Firian-Rising_05 - ebook cover (final).j

Firian Rising

Chapters 1-2

Chapter 1

Firian

Firian inched forward on his elbows to see over the ridge. Rocks cut into his arms, but he barely noticed the pain. When he reached the edge, he crouched down in the moon-shadow of a large tree to his right. Scanning the dark valley carefully, he saw what he had been hunting: a mountain-ghost. It glimmered faintly under the shadow of another tree. Then it drifted on across an open field, unaware of his presence.

His stomach flipped. The ghost was huge and tall, with fierce fire in its eyes. Firian squared his shoulders. Maybe others would be afraid. Not him.

He moved his eyes a fraction to the left, expecting to find his friend Caedmon lying flat on the tough grasses beside him. But no one was there.

Wait, where was he?

Firian spun his head around, only to see Caedmon standing sullenly a little way down the hill.

“What are you doing?” Firian whispered.
“I don’t feel like doing this,” he said in his normal speaking voice.
“But right over there,” he hissed, “I found the—”
Caedmon idly picked up a rock and chucked it at the tree where Firian was hiding. The rock

pinged above him as he ducked. Chunks of bark pattered on his head.
He turned back to the ghost. To his horror he found that it had discovered their position and

was rushing toward them, faster than any man could run. The edges of its shimmering cloak now burned with a bright light.

“Idiot!” he screamed as he jumped up and ran back down the hill, dragging Caedmon along with him.

They couldn’t outrun it this way. They’d be killed.

“Firian! Firian, stop! I don’t want to play this game anymore. Let me go!” Caedmon wrenched Firian’s hand off his arm and jogged to a halt.

The night and the mountains melted away, transforming into the bright, stark dirt that hurt Firian’s eyes. Low brown buildings sprang up here and there, the nearest one facing the clearing where a group of children played. He was back at the trade schools of Raewhith.

“I don’t feel like playing this anymore. I don’t feel like doing anything,” he repeated. “Are you sick?” asked Firian. After all, Caedmon hadn’t come to school the day before. Looking irritated and tired, he scrunched his forehead down. “Maybe. I don’t know.” “Is that why you weren’t here yesterday?”

Caedmon shot him a black look and stalked away to be by himself.

It was just a question.

Firian was alone again, and fighting a mountain-ghost wasn’t as fun by himself. He imagined

other adventures all the time at home. Here at least, he could play with other people. Sure, sometimes he got hurt when he imagined battles, but it was still more fun than trade school. He just couldn’t let his father see his scars.

One of his teachers, Mr. Harlenn, stepped out of the small school building. “Come on,” he cried, clapping his hands. “Break is over. It’s time for lesson.”

With many groans and derogatory remarks, all the children followed him inside. Firian only realized that he had forgotten to eat lunch after he had been swept inside. Somewhere out in the little dirt clearing there was some bread and cheese and even a cookie that his mother had made. Now ants were probably eating it and he wouldn’t be allowed to have anything else until later that night. If only he’d stowed the cookie away in his pocket.

Sighing, he slid down to his section of the long, pockmarked bench. The rough-hewn bench had never been comfortable, but he suspected that that was all part of Mr. Harlenn’s plan to get them to pay attention.

His teacher walked slowly up the aisle between benches, inspecting the boys. His eyes rested a little longer on Firian than on the rest. Firian didn’t look back, and instead reached under the seat and took out his lead piece and something to write on. Some drawings were left from the last time he’d sat in that class, so he scratched them out before anyone could see. The teachers thought he had an unhealthy imagination, but he thought it was much more enjoyable than the real world of overbearing teachers.

“We’re going to continue talking about multiplication today,” Mr. Harlenn said.

This information would probably be important when Firian made glass like his father, but now it was unbearably boring. After all, he was only eleven and his apprenticeship was a year away.

“If you sell seven items for three tokens each, how many tokens have you earned?”

Mr. Harlenn called on another student for the answer, so Firian focused instead on the globes. Once he had seen his teacher blowing through a long tube with a glowing glob of glass on the end. Slowly, the glob expanded like a soap bubble until it looked like an eggplant. Before that, he had thought glass was always solid, like a sort of rock that his father cut into windows. But it could change and morph into all kinds of shapes. Sometimes he felt like asking if he could try shaping the fiery glass in a new way. But no one would let him do that. The globes were for the palace of Brithnem, the capital of the Western Kingdom. Raewhith, on the very outskirts of the Kingdom, separated from Brithnem by mountains, still had to do their part to support the huge nation.

