Voices Scene 4

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Voices of the Deep

The din in the aptitude test center’s waiting yard was deafening. Stepping down from the family carriage, Howard entered a sea of hundreds of bodies. Youths from surrounding villages without permanent test centers of their own flooded the city twice per seasonturn. Here, they vied against the young men and women of Westrim for admission to the city’s academies. After all, Westrim did have two of the best academies in the Fertile Plains.

In theory, all applicants were given equal access to the test facility and the city schools. In practice, youths from prestigious families didn’t have to mix with the commoners who came to be tested. Most of the outlying village kids would be tested and passed over, unsuitable for any guild. But a few of them might make it into a local Farmers’ Guild school, or a regional Soldiers’ Guild training center if they were lucky. The Merchant’s Guild academy had been known to accept the occasional prodigy from the villages. Keeping up appearances was simply good business.

Howard’s departing carriage had temporarily swept aside the milling throng. In its wake, he made his way to a waiting room through a gated entrance reserved for applicants of his standing. One rather opportunistic young commoner tried to follow him through the gate. The guard was polite but firm.

“Can I help you son? You appear to have lost your way.”

“I’m here to take the aptitude test. Is this the way to the waiting room?”

“I’m afraid not. You’ve just wandered away from your place in the waiting yard. You’ll have to join one of the lines…”

Howard smirked as the sound of the discussion faded behind him. It was unfortunate in a way. The kid had guts, and that was worth something even in a commoner.

“Well, look who we have here. It’s the self proclaimed harbor’s favorite son.” Jenson was loitering in the stone walled corridor just outside the waiting room. Priscilla leaned on the wall opposite him, snickering as she watched Howard from the corner of here eye. She was fastidiously neat as always. Next to Jenson himself, she was quite possibly Howard’s least favorite person.

“Jenson, you brought a playmate! Hey listen, I wanted to thank you for yesterday. Susan, Rob and I had a fine time on the gold we won from you.” Howard threw his arm around Jenson’s shoulder and gave a low whistle.

“Say, I like the new look champ! Too bad you ruined your last outfit. It was sharp. I tell you Priss. Your man here is a real sport.”

Jenson flicked Howard’s arm off his shoulder like it was offal. “Get your hands off me peasant.”

Howard watched as Jenson turned on his heel and walked toward the waiting room. Priscilla had kept silent throughout the exchange. Now she leered at him as she picked an imagined speck of dirt from his cloak and flicked it toward the floor. She turned away with a lat sneer. How couldn’t let that last comment go unanswered, though. “We really couldn’t have done it without you Jenson. After all, what does winning mean if there are no losers? And good luck today, by the way. You too, Priss.”

Jenson stopped. He did not turn around, but stood stock still, his back ramrod straight. “Everyone will see how far your luck takes you today Howard. Mark my words.” Without further comment, he stomped off into the waiting room.

“What was that all about Howard?” Susan’s brassy tones echoed brightly in the stone lined passageway.

Howard turned to see her and Rob strolling along the corridor behind him. “Ahh, reinforcements have arrived. Excellent.”

“Is he still sore? Oh please, that was so yesterday.” Rob rolled his eyes. Howard grinned in spite of himself.

“Jenson always was one to dwell on the past.”

“Then let’s leave him there shall we?” Susan hooked her arm through Howard’s and pulled him along on her left side, keeping Rob on her right. They sauntered into the waiting room together. It was a much more civilized affair than the stock yards outside.

The floor was carpeted in somber shades of purple and gold. There were tastefully opulent couches and armchairs, gathered together in small grouping of three or four. Each seating alcove was illuminated by spark wicks floating in crystal decanters of scented oil suspended on silver chains from the ceiling. Servants circulated among the applicants with platters of finger food and chilled drinks. Other servants circled the room with clipboards.

Jenson and Priscilla had joined a small knot of applicants on the left side of the waiting room. Susan steered Howard and Rob to an unoccupied settee off to the right. One of the clipboard bearing men approached them as soon as they were seated.

“Good morning madam, sirs. Are all of you applicants?”

“Well we’re not here for the company.” Rob chuckled. The servant repressed a frown.

“Your names, if you please?”

“Howard, son of Master Merchant Thomas and Master Merchant Elise.”

“Robert, son of Master Merchant Archibald and Merchant Gladys.”

“Susan, daughter of Merchant Gregory and Master Crafter Elizabeth.”

