Chapter 1 - Brother
A field stretched out for a mile, bustling with young boys on the cusp of manhood, excitedly gathered around a huge board, exchanging words and pointing out to positions on the text-filled wall. It was Autumn, and a steady breeze shook the air every now and then, a chilly bite that intermingled with the sense of trepidation and disappointment of hopeful lads. The names on the board seemed to go on forever. A list that was endless, numbers and letters intermingled and making a flurry that stretched across two billboards. And at the very end of it, 500.) William Pendleton.
“You can’t be serious. I didn’t even beat Oliver Crampton.”
“Wlliam, why the long face?”
A sharply dressed lad put an amiable arm over William’s shoulder, whose sour face could never hope to dim the bright light that emanated from Sewell Carter. Similar in height, the two were inseparable, almost brotherly in their looks, with tousled brown hair and sharp yet also rough faces, though Sewell was clearly the elder of the two, and in his own opinion, the more handsome one, though this was a topic of fierce debate between the two.
“I came last, but how?”
Sewell put on a quizzical look, rubbing his free hand across his chin. At last, he spoke.
“Maybe if you tried harder, you lazy cow.”
William punched his friend in the gut. Sewell doubled over wheezing but laughing all the while.
“I don’t even care, this academy can go to hell, it was seven years wasted.”
There was a horrid kind of grating laughter to the left. A gaggle of boys whispered to each other, thickset and athletic in composition. At the head, a particularly tall individual made some form of comment, which produced much laughter from the group. He wore his glasses tight to his face, hair parted evenly across his forehead, perfectionist to the core. They stopped before William and a still aching Sewell.
“Last, eh, Pendleton?” the lead spoke, voice clear and concise, “I expected no better from a lineage such as yours.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean, Eryx?”
“You know what I mean, return to the pigsty from whence you came.” he sneered, “You’ll be servicing a pig farmer, I presume. Oh well, a step up from your father, I guess.”
William lunged forward, but was restrained by Sewell.
“And what about you?” he asked, struggling to hold back his friend.
“I’m off to the Capital, it’s guaranteed of course, my father has his links.”
“Finishing 3rd was enough for you?”
Eryx’s eyebrow twitched. He had hit a nerve.
“Whatever, let’s get these vermin out of our sight.”
Turning, Eryx and his group shifted off, making crude comments as they retreated. Sewell let go of William, who stumbled to the floor and made comments of his own. Curses unfamiliar to anyone but the lowest gutter rats streamed out of his mouth. Sewell simply laughed.
“They don’t mean nothing by it, if we’re lucky we’ll never see them again.”
William raised a middle finger, and satisfied, looked at the board again. He sighed.
“What if they’re right? With a grading like that, I’d be lucky to be assigned to a border post.”
Sewell’s face darkened.
“You won’t be sent to a border post. Look, it’s a miracle in itself that you’re even here.”
“I’d have hoped to have been sent to the Capital. There’s so much to see there."
“The Capital is a cesspit. You’re not one for political intrigue, and the meddlings of the Upper Class, Will. They’ll tell you romantic tales of clean streets, lovely people and ideal living, but in truth, it’s nothing like that.”
“And who told you this?”
“My father worked in the Capital, but he never had anything good to say about it.”
A horn blared out. The field was silent at once, a parade ground discipline. To the end, a podium was erected, and mounting it was a severe woman, dressed in a velvet gown accompanied by glasses that rested tight on her face. Superintendent Quiss surveyed her cohort. Satisfied, she clenched her hand, and put it to her throat. A slight blue tint enveloped her neck. Then, she spoke, and her voice came out clear and loud enough for every boy to hear.
“Cadets of the Saint Lorianne’s Guard Academy, I trust you’re now familiar with what position you have been granted.”
A solid, “Yes, Ma’am” rang out. Despite the bitter gale, not one Cadet dared move a muscle to warm themselves
“Good. You have been assessed based upon your work across the seven years you have attended this school, alongside the final examinations you have completed a month ago. Some of you have performed brilliantly, others…”
WIliam could’ve sworn she looked at him.
“Regardless, your position does not define where you will be assigned, or how your future will look. Anyone can climb the ladder, anyone can succeed, and anyone can shape where and how their legacy will impact the world.” these words came out half strained, half believed, “I am certain that you will grow to become fine men, members of society, and outstanding Guards.”
A required standing ovation of exactly ten seconds..
“The process of being assigned, may take anywhere from tomorrow, to a year. I am confident that those who scored higher will be taken up by the more prominent families and military positions very quickly, but worry not, the borders have an inexhaustible necessity for talented young Guards.”
A slight murmur went across the crowd, negative in reception.
“I trust that during the Familiarity Ball, you talked to representatives of the various families across Albion, and secured yourselves friendships and contacts with whom you may serve one day.”
William remembered the Ball. Only one representative had approached him, exchanged a few words of greetings, followed by a moment of awkward silence. A goodbye, and that was it. An invisible circle had been created around him, and nobody dared enter it. On the other hand, Carter was roguishly flirting with a daughter, conversing with a Captain, and showing off his mage talent to a huddle of children. The loom of the borders came over him, and he almost felt like running.
“FInally, you are to vacate your dorms, and prepare them for the next batch of recruits. Where you lodge for the next few months is none of my concern, though be warned that should you find accommodation in the more backwards of areas, your chances of a good assignment may lower. Families will still be monitoring you, and find how you behave in public. Class of 1856, you are dismissed, best of luck to you all.”