Next to him, Ewin was drawing squares, triangles, swirls, eyes. Firian leaned over to him. “Do you know where Caedmon was yesterday?” he breathed.

“He was being tested,” came the quiet reply.
“Why?”
“To see if he was good enough to be a Tanyu, stupid.”
“A Tanyu?”
Ewin nodded slightly. “Before he left, he made it sound like he was a Tanyu already.

Everyone wanted to slug him by the end of the day.” A smug smile flashed across his mouth. “He didn’t make it. He won’t even talk about it.”

“I know that,” said Firian. “You stay if you’re accepted.” “Aw, he deserved it, after talking that way yesterday.” “Have you ever been tested, Ewin?”
“No.”

Caedmon hit him on the back of the head. “Yes, you have, you liar!” Ewin turned very red.
“Sorry,” Firian said.
“Shut up,” Ewin replied.

“Ewin!” Mr. Harlenn said next. “If you’ve earned twenty-one tokens, how many coins does that equal? And how many coins will you need to earn to create the same amount of stock?”

Firian bit his lip and looked down. The first question was easy, but the second was ridiculous. Did Mr. Harlenn ever say how much the items cost to make in the first place? He didn’t think so.

There was a short pause. “I think Firian should answer that question, sir,” Ewin said. “Why is that?”
“Because he was making me talk in your class, Mr. Harlenn.”
“Is that so, Firian?”

“He thinks it is, sir,” he replied, tight-lipped. He clamped his jaw tight and looked down. The room felt hot, and he twirled the lead piece in his fingers.

The teacher peered down at him. “Well. Same question.”

“Two coins, one token, sir.” He took a breath and felt anger choke him. He knew he should stop there, but he couldn’t. “You never said how much the items cost to make so there’s no way I can answer the second part. Make your questions clearer next time, sir. Most of the time you don’t even teach us the answer before you ask. You just assume we weren’t listening to anything you were saying, sir.”

A few boys giggled under their breath at his boldness.
Mr. Harlenn set his mouth in a hard line and lifted an eyebrow. His eyes became flecks of

black stone and his rigid body was framed starkly against the wall of globes. “I believe that you want to leave this room as much as we want you to,” he said coldly, pointing toward the door. “You may go now.”

Everyone watched Firian as he deliberately set his things back under the bench and left, closing the door behind him.

The air was colder and less musty outside. With calculated breathing, he marched to the nearest tree and punched it as hard as he could. The bark scraped the skin off his knuckles but the pain helped to soothe his rage.

It wasn’t fair. He’d told the truth. But his teachers never wanted the truth.

He looked around. He couldn’t go home early again. So he found his lunch in a little grove of trees. The bread was a little dirty but ants weren’t swarming it. Even the cookie was still there. He stuffed it in his mouth whole. A few crumbs spilled from his open mouth as he chewed. His mother would have been angry with him for eating his sweets first, but he didn’t care.

Gripping the rest of his lunch, he took everything past his trade school and across the dirt road. Several shops where real tradesmen worked lined the street. He kept his face aimed straight ahead toward his sister’s school, but he still felt the eyes of Rhys, the town’s rope and basket maker, following him. Sometimes he told on him, the sneak.

Finally out of sight of the road, he found a stump where he could eat the rest of his food in peace.

Several hours later, boys and girls started pouring out of the school buildings, most of them eager to be gone. Firian stopped sucking his stinging knuckles and perked his ears for the sound of his sister’s voice. He stood up, dusting off the seat of his pants, and ran to entrance of the girls’ school.

There she was, saying goodbye to a few friends. Brett was always surrounded by friends. He didn’t like them. Brett had been his best friend for a long time when they were younger, but now she was almost thirteen and had other friends.

He ran up to her, ignoring the other girls. “Come on, Brett. Time to go home,” he said as he began to lead her away.

“You’re out early,” she replied, pacing after him. She waved backward to a girl with short black hair, and then jogged up to match his fierce pace.

“I walked fast,” he said, irritated that she would mention it.

Her soft brown eyes filled with concern. He had her full attention now. “Is something wrong, Firian?”

