Inga looked back through the tall stone archway, but she couldn’t make out her father among the crowd. She only saw an olive-skinned, calloused fist in the air from behind the mass of parents, in its grip clasping her necklace. She put her hand to her bare neck, feeling a pang of loss for it, even though it was only a leather strip with green-painted stones. She felt naked without it. Her birthday necklace was her badge of advancement: of worth. The eleven green stones had been a marker proving her authority over her younger brothers. Now she and all the other children around her wore identical gray robes made of coarse fabric, stripped of all of their possessions.
She slid her hand up to feel the base of her scalp, where her long hair had been. It was her father that had taken that from her. She had been furious with him last night, when he pulled her hair taut and sawed it off with his knife. He kept telling her she must hide her gender: must keep her hair short, act tough, pretend to like boy things. She was used to boys, having grown up with four brothers, but still worried whether she could control her behavior: here the penalty for acting like a girl would be much harsher than just teasing. Her mother wasn’t here to drive them off if they ganged up on her or went too far.
Inga had asked her father why they were spending all of their money to send her to the Academy, instead of Ivan, her oldest brother, since he was better with marks and sums, and would surely fit in, at least better than she would. She still puzzled over her father’s response: “I know you can do this, sprout. You’re smart: you see things like they are, not how people tell you they are. I knew this Artificer once. I hear you talk, and you sound just like him. You’ve got the talent. Don’t listen to anybody says you can’t do it just ‘cause you’re a girl.” She scowled in frustration at his broken logic: if being a girl was great, why cut her hair and tell her to act like a boy? If she was so unique, why act like everyone else? Why did her family heap all of their expectations on her?
The children in the crowd called out goodbyes to their own parents. She looked back at that fist, still raised in the air over the crowd through the huge gate in the Academy wall. She still wanted to yell at her father: to tell him that he was wrong.
A middle-aged Academy man in a black robes and black goggles stepped to an opening beside the huge dark-metal doors, turning a dark rod protruding from a tangle of metal pipes and wires. Inga thought he must have poked some beast trapped at the center of the tangle, because a loud growl emanated from within, followed by its foul breath, smelling of grease and oil. The pipes and gears began to move as the creature roared and screeched. Inga forgot her worries and gaped in shock as the gears mustered the power to move the huge doors. They shuddered, then slowly began to close. The armored City Adjudicators outside the wall pushed the small crowd of parents back away from the gate, into the city street beyond.
The opening diminished until all she could see through the crack was that clenched fist raised above the small crowd. Inga felt all of her aggravation with her father seep away. She wanted to reach out and grasp that hand, to let him know that she didn’t mean her defiance, just wanted him to take her home, to have Ivan take her place. The doors closed with a boom. The metal beast’s growl subsided: it spewed one last belch of foul breath into the air, then rested. The moment was past: Inga’s shoulders slumped under the weight of her family’s hopes and expectations. She felt so tired. Yesterday’s long trek to the city and a night of fitful sleep on the rocky ground outside the city walls came rushing back.
She looked away from the black gate and examined her new home. Tall brick buildings stood at attention in all directions this side of the Academy wall. The cobblestone streets formed strict geometric patterns, allowing an unimpeded view for several blocks, ending in a large square with a fountain at its heart. Inga wondered what force caused the water to spray up out of the stone. Beyond was an enormous, black, five-story brick building with a single tall tower. Inga noted that it seemed to have a sundial at the top of the tower, but, unlike a normal sundial, the circle of hours was sideways, facing them, and instead of the sun casting a shadow to mark the time, a metal spear somehow moved on its own to keep the time.
Inga furrowed her brow, unnerved, wondering what metal slave tirelessly drove that creation. She had been taught that the Path of Heaven and Earth were the masters of all hair and hoof, seed and soil. What creatures did these Artificers command? What magic could they have to rival the power of the Path’s mighty Aurochs, the potency of their Croi-Berries?
Inga had never been outside of the Path Farming Compound before, had never seen the wider world. Now, in this place, she was filled with uncertainty. Were the lessons taught by the Path Monks all a lie? What rule held sway here? The Farm foremen had been eager enough to use their whips to enforce their rules. She wondered how the Artifice Academy would instill its lessons. She glanced around nervously at the red-robed youths gathering around the crowd of children.
