Myreon’s Test, Part 2
Myreon was not alone in her assessment of the odds of passing. As the plaza before the Arcanostrum’s gates filled up in preparation for the day’s test, more and more young men and women read the note and were thoroughly horrified. Their reactions were, on the whole, more volcanic than Myreon’s own. Many wept, bitterly and openly, and cursed anything and everything nearby, though chiefly the archmagi. Others raged and stormed and shook their fists through the iron gates as though, by expressing their displeasure, the magi of Saldor would relent in their unreasonable expectations. Still others simply deflated, turned pale, and wandered off to various corners of the plaza, heads down, and drew invisible plans in the dust with their feet.
Myreon, for her part, went nowhere and said nothing. She could think of no coherent plan to enact, no preparations to begin, and no reasonable recourse to fall back on. A lot of applicants quit, right then and there—some of them loudly. One fellow, at least five years older than Myreon, wearing an ostentatious ensemble of lace and ostrich feathers, threw his floppy hat at the gate and spat, “I’ve had it with you! To Hell and Damnation with all of you wizards! Jean-Pierre Marsien DuPoirrette is not to be mocked!”
He turned and meant to march straight away, but Myreon was in his path. He glared at her, is pointed nose flaring like miniature bellows, and shooed her aside. “What are you still doing here? Go home, peasant! You failed—we all failed!”
Myreon felt her stomach flip and knew her bottom lip wanted to quiver, but she held them still. “I’m staying because I’m going to pass. You leave if you want to.”
The contessa from earlier lifted her head from her servant’s lap. “What? Do you know a spell, then?”
Myreon folded her arms. The contessa was no older than thirteen, and Myreon had no interest in looking stupid in the eyes of an arrogant child. “Maybe.”
That attracted a lot of attention. A few seconds later, every applicant in the plaza was crowding around Myreon, Pierre, and the young contessa. “Show me the spell you know!” One girl yelled, pulling off a solid gold ring with a diamond setting. “I’ll give you this!”
Another girl, probably Myreon’s age exactly, sniffed delicately at the ring. “Exactly the kind of gift one would expect from a Galaspiner Guild-girl.” She gave Myreon a sickly-sweet smile and unclasped her necklace. It was enchanted with emeralds that changed color in watery patterns and from it emanated a sweet, spring-like aroma, like fresh rain on a grassy field. “There’s much more like this for my friends. Can’t we be friends?”
Myreon’s mouth was hanging open, so she shut it with a click. “I’m…I’m keeping the spell to myself. I don’t know how to teach it, anyway.”
“Selfish little commoner!” The contessa hissed. “You think just because you know some piddling little magic trick that we’d consent to beg?”
The boy in Eretherian livery shook his head. He was at the back of the crowd, but he was taller than almost everybody by six inches, so everybody could see the smirk on his face. “She doesn’t know anything; she’s bluffing. I’d do it, too, if I were her. She needs us to quit so she can be the only one left in an hour. Then they’d have to take her, spell or not.”
The girl who’d offered Myreon the ring laughed. “They don’t have to take anybody. My uncle says there were a few years while he was an apprentice that they took no one.”
Another boy spoke up. “My father says that some years they take up to fifty. Maybe if we all fail the test, they’ll take all of us—we’d all be equally qualified, right?”
Pierrepulled himself to his full height, which wasn’t impressive, and stuck his nose in the air as though he smelled something. “I do not accept a world in which I am ‘equal’ to any of you. The blood of the Griffon Throne runs in my veins, and…”
The girl that offered Myreon the magic necklace rolled her eyes. “You Akrallians and your stupid bloodlines. As though the drop of royalty in your veins even compares to the hearty river of nobility common to all well-born Eretherian families. My grandfather was…”
Everyone began shouting at that point, and Myreon ducked out of the crowd. She sat underneath a nearby tree and watched the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful compare heritage and wave around pieces of heraldry and signet rings each of which would have purchased the whole inn she and her father had stayed in and would have enough left over to knock it down and build their own mansion. Her father had always encouraged her to look at people through their own eyes, but she found it practically impossible with these brats. Even without passing this test, they would all be lords and ladies—second sons and daughters, granted, but still noble. Where would Myreon be? Nowhere, that was where. She hoped they did all quit; at least then she wouldn’t be forced to listen to them bicker.
In the end, the group broke up. The Eretherians formed their own little circle (wherein they still argued among themselves, as Eretherian nobles did), the Akrallians formed their own circle (where they spent much of their time comparing bloodlines and seniority, as was their wont), and the Galaspiner guilders clustered in a little group nearby to Myreon. They seemed a bit more organized, and were pitching to one another various theories on what to do. Eventually, one of the quieter ones—a boy about Myreon’s age with blacksmith’s shoulders and a gold chain around his neck that could have bought and sold any dozen blacksmiths—whispered loud enough so that Myreon could scarcely hear. “What if we cheat?”
Myreon jerked her head sideways to stare at him. He caught her eye and grinned. “What if that’s the test?”
“What do you mean?” A pimple-faced redhead asked, scratching at his collar.
Gold Chain shrugged. “Every year they say the Arcanostrum’s final test, whatever it is, is a trick of some kind. Maybe this is the trick—maybe they want us to give up. Only those of us with enough cunning to find a way to pass make it through.”
Myreon stood up and came closer. The Galaspiners paid her little mind. “If we’re caught, we’ll be automatically failed!”
“We’d fail anyway—they’ve got to know that, don’t they? They want us to cheat.”