“Yes of course. Sign here please. The servants in the hall will provide some light refreshments while you wait. It won’t be long. A test clerk will summon you when the panel is ready for you.” After adding each of their signatures to his clipboard, the somberly dressed clerk gave them a brief nod of his head and then scurried off.

“So Rob, you’ve been studying for this aptitude test. What are we in for?” Howard had snagged a glass of sparkling water from one of the passing servants. He sipped it slowly.

“Officially, the secret of the aptitude test is as closely guarded any applicant’s results. After taking the test, each applicant is sworn to secrecy.” Rob looked perturbed.

“Of course, but there’s no way anyone could silence every applicant who have ever sat the test.” Susan rolled her eyes.

“There must be thousands of people!”

“Thousands in Westrim alone. If you consider all of the Fertile Plains, there are tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds. You’d think one of them could be enticed, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong though.” Rob chewed the edge of his lower lip, frustration warring with curiosity in his face.

“What does that mean? Are you saying that no one will talk about the aptitude test?” Howard shared an incredulous look with Susan. He had never thought to ask about the test himself. But surely if you asked the right questions to the right person, you could find out the format of the test. Couldn’t you?

Susan leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Are you telling us that you haven’t learned anything at all about the test? But you’ve been chasing it for months!”

Rob shook his head. “Of course I’ve learned some things. There are two aspects of the test. One is a series of questions used to assess your practical knowledge on a variety of subjects. But everyone says the questions are only a small part of the screening. The other aspect is something else, something no one will discuss. Or something no one can discuss. I’m beginning to suspect the latter.”

“You just haven’t looked in the right place yet.” Rob stared at Susan hard, until she leaned back uncomfortably.

“But how?”

“The Doormakers have their ways, Howard.” Rob turned his gaze to Howard without turning his head.

Howard felt a chill settle into the pit of his stomach. He set his unfinished glass down, the thirst gone dead in his mouth.

“But the mystery will be over soon enough, won’t it?” Rob nodded toward the clipboard bearing clerk who approached. His dark attire seemed sinister rather than dignified now.

“Master Robert. If you would, please come with me.”

Rob made a half hearted attempt to smile. He claimed Howard’s unfinished glass of sparkling water and downed it in a single gulp. “By all means. Luck to you both.”

Howard and Susan watched in silence as Rob followed the clerk to a large wood paneled door. The clerk tore a page from his clipboard and handed it to Rob at the threshold. The door swung inward and the clerk gestured. Rob walked on alone as the door closed behind him.

“Creepy.” Susan continued to stare at the imposing door on the far side of the room.

“Oh I’m sure it’s all just for show. Rob will be fine.” Howard hoped his voice sounded more confident than he felt.

“Have you noticed that none of the previous applicants have come back through the waiting room?”

“The test chambers must have a separate exit. I’m sure that’s all it is.”

“Yeah. Of course that’s it. Howard?”

“What is it Susan?”

“Why would they need a separate exit from the test chambers?”

“Umm. So the applicants who have already been tested can’t help us cheat, why else?” Howard licked his lips, suddenly wishing Rob hadn’t finished that sparkling water.

“Oh. Yeah.” Susan’s voice sounded hollow.

One of the clerks looked up from his clipboard. His gaze swept the room of quietly whispering applicants. He strode toward Howard and Susan. Howard swore he could hear the man’s every echoing footfall. But the waiting room was deeply carpeted, so how was that possible? All too soon the clerk stood in front of them. His heart stood still in his chest.

“Miss Susan? This way please.”

Howard felt his heart start again and immediately was flooded with a burning wave of shame.

“Howard, I…” Susan froze, halfway between standing and sitting.

“It’s all right Sue. You’ll be fine. Serious bank, remember?” Howard stood and squeezed here hand once, gently. The gesture broke her from here stasis. Howard saw her swallow convulsively and then take a deep breath. She nodded once and then turned to follow the clerk toward the waiting door.

Howard remained standing, unable to sit down. The clerk stopped at the door again and handed Susan a page from his clipboard. Then he mouthed some reassurance as the door opened. Howard was too far away to hear what was said. Susan passed through the doorway, standing tall and proud. The door closed just as she turned her head over her shoulder to throw a nervous smile at Howard.

