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    lomax61
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Although the genre of fantasy, and this sub-genre of political fantasy, is a new one for me here on GA, I have been developing the world of Mulia in which this story takes place (and other stories in this world) for the best part of 20 years, so we are like old friends.

A link to the world map is included here, although I provide many descriptions in the story.

https://www.brianlancasterauthor.com/general-8

Stranded: Heart of Black Ice Bay - 1. Aulderly

Brathay receives good news he is unable to share.

Brathay marched as fast as his legs would work without breaking into a run or drawing attention to himself. His brown robes flapped behind him as he rounded bends of Aulderly's humid passageways and fidgeted the textbook from one hand to the other when each palm became sweaty. He needed fresh air. And sunlight. Sidestepping an errant student, he forged his way through the virtually deserted subterranean corridors and finally spied the reassurance of the expansive open courtyard outside the Tower of Interconnection.

Fighting hard to channel the discipline of his hall skills, he slowed to a stilted stroll and fixed a pleasant smile in place in an effort to keep his feelings bolted down, even though he wanted to jump up and down and shout his news to anyone within earshot.

Lord and Lady Redbridge had chosen him.

Had chosen him.

Half an hour ago, the Dean of Aulderly had privately confirmed to him his successful placement as companion advisor to the royal Mermillon court in Thiradon, which would commence in January. Lord and Lady Redbridge, whose household and social gatherings had become the envy of Thiradonia, had reached out to Aulderly towards the end of the last term and met with eligible students. In the throes of designing and constructing a new summer residence and in need of knowledgeable but creative assistance, the Redbridges, together with their master builder, had been delighted with Brathay's knowledge and disposition.

During the meeting, they had discussed the role in-depth, someone to act as a liaison between the architects, engineers, and other workers, to professionally assess all operational inventory needs and ongoing maintenance, all requirements comfortably within Brathay's areas of expertise. A little unorthodox but not unprecedented, they had asked him to comment on other students, ones Brathay knew well, who had also applied for the position. Naturally, he had been courteous, expressing his admiration for the individual, summing up their strengths for the role, then politely refusing to comment on their lesser abilities. When they told him many of those same students, asked about him, had labelled him nice—too nice for such a hard-nosed position—he had gently shaken his head before flashing them his most devious of smiles.

"Never underestimate the power of nice."

All three interviewers had laughed aloud, and, at that precise moment, Brathay knew he was in with more than a fighting chance for the position.

And now, he, Brathay Stonearm, had landed a role many coveted, one that would last for at least the next five years and most likely set him up for life. Not that he could tell anyone yet. Maybe when he could, his father might finally give him the time of day.

Traversing the open space, he levelled his breathing as he made his way casually to a familiar tree. One of the younger students spotted him and rose from his place against the trunk. Quietly, not wishing to disturb the conversation, Brathay nodded to the boy, then dipped down into his usual position and opened his journal. Yes, he had a secret to tell, but for now, nobody would know or be any the wiser.

"What amuses you, Brathay?" came the voice of the young ward seated beside him, as others argued about one thing or another. "Is there a secret you wish to share?"

"If I did, you would be the first I would tell, Horniman. I am merely enjoying this uncommonly agreeable day," said Brathay, without looking up. Maybe he needed more practice. Although he had been trained to suppress his natural feelings—the peaks of happiness and enthusiasm on one scale, the depths of anger and outrage on the other—sometimes they seeped out like bright summer sunlight or the terrifying flashes of lightning bleeding past the thick drapes of the boy's dormitory.

Calmed now, he reclined against the ancient oak, feigning interest in his architectural journal, savouring the dappled early September light and the heady smell of freshly mown grass. Instead of reading, he found his gaze wandering around the sunken garden, where, hidden in the gloom beyond the periphery, bookcase upon bookcase housed the library's collective minds of millennia of educators. What used to provide a sense of comfort, continuity and security, suddenly evoked an uncomfortable restlessness.

To centre himself, he went through a familiar discipline of retracing the clever design of the courtyard, registering the creative and innovative features. Many years ago, talented apprentice architects converted the underground hall outside the entrance to the Tower of Interconnection into a recreational space for students. Brathay catalogued the camouflaged buttresses and columns designed to resemble tree trunks. A courtyard and a semicircular lawn lay open to the sky through a vast circular hole built into the vaulted roof. Random trees had their upper branches rising out through the opening into daylight.

