Saldor—city of the Arcanostrum and center of the human universe, or so the Saldorians would have everyone believe. Known for their magical aptitude, their far-reaching power, and their educated population, Saldor is the cultural and intellectual heart of the West, and the seat of arguably the most powerful human in the world — the Keeper of the Balance. Though territorially small, no other place has made such a significant impact on the face of the human world. Its agents topple governments, its magi teach the West the High Arts, and its currency has become the global standard, accepted even in the hostile streets of the Kalsaari Empire. Seated at the helm of the Syrinian Alliance, the Saldorians see themselves as humanity’s best hope for the salvation of the world from the fires of the Devourer. They just might be right.
Saldor is technically a loose affiliation of petty nobility who make up a ruling body called the Saldorian Council, which is presided over by the Lord Mayor of Saldor. This body, which consists of representatives from each fiefdom (or the ruler of the fiefdom itself) as well as from the population of Saldor itself, passes the laws that govern the entire domain and acts as a neutral body when settling inter-fiefdom disputes. This is, technically, the governmental system that has been in place since the time of the First Arahkan War. If one were to ask any Saldorian on the street where the power in Saldor lies, however, they would say one thing: the Arcanostrum.
The magi of the Arcanostrum, though not officially the ‘rulers’ of Saldor, are firmly in control of every single thing that transpires within the borders of this tiny domain. Every duke, earl, knight, and council member from the Lord Mayor on down are all retired magi, and though they are not bound to obey the counsel given by the Archmagi and the Keeper above them, they tend to adhere to their wishes almost to the letter. They are the real power in Saldor, and nobody forgets it. The Lord Mayor, while he does handle the day-to-day administration of the city of Saldor itself, rarely countermands a request made by the Keeper or any other high-ranking mage — they are, after all, his old friends and the ones who got him his job in the first place. Essentially, the aristocracy of Saldor exist for a few reasons, and none of them have anything to do with actual political power. They serve as a place where magi may retire in comfort, they act as a way to keep the magi from having direct or official control over any political body (an ancient taboo among the magi), and they serve as the primary representatives of civic authority in individual Saldorian communities. They collect the taxes, organize the constabulary, oversee the schools and hospitals, but they do not decide policy, make laws, or wage wars—all of those things are the province of their mage ‘advisor.’
There are many who see this thinly-veiled shadow government run by the Arcanostrum to be both hypocritical and corrupt, but such people are seldom natives to Saldor. Every Saldorian knows that the Arcanostrum is in control and most are very glad they are. Furthermore, they realize (or have been taught to believe, depending on your perspective) that the illusion of the Saldorian civic authorities is less illusory than one might imagine. There is no edict stating that an aristocrat cannot ignore his advisor or make his own laws and, in the rare cases where a mage has tried to get an aristocrat to do something that aristocrat considers immoral or unjust, they have the power to resist and call down the ire of the Defenders, quickly quenching the crooked plot before it hatches. Of course, this reliance upon non- or ex-magi for the implementation of laws and edicts creates an immensely convoluted and devious network of plots and counter-plots within the Arcanostrum itself, as rival factions compete for patrons among the nobility, which is really another way of saying the young and up-and-coming magi constantly compete for the attention and favor of the retired masters.
Accordingly, the political structure of the Arcanostrum itself is far more relevant to Saldorian politics than any single group of nobles. It is important to note that the primary purpose of the Arcanostrum is to educate individuals in the High Arts and control the use of said Arts; therefore its structure is more like that of a university than a political body. The Arcanostrum is split into five colleges. The first four — the White College, Red College, Blue College, and Black College — are where most of the students and full magi within the Arcanostrum spend the majority of their time teaching, studying, experimenting, and practicing their art. The Fifth College, known as the Gray Tower or the Great Tower, acts as the administrative body of the Arcanostrum and also serves as the training ground for the Defenders of the Balance. All students entering the Arcanostrum as initiates (the lowest level of student) spend their first years learning basic magic in the Gray Tower before choosing one of the four Colleges as the place where they will complete their professional careers. Those who choose to remain in the Tower become Defenders or take up posts as administrators, groundskeepers, or other support roles.
The Arcanostrum will accept anyone from anywhere as a student, so long as they are no younger than fifteen and can pass the Test of Power, which is administered by the five Archmagi once a year on Ozdai’s Feast. The form of the test is always changing, and the title is misleading. Many young hopefuls come to show off their great power in one kind of sorcery or another, but this is not the purpose of the test. The Test of Power is administered to see whether or not the student is responsible enough to understand that power must be used sparingly and with intelligence, and many a show-off is sent home wondering why his magnificent fireworks display failed to awe the gray-haired old magi even in the least. Once accepted, students spend a number of years as initiates (usually about three, but there is no set upper limit), where they are taught the rudiments of magical instruction as well as history, etiquette, and oratory. In addition to their school work, initiates are required to do a fair amount of manual labor as well, designed to both humble and toughen up the spoiled and the dainty. Most (about 75%) of those accepted to the Arcanostrum fail to make it out of the initiate stage.
