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Qandra looked up guiltily from where she sat next to the complacent cow, blue apron spattered with fresh milk as was the hay around her. Her dark, almost purple eyes concealed all emotion, but a small quiver of her thin, pale lips betrayed her dismay.
"I -- I did not mean for the cow to kick the bucket. I was, well, I suppose I - "
"You were not paying attention. Obviously." The principal sniffed her thin, bony nose in disdain, making no move to help clean up the mess. She had not earned the mentor's title of Jei by being amiable.
"If you wish to remain here and learn sorcery and Ki Chu, you must do your chores, instead of this shoddy excuse for work." The stocky, imposing woman stared pointedly down at the apprentice and the damp hay, and then departed the small stable with a swish from her violet sorceror's cloak. Turning the bucket right-side up half-heartedly with a thin but well-toned arm, Qandra ignored the mess and resumed milking the cow. Let the old cretin worry if her barn stinks. She tried to concentrate on the plish-splish sound of milk squirting into thng into the bucket, but that monotony was not enough to hold back the countless thoughts she had from the events of her one-month residency at Jei Shah'na's training center.
She had come after her half-brother, Jadin, went half-crazy, destroying the barn and half-killing his own parents. Everyone pretended not to know why, but the troubles of Qandra's family were well known throughout the village. Jadin and his parents argued constantly about Qu'Tanus' political situation. While Mother and Father strongly believed that the old monarchy was best, Jadin had thrown himself behind a violent faction that had tried to replace the royal family with a democratic board of the faction's choosing. Qandra thought a democratic board was a good idea, but most of the people the faction wanted to put up were well-known smugglers and vagabonds who were tired of the High Sorceror's law.
The things they promised did sound appealing -- lower taxes, lower tariffs, and more open trading, but the words had a false ring to Qandra and her parents. It was fine when Jadin just talked about his new ideas, but after he actually went to one of the meetings -- well, the argument that resulted between Jadin and his parents resulted in one less barn and a lot of bruises on both sides, in addition to one less daughter, for Qandra left the morning after.
Was her situation any improved? she thought wryly as the milk plish-splished into the bucket. SheShe would have to say yes, for in one month here she had learned more than she had at home in the last ten years. Just a month ago she thought "magic" was something only the High Sorceror and maybe a few select others could do, but certainly not common people like herself! She smiled with pride as she remembered the first time she was able to mentalize, concentrating her mind on changing reality to turn a page in a book from two feet away. A weak demonstration, to be sure, but it was something. It was only a week afterward that she managed to win her first Ki Chu sparring match. With a backwards kick to the side of the head and a sharp jab to the stomach, her opponent was off-balance enough for her leg sweep to be effective.
Finally the last bucket was full. Six buckets, one for each minute she was late. She put the stool away and closed the barn doors behind her. After giving the buckets to the cook and washing and hanging up her apron, she reported to Jei Shah'na that she had finished her work. The woman nodded and said,
"Let that be a lesson to you, that you might not be late for classes again." Qandra nodded. "Dismissed." Qandra spread her hands before her and bowed her head in the submissive gesture of ri before she all but ran out of the mistress' office and to her mentalism class. She liked her mentalism teacher much better than Jei Shah'na, who also taught Ki Chu. The sorceror was a mysterious middldle-aged man, with droopy silver eyebrows above twinkling green eyes, and thick, unruly dark violet hair, streaked with silver and old age, cropped short just above chin length. In addition to sorcery and mentalism, Zarion taught history and logic. He told some of the best stories about Qu'Tanus of old, when peace was only broken by exciting happenings, such as Nebran raiders in the north, or a powerful gridan taking up residence in the western deserts. These problems were quickly taken care of by the brave deisho who served the High Sorceror in times such as these. Now, however, they seemed only advisors to the ancient and mystical monarch who had been ruling ever since even Qandra's parents could remember. Tedious problems such as governmental corruption and smuggling in the eastern ports often went unchecked. Qandra reached Zarion's classroom and sat down eagerly on one of the hard, wooden benches to listen to the professor.
