed in range, throwing it back to Rilan’s side of the table. She narrowed her eyes at the board, nervousness fleeing.

As vines reached forward, grabbed a furry scrounger, and tore it in half, Rilan opened herself to the Symphony. Fractal orchestras tumbled through her mind and she waded through the musical phrases. Some were too fast for her to understand before the tune played out. Her skill lay more in the mental side than the physical. She was training to become a psychologist, not a medical doctor, as Vethis was.

There was a complex musical phrase controlling the dead things. Since she could hear it, it must be of the House of Healing. Rilan guessed it had been stored by a majus of the House of Potential in the talismans attached to the creatures’ backs. Otherwise, the music would have faded away by now.

A large flower scooped down, holding another lizard hostage. Down two creatures. Rilan found the melody defining musculature and bone density, taking a moment to understand the tempo and rhythm. Without doing so, a majus might fail to effect a change correctly. She inserted notes taken from her own song into the Symphony, increasing the tempo, making notes forte that were previously piano, increasing their intensity. The white glow of the House of Healing encircling her fingers as the creatures crawled faster, dodging the snapping vines. Rilan spared a glance to see Councilor Huar’s large tongue caught between her fleshy lips. The plants sped up in response.

Rilan would not be able to make the same change twice in the same way, but neither could the councilor. The universe resisted changes to the Symphony, and if a majus tried to repeat the same change either before enough time had passed or while too close to the original change, it would fail.

Instead, she flexed her fingers like she was grabbing something, and caught the music defining the creatures’ skin, using her song to change it. The white aura around her fingers was joined by her secondary color, only just starting to appear. The colors, indicative of the house, were only visible to a majus. Flecks of dull olive green sparkled in the white aura. The lizard-like creatures shuddered, scales growing and toughening to protect against vines and sticky flowers. Huar’s green of the House of Strength began to show her own secondary color, the hue of peach flesh, as she put forth more effort. Each majus had a secondary color, and as the majus grew in experience, the unique color grew bolder, like a magical personality.

The vines thickened in response. Rilan grew sharper teeth on her rodents. The flowers reactions became more efficient.

Another lizard was plucked away and thrown off the table.

Evolve, defend, repeat.

Rilan adjusted the vermin’s response to her commands, but they were thrown back again.

Her mentor told her never to go against the House of Strength head-on, and now she believed him. She couldn’t win that way. But she threw six of her seven remaining creatures into a desperate rush, straight toward the plants.

Huar watched them so intently Rilan saw her miss the seventh creature, a little furry thing, scamper under the side of the table. She worked furiously to change the melody, rearranging internal organs, making room for chemicals to mix in ratios a body should never have.

As the vines and flowers pushed her vermin back, the little furry saboteur crawled over the far side of the table, behind Huar’s line of plants. Its body shifted, muscles squirming under flesh. It stopped behind the center of the councilor’s defense, and with a tiny squeak, exploded.

Rilan’s other creatures rushed through the hole of burnt plant fiber.

Councilor Huar sat back with a puff of air. Rilan reversed the changes she had made to the Symphony, feeling her song flow back to her, and the rest of the vermin began drifting aimlessly, back to their original condition. Each person had their own song, and each song only had so many notes. Maji were careful to make changes that could be reversed. If a majus instead made permanent changes to the music, notes of their song would be lost until they slowly grew back, based on individual experiences. Until then, the majus would be less able to effect complex changes, their song no longer whole.

“Mighty fine,” the councilor said. She swept her massive hat off and dabbed at the fur underneath, patting it back into place. “That’s me beaten, fair. Go on now, see what the speaker has in store for you.”

Rilan stood up shakily and nodded to the councilor. She glanced past to see the light outside the column was darker than before. Vethis was already with the head of their house, Councilor Zsaana. The two were bent over a table, and though she could see flashes of white light, they were too far away for her to hear the changes in the Symphony. What mattered was that he was ahead of her. Did that mean he had done better?

She walked toward Speaker Karendi where she stood at a podium, slowing her steps to sneak a look into the Spire of the Maji. The room on the other side of the column wall was starting to fill up with maji and other apprentices. She didn’t see Origon, and made an effort to relax her shoulders.

Come on, Origon, you’ve been waiting for this test as much as I have. His tardiness was not helping her stress level.