Finally, when they have excelled in their studies and shown both maturity and diligence, initiates are taken to the Chamber of Testing and asked to pass the First Mark. The exact nature of this test is kept secret, but if the initiate passes, he is promoted to the rank of apprentice and, after choosing their College, are assigned to a full mage to serve as his or her personal assistant. Again, there is no upper limit to how long a student will remain an apprentice and, indeed, very many leave the Arcanostrum at this stage and go on to lucrative careers in the ‘private sector’, as it were. For however long they stay, they are given the best magical education in the world as they stick close to their master and experience the full range of what a mage can expect to encounter in the field. Finally, when their master thinks them ready, the apprentice returns to the Chamber of Testing and attempts to pass the Second Mark. If successful, they are given their own magestaff and given the title of ‘mage.’ If they fail, they leave the Arcanostrum with the rank of apprentice and the privilege of calling themselves “sorcerer.”
Most magi never advance past the level of mage, for here is where they do the most work and take part in the most exciting missions. Magi are sent all over the world, fulfilling all manner of tasks, from mediating negotiations between rival nomad tribes in the Taqar to advising Western rulers to hunting down long-lost artifacts in the Eastern Sea. The magestaff of the Arcanostrum is a symbol known throughout the world, and it bears with it great responsibility and power.
For some magi, after years of adventuring, they choose to retire to Saldor or another magetower elsewhere in Alandar to serve as a Master. Masters have certified mastery of the school of their choice and have passed the Third Mark in the Chamber of Testing. They act primarily as teachers and armchair scholars, guiding the younger magi and instructing apprentices and initiates in the ways of the Arcanostrum. Those who become Master Defenders are essentially field commanders – administrating and guiding distant Mage Towers and their cadre of Defenders of the Balance in the missions considered crucial to the security of the West. Masters of all stripes are greatly respected among magical circles. Still, for the ambitious, there are two ranks higher than even the Master—the Archmage and the Keeper of the Balance.
There are only five Archmagi at any one time (one for each Great Energy), and only one Keeper. It has been this way for more than fifteen-hundred years, and it shows no sign of ever changing. Archmagi must have mastered at least two schools of magic and have managed to pass the Fourth Mark—a feat which few have attempted and even fewer have survived. Four serve as the chairman of each of the four Colleges and the fifth is the Lord Defender of the Balance. Together, they form the Council of the Archmagi, which meets in Saldor to attend the Keeper and advice he or she in matters of Arcanostrum policy. The post of Archmage is the most intensely political of the ranks within the Arcanostrum, as they are routinely in contact with foreign rulers, magi in the field, and political entities of all varieties, always seeking to further the goals of the Arcanostrum as well as the goals of their individual College. Just as the Four Dragons are in constant opposition, so too are the Archmagi, as each College pursues its own aims at the expense of its fellows. By way of example, the Archmage of the Ether and Chairman of the Black College, Xahlven, has long been a proponent of the Vetan’nir Sorcery School as a method of controlling the Balance more directly. This is vehemently opposed by both the Lord Defender of the Balance and the Archmage of the Lumin, and they have long plotted and schemed to limit Xahlven’s ability to authorize dealings with the creatures of the Outer Realms. It is important to note that, while the Archmagi are both intelligent and ruthless, they are seldom trying to destroy one another. They recognize, like any good mage, the importance of the Balance and, therefore, the importance of there being someone to contradict them to keep everything equal. Nevertheless, they can go very far to get what they want, even to the point of forcing rivals into retirement or framing them for crimes they didn’t commit.
Sitting in judgment over this boisterous and dissembling bunch of master wizards is the Keeper of the Balance himself, who is both supreme ruler of the Arcanostrum and, by extension, Saldor itself. The Keeper is selected from among the Archmagi by the Archmagi themselves and, if the preceding Keeper lives long enough to contribute to the discussion, he or she receives a vote as well. Upon the preceding Keeper’s death (assuming it hasn’t already happened) the prospective Keeper then attempts to journey to the far end of the Chamber of Testing, where the Fifth Mark stands. If worthy, he will acquire the collective wisdom of every Keeper before him and become the most powerful mage in the world. If he is found unworthy, he will never be seen again and a new candidate must be selected. The Keeper is in complete command of the Defenders of the Balance, with the Lord Commander acting as his representative, but other than that the Archmagi retain independent control of their Colleges. The Keeper is able to issue decrees that must be adhered to by all magi, but other than that he does not interfere with the day-to-day functioning of each College. The Keeper of the Balance is just that—a keeper. He, using ancient artifacts inherent to the Arcanostrum that were created in the age of the Warlock Kings, monitors the mystical energies of the world that make up the Balance and, should they be disturbed, he sends and order to the Archmagi to find a way to remedy the problem. He is in charge of setting regional policies and overall goals for the Arcanostrum, and gives the organization its long-term goals and philosophical coherence, but he seldom is needed for such mundane affairs as diplomatic meetings or legal proceedings. Though many have sought to gain audience with the Keeper throughout the years, few are the rulers and aristocrats who have been able to meet directly with the Keeper, keeping this office shrouded in both mystery and awe. Those who ascend to Keeper are changed persons, aloof and contemplative. It is for this reason that they take new names upon their ascension, and they are rarely seen by anyone but the archmagi.