Each day he interrupted his afternoon studies to proctor the same circle of new Interconnection wards who had invited him in a few weeks ago, distracted by their youthful, light-hearted banter. As Brokerman often remarked, sometimes a spell of sunlight and innocent chitchat felt better than a swim in the ice-cold waters of Lake Oralia. Although he understood the metaphor, he would never be experiencing the latter. He did not swim. After a boating accident on Thiradon's Great Lake at the age of six, he had since refused to go willingly anywhere near open water. Back then, three of his classmates had jumped overboard and swum to shore, leaving him stranded for hours, alone on a small boat in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Scattered around the lawn, other fourth-year students, new to Interconnection, arranged themselves in self-formed groups. Less than a month into the new term, and many had already chosen their friends and allies, a lesson itself in human interconnection.

Most groups contained an upper apprentice like him—a student in their final year of Lifework—never placed there, always invited by the body of students. Counsellors advised the seniors never to impose themselves on groups and never try to control the conversation once students had welcomed them in. Younger students, they reasoned, would be far more likely to show their true selves if the senior provided a voice of reason only when called upon and thus could be viewed as nonthreatening.

Etiquette Rule 6: Learn to listen for the deeper meaning within a person's words than those voiced.

More importantly, in this group of twelve, he had already begun to sense their potential for progression within the more advanced levels of Interconnection known as Hall Studies. Counsellor Brokerman would appreciate his informal assessment, always on the lookout for talented individuals to invite into this advanced interrelation stream of learning.

"Honestly, though. When was the Aulderly Institute opened? That was the first question on the test. Why does it matter? Facts like those have nothing to do with Conn. And how is that type of knowledge going to help any of us after we graduate? I plan to go back to my village and start helping farmers improve their crop harvests. That is the kind of important knowledge we learn during Terp, practical and relevant, not knowing when the founders put these old stones one on top of the other."

Students abbreviated all six disciplines of learning. Knowledge stayed the same; Terp meant Interpretation, Imp meant Implementation, Conn represented Interconnection, Morph meant Metamorphosis, and Lifework, too, remained the same. But he had heard the same grumbles about tests many times from certain types of students in his years at Aulderly.

"He is sore because Counsellor Mullion marked him down. Anyone who pays attention knows Aulderly was constructed during the First Age in 5799. Isn't that right, Pollard?"

"Construction began in 5793, in old years," said the acne-faced boy, his long dark hair dropping towards his open book, "and took six years to finish in its original form. At least you have the completion date correct. But the question asked was when the institute was first opened. The grand opening did not take place until 5800 to mark the new century. As the masters keep telling us, always read the question carefully before answering."

Still studying his book, Brathay suppressed a grin. A couple of brave grey squirrels had descended from a nearby tree, chattering excitedly and rummaging through one waste bucket after another, containers left for student's food waste and collected by one of them at the end of each break.

"My cousin will be coming in as a cadet next year," said a young female ward called Orion. Students entered as cadets for their first two years, became wards for years three and four, and apprentices for the final two. "He asked me about each of the disciplines, and I had trouble trying to explain Terp to him. And how Knowledge and Terp relate to each other. How would you explain to a neophyte?"

"How difficult can it be? We learn as much as we can about everything during Knowledge," said Pollard. "During Terp, we interpret that knowledge. Imp is how we then implement—"

"Are you saying that in our second year, every student is supposed to interpret the thousands of things they learnt in Knowledge because I certainly did not?" Brathay liked Orion, a feisty little thing who would be intimidated or fobbed off by nobody. "For someone who appears so clever, Pollard, you can spout a lot of nonsense sometimes. What would you suggest I tell my cousin, Brathay?"

Brathay looked up and grinned.

"Give him an example. Pollard is right in one respect. During the first year at Aulderly, we are overwhelmed with knowledge. But in the second, Interpretation, a student will begin to differentiate, to pursue different branches of knowledge, specific areas that interest them, and are likely to lead them to their lifework choices. Interpretation is when counsellors begin teaching how the same knowledge is rarely used in the same way by everyone. Take trees as a simple example. In knowledge, we all learn basic elements about the parts and function of trees as well as the many varieties across the land. Interpretation is about our interaction with them. Fruit farmers will want to know about different fruit-bearing trees to match the local soil and decide on the best produce to grow on their land. Architects, by comparison, must understand the qualities of various wood used for building, which will help them decide on factors such as the location, the climate and the purpose of the structure. Shipwrights, arrow smiths, coopers and cartwrights will all interpret the basic knowledge of trees for their requirements. Hence Interpretation is an extension of Knowledge."