The field was silent, as Quiss stepped down. The moment she disappeared from sight, there was a huge roar. Cadets shook hands energetically, laughing and jubilant. For them, it was over, the trials and burdens of seven years. The wind was more gentle in it’s breeze, but William was still cold. A voice entered his head.
“Come to the Superintendent’s Office, at once.”
He sighed, and waved on Carter, who waited expectedly.
“Quiss’ calling me. Make sure my shit’s still there.”
Sewell gave a thumbs up, and walked on. Looking up at the sky, it began to darken. The borders were black.
↼ --- ⇁
William wound through the corridors he became familiar with. Narrow panes let in only the minimal amount of light in cruel slits, overcome by shadow as he made his way. His boots clicked with every step, revertebrating on the polished floors. He turned once more, and came face to face with a mahogany door, emblazoned with the crest of the Quiss family. The diving Kestrel, wings outstretched, seemed to taunt him. He had rarely ever come here, he was by all means a quiet student who troubled the instructors little, and the only other time he could remember being here was to apologise for dumping a trashcan on Eryx.
“Are you going to come in or not?” the voice in his head.
He turned the brass handle, and entered. A fireplace crackled, the flames morphing into mouths mocking him, the broad shelves encircling the room occupied by heavy tome books, not a bit of dust to be seen - they were all read regularly. Across him, Superintendent Quiss studied him.
“Take a seat, young man.”
William complied, sitting stiff upon a chair of less elegance than the one Quiss sat on. It seemed like it had been designed to make the occupant uncomfortable, unpadded and barebones. The Superintendent drummed fingers across her desk, nails cut to a standard metric.
“Why do you think you’re here, Pendleton.”
“I scored last?”
“Yes that.” Quiss rose, and undid her blinds, letting in the gray light as storm clouds gathered. “But there’s something else.”
“I don’t follow, Superintendent.” .
“Why were you admitted to this Academy?”
“I was friends with Sewell Carter, Ma’am. I’m sure his father paid for my tuition here.”
Quiss nodded, and seemed worried. It was an emotion that did not fit her.
“Were you ever tested for your Mana potential?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” William linked his hands, “It wasn’t much.”
“I’ve heard.” Quiss sat again, “Certainly not enough to attend here. You graded an F, whilst requirements are at least a B. So why are you here?”
There was nothing to be said. Was she just here to degrade him? A final humiliation?
“Your father, he was a talented swordsman, was he not?”
“And your mother, a most wise Physician.”
“So, why are you here?”
Tears threatened his eyes. He was a failure, his parents left behind a tragedy, a legacy they could not be proud of. His head dipped downwards, so that he could not shame himself.
“I don’t know, Ma’am.”
A hand held his chin, and titled his face up again. It was soft. Tears had streamed down his cheeks, lip bit in frustration. The gray clouds were gone, and a single light had pierced through to illuminate the Superintendent from behind. William widened his eyes as he saw an angel. Glasses removed, and tears of her own, Quiss smiled at him. She was beautiful, William often forgot just how young she was.
“Because, we believed in you, William.” she made a stifled sob. She withdrew her outstretched hand, and turned away from him.
William stuttered for a moment.
“You may leave, Pendleton.”
He was petrified almost, but he pressed on.
“Superintendent, who is we?”
“I said, leave, Pendleton, I won’t ask again.”
Rising, he made his way to the door, mind confused. Just before he opened it, he asked the question on his mind.
“Am I to be posted to the border?”
“Do you want to be sent there?”
“Then make sure your path leads elsewhere.”
He opened his mouth to ask another question, thought better of it, and left.. The Superintendent dried her tears, clutching a hand to her chest.
↼ --- ⇁
“What was that all about, then?” Sewell sweeped underneath the bed. William did not reply, instead preoccupying himself with shredding papers with his hands. Sighing, Sewell made a motion with his hand, and all the documents were halved into quarters neatly. “I’m asking you something, Will.”
“It was nothing.” William lied, “Just advice on where to go from here.”
“Oh that’s swell of her, what did she say?”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t really listening.” William undid his pillow cases, throwing them unto a building pile. “Something about an army post.”
“The Army’s not a bad place, they always need Guards for admin and protection, but it just depends where they send you. I’d rather work at home, myself.”
“And you have the heart to call me a lazy cow?”
“Good luck to you then, Major.”
Sewell sweeped once more, and as the broom came back, trapped under its bristles was an object. Squatting, Sewell freed it and laughed in surprise.
“What is it?”
“How old were we then?”
In his hands, a framed photograph of two children, one notably dejected and gloomy, the other ecstatic with joy, both wearing the white and blue uniform of the Academy.. At the centre was an adult figure, belly loose and bulging, but with a proud look upon his jowls.
“We were eleven.” William cocked his head, “You were twelve though. God knows how old your father was.”
“He already had a pot belly at twenty nine, how shameful.”
“And we’re here now.”
“Yeah, we are.”
There was a period of silence. Elsewhere, the noises of boys hurriedly tidying their rooms, clattering of brooms as imaginary sword fights were enacted out.
“Where will you be living then?” Sewell broke the silence, “You’re more than welcome to stay at mine, you know?”
“No, no, I need to start being more independent. I’ll be heading to Downton for a while.”
“Yeah, I-I just need a moment to think for a while.”
Sewell began to put the photograph into his rucksack, but then stopped. He handed it to William.
“We’re brothers, you know, doesn’t matter if it’s not by blood.”
“And I’ll be seeing you again, brother.”
“Brother.” echoed William.