I overheard something I wasn’t supposed to hear, and I’ll probably get in trouble for telling you, but I don’t care. I’m angry.
The day after my disastrous lesson with the Wizard Mendiwat, I was walking the halls of the observatory during my free time. I enjoyed exploring the observatory when I could. The Advance Academy didn’t use much of it, and there were whole stretches of rooms resting vacant, with their scientific instruments collecting dust, their desks and rolling office chairs sitting empty and lonely. As far as I could tell, no one seemed too worried about what I might discover. All the doors had been left unlocked.
It was late morning, just before my noon run and then lunch. I had found my way, mindlessly, up to the northern wing. The halls throughout the observatory curved dramatically as they cut around the promontory. They were set with long, sweeping windows, so you could always see the enormous world outside, but inside could never quite tell what was coming from around the curving corner.
The day was cool and sunny, and though I usually enjoyed walking the spiraling pattern of the halls, I had trouble focusing on where I was going. Not after what had happened with Mendiwat.
I’ve been trying to put on a heroic show, but the truth is, I don’t want any of this. I tried to want it, tried to tell myself that I could enjoy being important, tried to believe that if I could follow the training and save the Ferren I would be okay, but I don’t want to be the Answer. I want be back in Blush, in the investiture. I want to talk to Candle. I want to stay by myself up in my attic bedroom forever.
Other people can be heroes. I have always felt that all I need to be content is a simple life.
There is one good thing about the observatory, though. The halls are always empty. I think Dean Enislen ordered the silver-cloaks to give me space, and for that I am grateful. When I can tap into it, silence is as powerful as magic, and an empty room fills me more than wizardry ever will.
Anyway. The day after my lesson I was coming around a bend, peeking in rooms as I went, when I heard the voices. They were coming from around the corner, hurried and whispered, and they were getting closer.
It sounded like Dean Enislen and Fogwillow.
Panicking, not wanting to talk to anyone, I hurried back the way I had come and pushed through an open doorway into a darkened room. I pressed myself against the wall, peering out between the hinges. Footsteps approached, and I began to be able to make out the words.
“It is not a matter of disloyalty,” Fogwillow was saying in low, careful tones. “But I was tasked with looking after the boy.”
“And you did your job splendidly,” Dean Enislen replied. “So splendidly. Splendidly enough that I’m not going to bother investigating whether you knew who he was from the start. Such a concealment would be… ”
They fell silent for a moment, and their footsteps stopped.
Finally, Fogwillow said, muttering, “I serve the Assemblage in all I do.”
“As do I,” Dean Enislen said. “Come. In here.”
To my horror, they pushed into the very room I was hiding in. The door swung open over me, blocking me from view. I pressed myself up against the wall, angling my feet away. I tried not to breathe.
Through the crack between the hinges, I saw Dean Enislen and Fogwillow sweep past. The lights went on. Footsteps, sharp and discrete.
“Shut the door,” Dean Enislen said.
I thought about calling out, but before I could muster up the breath, a set of knotted fingers appeared around the door and swung it away. Blinking, I came face to face with Fogwillow. She stared at me for a moment, then clicked the door shut. I didn’t say a word. Across the room, Dean Enislen was facing the window, her spritely silhouette framed in the light. She hadn’t seen me.
“We can’t do our jobs if you keep interfering,” the dean said.
Fogwillow held my eyes. “I only interfere because I care.”
“That’s the problem. Did you read what he wrote on his ticker?”
“I did. He said that I was his only connection with his old life. That when I’m around, he knows who he is.”
Slowly, Fogwillow withdrew. She didn’t have her staff with her, and she folded her arms into the sleeves of her ragged brown robes, crossing the room and coming around the other side of the dean.
“We don’t want him to know who he is,” Dean Enislen said calmly, tilting her head toward Fogwillow. “We want to break any ideas he has of his self and build them back up. A complete overhaul. That is the only way we’ll ever turn him into a hero worthy of great deeds. Who he is… it’s not good enough.”
“He is an odd child,” Fogwillow conceded.
“Exceedingly odd. Nobody wants a hero who’s afraid of too many people looking at him. They want someone they can celebrate, someone they can talk to, someone they can touch.”
“So you will whip it out of him. You will kill the boy I’ve sworn to protect.”
“Every child must die. It’s how we grow up.”
Fogwillow tilted her chin. “Nova has his faults, but there is strength there, too. He is intelligent.”