From day to day, the most obvious influence of the Keeper is seen in Saldor in the form of the Defenders of the Balance. Forming the whole of Saldor’s armed forces, the Defenders are a small but superbly trained and equipped force of warrior-wizards that patrol the borders of Saldor’s small territory and man the walls of the city itself. Famed for their mirrored helmets of silver-lined mageglass, the prospect of going into battle against this magically potent force is enough to make even arahk blanch, though historically speaking the Defenders had not been in a major war for 400 years until the Kalsaari invasion of Illin of 27 years ago (see below). In general, the Defenders serve as a deterrent more than anything else, being sent to one place or another in an attempt to discourage a belligerent group from starting any war at all. This tactic had been quite successful, but the Illini Wars shook the Arcanostrum’s faith in that policy significantly.
In general, political life in Saldor is relatively calm, since most of the more important and more devious members of the Arcanostrum have their eyes and talents focused elsewhere in the world. There is enough money in this territory to keep virtually all of its citizens well-fed if not well-educated, and punishments for crimes committed are harsh enough to keep even the most hard-boiled criminals under-wraps. There are no prisons in Saldor, and punishment takes only three forms. First is the stocks, where minor offenders are sent to be rebuked, jeered, and pelted with rotten fruit for anywhere from an afternoon to several days. Second is petrification, where offenders are turned to stone and left in public gardens as decoration for the duration of their sentence. Unlike normal petrification, the spell used in this punishment is tailored to allow the convict the ability to think over his crime and his sentence before being returned to normal. Finally, Saldorians use banishment as their most serious punishment. Rather than killing the most hardened criminals, they are dropped through a portal set to land them somewhere tens of thousands of miles distant. They are given a bow, a few arrows, a blanket, and some water and told never to return. None of the criminals thus punished ever have. Citizens of Saldor, however, take solace in the fact that there is an established and fair court system in place here that presumes innocence and even assigns an advocate to defend the accused at trial. Presided over by five magi with legal experience as judges, it is the contention of most Saldorians that the innocent are never convicted within their borders. Of course, the innocent are too busy being a statue to protest, so this belief must be held somewhat suspect.
Perhaps one of the biggest factors in Saldorian prosperity and peace is the fact that, unlike almost anywhere else, advancement in society is theoretically based off of one’s wisdom and skill rather than bloodline or heredity. Even the lowliest street peddler’s daughter can one day ascend to the rank of Keeper of the Balance or, at the least, become a mage of the Arcanostrum. Thanks to the fact that those who rule Saldor come from all walks of life and all social states, the laws of the domain are considered among the most fair and balanced to be found anywhere in the world. It is, in many ways, a utopian system to be envied by many, and it is for these reasons that Saldor finds itself host to thousands upon thousands of immigrants every year.
Lands and Points of Interest
Saldor occupies a narrow finger of land between the Trell and Mage’s Rivers. Though wet and plagued with bogs and marshes, the land is temperate and green with enough arable land to sustain the most profitable vineyards in the world. Known far and wide as the finest to be had, Saldorian wine is demands the highest prices at markets worldwide.
Aside from grapes, however, the only thing Saldor really seems to grow is cities. Though only twenty-five miles wide and 300 miles long, Saldor has the highest concentration of urban centers to be found anywhere in the world. Feeding off the trade traveling down the Trell River as well as off the lucrative talisman and other magical item traffic moving across Saldor’s borders, the cities and towns of Saldor are a bustle of culture, commerce, and crowds. Thanks to Saldor’s reputation as a place of plentiful wealth and fair-minded rulers, people from all over the world are constantly relocating themselves here to try for a better life for themselves and their children. Consequently, housing and food supplies are at a premium in this tiny country, despite the overall wealth of the inhabitants. Tons upon tons of grain, meat, fruit, and vegetables need to be shipped into Saldor everyday from the farms of Eretheria and Galaspin as well as from some places as far away as Eddon and Benethor, and still the population continues to grow. Though some in the Arcanostrum have theorized that, unless this population growth is checked, a social catastrophe awaits the region, the government, at the Keeper’s wish, ensures that Saldor’s borders remain open to any who wish to come there.
As a center of learning and education, Saldor’s cities are all home to a variety of universities, schools, libraries, and other cultural institutions that are maintained by the local nobility and are all open to the public! As a result, the majority of Saldorians can read (rather exceptional in Alandar) and the sheer concentration of educated people has given rise to a burgeoning population of playwrights, poets, writers, and philosophers that hawk on street corners, distribute their manuscripts in marketplaces, and put on shows in fancy new playhouses. Painters and sculptors have also found themselves a home in Saldor, where there is a wealth of aristocratic patrons who are not only willing to pay for their art but also have the culture to appreciate it.
Defensively speaking, Saldor is well-protected, though the casual observer might not recognize it. The banks of the two rivers that form the nation’s borders are lined with small towers and keeps that, while they might not seem imposing, are heavily enchanted and capable of fending off armies up to ten times larger than a defending force. Furthermore, the Defenders of the Balance maintain an elite corps of griffon cavalry that has bases both in Saldor proper and in the northern regions of the country, and they patrol regularly, keeping an eye out for trouble. These protections, however, proved insufficient to prevent Banric Sahand and his Delloran armies from smashing into the northern portions of the country and laying waste to the Defenders sent against him until the pivotal siege of Calassa. Since that time, there has been a concerted effort to strengthen the domain’s defenses and much of Saldor’s wealth has been devoted to that task.