“No. I’m fine.”
“Did you get out early again?”
How does she always know? “It’s not your business what I do,” said Firian sullenly. Pursing her lips, Brett tossed her long glossy hair back over her shoulder. “That’s the third

time this month. Mother and Father won’t be happy about that.”
“They won’t learn about it.”
A strain passed over her fine features and Firian knew she was torn between siding with her

him or their parents.
“I’ll let you have all the rest of the cookies if you won’t say anything about this one time,” he

said.
“Well... all right,” she conceded, breaking into a smile. “But if you do it again, you’ll be in

trouble. What do you do to get the teachers so mad all the time?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. They just don’t like me.”

“Sometimes I think that Miss Dasa doesn’t like me, but she never throws me out of her class.”

Brett didn’t understand. Firian shook his head, wishing he could get angry with her, but... he loved her too much. Just like everybody else.

“You just don’t understand,” he told her. “I don’t like trade school and they don’t like me there either. I wish I could be twelve now and get away from all those people.” But then he would have to be Father’s apprentice for six years before he’d be considered a man and could start his own shop. He squinted down at the road. Awful choices.

“I’m sorry, Firian,” she said, and she meant it.

Cresting the top of the hill, a horse and rider clomped toward them, pulling a cart behind. Firian grabbed Brett’s hand and dragged her to the side of the road. Her face twisted in an amused grimace, but she went with him anyway. Firian put himself between her and the rider as it passed.

From the top of that hill, they could see their little cottage. It sat back from the road, but part of the roof peeked out from the trees. Small, with a wooden roof and a wooden door, it was just like all the others in the little town of Raewhith. Behind it was a small garden where they grew vegetables and herbs.

Firian bustled inside and kicked off his dusty shoes.

Mother set down the rag she had been running over the furniture and gave them both a wan smile. She wasn’t an emotional woman, didn’t hug them as his friends’ mothers did. Instead, she stayed careful and still. She glanced at Brett and then at Firian a moment. Seeming preoccupied, she picked up the cloth again. A hint of pink colored her gray cheeks. “You better start dinner, Brett. Your father will be home soon.”

Brett dashed through to the second room, toward the food pantry and the stove. Firian tromped after her. She busied herself with the food and he headed toward the small pile of firewood in the corner. It wasn’t very cold, but Father always liked to have a fire going.

He stacked the wood in one arm, a piece at a time. Clonk, clonk. How much could he carry? One time he had carried seven pieces at once. Maybe he could do better. The load grew until it reached eye level. His muscles strained and he finally had to use the other arm to stop all the wood from dropping.

He spun around, just able to see over the top log. The knife Brett was holding stopped in midair above a handful of spring onions. Her eyes widened, exasperated, but a smile spread across her face as she turned to chopping again.

The door creaked open. Father was home.

Firian only hesitated a moment before hefting his load of firewood into the front room. He chanced a look at Father. His tough, thin frame looked bent like a spring. He rarely smiled, but today his lips were pursed. A bad sign.

Mother smiled politely and looked around the room a little as if to present it to him. Father followed her eyes and apparently found everything in his house satisfactory.

“How was your day at the shop, dear?” Mother asked, moving some of her ashy hair away from her face.

At the fireplace, Firian tried to set down his load quietly, but the freshly cut wood went tumbling, crashing out of his arms. He cringed and caught his breath. Not daring to look up, he started putting the pieces gently into the fireplace, his stomach in knots.

“Not very good,” Father said with gritted teeth. More of his materials must have been stolen by thieves from Archer’s Point again. Coke for the furnace, molds, cooling windowpanes.... He

knew his family couldn’t afford to lose any more. And whenever there was trouble at the shop, they felt it at home.

Firian braced himself.
“Hello, Father!” Brett’s voice.
“Hello, darling.” Father’s voice softened just a little as he greeted his favorite child. Sweet

Brett never contradicted him. Ever since Firian could remember, Father had never acted like he hated her.

With Brett in the room, Firian could stand up and turn around. Father’s tired gaze strayed over to him.
“Yanon,” Mother said quietly, “I have—”
“What is that, Firian?”

Father was looking at Firian’s scabbed knuckles. One of them was bleeding again. Firian put his hands behind his back, but it was too late.

“How have you hurt yourself? Come here. Let me see,” Father said, coming forward and gesturing with a finger.