"Can I write that down," asked a smiling Orion before her eyes widened as she focused on Brathay's shoulder. "Ooh, Brathay, hold still. A saffron hermit has alighted on your shoulder."

"How many spots?" asked the short boy to her right. Both of them came from Ballyhooky, a country rife with legends and superstitions. "And what colour?"

"Four white spots on each wing," said Orion.

"Which means," continued the boy, "that you will be going on a long journey very shortly for no less than eight months to a place where the earth is covered in snow."

Brathay would indeed be heading on a journey in the new year to a new and exciting life in Thiradon. Although, in all his childhood memory, he could not recall temperate Thiradon ever having welcomed snow.

"To fairest ends or fell, the seasons yet will tell," finished Orion, as Brathay noticed the butterfly rise from his brown robe and disappear into the tree.

"An omen, Brathay," said the boy, unaware or most likely uncaring of the mildly mocking stares from around the group. "Never ignore an omen."

As he spoke, Brathay's gaze was drawn across the large lawn area, to where the deputy dean accompanied a regal older woman in a full-length mauve cloak. The deputy appeared to be speaking in earnest to Counsellor Brokerman. Unannounced daytime visits by guests into the institute grounds rarely happened, but interesting news usually followed when they did.

"Thank you both so much, Orion and Musker. I will take your kind advice to heart and make sure I have a thick winter jacket to hand, in case you are right. Which I dearly hope you are not."

A couple of the group members chuckled. On his first day joining their group, Brathay had listened carefully and committed each of their names to memory.

Etiquette Rule 9: Learn names and use them out of respect. Our names are our most important possession.

In the first week of their study, they would have been told about the power of learning and reciting back in conversation the name of every person they met. But like most students, none of them would have taken heed. In time, they would. Everyone learned that simple but effective lesson in Interconnection. But he had also come to understand a paradox in hall studies, that once committed to memory, you should only use them in conversation sparingly and then mainly for emphasis.

"Bug has a point, Brathay. While your practical example about Terp makes sense, we still suffer being taught worthless facts and figures," said the gangly red-haired boy called Lokman, who rarely spoke in the group. In previous breaks, Brathay had learned how the boy's father taught seafaring and fishing techniques in Ballyhooky's principal coastal town of Port Balknock. "And why do we need to waste a year learning about people and bodies and feelings and all that fish-slop, instead of things that are practical and useful."

As he studied the page of his book, Brathay felt all eyes land on him but said nothing. Unless specifically invited to comment, he would always defer to silence and let others in the group answer. As he had expected, the girls in the group jumped in to provide a counterargument.

"Have you never had feelings for someone, Lokman?" asked one.

"No. And I never plan to. I have more urgent life goals to attain."

"Love is like a storm at sea. It just happens. It cannot be planned," said another.

"Unless you never again sail and remove the risk of encountering a storm," added another.

Everyone in the group had listened to Lokman's impassioned stories about his deep-sea fishing trips, about his desire to join his father and making him proud as an integral part of the fishing fleet.

"Then I choose not to fall in love."

"It is not natural for us not to love, to choose not to love," said Orion wistfully.

While most female students tended to thrive during Conn, not every male student warmed to the discipline. Academically minded students like Lokman, who excelled in the first three years, often floundered in the fourth, initially finding the addition of the candid and intrusive subject matter alien and uncomfortable.

A fact of life, most girls blossomed earlier than boys, and some were already beginning to bloom by the time they arrived at the institute at age twelve. Entering their fourth year now, boys had started to catch up. Intelligent ones like Lokman and Pollard believed themselves above attraction, invisible to sexuality and intimate relations, which was why many downplayed Conn as a worthless discipline. But none were immune. Even now, both boys had filled out noticeably. Lokman's wild ginger hair had become something of a trademark. With his sharp intelligence and the muscular body courtesy of his family's harsh existence mastering the seas, he was already garnering amorous attention. Once Pollard's acne had faded, especially with his long dark locks and penetrating black eyes, he would also begin to attract attention. In his case, however, Brathay would wager coin on him being interested only in other boys. He may be wrong, but he sensed Pollard quietly watching him and wondered if the boy had developed an adolescent infatuation.