Finally, while most of Saldor is populated, there are regions that are virtually uninhabitable thanks to bogs, marshes, and swamps. These areas are known to be havens of dark creatures, bandits, and long-lost tombs of long-dead warlocks. Usually patrolled and almost entirely picked over by the Defenders of the Balance or the magi, these areas are nevertheless avoided, and often serve as pathways for smugglers, spies, and worse things to get into and out of the country.
The City of Saldor: Easily the largest city in the West and possibly even the world, Saldor is home to eight-hundred thousand souls and the heart of magical power in the human world. Built at the juncture of four ley lines, the city’s location at the mouth of the Trell River is hardly by accident. Every since the time of Rahdnost the Undying, this area has been prime real-estate for the magical elite, and Saldor is a city built upon ruins which are, in turn, built upon more ruins. The depths to which one might journey beneath the cobblestone streets and what one might find there are subjects of great speculation and wild tales among the winding streets and crowded, smoky buildings, but few, if any, have ever bothered to find out – there’s enough excitement on top of the Saldor streets as it is.
Saldor is made up of five separate districts. The first three — the Merchant Quarter, Dock Quarter, and Magic Quarters — lie within the city’s ancient, ivy-covered walls. The fourth and fifth, Crosstown and it’s rougher cousin, New Crosstown, are located on the western banks of the Trell and have no walls to speak of at all. New Crosstown is the newest and most crude area, with new houses and businesses being added every day as the hopeful and ambitious move closer to the Arcanostrum. It is there that the city’s primary criminal syndicate, known as the Mute Prophets, runs a variety of gambling and real estate rackets as well as organizing a sizable number of pick pockets, highwaymen, and talented cat burglars that give the Prophets their fame. After all, anyone who can rob a mage’s house and not get caught is a master of his trade. The Crosstown districts are usually the first place those coming to Saldor by land or river see, and its rows and rows of houses crammed tightly together across cobblestoned streets only serve as the barest glimpse of what is a most incredible city.
Once within the city walls, a new visitor is almost always astounded at the sheer number of people to be found in Saldor. They come from everywhere — Akral, Eretheria, Ihyn, Illin, Hurn, Larcin, Benethor, Obrinport, Tharce, and on and on and on. The streets are full of people at almost all hours of the day and, at the center of the Merchant’s Quarter, the Grand Bazaar is lit twenty-four hours by hundreds of illumite lanterns. The open-air market is a maze of tents and carts selling everything from Kalsaari silks to Far Western talismans and Eddonish clocks, and the roar of hagglers and criers never dies. The Dock Quarter is home to most of the inns, taverns, and public houses inside the city walls as well as innumerable warehouses, granaries, and stockyards built to store the flood of goods brought in every day from both the river and the sea. The Dock Quarter is but a thin band around the Merchant’s Quarter, which houses the Grand Bazaar, most of the businessmen and artisans of the city, as well as the Hannite Cathedral and the Saldorian Exchange—the first and single largest commodities and stock market in the West. Though the Dock Quarter does get rough after dark, the Defenders of the Balance are always nearby to contain anything that gets out of hand and crime within the Merchant’s Quarter is very uncommon, thanks to the vigilance of not only the Defenders but thousands of private security forces hired by the wealthy to safeguard both businesses and their assets. More importantly than numbers, though, is the fact that the Defenders employ a great many augurs who can predict crimes before they occur with remarkable skill and, even if they can’t prevent it from happening, they are very likely to catch the culprit. Saldor is a city full of wonders and swindlers, but very few cutpurses, the Prophets excepted.
When finally one passes out of the Merchant’s Quarter into the Magic Quarter, it feels as though you have entered another city entirely. Occupying the center of the city and stretching across two large hills, the Magic Quarter is beautiful and serene in the same way that the rest of Saldor is noisy and exciting. Here the streets, while narrow and winding in the rest of the city, widen out and are paved with white limestone, running in broad, straight avenues to the gates of the Arcanostrum itself. Public gardens and reflecting pools line the broad streets along with the palatial estates of the most respected magi in the world as well as the public library, many artifactories, a number of private universities, and the White Hospital — an enormous and well-equipped hospital funded by the White College of the Arcanostrum. At the heart of it all, of course, is the Arcanostrum itself. Built across several acres of land at the very center of the city and atop the ancient ruins of the Warlock King Spidrahk’s old fortress, the Arcanostrum is a bewildering array of parapets, towers, spires, arches and halls. Originally consisting of nothing but the enormous gray expanse of the Gray Tower, which reaches a mind-boggling eight-hundred feet into the air and is nearly 100 yards in diameter, the complex has been added to and renovated innumerable times throughout history, leaving a place more labyrinth than living area, filled with secret passages, magical portals, illusions, and long-forgotten booby traps. Many apprentices joke that the hardest part about the training here isn’t in the classrooms but in the corridors. This is not far from the truth, as a handful of initiates and apprentices and even a full mage, from time to time, disappear into the shadows of the Arcanostrum, never to be seen again. What makes the Arcanostrum even more imposing is the sheer magical nature to its structure. Built out of both mageglass, enchanted stone, and even more obscure mystical materials, the walls shimmer, the arches seem impossibly high, the spires are smooth as glass, and the gargoyles actually watch as you pass. From a distance, the Arcanostrum never seems to look the same way twice. Access to the Arcanostrum is restricted to those accepted into its halls as a student, and visitors are never permitted. Though only a ten-foot iron fence stands between the would-be trespasser and the grounds, few are brazen enough to wander into this intimidating structure to be among its even more intimidating inhabitants.