The head of the Council coughed to get her attention, and Rilan looked away from the crystal wall. “I am to be the Speaker Mareveluchi Karendi, head of the House of Communication. I am challenging you to defeat my test and show yourself as being worthy of the House of Healing. Overcome my speech.” She stepped behind the podium, looming over Rilan. It hid her bright robe, pink and brown with yellow accents. The Kirians, of which the speaker and Origon were both members, were known for their garish dress.

Rilan felt a knot of worry forming in her stomach. Kirians were also famous for their public speaking and discourses on philosophy.

“Why are you here?”

“Um.” Rilan adjusted to the new test as she looked into the speaker’s gray eyes and pointy smile. “To become a majus.”

“Why?”

Rilan swallowed. Her throat was constricted. A subtle yellow light, flecked with dark brown specks, surrounded the speaker. Yellow for the House of Communication, brown for the majus’ personal color. “I want to use my ability to help…people.” She had to swallow in between words. How was this a test of her house? “I’m going to become a psychologist.” Was it a mental challenge of some sort? That was her strength, and Speaker Karendi knew it.

“Do you think the House of Healing is needing one of your abilities? Why are you unique? Would not Apprentice Vethis be a better choice?”

Rilan fought to push words out. It was getting hotter and the air felt like molasses. “I’m the…best in my class…I can change the Symphony…in ways they can only imagine…” She sagged. It was a strain merely to speak. She could barely draw breath and her vision was fogging. The speaker was doing something to the Symphony of the air, the medium of communication, changing its density or—

“Are you so arrogant to think you are being better than maji who have studied longer than you have been alive?”

The words had a force behind them, driving into her brain. What was she worth, really? Speaker Karendi was affecting her, persuading her. A two pronged attack. She struggled to hear the Symphony.

“Why are you able to hear the music when there are so many who cannot do this?”

She could hear the Symphony. She had since she was a child. Focus.

“I can…hear the Symphony…because I am unique…I—” Her words choked off and Rilan diverted effort into listening. There it was, very faint, the cloud of impulses that was Speaker Karendi. Chords flashed by, almost too quick to hear.

“If you are being so unique, give me the correct answer to this question. You are Speaker for the Council. Your species has gone to war against the Lobath, but you know they are in the wrong. How do you advise the Great Assembly?”

Rilan shook her head. She thought furiously over the answer while she put her notes of her song into in a Symphony the speaker couldn’t hear.

“I must stay neutral in my answer, not favoring either side.”

Pheromones were the answer, subtly influencing. She could do pheromones.

“You did not answer the question. Give me a definite solution.”

The speaker pounded her with unsolvable dilemmas, unfair rulings, and tempting but unethical situations. Rilan devoted as much of her mental attention as she dared to the questions, answering as best as she could, gasping through the alternating thin and thick atmosphere. With the other part of her attention, she changed notes. Attraction. Distrust. Fight. Flight. Fear. Confusion. The notes were familiar to her. She had worked with many other apprentices, practicing her skill at mental healing.

“A Sathssn has been caught killing another of her species…” Speaker Karendi shook her head. “...But there is evidence that points to…” She raised a liverspotted hand to her head, smoothing back the crest of feathery hair that popped up in sudden apprehension. Rilan took a quick step forward, closing the distance between them. She touched the speaker, and a new Symphony exploded in her head, the kind that was only available in very close quarters. Rilan changed the speaker’s mind.

Karendi’s stern demeanor fell away at once and the pressure against Rilan’s vocal chords ceased.

“I find I am unable to be competitive against you.” She smiled pointily. Rilan had momentarily blocked her sense of ambition, simply a matter of changing notes defining the way the brain’s receptors fired. “Well done.” The smile faltered. “I am assuming this will dissipate soon?”

“In a few moments, Speaker,” Rilan said. She began disassembling the changes she had made, regaining the phrases of her song. That little bit that was not reversible would replenish with a good night’s sleep.

“Then you will be testing against the House of Power. I believe I will be checking with Councilor Zsaana just in case, to make sure there are no lasting effects.”

Rilan bowed and moved on, walking around the perimeter of the column. Two down, four to go. She wondered if that was the way she had been supposed to complete the test. It had taken less time than the first. Vethis was just finishing his test with Zsaana. Had he done better than her? Was there a right way?