Firian’s pounding heart hurt against his ribcage. Having no other choice, he presented his hands to his father.

Mother sucked in a startled gasp. “Oh, Yanon, I’m sorry! How could I have missed...?” Father hummed, like the low growl of an animal. “How did this happen, Firian?”
Firian’s blood was pumping. “I...” – he felt the attention of all his family – “I fell,” he said. “And only scraped your hands?” Father raised a dark eyebrow. “You didn’t get in a fight

again, did you? You didn’t hurt anyone?”
He always seemed to get into fights with his schoolmates. And he would win, which got him

into more trouble. That wasn’t the case this time, but how could he tell them that he had punched a tree? It sounded stupid now. Besides, then they would find out why he was so angry and he couldn’t let that happen.

“Brett, darling? Do you know why he is hurt?” Father asked, turning to her.

All the cookies, Brett. Firian put as much meaning in his look as he could muster without drawing attention to himself. It was a large sacrifice for him for her silence. He knew she could easily assume why he had bloody knuckles.

“Brett?”

Seeing the indecision on his sister’s face, Mother turned back to Firian, her face drawn with disappointment. “You didn’t get dismissed from school again, did you?”

“Did you?” pressed his father.
Firian hesitated.
Striking him hard across the face, Father snapped, “Answer me, Firian. Did you?”
“Yes, I did, sir,” he mumbled.
Both his parents rolled their eyes in disbelief. “Firian!” Even Brett seemed amazed that he

confessed.
He planned on taking at least a few cookies now.
Father seized one of his injured hands, and tossed it away in disgust. “What did you do?” “I answered a question correctly, sir.”
“Firian! No one asked you to leave for answering a question correctly. I’ve had enough of

this. What did you do to your hands?” “I hit something, sir.”
“What did you hit?”

“A... tree.”
“A tree?”
“I was angry, sir.”
Father huffed out a disgusted breath. “Firian, quit talking back or I’ll pull you out of the

school!”
“I would like that, sir,” Firian murmured.
“That’s enough!” Father roared, grabbing him roughly and dragging him across the room.

His fingers dug deep into his thin shoulder. “No dinner tonight!”
He hurled Firian away in exasperation. When Firian glanced back over his shoulder, he saw

Mother backing away from Father as he stalked toward their room.
“How did I get such a scut for a son?” he growled, disappearing into the room.
“Firian, go to your room,” Mother said quietly, picking up the rag and starting to clean once

again.



Chapter 2

Firian

“Firian! Come down here!”
Firian jolted awake. Wiping the drool from his face, he ran out of his room.
He found his parents eating at the table with Brett. The room smelled like cabbage and

cumin, which set his mouth watering. Mother gestured for him to sit down. Could he have dinner after all? That never happened once he was sent to his room. He glanced at Father, who regarded him with an undefinable emotion.

What’s going on?

“Something came for you today,” he said, edging a piece of paper across the table with a finger. His mouth pinched in what might have been a smile as he looked up from his meal.

Firian eyed them all as he took the note.

To Firian Kess, son of Yanon and Lithia Kess.

Firian shall come to the watchtower in Raewhith tomorrow afternoon. From there, he will be taken to the Tanyuin Academy to be tested for Ability. The presence of both Yanon and Lithia shall be required as well.

Sias Jairon Tanyuin Head

Firian clutched the paper until it crumpled. Tested for the Academy. With his greatest dream in front of him, he felt suddenly terrified. This chance could be taken away as easily as it was given. His face went hot, then clammy. He looked up, barely breathing.

His family was all smiling—Brett biggest of all. She knew what this meant to him.

“You are going to be tested to become a Tanyu, Firian. Do you know what that means?” asked Father, matter of fact.

He nodded. It was everyone’s dream to live the exciting life of a Tanyuin warrior, someone who mattered. It was the highest honor that anyone could get, so it was no wonder that the boys who were not chosen—like Caedmon—were somber and moody when they had to face their friends.

Tanyu. The word tasted like adrenaline. Is it... possible?

“We’ll take you,” Father said, “but don’t get your hopes up. The Tanyu are warriors. Disciplined. Respected. They don’t take boys like you.”

Mother had tears in her eyes, happy despite his Father’s negativity. She rarely showed this much emotion. At least she believed a little in his chances.