Militarily speaking, most of Saldor is protected by an ancient, fifty-foot tall stone wall without towers or gatehouses. Covered over by ivy and apparently overgrown, the ancient look of the wall belies its defensive power. Anyone scrying for sorcery near the wall will certainly remark how brightly they glow, and the stories of the people bear the evidence out. Legends speak of how the wall can grow to five times its height or that its ivy comes to life and strangles the attacking armies with poisonous thorns and terrible speed. Still others speak of a ghostly army entombed within the wall since the time of the First Arahkan War which, should the Keeper call upon them, will rise from the grave to strike down the Arcanostrum’s foes. As Saldor has not been under siege for nearly 700 years, no one but the Keeper might know for sure.
Culture and People
Saldorians are among the most cosmopolitan and well-educated people in Alandar, and they aren’t shy about showing it. Since this is the only place in the human world where anyone can be schooled for free, the citizens of this small, powerful nation are very often thought of as arrogant, meddling know-it-alls who keep trying to tell everybody how to live their lives. Foreigners see Saldor as a utopia that produces the worst kind of naïve social activists, self-righteous thinkers, and intellectual trouble-makers who don’t understand the very problems they keep trying to fix. On the plus side, Saldorians tend to be intelligent and morally forthright individuals with a strong sense of ethics and a willingness to help people that is not common in other cultures around the world. Perhaps it has something to do with their relative wealth, but it is also thanks to the kind of person who is drawn to Saldor in the first place.
Saldor is a country of pioneers. It may sound ridiculous to say that, given how the nation is nestled in the very bosom of one of the most ancient homelands of humanity, but being a pioneer doesn’t necessarily mean living in a cabin on the outskirts of civilization and fighting bears with pokk knives. Saldor is an environment that fostered intellectual pioneers. Free thought, free expression, and the freedom to improve oneself are all hallmarks of the Saldorian mindset and, as it happens, quite alien to just about everywhere else. Whereas Galaspiners, Illini, or Eddoners might follow orders, obey the law, or uphold tradition without thought, a Saldorian would almost certainly ask the questions ‘why obey these orders?’ or ‘is this law just?’ or ‘what purpose do these traditions serve?’ Saldorians believe very strongly that the best way to preserve the Balance is to be aware of the repercussions of one’s actions or the actions of a group in general. Every Saldorian schoolchild learns the lessons of the Warlock Kings’ hubris, the madness of renegade wizards, and the danger of a ruthless tyrant. These parables point out the danger of doing things without thought to consequences and the terrible price to be paid for trying to attain absolute power. No one is perfect, no single person is ultimately wise, and no one has the right to wield absolute power over another. To do these things endangers the Balance and, therefore, the world. The side-effect of this philosophy is that Saldorians are willing to do or try just about anything in the interest of learning more about the world and about the way in which is functions. It is their responsibility to know as much as they can about the world so that they may become responsible citizens in it. To them, there is no absolute evil or good in the world — all things have their place and their purposes, and no one really thinks they are evil or does things for the purpose of being bad. A naïve point of view in the human world, perhaps, but one that the Saldorians cling to.
Most Saldorians live in cities or large towns, with only the barest part of their population working the vineyards and farms that exist in the heartland of the country. They are a city people, and as such are very cosmopolitan, very clever, but very soft. Many have joked about how Saldorian armies never take the field because they are worried about getting muddy or how you can tell Saldorians on the trail by the number of them it takes to pitch a tent. Still, they are a people very willing to try new things and understand that which is foreign to them, and though they might fail a good amount at first, they are fast learners and appreciative students of the world. This irrepressible curiosity has served their people well throughout the centuries, and it is one of the few things that all those who come to Saldor share. After all, why would one move to Saldor from hundreds or even thousands of miles away if one weren’t the curious or adventuresome type?
Much to the disorientation of many who move to Saldor, Saldorian culture has very little in the way of unifying customs, celebrations, or traditions. Saldor is, instead, a mish-mash of foreign cultures fused together in one great societal morass. While one family might follow the Eddoner tradition of the massive dinner meal, they might also have the Illini’s faith in the Hannite Church and the Galaspiner love of sport. The home next door, on the other hand, might speak Southron among themselves, worship the Saints of the Northon Church, and possess the fierce nationalism of the Akrallians. Every Saldorian is a hereditary hybrid of any number of peoples from around the world, and every Saldorian family celebrates its own mix of these cultures. The only unifying factor in this is the Saldorian acceptance of all who are different and the respect for those who do not follow their own way. Anyone claiming to be a ‘native’ Saldorian is a liar — everyone, at some point, was a transplant.
It has never been a better time to be a Saldorian. Though Sahand’s armies cut a fiery swathe through the north of the country and its armed forces were largely decimated by the wars, the aftermath of said wars has benefited the tiny nation more than any other. The changes to how sorcery was to be made available to the general population has made Saldor the primary trading partner in the West – its economy is the hub of all western commerce. The amount of gold flowing through its streets coupled with its largely non-hierarchical government and economy has grown its population and brought the best (and the greediest) to its shores. This has caused some conflict with the old guard – those wealthy families that trace their lineage through centuries of Saldorian history – it has benefited the place in the long run. Ihyn and Freegate have, thanks to their reliance on trade, become virtual satellite states to Saldor’s almighty Exchange, where king’s ransoms are lost and made every day. There are those who say that there can only be so long that the country can ride so high, but if that is so, no Saldorian augur is willing to say so. The future is bright and increasingly gilded with gold.