“How?” Myreon asked. “How do you cheat with something like this?”
Gold Chain grinned. “Easy—I know an enchanter near here. He can put a simple spell into something like a ring that will last for a few hours or maybe only work once. You get him to enchant it, walk into the test, cast your ‘spell’, and take what comes.”
The Galaspiners grinned like thieves. “Good idea. What’s something like that cost?”
“No more than a couple dozen gold marks, I’d bet.” He gave Myreon a wink. “Not cheap enough for everybody, I guess.”
They laughed at that; the sound of it was like a slap in the face. Myreon blinked and backed away. “What if I tell?”
Gold Chain shook his head, still chuckling. “Your name’s Alafarr, right? Your dad’s a vintner?”
Myreon froze. “How do you know that?”
“You tell on me and my friends, Alafarr, and I’ll see to it that my father buys that rotten little vineyard and throws you to the wolves.” Gold Chain, still smiling, gave her a little half bow. “Now, if you’ll excuse us—we’ve got a test to pass.”
Myreon watched them go, rage and fear making her heart skip in her chest. She wanted to smash Gold Chain’s toothy face with his stupid chain, but didn’t dare to anything other than glare at him. She turned away, just so she wouldn’t have to watch them leave.
Elsewhere in the plaza, those who hadn’t quit seemed to have gotten the same idea as the Galaspiners—they headed in various directions, babbling about potions that could make them float and magic scrolls that could cast themselves. They had relatives or business contacts or retainers who could fashion these things, and in every case the only cost would be money or favors. With every little lordling that walked off with a sly grin on his face, Myreon felt the weight of the test pressing more and more heavily on her chest.
What if she was the only one who failed, and only because the rest of them cheated? What if this was how it happened every year—the rich ones just bought their entry, and the others got brushed aside. Surely the archmagi could see through their tricks—couldn’t they?
What if they couldn’t?
Myreon threw herself under the same tree and put her head in her hands. She didn’t cry—she was too paralyzed by events. She was numb. She was going to fail, and the rest of these spoiled, cheating brats were going to win. It wasn’t fair.
“You’re one of the applicants, aren’t you? Myreon, isn’t it?” The voice was a woman’s, warm and firm like that of a kindly grandmother who doesn’t accept excuses.
Myreon looked up to see a striking woman with golden hair just barely streaked with gray and a firm face barely creased with the cares of age. Myreon didn’t need to see her black robes or the intricate staff by her side to know who she was: Lyrelle Reldamar, Archmage of the Ether and Mistress of theBlackCollege.
Myreon struggled to her feet. “Magus, I…I didn’t see you…I didn’t know that you’d…”
“I take care not to be seen when I choose not to be, child. Why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying.” Myreon said, wiping under her eyes just to be sure. Her hand came back wet.
The Archmage Lyrelle smirked. “Of course not. Are you ready for today’s test?”
“I…no. I’m not. I can’t cast any spells at all.”
Lyrelle’s lips pursed in maternal concern. “My dear, that means you’ll fail. Whatever are you to do?”
“I…I…” Myreon couldn’t hold it in anymore. Her whole body seemed to melt into sobs. It was all she could do to hide her face in her hands. Her cheeks burned with equal parts misery and mortifying embarrassment—here she was, an applicant to the Arcanostrum who had made it all the way to the thirteenth test, and she was crying like a child in front of a woman widely considered to be the most powerful mage in the world.
Lyrelle put an arm around Myreon’s shoulders and patted her on the head. “Now, now, Myreon Alafarr. Stop this nonsense—sobbing makes you look like a market pig.”
Myreon half-snorted. “Wh…what?”
“I’m speaking to you now because you are one of our most promising applicants, and I personally don’t wish for you to fail. However, the other archmagi are unlikely to accept a girl who can’t even cast a simple spell, so…”
Myreon blinked away some tears. “Are you…are you offering to help me cheat?”
Lyrelle clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Cheat? Such a stigmatized term, isn’t it? I’d like to call it ‘surreptitious assistance’.”
“But I don’t have any money and…”
“Do I sound as though I’m asking you for money, darling?” Lyrelle smiled at her and shook her head. “I have all the money I need, I promise you. No, I’m offering you this, free of charge, because I’d rather have a hard-working Saldorian girl in the Arcanosturm than any dozen spoiled Akrallian brats, Eretherian boobs, or Galaspiner sneaks. We Saldorian women should stick together, don’t you think?” The Archmage winked at her.
Myreon felt herself blush. “Thank you, magus.”
“Your answer, Myreon. Do you wish to have my surreptitious assistance in this test or not?”
Myreon looked into the archmage’s eyes. They were a warm brown shade, but there was something sharp about them, too. Myreon realized she was reading Myreon’s facial features—observing, assessing, judging. The words of Gold Chain came back to Myreon suddenly. “What if this is the test?”
Lyrelle tapped her staff on the cobblestones. “Well? Imp caught your tongue?”
Myreon opened her mouth but it took a second before the word came out. “No.”
“Really?” Lyrelle blinked.
“No thank you…magus.” Myreon made a small curtsey. “I…I told my father I’d make him proud.” The last bit sounded very stupid when she said it aloud, so she blushed and apologized again.
Lyrelle pulled herself to her full height and adopted a more aloof expression than before; it was as though the ‘motherly’ part of her was slipped off as easily as a pair of gloves and stuffed in her pocket. “Such a pity, my dear. Such a great pity.”
And then, without so much as a pop, the archmage was gone.