“If” – Father scoffed the word – “they let you in, you’d have to leave everything.” He took a thoughtful bite of cabbage. Firian guessed he was weighing the merits of that idea. Father would lose a worker but also rid himself of a burden. Having a son in the Tanyuin Academy would also be a reason to be proud of Firian, maybe for the first time.

Father looked at Brett and Mother, giving them leave to speak.

“Oh, Firian!” Brett cried. “It’s wonderful. You could do what you’ve always wanted— fighting for us and flying and everyone, everyone in the Kingdom would love you...”

“Now Brett, darling, flying is only a rumor,” said Mother. “But this is amazing! Not everyone gets asked to come! They must think you’re very special.”

Firian nodded. “We’re going tomorrow, sir?”
“Of course,” Father answered. “Remember, not everyone gets chosen. But for some reason

you got an invitation, so do everything you can to get in.”
Brett sniffed and kept clearing her throat. “It’s wonderful. I’m so happy for you, Firian,” she

said, a slight break in her voice. She wiped her shadowed eyes. “I hope they choose you.” “We all do,” said Mother, holding Father’s hand on the table.

________

Firian could have said a thousand things as he walked to the watchtower with his parents, but he kept quiet, glancing occasionally at Father.

Had the watchtower always been so far?

No one knew anything about the Tanyuin arts, really, even though the others in trade school pretended to know sometimes. He grew up hearing vague stories of battles, flying, and other worlds he could reach only by closing his eyes. Sometimes he imagined that he was in a world like that, but those were just his games.

He closed his eyes to calm down. A Tanyu! The possibility was real!

Now he just needed to be brilliant enough, strong enough, and have the Talent. He had no idea how they would figure out those things, since he wasn’t sure exactly what the Talent was, but it didn’t matter. He would die if he had to go back to his schoolmates dejected like Caedmon.

He would pass, no matter what he had to do.

They turned a corner and the tall stone outpost slid slowly into view through the trees. Firian sucked in a breath.

The building grew as they approached, getting taller and taller. You? it laughed. But you’re that little boy who’s failing trade school. How can you hope to become a Tanyu if you can’t even

do that?

Firian stuck out his chest as they came to the guard-flanked double doors. The walls seemed to loom not straight upward but over him as he passed through.

Even your parents like your sister better than they like you.

At that, his eyes stung, but only for a moment. He couldn’t have the Tanyu see him cry. After all, he was far too old to be crying over silly little things. He closed his eyes and imagined that he was already a Tanyu, the very best. He saw himself walking through the same corridor, except now it was filled with people, all giving him respect. They thought he was worth something. He smiled in his vision and nodded to the people right and left of him as they stopped going about their business to bow and touch their foreheads in admiration.

Then one older man looked up. Straight into his eyes. “Firian?” he asked, an amazed smile forming on his lips.

Firian’s eyes shot open and the vision fled. What was that? His imagination never talked back to him before. He had to calm down. He was far too nervous.

“Watch where you’re going,” said his father softly. The hard-edged sound of a voice connected to blood and flesh made him aware that he had strayed toward the left-hand wall.

“Yes, sir,” he replied, correcting his error.

A tall man in a long black coat stepped soundlessly out of the stairwell right in front of them. Mother jumped, her hand fluttering to her chest.

“Firian?” the man asked.

His deep voice resonated and the very word seemed to make Firian the best and most significant person in the room. The man’s features were severe, but his manner held something like kindness behind it. His eyes and skin were very dark, like a polished stone, both soft and

hard. He wore a close-fitted black shirt and looser pants tucked into black boots. When he shifted his weight, Firian saw a sheathed knife on his belt. Even without the weapon, power seemed to flow around this deadly man.

A Tanyu. Firian would have smiled if he hadn’t been so nervous. All he managed was a nod.

Without another word, the man headed back up the narrow winding stairs, his boots barely making a sound. Firian followed, his parents trailing behind him. Up and up he climbed until they reached a room off to one side of a landing.

In the small room sat two black chairs and a desk with no one behind it. Wouldn’t it be fun to sit there... Wordlessly, the Tanyu strode to his seat behind the desk. He seemed more comfortable standing than sitting, but he still felt dangerous, sitting poised and ready to strike at the desk.