"What do you think, Brathay?" asked the ward called Horniman. Of them all, he had the character, intelligence and arrogance to go far in Interconnection. "Do you agree with Lokman's argument about Conn studies being pointless?"

On a general level, Interconnection sought to help students understand themselves and their place in life and the world. Counsellors tackled more significant subjects first, valuing the many and varied peoples of the realm of Mulia, helping communities thrive together, and respecting the natural world order. Next, a stream of learning focused on human biology, the differences in male and female development, including studying multifaceted human relations and procreation in adulthood. The latter part of the year focused heavily on who they were becoming and who they wanted to be as individuals, their interconnections and understanding of each other's differences, their preferences, and the many and varied forms of family units. Finally, supplemental hall studies provided those with a natural propensity for human relations to sharpen their skills and specialise in the service of the empire.

When he looked up, he noticed the whole group had quietened to hear his words. Having spoken to his peers, he was not the only senior student who enjoyed these moments of singularly focused attention.

"I encourage you all to find your own truth," he began. "Please remember, though, that teachings in previous disciplines—the pursuit of new knowledge, how this is interpreted and implemented—continue when you reach Interconnection. Every new discipline is introduced to complement previous ones, and Conn is no different. Farmers, architects, shipwrights, arrow smiths, coopers and cartwrights may interact with others, and at some point in time, may want to take a partner and build a family of their own, in whatever fashion. What you learn about connections during this year may not serve you today or even before you leave the institute, but I promise you will be grateful for this knowledge one day. And please do not confuse fundamental Conn learning with hall studies. The former is designed to help you build connections and relationships, and to find happiness in the world, while the latter, which is more specialised and open to limited numbers, is for those who see Conn as a vocational lifework choice."

"Heart servants," said Lokman, the words tainted with distaste, using the somewhat disrespectful term adopted in some parts of the empire. His face remained blank, but his eyes betrayed mistrust.

"Advisors, consorts, diplomats, counsellors even. I would warrant that each of the royal houses where you come from has at least one member who has attended hall studies. But my point stands that we take what we need from Conn."

Lokman smirked, unconvinced, and dropped his gaze to his hands, blissfully unaware of the besotted smile and furtive, longing gaze of the pretty girl seated next to him.

"How old are you, Brathay?" asked Horniman.

Brathay wondered what other intent lay behind the question. With Horniman, something else always lurked in the shadows of his curiosity.

"Nineteen."

"Should you not have graduated by now? Started your calling in the land?"

"I should, and I will. My assignment will commence in January, so I am blessed to be spending more time with you all and benefiting from another term of learning."

"What assignment?" asked Horniman.

"That is not something I am at liberty to discuss."

"But what have you specialised in?" asked Orion.

"All things to do with great buildings, old and new. Designing, planning, building, running. All the tiny features that make them exceptional. How the dreams of the architect are realised by engineers and builders. And then how the buildings are used practically, how they are run and maintained."

"Was that always your ambition?" asked Horniman, who had a way of seeing through the words of a person.

"One of them," said Brathay, meeting his gaze and keeping the answer as concise as possible. For personal reasons, he would not tell the students about his desire to visit the Scorched Kingdom to see the site of the Last Statue. Nobody needed to know, and certainly not his very personal ambition for wanting to do so.

"I am hungry to learn everything I can, even the challenging subjects," said one of the new girls. Brathay peered over at her. He had yet to learn her name.

"Meribeth is keen to learn thaumaturgy."

Brathay tucked her name away in his memory.

"Hush, Lokman," said Diannus urgently. "You know that subject is banned."

Everyone in the group fell into a guilty silence. Brathay wondered if he should say something to allay their fears, noticing Lokman stewing over Diannus' warning.

Over two hundred years ago, Metamorphosis—introduced during a student's fifth year—would have included the forbidden art in the study of natural sciences until an emperor decided the practice to be aberrant and shut down that particular avenue of learning. To this day, a subject of the realm caught trying to use any form of thaumaturgy could be imprisoned without trial. Brathay had difficulty distinguishing between the various forms of the natural sciences. One elements counsellor in Morph had brought a container of special ice into the laboratory and poured in plain water. Within seconds, and to the shock of all students, the room had filled with the kind of thick mist only seen on the midnight surface of Lake Oralia. How could that not be classed as thaumaturgy?