A black-robed elder called them to attention and led the way down the main street toward the central building. The red-robed youths herded the mass of children after him. The rough cloth of her robe chafed, and Inga growled with frustration as they repeatedly caught underfoot, clearly not made for children as short as she. As they progressed Inga worked her way to the side of the group to reach out and drag her fingers along the brick-walled buildings they passed. The smooth bricks and gritty mortar were very different from the splintered planks of her family’s hut back on the farm. She rubbed her fingers against her thumb, thinking of that place she might not see again. The Academy’s ordered brick buildings and perfectly shaped streets were so different from the winding, disorganized but familiar paths in the Croi-Berry farming compound.
They moved into the huge black building at the center of the Academy campus. The inside was one large amphitheater, dimly lit by hissing gas lamps. The great auditorium hummed with the low speech of hundreds of people, the seats near the outer walls filled with children in brown robes and the closer ones by the red-robed youths. It was more people than Inga had seen in one place in her life, all in this dark room.
The black-robed, goggled elders herded them to the foot of the large stage, packed together, shoulder to shoulder, stepping on each other’s feet, like livestock in a pen. Above them all were arch-supported balconies, where more black-robed elders looked down at them. In the low light most wore their goggles up on their foreheads, some around their necks, black eyes glinting in the half-light.
The doors to the street closed, and a dozen more black-robed elders walked on stage and sat in a line of chairs facing the audience. One of them stood – an old man with his black goggles still on. Those seated all hushed, while the frightened children all around Inga still whispered. The hissing and whispering unnerved her: pressed into this crowd of people, this mass of shifting flesh, it felt like being in a nest of serpents. She tried to focus on the old man to shake off her unease.
Despite his wrinkled face he spoke in a strong voice, weathered but commanding: “Masters,” he said to the elders above, then “Students,” to the red-robed youths. “Welcome to The Hoscroth Academy of Artifice.” He did not address the brown or gray-robed children.
Inga noticed that his lips and mouth were pitch black, with dark veins tracing away across his cheeks. The effect made it look like a huge black spider was climbing halfway out of his mouth, trying to escape, wriggling as he spoke. He continued his speech, occasionally revealing a few metal teeth, while the rest were as black as his tongue and throat. Inga’s lip twisted in disgust. She was unable to focus on the words he was saying. She heard the whispers of children around her, one finally voicing the question in her own mind: “What’s wrong with his face?” Another whispered back “It’s the black sand.” The first child was incredulous; he asked: “Like an Invoker?” The second child replied “No, they’re official. They don’t snort it, they eat it like hard candies.”
Inga remembered back on the farm when the Monks would come for inspection they would occasionally sip from a flask of some dark elixir, rumored to be brewed from black sand. Every one she had ever seen had dark lips. She wondered if the older Monks looked the same as these old Artifice Academy Masters: faces blackened after years of ingesting it.
The word Invoker echoed around her mind, and finally she remembered where she had heard it: the old tales she was told late at night. They said Invokers were desperate men, mad for another taste of black sand. They would murder you for as little as a finger coin, or cut open your head to eat your wizard heart, or gobble up little children that stayed out after curfew. Years ago she decided the stories were just made up to scare her and her brothers, but now she wasn’t so sure. Everything was different here. She looked back up at the Masters in the balconies. Every one of those black-goggled faces had black lips. Inga shuddered with revulsion.
Several other Masters took turns walking on-stage and giving speeches. Inga looked around the auditorium, at these people that would be her teachers, her peers, and her competition. So far her father had been right: no other girls. She stood thinking, chewing her lip. How could she compete with all of them? Certainly not physically: she was shorter than all of the other children, and younger than most, not to mention the need to watch at all times to keep her gender secret. Her mind tumbled, thinking of all of her family counting on her to become skilled, wealthy, famous: a renowned Artificer like the Masters on the stage. She tried to push those fears aside, tried to grasp for anything to keep her from being overwhelmed by the pressure and isolation. She remembered her father’s words: insisting that she was smarter than her brothers. Smarter than all these other boys?
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