“Sit,” the man said to his parents, flicking his wrist carelessly toward the other chairs. The man gave Firian courage simply by being in the same room. He was not afraid of his

parents.
Father flexed his hand open and closed. No one ever told him what to do. Still, his parents

obeyed and sat. A smile flickered over Firian’s face.
The Tanyu’s gaze shifted to him, and he remembered that this man had come for him. Would

the man see through him? Judge him instantly?
“Firian,” he confirmed again.
He swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
The man stared at him a moment before turning to his parents. “We don’t know how long the

Test will take,” he said, turning to his parents, “and we do not know what effects it may produce in your son, nor the outcome.”

The blood drained from Firian’s head and hands. He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry.

“You must understand—many are chosen for testing, but very few actually succeed in advancing.”

Father’s lips pursed knowingly.

“I hope you have not planted false hopes in this boy. More than likely he will be sent home tonight or tomorrow. A messenger will bring him home when he is finished, or, if he passes, he will stay at the Academy. If he advances, you may not ask about him or try to contact him. Your failure to comply may have dangerous results.”

Firian shuddered. He realized he was holding his breath.
“Do you agree to these terms?”
His mother’s eyes shifted to his father nervously and even his father seemed surprised by the

intensity of the terms. He shot a hard glance at Firian, and nodded. “Yes or no?” the man asked sharply.
“Yes,” they replied, somewhat taken aback.

“Very well,” said the Tanyu. “Come with me.” He stood quickly and walked out of the room, not looking back to see if Firian followed.

“Goodbye, Firian,” his mother said, suddenly animated now that he was leaving. She reached for his scabbed hand and pulled him in for a hug. It was paper-light, as though she would break or anger him. Firian mostly felt impatience rather than love or sadness. When she pulled away, the flyaways around her face gave her the breathless look of someone returning from a fast wagon ride. Sadness and pride flickered like light and shadow in her eyes. The end result was confusion, as though she couldn’t fully comprehend what was happening.

Father stood and looked down at him, his light blue eyes narrowing. “Make sure you pass,

son.” He put a strong hand on his mother’s arm to lead them out.
“Say goodbye to Brett for me,” he replied. Then he swiftly walked out of the room. His

parents would not miss him. Brett would miss him though.
Once out the door, he couldn’t see the man. How could he fail already? Then—there!—he

caught a ripple of black out of the corner of his eye and rushed after it down a hall on his right. Never breaking his stride, the Tanyu looked back at him for a moment. “Quicker than most,”

he said.
He couldn’t tell whether that was good or bad. The inflection offered no clue.
Questions boiled in his mind, but he kept silent as they walked, walked, walked down the

hallway, upstairs, down a different set of stairs—seeming to get no place at all.
“Will your parents leave soon, boy?”
He jerked his head up. “Yes, sir. They’ve probably already left.” An oddly desolate feeling

swept over him at the thought.
“Down the street by now?”
“Probably, sir.”
“Good. Precautions, you know.”
He didn’t know, but he didn’t ask. They took a sharp turn around a corner, down another

winding staircase, and then out a side door into the open air. He hadn’t realized how stuffy it had been inside. He savored the breath of freshness in his lungs. It made him want to take off running.

They kept walking deeper into Esmeroth, the pine forest that surrounded Raewhith. The Tanyu led, swift and silent, and Firian followed.

Tree shadows began to lengthen. How much longer would it take to get there? If he asked,

that might show weakness, and every move he made was important now. So he said nothing. The little winding paths through the thick woods finally took them to a stream. The Tanyu

halted and refilled a flask that had lain inside his coat. At a motion from the warrior, Firian drank some of the water out of cupped hands, not knowing how long it would be before he would get another drink. He had to keep up his strength for as long as possible. Still the man said nothing, but he seemed to be thinking hard about something.

Firian’s burning adrenaline began to cool inside him. He needed that adrenaline—it would help him focus. Maybe all of this was just part of the test. Could he keep up, keep going, not complain, do... something right?

The shadows deepened into pools of darkness and the sky grew dim. They only stopped once the trees turned black. The Tanyu didn’t make any sort of camp. “Only one night,” he explained, as he stretched himself out on the ground to sleep.

As Firian lay down at a respectful distance, rocks and sticks dug into his back. He twitched and rolled over. This side was a little more comfortable. Underneath him, something squirmed.