"Surely we cannot be forbidden from mentioning the word," said Lokman eventually. "Otherwise, why would they teach us about the time when people studied and practised the art freely?"

"You never know who might be listening."

"It makes no sense. Everyone gossips about the secretive fourth hall of Interconnection where they allegedly practice dark intimacy—"

"It is not the same—"

"It is exactly the same."

A spot of moisture landed on a page of the large Twenty Great Structures of Mulia book Brathay had open in his lap. When he raised his eyes to the heavens, looking up through the branches of the giant oak, not a sole cloud marked the day. A couple of the students chuckled softly as a soft gasp sounded next to him.

"Sorry, Brathay," came the horrified voice of Dorley, one of the more awkward wards, who stood leaning his stout frame against the trunk of the tree, peeling a large orange. Only then did Brathay signify the source of the pleasant pungent odour he had sensed earlier.

"No harm done," said Brathay, amused and absently wiping the back of his hand across the page. When he raised his eyes, Dorley held a slice of the fruit out to him. Another Interconnection lesson. Never refuse food or drink freely and generously offered to you—as long as you knew and trusted the bestower.

"Why, thank you, Dorley," he said as he popped the slice into his mouth.

With the lull in conversation, his gaze scanned the lawn to where the counsellor, the elegant woman, and deputy dean had stood. Surprising him, he noticed a fellow apprentice, Belynda Moonstar, sitting on a bench at the head of a large group, surprised not because of her popularity, but because she had been sent away on a special and secretive ten-month assignment six weeks ago. Yet here she was already back at the institute. On rare occasions, talented students accepted real-world secondments—usually urgent—related to their chosen vocation during term time. At some point, he would need to find out what had happened.

"Come on, Brathay," said Horniman. “You attended fourth hall studies. What are some of the things they teach you? Diannus seems to think they are deviant practices to beguile more stubborn members of the royalty."

"I never said that. Ignore him, Brathay."

Brathay gently shook his head while closing and placing the book down next to him. Once again, Horniman had asked about the fourth hall as though the walls held delicious secrets. He wondered, too, whether Horniman might be intrigued by the study of the multifaceted nature of desire, particularly same-gender attraction. Celebrated alumni included those who had studied in the fourth hall and achieved the status of being comfortable pleasuring any gender, irrespective of age, race or creed.

"During my time at Aulderly, I have spent only one term in fourth hall studies. There's not much I am allowed to tell you. The institute teaches us the importance of having an open and inquisitive mind, but there are some things—deeper and darker things—that cannot be unlearned. And in the case of the fourth hall, what you don't know can neither touch nor corrupt you. Remember also that countless students before you have succeeded in the realm without ever setting foot in the halls."

One term of the brutal fourth hall studies had been enough for Brathay. What naive acolytes could not fathom was that once they peeked inside, no matter how innocently, the experience would most likely change them forever. And if, like many, they held any soft-hearted belief—like Belle—that attraction and love were entirely natural and intertwined, or worst still, written into a person's destiny, that particular notion would be stamped on within the first few days of study, extinguished like a downpour on a campfire. In the fourth hall, the first thing taught was to view love as an illusion. In contrast, attraction could be wielded like a sword, something an artisan could hone and brandish. Many had employed their ability to move someone far stronger than themselves to lay down their defences and to do their bidding, with a force mightier than any fearsome weapon.

"'What you don't know can neither touch nor corrupt you?'" said Horniman, echoing Brathay's words. "You said the same thing last time we met. What does that mean?"

"It means you are too young and stupid to understand—" said Belle.

"No," said Brathay, quickly interrupting. "No, that was not my intent. What I am trying to say is there is a reason you are taught very little about fourth hall practices. Students studying there are charged with keeping what they know a confidence. But if any of you feel drawn towards hall studies, I can arrange for you to speak with one of the counsellors. They will explain better than I can, and together you can assess whether you wish to move forward. But a word of warning. Lost innocence cannot be regained. Once you look behind a door, what you see cannot be unseen by closing the door again. My advice to you is to be absolutely certain even before you decide whether to have that talk."

"I did not say I yearned to engage in fourth—" began Horniman.

"No, you did not. But the offer is there still, for all of you, if it becomes something you wish to pursue."