She looked to the other side of the column again. Had their whole class of apprentices showed? Certainly Vethis’ gambling and drinking buddies were there. Were any there for her, or had they all come to cheer Vethis on? She had fewer friends than he, and fewer her own age. One in particular was still missing. Where was Origon?

Her next challenge was from the head of the House of Power, a corpulent Lobath who had occupied the post since before she was born. Though he was near sixty cycles old, he was still the craftiest on the Council. It was appropriate, as the House of Power dealt with connections, relations, power structure, as well as heat and fire.

This time, she was to beat the house head at Hidden Chaturan, something specifically suited to the House of Power. One who could see the relations between things had a much easier time of determining where the pieces were hidden under the board.

Rilan struggled against the crafty Councilor while the light outside the column slowly died. Where was Vethis? Was he doing better than she? A quick glance around told her the oily man was finishing up with the councilor for the House of Grace. She was lagging behind. And on top of that, Origon was still not here.

The councilor moved another piece off Rilan’s edge of the board. “That is not your test, apprentice, this is. Stop looking away.”

Rilan pulled her gaze away from the wall, and back to the board. Of course the councilor would see that connection as well—her nervousness about Vethis and Origon. She tried to hold the whole board in her mind, but it was impossible, with the confounded rotating hatches hiding pieces.

Finally, she beat the Councilor, barely, and only by using the Symphony of Healing to follow the Lobath’s movement impulses. He sat back with a groan, wiping a bead of sweat from between the base of his head-tentacles. “A rousing game, apprentice. If you are up for another game of Hidden Chaturan in the future, look me up. Now, off to the House of Grace.”

Rilan stood, stretching, and took a few steps to wake up her legs. She had no idea how long she had been sitting at the little table, and turned to find Vethis in front of her. They were both standing near the center of the column.

“Finally done, Ayama? Took you long enough.” Vethis adjusted his crushed velvet coat, though it looked in better order than her shirt, wrinkled from sitting at the table for so long. “I don’t see that ratty old professor you hang around—the one no one likes?” Vethis made a show of looking around in surprise. “In fact, did anyone come here to see you besides your own mentor?”

Rilan resisted the urge to hit him. The best way to deal with Vethis was to ignore him. Anything else would only rile up the fop.

“At least I didn’t have to pay my friends to attend.” So much for staying silent.

“Aaahaha.” Vethis gave his fake laugh to go with his affected accent. It was the way the richer echelons of High Imperium spoke. “Well, as they say, at least I can afford to have friends.” He gave her a condescending smile. “Tests going well for you? Fortunately I got the harder part done first. Just need to coast through the rest. Watch out for Councilor Zsaana—I think the old snake has it in for those of his own House. He did some things with the House of Healing I’d never seen before.”

Rilan thought of the way she passed the speaker’s test, and how she barely scraped by against the House of Power. Surely Vethis wouldn’t do better than her, but then the tests were different for each apprentice.

“I’ll do just fine,” she told him. “After all, I studied for this.”

“Yes, top marks in the class and all that. Of course, sleeping with your philosophy professor probably helped.”

“I didn’t—” Rilan clenched her fists. Vethis would take anything she said about Origon the wrong way. “At least my father didn’t buy my grades for me.”

“No, I don’t believe he’s ever seen that much money in his life.” Vethis waved his hand as if to shoo her along, the lace at his wrist fluttering limply. “Can’t stay to talk, I’m due to be raised a majus, after all.” He headed to the table where the head of the House of Power still sat.

“You can’t bribe the councilors,” Rilan called after him. She hoped he couldn’t bribe the councilors. She sighed.

Rilan glanced across the translucent column and saw the crowd in the connecting room in the Spire of the Maji. As she moved to the next station, the figures on the other side became clearer. Her eyes flicked over Farha Meyta, her mentor, and she frowned. Where was Origon? He should have been front and center at her test. He had been talking about her transition to full majus since her graduation from university. Surely news of his family could wait a little longer.

She pursed her lips and gathered her hair back with both hands. She was distracted, and in addition, Vethis had made her doubt herself. She knew it objectively, but that didn’t actually help the queasy feeling in her stomach. Her psychology training wasn’t helping her now.

She had to put all this out of her mind, or it would hinder her test. Either Origon would show or he wouldn’t. And if he didn’t, she prayed Vish would give him strength to heal quickly from what she would do to him.