He shot to his feet, electrified with disgust, and stamped the place where he’d been lying. In a frenzy, he crushed the pine needles and dirt until he was sure nothing could have survived.

A single laugh made him remember the Tanyu, who had seen it all. Firian’s insides chilled with embarrassment and fear, but he thought he saw a slight smile on his dark face. At least he wasn’t angry. “Get some sleep,” the man said.

________

When Firian woke up the next morning, nothing looked familiar. The stream wasn’t there,

and the pine trees looked taller. He shook himself and looked around, and still had no idea how he had gotten to this part of the forest. The sensation was like dizziness. “Where are we?” he asked the dark man, who had crouched down to get something out of his pack. His long black coat draped over the ground around his feet.

The man smiled grimly and tossed him some food, a piece of dried meat and a plum. Firian took and ate it gratefully as they began to walk again, but he still felt uneasy.

They walked through the fir trees for a very long time—into the afternoon.

Firian had started to wiggle his toes to stop his feet from aching when he caught a glimpse of a huge stone structure jutting out ahead of them. It filled the spaces between the pines; battlements rose dimly into the air.

The tree line stopped abruptly and the two of them came to a clearing. In front of them stood what looked like a castle, a barracks, a fortress without banners. The Academy. Even the building seemed proud. It had none of the airy quality of castles in pictures. This was rooted to the earth like a mountain. The walls, made of solid dark stone, looked as though they had been carved with a giant’s knife, sheer sides and massive rounded battlements. For such an enormous building, there weren’t many windows. Firian was glad they had come to it in daylight.

They hiked around the left side, which must be the main entrance. The Tanyu tugged the iron handle and the massive double doors swung open silently toward them.

The dark man gave Firian a knowing look as they entered. Firian could never tell anyone where the Academy really was—not his family, not his school friends... He gazed reverently at the worn wooden doors. Who else had touched them?

His mouth fell open as he looked inside. Men and women in black—many of them in their teens—walked around a massive indoor courtyard with a fountain in the middle. The high ceiling

drew his eyes upward. A chandelier hung from an inverted dome high above, and a railed-in second story looked down at the open area. Most of the Tanyu in the courtyard walked with purpose, like his guide, but there didn’t seem to be a rule about where they were going. A couple girls sat on the lip of the fountain, talking. Overall, the atmosphere was hushed and business-like, as though they had better things to do than socialize.

Many of the Tanyu noticed Firian. It was no more than a piercing glance, but even that was something. They almost all looked severe, focused, but not aggressive—Firian knew the difference. Their eyes burned with so much awareness that he was sure they would remember him. He was only eleven and now Tanyuin warriors knew his face. He would make sure they knew more of it. One day he would be famous, even among them, maybe even feared. He stood taller and tried to walk stealthily like one of them. The dark man led him down a hallway off to the side.

“In here,” said the man, leading him through the last door at the end. The space was large with one long table in the middle of the room. Eight Tanyu sat around it. All of them looked at him intently. His throat closed tight.

The man closed the door behind him.
“Master Jairon,” the man said, acknowledging the man at the head of the table.
Firian paled at the name. The Tanyuin Head.
“Thank you, Master Makai,” said the man. “So this is Firian.” Master Jairon looked a little

familiar. He had short graying hair, now with an iron circle over it like some kind of crown. His face was more good-natured than the man who’d brought him, but, unlike his guide, there was not kindness beneath the surface, but someone precise and dangerous.

“Yes, sir,” he replied. His voice sounded loud and high and empty.

“Firian,” Master Jairon said again, lowering his head confidentially as if trying to spark his memory.

Then Firian remembered. “You’re the man who—!” For fear of looking foolish, he allowed the statement to drift away. Better to be silent than ruin his chances.