When the time came, Myreon was the first applicant called. She looked neither right nor left as she walked through the ranks of her wealthy, well-dressed peers. Myreon didn’t need to see the contessa’s face to know what she thought of her, nor was it a mystery what kind of toothy, artificial grin Gold Chain would sport as she passed. They had come back in twos and threes, surreptitiously clutching small pieces of jewelry or tiny vials of dark liquid, not speaking with each other save to offer vague commentary about the weather or the time. Myreon had glared at them all, but they hadn’t returned her look. They looked away, politely ignoring her existence. They were wealthy, and they had a lot of practice evading the gaze of poor people. They were good at it.
Passing through the iron gates of the Arcanostrum was like passing through a thin sheet of cold rain—the taste in the air changed, the temperature cooled, the sunlight became filtered and diffuse. Myreon had done this twelve times before, but even on the thirteenth she was still disoriented. She could never tell if the place she was now was actually on the other side of that gate or not—it looked nothing like the simple paved path one could see from the plaza beyond. It was a garden, of sorts, shaded over by old willow trees and featuring a perfectly circular pool with a rim of mossy stone and filled with yellow-green water.
There, standing around it in a half circle, were the five Archmagi—Cormyr of the Dweomer, Odric of the Fey, Salien of the Lumen, Lyrelle of the Ether, and Lord Defender Trevard. They wore simple cloaks and bore staves as unique as their persons—this one withered and bent, that one gleaming, straight, and true. The Lord Defender was wearing a suit of mageglass armor so spotlessly bright that it sparkled like silver in the twilight gloom. These were the five most powerful wizards in the world, the Keeper of the Balance himself excepted, and they were all staring at simple Myreon Alafarr, with her dog-eared old spellbook and her plain dress.
“You are aware of the test’s requirements?” Cormyr asked, his hawk-nose bouncing a little with every accented syllable.
Myreon nodded. “Yes.”
Salien smiled at her. “Very well,Ms.Alafarr—you may cast your spell.”
Myreon didn’t move. She had been planning what to say ever since Lyrelle left her on the plaza, but now she could think of nothing that wouldn’t sound like a whine or an excuse. She clenched her teeth to keep her chin from quivering.
Salien motioned for her to begin, her every movement soft and somehow fascinating, like the gentle motion of a swan on water. “Go ahead, Ms. Alafarr. No one expects much.”
Myreon’s eyes began to water. “I…I’m afraid I can’t cast a spell, Magus.”
Salien frowned. “Oh. Not a one?”
Odric tugged a twig out of his long, unkempt beard. “Hmph. Did you read the sign?”
Myreon nodded. “Yes, but…but I can’t.”
Lord Defender Trevard nodded slowly. “We understand, miss. It is a very challenging test—you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Tears were flowing down her cheeks at this point. Myreon was holding her breath so as not to sob. If only they weren’t being so nice about it. If only they mocked her like the others, then it would have been easier. Instead, she stood there feeling like she was being stabbed over and over in the guts, and there was nothing she could do but to stand there and take it. “I…I know…thank you.”
Lyrelle tapped her staff against the ground. “We will be making our final decisions for admission tomorrow, Ms. Alafarr. Please return then to hear our results.”
Odric raised his hand. “You should know, though, that not passing the final test weighs heavily upon our decision.”
Myreon nodded again and dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Yes. Thank you, magus. Thank you for passing me this far.”
Cormyr shook his head. “We promote on merit and merit alone, miss. You have nothing to thank us for—thank yourself.”
And that was it. Myreon left that magical garden and walked back into the plaza. All of the other applicants saw her face and didn’t need to ask her a thing. They all knew what had happened.
The walk back to the inn was long—longer than usual. It might have been due to the time of day; it was still early, and the streets of Saldor were bustling with all kind of traffic. Myreon, though, wasn’t thinking about the traffic. She was thinking about those glittering spires and ivy-clad halls to her back. She was thinking about the things she would never learn and the places she would never see. She was thinking about winter.
Drython Alafarr was sitting on the steps before the inn to meet her coming home. Mitos the innkeeper was with him, whittling a stick and chewing tobacco. Both men rose when they saw her coming.
“You’re home early!” Drython said, smiling at her.
Myreon didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to cry—particularly not in front of that creep, Mitos. “It was a different kind of test today.”
“Did you fail?” Mitos asked, spitting into the gutter.
Myreon glared at him. “That’s private.”
The innkeeper shrugged and went back to his whittling. His eyes, however, kept straying to Myreon’s bodice.
Her father seemed not to notice. “When do you find out how you did? Tomorrow morning?”
He clapped his daughter on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll do well, Myrrie. They’d be fools to fail you.”
Myreon shook her head, her eyes fluttering and mouth pressed into a thin line. Her father saw her expression and she knew he understood. He gathered her up in a warm hug and whispered. “Never give up, Myrrie. If they don’t want you, make ‘em look you in the eye and tell you so.”