His lesson today was about air. Not the sky, or breathing, he explained, but what was in air and how to manipulate it.
"Air is made of many small particles, like dust, and if one can visualize those particles, it is almost simple to mentalize changes to them." Seeing many of the students' puzzled appearances, he continued.
"These particles are like flies," Zarion illustrated, drawing small ovals with wings on the chalkboard, "and if you put many flies in a small jar, what happappens? The flies move faster as they seek an escape, and they therefore hit the sides of the jar more often." Several of the young men and women nodded -- flies were a universal metaphor and easily understood.
"What happens when two things rub together or when they collide?," he asked, rubbing his hands together for emphasis.
"Heat," a few of the students answered.
"Yes, HEAT!," he shouted with a grin, startling the class. "And if you can visualize those particles, those flies, if you will, flying around and bumping into each other, and creating heat, then you can do many things. To find out just what, make sure you do tonight's reading: pages 35 to 40. Do not try any of the new material, though, until we get a chance to discuss this further. Dismissed." As the students gathered their books and headed out of the classroom, Zarion motioned for Qandra to stay and talk with him for a moment.
"Qandra," he began, sitting on his small desk in the corner, "you are progressing very well in all of your classes. You can mentalize basic spells, and you know the fundamentals of Ki Chu. I think you are almost ready to advance, but you need to complete a few tasks first." Qandra nodded and smiled slightly at the graying man to acknowledge his compliments.
"What must I do?"
"There are three requirements. You must learn one new spell, obtain a silver staff (through ethical means, of course), and fulfill the duthe duties that will be presented to you." He held up a hand to ward off her unasked question. "You will know what to do. You have one week, and, once out of the city, you must not return until the end of the week. If you choose to accept, you will depart tomorrow. If you choose not to accept, you will also depart this place tomorrow -- and return home. Choose quickly, but choose wisely." Qandra thought -- for about one second.
"I'll go," she stated, almost defiantly. The scholar studied her for a moment with amusement until she asked, using the proper respectful title, "Jei Zarion, what happens if I fail?"
"Then you must wait one year before retaking the test. If you fail the second time you will leave here forever." An entire year! Qandra stood up straighter. It did not enter her mind that she could possibly fail twice.
"I will not fail."
"Good. Report to the kitchen at sunrise tomorrow for three day's rations and further instructions. You are dismissed." Qandra spread her hands quickly to make ri and left, full of thoughts and wonder. How can I prepare for a task that hasn't even been assigned yet? How will I know what my quest is? These and other thoughts scrambled through her head as she climbed the stairs to the women's quarters. Upon reaching the cramped room she shared with three other apprentices, she promptly began stuffing her pack with a few necessary items to take with her. A A sturdy cloak, a change of clothing, a few slightly stale rolls she had saved, her hunting knife, her tinderbox, and a blanket. She also set her sturdiest breeches and shirt out for the next morning.
It was still light out, so she was not about to go to sleep. Instead, she opened her mentalism book to the night's assignment and began to study one of the applications of being able to work with air. Apparently, there were three methods of making fire, two of which used air. The first method was to compress the air around a candle wick or tinder, and somehow it would burst into flame. This method tended to be rather violent and unpredictable, however. Another technique was to rapidly agitate the air around the wick until it grew warm enough to combust. That method, too, was not very stable. The hardest and most predictable way was simply to visualize the fire so deeply that it became real. The whole principle of mentalization was based on that same routine, that one can use one's strength of mind and will to impose one's imagination on reality, as opposed to sorcery, where one draws on others' energy to change reality. However, it is much easier to mentalize something you usually can't see. For example. if a person is visualizing air particles moving faster and faster, and then she accidentally looks at the air, she won't expect to see many particles of air moving about, so when she doesn't, it won't affect her mentalizatiion. However, if a person is trying to mentalize, say, a roaring fire, and then he slips out of his visualization too early, he will expect to see a fire, but he won't, and so his work would be lost. Qandra could so far only mentalize things she couldn't see, like the gust of air she used to flip a book's pages.