Horniman maintained his gaze with Brathay without flinching. Recently turned sixteen, the boy had matured noticeably into manhood. Perhaps not the best looking of his year, he nevertheless had a magnetism that many girls, and probably some boys, found alluring. Brathay had no doubt he would graduate to the second hall and even—if he could restrain his impulse to speak out and disparage others so freely—third.

"Are you changed, Brathay?" asked Belle. "From when you first joined—"

"Irredeemably."

"For the better?"

"The answer to that is a matter of perspective."

"That's the kind of response a Terp counsellor would give," said Horniman before changing the topic, his face becoming serious, his voice lowering. "Hey, have any of you heard the rumour about the hall student?" Everyone including Brathay paid heed, the others leaning in to listen. He wondered if Horniman had heard something about Belynda. "One of the counsellors has been considering who to appoint to a companion position in the Royal Palace, so he asked this particular hall student which bank of the river, preferentially speaking, they stood upon. The student said that it depends. 'Depends on what?' asked the counsellor, to which the student replied, 'It depends on which answer will get me the job.'"

Brathay thumped back against the tree and chuckled. Everyone else, noticing his reaction and finally catching on, sat up and either laughed or groaned while Dorley threw a piece of orange peel at Horniman's head. Within humour there often lies an element of truth, Brathay had been taught. Although he had heard a variation of Horniman's jest, many hall graduates he had met would have fit perfectly into this limited field of vision.

"My sister told me apprentices in Lifework who have qualified in Conn with second hall or above honours, can be solicited by Conn wards like us for intimacy assignments. Is that correct, Brathay?"

"As long as the arrangement is mutually agreed upon, fully consensual, and approved by a counsellor and the parent or guardian of the ward.”

"Have you accepted many?"

"I warrant he has been inundated," said Pollard, the comment not lost on Brathay.

"And I hear he is uncommonly picky and has chosen almost none," said Dorienne, who had been quiet up until then.

"He is sitting right here," said Brathay, grinning at the faces in the circle.

"Well?" said Dorienne, goading him seductively. "Have you ever accepted a request?"

"I have accepted—but very few."

Since graduating from Interconnection, Brathay had been approached by many—too many—and most of those did not meet the assignment requirements. Being too young and fragile, they could not be objective, could not learn the art of courtship, intimacy and intercourse dispassionately. He knew because he had made the same mistake. Most requests came from besotted and hormonal students, including many curious but terrified boys and, as such, unstable and unsuitable subjects.

"Why, Dori?" asked Horniman, smirking. "Are you wondering whether Brathay might be persuaded into plucking your blossom?"

"Does that bother you, Horniman?" she countered, smiling sweetly, dangerously. "Or were you hoping he would agree to pluck yours first when the opportunity arose?"

For the first time during the break, Horniman clammed up. The tips of his ears glowed red, while his eyes flashed embarrassed at Brathay before dropping to the grass, his face colouring deeply and noticeably. Perhaps he had been considering the notion. Brathay had learned not to read too much into these reactions. Horniman might harbour some curiosity about being with another man, may even act out on them one day, but Brathay felt confident his path would eventually lead him into the arms of a woman.

"You should consider each other," said Belle, with her usual potent mix of innocence and intuition. "Rather than soliciting the attention of a busy apprentice. I think you two would make a truly fearsome couple."

This time, Horniman looked sidelong at Dorienne and shared a grin. Over his shoulder, Brathay noticed one of the faculty assistants purposefully striding towards the group, her eyes trained on Brathay. When she reached him, she knelt at his side, placed a hand to guard her mouth, and spoke quietly.

"Sorry to disturb you during the break," she whispered. "Counsellor Brokerman has asked to see you in his chambers. As soon as you have finished here."

"I see. Did he say what it was concerning?"

"Not specifically. But I think he wants to talk to you about your meeting with the dean.”

Of course he did. Brokerman—a close friend of Lord Redbridge—had been the one to broker his interview and had been there when the dean had told Brathay the good news. They had not spoken since. Every time Brathay thought about his placement, his body thrummed with an excitement that threatened to burst him wide open, feelings he could finally share with the counsellor.

"I see. Thank you. I will head there straight away."

"Good. Now I need to go and find the deputy. Wish me luck."

Brathay snorted. Nobody enjoyed chasing down the deputy dean, an energetic, overactive and pernickety man who spent most of his time running from one lecture hall to the next. With his back braced against the trunk of the tree, Brathay clambered to his feet.