Howard fell into his padded chair, alone with his nerves. Now he waited. And then he waited some more. Minutes stretched into hours. The clerks sent other applicants through the door without approaching him. Some of them went through with a jaunty wave to their comrades. Others slouched through with indifference. Still others struggled through the imposing arch, clearly fighting their own anxiety and fear to do so.

One look around the waiting room showed him that all of the applicants here had come in well after Howard, Susan, and Rob. Jenson, Priscilla, and their hangers-on were long gone. What was going on?

He worried at his fingernails, a nervous habit he had never been able to completely kick. He flagged a passing servant absently. He quickly downed a glass of sparkling water and two appetizers. They were a light confection with a flaky crust, usually one of his favorites. Now he barely tasted them. Why hadn’t one of the clerks called him? And more importantly, did he really want them to?

After what must have been hours, there were only a handful of applicants left in the room. At last, Howard stood and stormed toward the first clipboard holding clerk he found.

“What is the meaning of this? I have been here all morning. Why haven’t you summoned me for my test?” Howard’s nostrils flared and he could feel the color rising in his cheeks. But he was committed now. No turning back.

“And what was your name sir?”

“I am Howard, son of Master Merchant Thomas and Master Merchant Elise, as I told one of you clerks hours ago.” Howard spoke through tightly clenched teeth.

The clerk inspected his clipboard. “Howard, hmm… curious. Come with me please sir.”

Howard felt his anger doused by a sudden cool chill as he followed the clerk toward a darkened corner. Here the dark clad man whispered quietly with two other clerks, their heads bent close together. One of the clerks looked up from the conversation to appraise Howard. The impertinence of the look turned Howard’s blood to ice. What was the meaning of this? The clerks finished their whispered discussion finally.

“Master Howard. The test panel is ready for you now. Please follow me.” The clerk turned toward the door at the end of the room without any further explanation.

“That’s it? No explanation, no apology for keeping me waiting all morning?”

“The test panel has a schedule sir. And the clerks simply follow the test panel’s direction. Now if you would proceed through this door, we’ll have you on your way quickly.” The clerk held out a scrap of paper from his clipboard in front of the yawning archway. A professionally conciliatory smile was painted on his bloodless lips. But he would say no more.

Howard looked at the slip of paper in the clerk’s hand. His name and family name were written on it, along with symbols for each of the five guilds. They were arranged in a ring around a fifth symbol in the center. It was the seal of the Doormaker Council, the outline of a stone arch doorway illuminated by a torch. Glaring at the clerk, Howard snatched the paper sheet from he man’s hand as he stormed into the dimly lit corridor beyond the great doorway. The door shut with a dull thud behind him, making him jump as he turned back. He eyes jumped from the crumpled piece of paper in his clammy hand to the torch-lit door he had just entered.

It was the Doormaker Council seal. The paper flickered in his peripheral vision. Blinking, he held it up in front of his eyes. With the flickering torchlight behind it, the symbols seemed to pulse and waver. Four of the guild symbols faded, still visible but somehow bleached. At the same time, the Merchants Guild symbol flared and darkened, as though ink had leeched from the other symbols to strengthen it. His eyes widened in wonder and hope as the pulsing symbols stabilized.

Then his breath caught in his throat as the Council seal pulsed to life. Like blood seeping through a bandage, hidden runes blossomed on the paper. He couldn’t make them out at first. Then he realized that they were a repeating string of runes written in a circle just outside the Council seal. There were four of them. No, maybe there were only three? Most of them were indistinct and hazy. But one of the repeating runes was very clear to him, so strong he was surprised he had not seen it immediately. The runes continued to pulse in time with the Council seal, darkening with every beat.

It didn’t stop the way the guild symbols had either. The paper continued to pulse. With a sick fascination, Howard realized the paper pulsed in time with his own heart. He tried to drop it, but found that he could not make his hand obey him. He turned away from the torch, shaking his head to clear it. He stumbled forward, away from the light, feeling as though he might collapse with each step.

Suddenly, the torchlight from behind him was cut off. Blinded, he fell forward only to have someone catch his arm and steady him.

“Welcome Howard. I’ll take that.” Howard found arm clasped in the surprisingly firm grip of a sturdy man dressed in Doormaker robes colored a silvery shade of gray. He was not tall, but had an angular face, full of hard planes. He adeptly plucked the sweat dampened paper from Howard’s grip. He looked it over with a trained eye, his salt and pepper eyebrows rising fractionally.