Reading about these different methods was no substitute for action and experimentation, however. She lay the book down on the bed beside her and decided to try the first method. I'll be very careful, she promised herself. As she centered her candle on the small table, she began to mentalize the air particles around the candle as flies in a jar, as Zarion said. She imagined a sort of spherical barrier to contain the particles, and then she began to visualize it compressing. She could almost feel particles bouncing against her illusory bubble-barrier, but that was not enough. After she compressed the air still more, her air bubble began to vibrate. Her almond-shaped eyes were wide in concentration, and perspiration dampened her dark hair. She strained to pressurize the air bubble. Just a little further . . . She was so deep in concentration that she did not hear the shlick sound as the door opened, nor did she hear the small gasp, but the calmly intense shout that resounded throughout the room hit her like a crossbow bolt.
The bottom half of her breeches were soaked fro from kneeling on the damp, torch-lit floor of the dining hall, and the bluish tinge under her eyes grew darker as the night progressed and she still knelt scrubbing the floor. More than once she had fallen asleep while dipping her rag into the bucket of water, but each time she was rudely awakened by a splash as her head fell into the water in the bucket. Zarion just happened to be walking by during Qandra's little "experiment," and charged in when he sensed the reality-twisting that came inherently from mentalizing. Qandra knew she deserved punishment for disobeying Zarion's warning about the new material - she could have set the entire training center on fire - but scrubbing floors for twelve hours through the night, well that was rather extreme. No matter that it was a lenient punishment compared to the one Mistress Shah'na had in mind - kicked out of the training center indeed! - she still begrudged every minute of it. She was afraid Master Zarion would acquiesce to Shah'na's idea and that her future as a sorceror or a mentalist would be shattered. They were still going to allow her to embark on her quest tomorrow, thank goodness.
A misty grey light began to fill the room as morning crept into the small, high windows of the dining hall. Finally. She began to straighten and then winced as her back and neck cracked, resenting having to budge after remaining so long in one position. She stood slowly, ankles protesting after kneeling for twelve hours, as she tried to wring some of the water out of her breeches and tunic. Her instructions were explicit -- at dawn, report to the kitchen to continue your quest. Qandra shook here head. Here, infractions were forgotten almost as easily as they were incurred.
After stopping by her room to change her soggy clothes and pick up her satchel, she reached the training center's small but adequate kitchen and received a few slices of bread, a pouch of nuts, three slices of dried meat, and a skin of water from the cook. The small portions fit into her satchel too easily.
"What?! This couldn't sustain me for more than a day or two! How am I supposed to survive for a week on this?"
"You live, and you give thanks for food I give you! You got problems with rations, you take to Jei Shah'na," the cook said, snickering at the thought of anyone complaining about something as trivial as rations to Jei Shah'na. "Now, go, else I tell Jei and you see how far you can walk after she is through with you." Qandra only scowled at the snickering cook and left up the stairs to the principal's office. Before entering, however, she neutralized her expression and, sighing, pushed open the heavy wooden door.
Shah'na sat at her desk, reading a tome whose title Qandra could not quite make out. The principal did not look up at Qandra's entrance.
"You have finished your punishment." Shah'nahah'na still did not look up.
"You have your instructions."
"You have your provisions."
"Yes, yes!" Shah'na frowned sanctimoniously over her book at the young apprentice until Qandra murmured, "My apologies, Jei."
"Go." Shah'na returned to her book, and Qandra blinked in surprise at the brevity of the command, then hurriedly made ri and backed out of the room, bumping into the open door on her way out. She was now officially on her quest.
Spilt Milk (C) 1997-2000 by Andrea M. Landaker