The Etanela who was head of the House of Grace was immensely tall, even for one of her species. Rilan felt her back straighten as she strained for an extra finger’s-breadth of height. The councilor bowed down to speak to Rilan, the bluish cast of her skin transitioning to the pale blue-blond mane of hair all around her head and long neck.

“Are you ready, apprentice?” she asked. Rilan nodded. They were at a roped obstacle course, dotted with little paper flags. The Etanela crouched down and smoothed her mane of hair, affixing it with a short length of string behind her neck. Her fingers tied a complex knot in the string with ease, fingers glowing slightly with the blue of her house.

Showoff.

Rilan crouched next to him, wondering what the signal would be to start. Would there be a—

A horn blared and the councilor was off, long legs taking steps five times hers. Rilan puffed after her. Did Vethis have to do this? He couldn’t have been so put together if he’d just ran a race.

This was a test of the physical, how the efficiency of the House of Grace could compare against the body-changing aspects of the House of Healing. Just like the other tests, she would not win if she stayed on the defensive. Rilan reached mentally while she ran, trying to hear the chords defining the councilor’s legs. They jangled and went in and out of hearing. She grabbed at the notes as she could, trying to slow the Etanela down. Physical changes from a distance with the House of Healing were not her specialty. She was better at the mental aspect. At least training with her father prepared her for the exertion. Breathe in through the nose, controlled pulse out through the mouth. Repeat.

The obstacle course was not easy, and she barely stayed abreast of the councilor, even with the changes she effected. The councilor flowed through the obstacles, meanwhile, she bumbled through, moments behind, looking like a horse swimming next to a dolphin.

When the end of the course came up, she tried to tally things in her head. Had she hit five flags or six? She was nearly certain the councilor had touched nine, all with her help. Otherwise the tall woman wouldn’t have touched one.

Speaker Karendi was waiting at the exit to the race. Rilan bent forward, resting hands on knees to get her wind back. She took in long sweet breaths, then undid the changes she still held, regaining her song. The Etanela wasn’t even breathing hard. Her long arms were clasped behind her back. Who knew the councilor had such a competitive streak, especially for one of her placid race? At least it had kept Rilan from thinking about who was—and was not—watching. She looked over to the table at the House of Power. Vethis was still bent over the board with the Lobath Councilor. Maybe she didn’t do too badly.

“You were having a lag of six seconds, apprentice,” Speaker Karendi said, “However, the Head of the House of Grace,” she gave a sardonic pointy smile, “touched four more flags. I will be calling this test a tie. Your next challenger is Councilor Zsaana.”

Rilan bowed to the two councilors, still panting a little, and straightened. Three wins and one tie, out of six houses. How had Vethis done? The final decision could go against her, even with all wins. A tie wasn’t good. The next house was hers, but Vethis’ warning flashed through her head. She had hoped for an easy win from the House of Healing.

She glanced to her growing audience. Still no Origon. This was more than just lateness, but she couldn’t afford to think about him. After the test. Then she would find out what was going on. She tried to concentrate, but her stomach felt like it was twisting into knots.

Councilor Zsaana was standing in the middle of a circle painted on the floor, ten paces across. His face, as always, was hidden under his deep black cowl. Personally, she found his cat eyes and scaly skin unnerving, though the last time she had seen him without a hood was cycles ago. The shorter councilor stood with a hunch from age, gloved hands clasped behind his back, not a bit of skin showing. The only bright color on him was the small patch on the breast of his cloak, marked with the white of the House of Healing and the turquoise of his personal color.

As she stepped in the circle, his gravelly voice issued from the depths of his cowl: “I, Councilor Zsaana, head of the House of Healing, challenge you to overcome me. In this test, show yourself worthy of my house. Move me out of the ring.”

He stepped back, front heel lifting, toe of his boot just touching. One gloved hand came forward, raised, palm up in front of his chest. The other now pointed down, warding off a blow. Rilan recognized the stance from the art called Dancing Step and automatically moved into the form of Fading Hands, the art she studied, her hands ready to catch or twist.

After the race? Really? Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. Conserve energy. Don’t think about Origon. The familiar fighting form comforted and relaxed her. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all.

She moved forward in a straight line, but the councilor shifted off at an angle. This would not be a normal sparring match, not between two members of her house.

White and turquoise surrounded the councilor, but Rilan could hear the changes in the Symphony this time. Did those notes describe balance? Yes, and leg strength, she decided. The councilor was quick, shifting through measure after measure of the melody describing his body faster than she could even process the notes. He had cycles of experience over her. The speaker said the tests were made to be passed, but this was pure experience and skill. Rilan pushed the worry away—pushed all her worries away.