Myreon knew he didn’t understand; to think that Archmage Lyrelle would have a problem telling her she failed to her face! The hug felt good, though, and she leaned into it.
When they broke apart, Mitos was still there. He spat again. “If you fail tomorrow, missy, there’s a job for you here, if you like. I pay serving girls better than most.” His eyes glittered over he quivering moustache.
Drython Alafarr gave the Ihynishman a curt nod. “Thank you for the offer, sir, but my Myrrie didn’t fail anything.”
Mitos shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
The next day was cold and wet, with a rainy fog the clung to the stones and the lampposts of the city early in the morning. Myreon wore her patched and faded wool shawl and was wet through and shivering by the time she reached the plaza again. This time, though, she was completely alone. She waited before the gates in the morning mist, glancing left and right for any sign of anyone else, but there was no one.
Had everybody failed? It was possible, she guessed. Probably the archmagi saw right through their fake sorcery and had failed them outright. Or maybe they had all been passed straight away; the archmagi had just looked each wealthy young person up and down and said ‘congratulations, you’re just the kind of clever, wealthy fellow we’re looking for’ and that was it.
It couldn’t be, though. Could it?
The gates opened, all by themselves. Beyond, a Defender of the Balance in full mageglass armor and firepike pointed at her. “Myreon Alafarr?”
“With me, miss, if you please.”
Myreon stepped through and, again, the cold shiver passed through her body and she found herself standing again in that strange garden. It wasn’t raining here, nor was it cold; it was precisely as it had been the day before. The archmagi were there, as well, looking exactly the same as well. This time, however, there was a chair. Archmage Lyrelle motioned for her to sit in it.
“It has been an unusual year for applicants, to be certain.” Lyrelle said, her voice firm and declarative, as though she were reading a prepared statement. “Each year we expect a certain number of applicants to cheat or attempt to cheat, but very seldom do so many of them do so.”
Myreon blinked. “They all failed?”
“They were all eliminated immediately.” Cormyr said, his lip curling. “As you would have been, had you taken Lyrelle’s little offer.”
“So, I was right—it was a…”
Lyrelle raised her hand. “If you please—I haven’t finished. Now, it was wise of you not to accept my offer to cheat, Ms. Alafarr, even if it did mean you failed the test. As some of your fellow applicants surmised—and correctly—the test was an impossible one. It is extremely unlikely for a person without any formal training to be able to perform a sorcerous act to our satisfaction. Indeed, we expressly do not want the progeny of hedge wizards and adherents of petty witchcraft infiltrating these halls.”
“Hmph.” Odric offered, folding his thick forearms beneath his bushy beard.
Lyrelle favored the Archmage of the Fey with a significant glance—one that apparently bore enough weight that Odric un-folded his arms—and continued. “There is a second part to the test, however. We wanted to see if the applicant was willing to fail.”
Myreon’s heart leapt. Could that mean…
“What we do here,” Lyrelle continued, “is train young men and women to manipulate the very fabric of creation itself to their whim. It is a considerable power and with it comes considerable responsibility. There are a great many shortcuts and work-arounds in the High Arts, and all of them are dangerous and unwise. We do not wish to instruct people who would rather cheat than fail—that recipe leads to disaster for all of us.”
Myreon waited, but Lyrelle appeared to have finished. “Ma..magus, does that mean…”
The archmagi all nodded.
“I PASSED!” Myreon leapt to her feet. “I’m an initiate?”
Salien came to her, arms spread. “Welcome, initiate. May your stay here be long and enlightening.”
Myreon hugged her—she was thin and bony, like a bird—but broke away. “I…I have to go.”
Lord Defender Trevard blinked. “Go? Where?”
“My father! I need to tell him!”
“Bah!” Odric barked. “The man already knows.”
“Why?” Myreon said, blinking at the old mage as the other came forward to shake her hand. “Who told him?”
Odric laughed. “My girl, a man doesn’t need a test to tell him his daughter is a winner. He knows. He knows deep in his bones.”
Myreon grinned more widely than she had in weeks. She felt like she could fly away—she was air, the sun. She was the summertime in a wool shawl.
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.
Myreon Alafarr’s father looked brittle and tired, like a rusty hinge about to give out. Still, he smiled his snaggle-tooth smile and handed her the battered old spellbook that had been handed down from generation to generation on the Alafarr vineyard. “You’ll do me proud, Myrrie, I know.”
Myreon smiled at him; it was difficult. “What about the bill, Papa?”
Drython Alafarr looked over his shoulder at the tiny room he and his daughter had shared the past week. Tucked under the eaves of the inn on its top floor, Myreon could only stand upright in one half of the room, and the other half was comprised of a stale straw mat that smelled of mildew and sweat. Her father had let her have it; he slept on the floor. “I’ll settle the bill; worry about the test—that’s what matters.”
“Don’t let that weasel cheat you.”
“Mitos isn’t a cheat—he’s been very kind to us.”
