Despite being knocked bloody by his own momentum a dozen times, Hanni was in a great mood, laughing and spitting bad jokes as he cleaned himself up with the various medical supplies that always filled his pockets. Having cared for his own injuries all these years, Hanni was practically a surgeon. If only he held himself back a little.
By the time the three of them cleaned up and rendezvoused in the dormitories, everyone else had already gone to bed.
Nights were always bitter in the Citadel. Andariel huddled on the couch furthest away from the windows, inside a massive blanket with her hair tossed to one side, and the boys settled in on either side of her. Basking in the warm glow of the fireplace, her pointed face appeared to Valiann like a perfectly chiselled bust made by some divine creator, too beautiful to be real.
‘They announced it at dinner while you were with the Seats,’ she began, ‘the Thaumians are going to war.’
Hanni slouched on a giant cushion and yawned. ‘My dad used to say the idea of enslaving Thaumians was like keeping cheetahs for their milk. Sure, good milk, but then they eat you.’
‘I took this, thought you might want to have a look.’ She handed Valiann a yellow flyer. In bold and blood-red letters it proclaimed:
Great Thaumia, the land of wisdom, where all have the right to live free and equal, have cast down the shackles of the Empire and risen anew to liberate the Realms from imperial oppression.
For three hundred and seventeen agonising years the Marish imperialists have violated our liberty and fraternity, and stripped bare the bountiful earth of our homeland to feed their insatiable greed. Today we rise, united as one, under the banner of the Grand Marshall, to reclaim our sovereignty and freedom, and all who dare stand in our path of vengeance, beware our righteous wrath.
‘The Citadel is neutral. This won’t matter to us,’ Hanni said.
‘Right, when almost every Cadet comes from a Marish family,’ Andariel said.
‘I’m not,’ said Hanni.
‘Neither am I,’ Valiann said.
It was reasonable for her to slap him hard in the face, but that didn’t make it any easier to take. She used her sword arm.
‘Sorry. I forget you’re…since you’ve been…you…all this time.’
The red mark on his face made her look apologetic, if only a little. ‘The Emperor will have my mother’s life. She was supposed to keep the uprising from happening. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s been put in the dungeons already.’
‘The big guy never make mistakes, so someone else has to,’ Hanni muttered.
‘I thought you renounced your House,’ Valiann said.
‘That shouldn’t stop me from caring for my mother, should it?’ she said pointedly.
‘Sorry. Probably not.’
Somewhere during their conversation tears had welled up in her eyes, and judging by the rueful way she was looking at him a more sympathetic response would have been better. Before he could make up for it with more awkwardness, however, she extended a hand and pinched his cheek. Her fingers were supple but strong.
‘I shall go wash my face. Don’t steal my blanket.’
The two boys watched her go, then stretched as if getting a rare moment of reprieve.
‘Such a brute, wonder what she sees in you,’ muttered Hanni, ‘oops, did I say that out loud?’
‘Hilarious as ever.’
The three of them had first met during the Trials, the test in which Cadets of the Citadel journey into the corrupted city of Halleaufel in order to tame the Haze within themselves. Ever since then they did everything together.
Andariel returned with a box of biscuits she had baked, and at the sight of it brought out silent groans. As usual they were dry and tasteless, but Valiann munched through them nonetheless while Hanni nibbled on a single piece with a poorly disguised grimace.
It was getting late. The waxing moon shone through the open window, its soft light a pleasant relief from the dimming fireplace.
‘Let’s get on with it. The Seats, what did they say?’ Hanni asked.
As soon as Valiann propped up his chin there was a change, as if he was suddenly possessed by a man thirty years older and half mad.
‘The experiment was approved. We – that is to say, the three of us, as I have insisted to them – are to start working on it as soon as we’re able. However, there will be no assistance, no resources, no money, and no academic exemption provided. That means doing everything on our own, and in our own time. Total freedom, in other words.’
His friends listened in rapt silence. Hanni has taken the chance to abandon his biscuit altogether.
‘I assume you are both still set on helping me.’
Valiann showed no acknowledgement, as if he expected nothing else. ‘Then we need to acquire a Perfect Crystal.’
‘Oh boy,’ Hanni muttered.
‘That’s not possible,’ Andariel said.
‘The Thaumians are notorious for exploiting Haze-corrupted material. Since the Perfect Crystals are found among the Imperfect ones they extract for…various purposes, chances are they already have one in possession.’
‘You didn’t forget about the war did you?’ Andariel asked, ‘and which Empire the Citadel signed an accord with last summer?’
Valiann shook his head. ‘Difficulty of acquisition is irrelevant. We must have one for the experiment to succeed.’
Hanni spoke slowly, ‘you realise that, chances are we’ll have to kill a lot of people to get it?’
‘I’m prepared. Are you?’
‘You know who you are speaking to?’
‘Of course, Han’Nietzeul of the Roamers. If I remember right you’ve some experience already.’
‘Stop it, both of you,’ Andariel snapped, her voice brighter than both of theirs combined, ‘if it comes to that I’d rather let the Haze kill me.’