The councilor sprang, quicker than thought. One hand locked against hers, forcing it out while the other popped against her chest. She exhaled as she was pushed back, stopping just at the edge of the circle.

Rilan shook her head, adjusting her stance and then the Symphony, tightening musical phrases to freshen muscles tired from the race. It was a permanent use of notes from her song, and she would only be able to do it once, but it would give her more endurance for this fight. Losing that bit of her song was worth it. She stalked forward and the councilor moved back, keeping the distance between them the same. Rilan leapt.

Bone crunched against bone, hardened like steel.

The two circled, reassessing strengths and weaknesses.

The councilor’s arm lengthened, muscles stretching past their normal limits to land a strike.

The straight lines of Fading Hands intersected the circular arc of Dancing Step.

Rilan caught a boot before it contacted her sternum, but only by increasing her reaction time.

Her hand moved a punch aside, twisting it so the councilor went backwards. But he snapped straight up, black cloak flapping, driving a punch that just brushed her nose as she pulled away from it.

Rilan staggered back, nose stinging and eyes watering. She sniffed back blood, then countered. Councilor Zsaana sidestepped it easily.

She was on the defensive again. This was her house, but she had to be better than its leader, who had forty cycles more experience. She scowled and ducked a backfist.

This wasn’t a physical challenge. It was a mental one.

She studied the melody defining her opponent’s mental state. This was her specialty, and she could understand more of the music from a distance than most. Add to that the closeness and understanding of sparring with someone, and she had a clear picture of what the councilor was thinking. They circled, trading blows that tested the other’s defense.

He was calm, collected, and completely in charge of his situation. There was no place for her to start making changes without him noticing instantly. He’d either counter it or shrug it off.

She adjusted melodies in her body, the white and olive glow around her brightening. Councilor Zsaana’s attacks increased, seeking every hole in her defense as he saw her rewriting the Symphony. She had to hope he was not as familiar with mental changes as physical ones.

Rilan’s perceptions began to slow as she inserted the adjusted music made of her own song back into the Symphony. Zsaana’s movement sped up to her eyes. She felt a rib creak as his gloved hand struck, palm forward. She was pushed back, but managed to recover, her thoughts fuzzy. Zsaana was moving like a projection at double speed and she backed up farther, desperately warding off strikes.

A booted toe touched a pressure point in her leg and she wavered to that side with a grunt. He circled and the next punch came at an oblique angle, just grazing his glove’s leather against her chin. One of her teeth bit into her cheek.

She saw him gather for the last strike—the one that would push her backward out of the circle. Her mind was foggy now, and slow, like cold honey. There was something she had to remember, more important than anything else. It was a simple sequence of notes.

Oh yes.

She reversed what she had done, gaining the phrases of her song back.

As the councilor sprang forward, her mind cleared, her reactions increased, and she saw the opening she would not have before.

Councilor Zsaana struck, but Rilan spun to the side much faster than she had moved before, taking a stance from Dancing Step. She caught a flash of surprise in the cat’s eyes deep under his hood as Zsaana flew past her, landing with the toe of one boot outside the circle.

Rilan turned to him and bowed. Councilor Zsaana gave a respectful tilt of his cowled head in return.

“Your technique, it has improved, but do not depend on such deception to save your life. It is risky. You are ready for your last test, apprentice.”

Rilan walked to the only section of the testing area she hadn’t yet visited, near where the Spire of the Maji met the wall of the column. Back across its width, Vethis was face to face with Speaker Karendi. She held on to the hope that he couldn’t find a way to cheat his way through this test.

Outside, it was nearly full dark in the city. In the Spire of the Maji, she saw the crowd of onlookers craning to see her actions. Her eyes roamed the various maji and apprentices in vain.

Where is he?

She directed a raised eyebrow to Farha Meyta, but her mentor only shook his balding head. He didn’t know either.

Rilan faced the last councilor.

The head of the House of Potential stared back impassively from under bushy black eyebrows, and Rilan finally looked away from the intense gaze. She had to stop thinking about Origon.

“This is the last one, apprentice,” he cautioned, his voice resonant. “Keep your wits about you. You will need them.”

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Read the rest in the full novella!



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