“Certainly. And that is one of the foundations on which we will build his new identity. This is how one gets to be the best, Wendolen. Through many trials. Through the breaking down and building up of character. Do you disagree? You certainly had your share of hardship when you were young.”
“I do not disagree with the larger point. A shaping needs to occur within him. But this is not the way to do it. He needs a gentler hand.”
Fogwillow tilted her chin again, and I suddenly realized that the gesture was meant for me. She was telling me to move.
Breathless, I stepped out quietly from the wall, not daring to take my eyes off the back of Dean Enislen’s head. I began to circle the room. As I did, Fogwillow moved along an opposite path, under the guise of pacing, drawing the dean’s gaze away as she swiveled to stare the older wizard down.
“What would you have him do?” Dean Enislen said, turning away from me as I moved. “Follow in your footsteps? Disappear into the wild for years, travel across the Ferren, learn from his own experiences? Go on a quest? Adventures are unpredictable. Here he has structure. Here his trials are contained, ordered, and planned to produce the desired outcome in the most efficient amount of time. In this environment we can limit the variables.”
“I’ve made my viewpoints on these methods perfectly clear.” Fogwillow had come full circle, nearing the door, and I now stood at the opposite end of the room. A sticky, tickling bead of sweat was running down the back of my neck.
“Fortunately,” the dean said, “this is not your domain. Nova’s life belongs to the Ferren, and the Ferren’s will is enacted by the Assemblage, and the Assemblage has decreed that the Answer should train at this Academy.” Then, somewhat desperately: “You may not agree with our methods, but surely you can see the logic.”
I knocked into a chair.
Just a little bit, but the legs scooched across the sunlit floor and made a soft noise. Dean Enislen paused, glanced to the side, and began to turn toward me.
“Yes, I can see the logic, Dean Enislen,” Fogwillow said forcefully, drawing her attention. She opened the door, and continued more thoughtfully. “And who knows? Perhaps if he puts his nose to the grindstone, he will find what he’s looking for after all.”
Dean Enislen stared at her for a moment, then stepped lightly past and into the hall. Fogwillow bowed her head and followed after without giving me a second glace.
The next morning, I awoke at my usual time, before the sun had risen, expecting to see the Wizard Fellish standing over my bed ready for the morning run. Instead, there was no one.
I dressed myself in the quiet darkness, then stuck my head out into the hall. No one there, either.
I padded through the sleeping halls, shivering in the dawn cold, and finally stepped out the front doors into the courtyard. There, beneath the towering statue of the wizard holding a star, stood Fogwillow.
She stared at me across the whitewashed cobblestones, her eyes colorless and careful. Her long gray hair was wild, and she held her staff to one side. Panic bit me, deep in my gut, and I ran down the steps, drawing up before her.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” I said.
“Did they make you? Are they angry?”
“No,” Fogwillow said. “They didn’t make me. And they’re not angry. We simply have different ways of seeing the world. And for now, their way trumps mine. It is the way of things.”
“I want to come with you.”
Fogwillow frowned, the expression settling comfortably into the many lines of her tanned and leathered face.
“That is not possible.” She looked away, into the distance. “It will be difficult for you here, I think. But these people know what they are doing. You must trust them to do their job, and you must do yours as well as you can.”
“How can you say that? You saw what happened with Mendiwat. Their way is terrible.”
“No. Just different.” Still looking away, she squinted, and her eyes caught the rising sun, filling them with shining, pearly yellow. Then she turned back to me. “Nova, you must decide why you want to be the Answer. Don’t let others define your needs. There are a thousand reasons to want to save the world, and they are all correct, and every person will offer a different one. Find the one that speaks to you.”
She drew herself up. I tried to say something. To say goodbye, but I couldn’t speak. When I tried, the words landed somewhere in my throat.
“You never know what you’ve never known,” she said.
The phrase relaxed me. My throat unclenched, and the words suddenly came, easy and wet. “And you’ll always know what is ever known.”
Fogwillow considered me for a moment. “I will visit, Nova Scratshot. I won’t leave you alone.”
And then she spun on her heel and strode off down the courtyard. Her staff tapped loudly against the stone.
I stood there for a long time, even after she disappeared into the mountains. The shadows of the observatory ran down my back in the sunrise. When I finally turned, I saw Dean Enislen looking down at me from a second floor window, one hand clutching her locket. As soon as I noticed her, she moved away.