Painful, the way she would bring this up in conversation without warning. Despite surviving the Trials, an irremovable fragment of corruption was still embedded in Andariel’s heart, slowly sapping her of strength until the inevitable day. Five more winters, then it would grow stronger than her tamed Haze. After that, constant cleansing would keep her alive for another year, maybe two. Then Halleaufel will claim its long overdue victim.
Valiann gave Hanni a look. ‘The experiment is for eradicating the Haze from our world. We’ve agreed to do whatever it takes.’
Instead of shattering that lie all over his pitiful head Andariel only looked at him with those maroon eyes, and said nothing.
Hanni cleared his throat. ‘Well, if the Perfect Crystal is all we need –’
‘But of course there is.’
‘We also need a golem, a bipedal machine created by the Old Ones which we’re going to use to open up the Controlled Tear. Records state that it is immune to the wild Haze, and therefore to corruption, which makes it ideal for what the experiment entails. However, the only functional golems I know of are, once again, in the hands of the Thaumians. Fortunately, the problems this presents are not new.’
Hanni blinked. ‘Golems?’
‘Did you not attend a single lecture on Ancient History?’
‘That’s rude. I know what they are…sort of.’
‘Even if we get one, how will we control such a thing?’ Andariel asked.
‘There is a way. Haylis spoke about a –’
‘Haylis? Haylis Belfair? The tall, stuck-up, fit-looking one?’
‘You know Haylis?’ Hanni chimed in with disbelief. ‘But – no offense – how would someone like her know someone like you?’
‘Just because you said no offense doesn’t make it non-offensive.’
‘How do you know Haylis?’ Andariel, looking eager, was pressing for an answer.
‘I’m helping her prepare for the Trials. What’s with that look? The Belfairs go back to before even the Origin Tear, and they’ve got information not even the Citadel have access to. Her family supplies rare metals to Thaumians engineers and saw on multiple occasions their soldiers use a tool called the Master Cube to control golems.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘It’s not in any of the old texts, but the term has surfaced in recent research. Apparently it’s a rubric cored with a single-fractal Haze Crystal capable of sending orders to a selected golem. It’s a metal cube that can fit in your hand. Don’t ask me how it works…yet.’
‘I’m figuring it out. The Citadel has kept most of the redacted Thaumian papers…probably in violation of some law, but the knowledge is in our hands.’
‘Tell me this is all we need,’ Hanni grumbled.
‘One last thing.’
‘Well if you insist…’
‘The Citadel sits under a point of cumulative low on the Haze dispersion map. It’ll be the ideal place for opening a Tear. I have submitted a proposal for a new astronomy tower to the Seats. It will be ready in a few years.’
‘We aren’t going to be the ones building it are we?’ Andariel asked with a raised eyebrow.
‘Of course not. What gave you that idea?’
‘Just so you know, I’ve never handled brick and mortar in my life,’ Hanni put forth helpfully.
‘As I said –’
‘I’m not going to spend the last years of my life moving rocks,’ Andariel said.
‘What in the –’
‘Just messing with you.’
Andariel and Hanni both laughed and exchanged a flurry of elbows aimed at each other’s ribs. Valiann only looked confused.
‘Two decades of living have really matured us,’ Hanni chuckled.
‘Another ten years and you’ll both be adults,’ Valiann said, looking at Andariel, ‘and I’ll make sure to see the day.’
It was nice seeing them joke with each other, even if the hilarity often escaped him. Never again will he sit in silent tantrum next to a deathbed, obsessing over what he should have and could have done. This time there will be no regrets.
Andariel leaned over and surprised him with a kiss on the lips. ‘I thought you were going to save the world.’
‘That too. It won’t hurt.
‘Eating alone again?’
Valiann looked up and caught the eyes of Haylis. She was pretty and polite, but there was something about the way she wrinkled her nose and crossed her arms every time they spoke that seemed rude. Even though Haylis was older than him, she became a Cadet only recently, and for whatever reason had decided that Valiann was her own personal tutor.
Annoyingly, Haylis sat down next to him even though the cafeteria was half empty.
‘I’m going to Halleaufel for the Trial next week,’ she said without ceremony. ‘It’s been pushed forward due to, well, recent events.’
‘You shouldn’t have told me what it’s like. Every night I dream about my breasts turning to jelly and little arms sprouting out of my face,’ she continued, staring at her plate, ‘but I can’t quit now, not after grandad went through so much effort to get me here. My family estate is on the border you know, right on the Ilmarys. If I become a Keeper I can keep it from being arbitrated by the Thaumians. So I have to go.’
She was talking to herself now, ‘but I can’t tell anyone I’m scared. My friends, the Keepers, they all think I’m super strong, they all think I’ll breeze through. I can’t ask them for help or they’ll think I’m some kind of…so I’m asking you. What do I do?
Her knuckles whitened from simply gripping a spoon and the sporadic rhythm of her chewing was irritating.
‘Haylis!’ Someone called out to her from across the room. ‘What are you doing? Come sit with us.’
Valiann reached out and grabbed her arm. ‘You decide whether you go or not,’ he said, ‘and whether you come back.’
‘That simple huh?’ Haylis patted him on the head like a child before leaving.