“Mitos is a sleaze, and he’s stuffed us in this hole and taken all our money because he knows you’re too kind a man to say anything.” Myreon glanced down the steep spiral stair to see if anyone was listening—it was still early, and the Ihynishman that owned the inn was seldom awake this early, but one could never be too careful. She’d noticed how the man had been watching her ever since they’d arrived. He would be sitting in a chair by the fire with her father every evening when she returned from the testing. He would be waxing his thick black moustache with his thin fingers while his eyes hugged her hips and slid up and down her backside. The leering only stopped when his wife would happen into the room, and then he would let his eyes flutter up to the rafters or into the fire and continue to nod along with whatever her father was saying. Myreon knew, though. She knew what kind of man he was.
Her father sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “At least my daughter thinks I’m kind. Hurry up—go. You’ll be late.”
Myreon nodded. The knot of anxiety just beneath her breastbone tightened another quarter turn; when she left, it really would be time to face the final test to enter the ranks of the Arcanostrum, the greatest school of sorcery in the world. “Good bye, Papa.”
Her father hugged her tightly. “Don’t be frightened. I believe in you, no matter what happens. Hold your head high, no matter what—it shows good breeding. Do me proud.”
Myreon nodded again, unable to say anything else, and went out into the street.
The Alafarrs were once well-to-do vintners before the war, and Myreon remembered her father and uncles doing well by their families and never wanting for much. The war had changed that, as wars so often do, and left them barely able to keep what little land they still owned. Myreon knew her father had spent the whole of the family’s savings on this trip to Saldor, and just for her. If she failed or if she passed the test today, they would have a difficult winter. She could scarcely stand the idea of her father and uncles and mother going hungry because of her. “I will not fail.” She repeated to herself, over and over, just as she had every morning for the past two weeks. The knot in her chest tightened another quarter turn.
Myreon’s father was too poor to afford an inn inside the OldCity; they couldn’t even afford one just outside. They had been forced to stay in a run-down neighborhood in Crosstown, all the way across the river. It took Myreon the better part of an hour to wind her way through the tangled cobblestone streets, across the river on a water taxi or flat-bottom ferry, and then through the ivy-clad gates into the OldCity, where the impossibly tall towers of the Arcanostrum stood at its heart. Every day the sorcerous academy looked different, and every day Myreon made her pilgrimage to its gates, gazing up at its scintillating parapets and gleaming spires every few seconds. All the while, inside her head, she kept chanting, “I will not fail, I will not fail.”
Each year in late autumn, the magi of the Arcanostrum held a test to admit new initiates into their order. Applicants went through a variable number of tests, depending on who was doing the testing, with each test growing more challenging than the last. This year there were thirteen tests—the most in decades, they said—and today was the thirteenth. Where there had been literally thousands of applicants, there were now only a dozen or so, of whom Myreon was one.
Her competitors were the sons and daughters of ancient noble families or wealthy guildmasters, tutored since birth and afforded every luxury. They, Myreon had no doubt, were staying in fancy hotels or in private villas mere steps from the gates of the Arcanostrum. They had a team of people coaching them—perhaps even magi from the Arconstrum itself who were their friends and relatives. They weren’t distracted by lecherous innkeepers or destitute fathers or the chance of starving this winter. The Arcanostrum rarely took more than three or four new students a year—what were the chances she could overcome and…
“No!” She cursed at herself. “I will not fail. I will not fail. I will not fail.”
When Myreon finally made it to the wrought iron gates of the Arcanostrum, about ten other applicants were already there, chattering eagerly to each other. If they noticed her, they quickly turned away. Some sniggered, and Myreon assumed they were laughing at her. Others, though, looked worried. Some looked positively pale, as though they might pass out at any moment. One girl in an expensive dress vomited into a bag held by her manservant.
Myreon tapped the girl on the shoulder. “Excuse me?”
The girl glared at her. “Did you just touch me?” The manservant moved to block Myreon from physically accessing the girl again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
The girl pointed to her tiara. “I am a contessa! You don’t tap me on the shoulder like some barmaid.”
Myreon set her jaw. “Look, I just wanted to know what’s going on.”
The reminder of why they were there seemed to hit the contessa all over again, and the color drained from her face. “Emile! The bag!” She spun around and the manservant held the bag up as the rich girl heaved the contents of her probably very expensive breakfast inside. For the first time in two weeks, Myreon was glad she hadn’t eaten anything.
“Hey, girl.” Another applicant—a young man maybe two or three years older than her and wearing the livery of an Eretherian noble house—pointed at the gate. “There’s a note about it there.”
Myreon looked where he was pointing. Pinned to the gates was a note that read “The final test will begin an hour later than normal. You will be asked to perform a spell; come prepared.”
The tension in Myreon’s chest tightened another full turn. Her heart started pounding and she felt suddenly faint. “Cast…cast a spell?”
The young man shrugged. “I know. I’m pretty well cooked—I can’t cast a jot.”
Myreon stepped away from the gate, trying to keep tears from welling up in her eyes. Her whole body seemed to shake at once. A spell? She couldn’t actually cast a spell! That was why she was coming here! How could they expect her to cast a spell? It wasn’t possible!
Frantically, she tore open the little family spellbook. It was a collection of silly rhymes and simple curses—no real sorcery at all, just superstition and mummery with a little bit of common sense. She had been using it to keep notes in the margins and that was all, but now she paged through it furiously, looking for a spell anywhere that might serve. Nothing. Nothing at all. The only real spells in there were too complicated by half and written in a tongue she barely understood. “Oh no. Oh no.”
Myreon knew, beyond doubt, that she was going to fail.