“Who what, Firian?”
Hesitantly, he answered. “You were the man in my... imagination.”
The leader laughed and the others peered around at each other in muted astonishment. “Very

good, boy! You’re right. I saw you there as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come, come!” he cried, not answering the question. “Sit down if you like.”
All of chairs had armrests, a small luxury for someone who grew up poor. He chose the most

comfortable-looking one close to the door and sat down. His guide sat down opposite him. Master Jairon leaned back in his chair.
“It is an honor to get so far,” said a woman, who looked too young to have her short, wavy,

white-gray hair.
“Quite an honor.”
Firian nodded wisely, laying his arms on the rests. He noticed as he looked around that the

others all wore dark rings each with a pinpoint red stone.
There was a pause.
The dark man, Master Makai, spoke. “Do you know how many people have come into this

room thinking they would succeed?” he asked in his low voice. “Nine hundred and sixty-one in the last five years alone. You make nine hundred and sixty-two. And do you know how many stayed? Hmm? Ninety-five—ten of them were eleven years old at the time.” He relaxed in his

seat. “This age is beginning to lose the Talent, Firian. Years ago, there were many who were gifted enough to become warriors in the Tanyuin arts. Now there is a surprising lack.”

Firian listened attentively. He’d known his chances were slim; the odds didn’t deter him.

Master Jairon continued the explanation. “The Khelê founded the Tanyuin Academy when they were still new.”

Firian knew about strange-looking Khelê—no two alike, and they usually had tattoos as well. They visited Raewhith sometimes. The white-haired woman was probably one of them.

He continued. “We were a branch of the Exmorei. You’ve heard of the Exmorei? They were the Khelê elite. Religious at first. Then over time they broke into factions. The Tanyu were the stronger branch, appointed for defense.”

That sounded a little familiar. Exmorei... Wasn’t that a secret organization?

“The Tanyu are the only ones who test those who wish to join, who require Talent. The Amir care only for the Sacred Scroll, for study. They are still loyal only to the Western Kingdom, but we have broken free of those constraints and help anyone in need of our great strength. The Tanyuin Academy is the greatest lasting organization of the Exmorei in the world.”

There was a pause.

“Are you beginning to see what you’re trying to do, boy?” the dark man asked. “Only the best have even been allowed to see this building, much less be tested. People know who we are, but no one knows what we do for them. You don’t even know what we do.”

Firian’s stomach felt sour and he swallowed roughly. Master Jairon watched him closely. His face and neck felt hot.

The dark man continued, relentless. “Only the best. Only the best, Firian, get to know the secrets of the Tanyu. Every person who passes inspection must be deadly focused, extremely

gifted, and willing to pledge their loyalty to the order. We are... almost like our own race. Not anyone can join us. Very few do—the chosen, you see. The best are usually trained for at least thirteen years. Are you able and willing to practice intensely, every day, until you are twenty- four years old?”

Twenty-four? That seemed very far away. But it still would be better than facing everyone at trade school again. At the end of those thirteen years, he would be a Tanyuin warrior. Yes, he could wait if he had to.

His guide watched him intently. Firian’s hands shook and he could hardly breathe, but he managed to keep his face still. A deep silence covered the room and he suddenly wondered if he was supposed to answer the question.

“You must realize that you’ll probably prove worthless like all the rest,” said a large blond man to his left before he could give his answer. “Can you live with that?”

Firian was about to say either I already do, but someone else spoke first. “Tests have broken people’s minds before, boy.”

“So what chance do you think you have?” finished Master Makai.

No face seemed especially friendly toward him, not even the leader, so he found no comfort there. There was no Brett to look at him with sympathy. All the warriors waited for him to speak. He felt horribly unqualified to say anything, but he knew he had to. All the warriors were now silent, waiting for him to speak.

“I think I should take the test before I decide that,” Firian replied stoutly, dry-mouthed. Master Jairon laughed. “And spirit too!” he cried suddenly. “Take him away!” Immediately, the guide got up from his seat and jerked his head for Firian to follow. Again

he was out the door following the man, bewildered. He could barely feel his legs as he hurried

off.
Had they dismissed him without even testing him? His heart thumped fast and heavy in his

chest. Before, he had learned to deal with failure, but not this time. This was his one chance to get away, to get out and become something great. If they denied him his only chance for freedom without even testing him...

It was not a long walk this time. They came out into the hall, then up a large, curved set of stairs that led to the second-story hallway he had seen from the courtyard. Doors lined the left side and a short railing closed them in on the right. Below, students still meandered around the indoor stone courtyard.

Misty tears started to fill his eyes before he remembered to stand up tall.

They stopped. The man produced a key and unlocked one of the rooms. Inside the very small chamber was a bunk on the left, a dresser on the right, and a window. Firian turned to the guide. “What is this?”
“This is your room. Congratulations. You passed the test.”