The mage was silent as he handed the scrap of paper to a seated man so powerfully built that he could only have been a Master Soldier. With a start, Howard realized that there were six people in the room with him, including the Doormaker and the Soldier. They others must be the representatives of the other guilds. While the paper Howard was coming to regard as his aptitude test was circulated among the others, Howard took the time to examine his surroundings.

Much to his surprise, he found himself in a small carpeted room lit by sparklamp. The members of the test panel were seated in comfortable chairs just like the ones out in the waiting room. In fact, the d├ęcor here was an extension of that outside, not at all in keeping with the torch-lit stone corridor he had just passed through. He wheeled quickly to the entrance door, but found that it was a plain, wood paneled affair. In fact it looked remarkably like the other side of the one he had passed through when he left the waiting room.

“But… where… I don’t…” Howard spluttered to a stop as his memory dimmed. Already the events in the corridor felt hazy and indistinct, like the runes he had failed to see. He felt more than a little foolish as he wheeled back to face the mage and the rest of the test panel.

The mage appraised Howard from the corner of one eye. “Have a seat while we talk about your score, Howard.”

Howard sank into an upholstered chair that felt no different than the one he had left a few minutes before. Or had it been hours?

“My score? But… you haven’t even asked me any questions yet.” Howard was flustered, his usual charm and wit seemingly fled beyond his grasp.

“Oh, haven’t we? My mistake. Do you have questions for Howard, Master Soldier?”

The heavily muscled soldier shook his head.

“What about you, Master Farmer? Master Healer? Master Crafter” The cadaverous scarecrow of a man seated next to the soldier turned to look the dapper gentleman beside him. They both shook their head.

A pleasantly plump woman smiled sweetly at Howard before shaking her head. “Oh there’s no need Magus Bernard. No need at all.” She stirred a porcelain cup of tea with a delicate silver spoon without pausing as she spoke.

“And you Master Merchant? Surely you have questions?”

The fastidiousness of the merchant’s dress couldn’t entirely conceal the wattle of his double chin. He looked at Howard with an artificial smile. “I’m afraid not Magus.”

Howard felt his heart stutter to a stop.

“Truly? No questions at all, Master Merchant? You’re certain?”

The rotund man sniffed once disdainfully as he glanced at the crumpled paper briefly. “Quite certain. This one is all yours.”

Howard flinched as a muscle ticked in the mage’s jaw and his eyes narrowed. He felt pressure building in the room, like nothing he had felt before. He swallowed but the pressure continued to build until sweat beaded on his forehead.

Howard’s eyes darted to the seated group of guild masters. But they were unphased. If they felt anything out of the ordinary, they were hiding it well. Howard turned toward Magus Bernard. The Doormaker stood watching Howard with an appraising look, his arms folded across his chest.

Then just as suddenly as it had come, the pressure disappeared. Howard let out a shaky breath through his nose. Mere moments had passed since the Master Merchant had spoken. But in between then and now, the whole world had changed. Howard only wished he understood how. The mage spoke, shattering the silence like glass.

“Very well. Howard, the test panel has reached consensus on your aptitude test. You have been selected to travel to Doormaker Citadel, to apprentice at the Academy of Mages.”

Howard felt numb and there was a ringing in his ears. “No… there must be some mistake…”

“No mistake son. The test results are quite clear.”

“What about the Merchant Guild? The symbol darkened… didn’t it?”

The mage’s eyes narrowed and then slid quickly to the Master Merchant. Under the mage’s scrutiny the rotund little man shifted uncomfortably in his chair but refused to speak.

The mage returned his attention to Howard. And that attention was formidable.

“Saw your own results, did you? A rare thing, that. Son, you’re not claiming that you can interpret the aptitude test better than this trained panel of guild masters, are you?”

Howard choked. “I didn’t… I mean… I couldn’t…”

“Shh. Let’s be candid. Your merchant aptitude was noted. But it is the decision of this panel that you are better suited for the Doormakers than the Merchant’s Guild here in Westrim. You should feel honored. The Academy of Mages does not accept just anyone.”

But Howard did not feel honored. He felt like the ground had just dropped out from under him and he was falling. His dreams of captaining his own merchant ship had seemed close enough to touch this morning. Now they were vanishing into a shrinking point of light far overhead, forever out of his reach.

“Go home and share the news with your parents. There will be tuition fees of course, but for people in your parents’ position, I’m sure they won’t be a burden. You will depart on the first Council Barge in two days.”

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