"Friends, my presence is demanded elsewhere. Thank you all for letting me join your group again. I am truly honoured, especially now that I have a pleasantry to share at the evening table, courtesy of Horniman. Will you want me back tomorrow?"

"Of course we will, Brathay," said Belle, speaking for them all. "And I am bringing along more wards. They wish to join our group."

"As long as everyone else is in agreement. And before I go, a parting thought for you all. If I had been the counsellor in the earlier jest, I might have answered the student differently. Why remain on a riverbank at all when it is far more enjoyable standing in the current, getting your feet wet?"

And with that remark, leaving the amusement of students behind him, Brathay strolled off across the lawn. Less than a few seconds later, he heard his name and turned to see Dorley lumbering towards him.

"Your book," said Dorley, as he approached, puffing, the heavy book held up in the air. "Left by the tree."

"Ah, thank you, Dorley," said Brathay, retrieving his property. For a second, he thought the boy would return, but instead, he stood in front of Brathay, hands-on-hips, catching his breath.

"Brathay, can I solicit your opinion on a matter of importance to me?"

"As long as you are happy to walk with me."

Dorley fell into pace beside Brathay, huffing still from his exertions. Then, after strolling for a few seconds in comfortable silence, his breathing normalised.

"Look, I know I am not gifted in attractiveness like Horniman and Lokman, and I have no illusions about ever being invited into hall studies, but I asked Diannus to walk out with me tomorrow evening, and she has agreed. She actually agreed. And now I am constantly fretting and feeling nauseous all the time. That orange is the first thing I have managed to keep down all day. Can you help me? Can you tell me what I should do? Because I really like her, and I want her to like me."

Dorley was almost as tall as Brathay but much broader, and some considered him awkward and cumbersome. And his face held a peach-like quality, smooth and unblemished with pink dusted cheeks, which some of his classmates found babylike and amusing. But for all his clumsiness, he had a good heart and would make someone a loyal and loving companion.

"First of all, congratulations. Getting a person to agree to walk out is the first major hurdle. Yes, you may not have the same rugged attraction as some of your classmates, but beauty alone will only get you so far. And you, young man, have lots of other qualities. Now let me give you some guidance on how to make the night a success."

Brathay selected a different path across the lawn, one that would give them a little more time. Brokerman would wait for him.

"Most boys romancing girls feel the need to talk incessantly about themselves. Restrain yourself. Ask her questions and listen carefully to what she says. What do you know about Diannus?"

"Not much. She is Khordimun and comes from Sporikh, where she helps her father and mother work their farm. I think she has two younger sisters, but I am not sure. I know she cherishes her family riverside farmhouse, and I also know they harvest local grain—"

"Sporikh grains are celebrated. What type of grain?"

"I have no idea."

"Then ask her. Also, if her farm is situated alongside the river, she may have views of the Trepideaia mountain range. Question her about things like that. Show an interest. That is all you need to do."

"Yes, of course. But when I am nervous, I tend to babble—"

"Then place a small orange in your robe pocket."

"I—sorry?"

"Ask her a question and then squeeze your hand around the orange. Not too hard, just enough to still your nerves and divert your attention to listening. As she talks, take mental notes and think about questions you can ask from what you hear. There is no better way to show an interest in someone than to listen carefully and follow up with more questions. I warrant that you will even surprise yourself at how much you learn about her."

"Ask questions. Yes, I can do that. Anything else?"

"Most girls dating handsome boys go out of their way to make them feel special. Take the lead and make a point of making Diannus feel special. Where are you taking her?"

"I—I had not thought that far ahead."

"If you are collecting Diannus from her dormitory, go for a walk along the lakeside route to the refectory. Then take her into the kitchen after the evening meal and ask for Willem. He is a friend of mine who is of a similar disposition to you and who I helped to romance his wife. He owes me a favour. I will tell him of your plight and ask him to put together a supper table for the two of you—"

"Brathay, you need not trouble yourself—"

"It would be my pleasure. Sadly, I am unlikely to call in this favour before my departure, so I am happy to pass this on to you. If Diannus asks, tell her you had the table arranged through one of the seniors, a friend and somebody who wishes to remain anonymous. And once you have finished the supper, escort her back to her dorm. End the first meeting by asking her if she would consider a second, but leave the decision firmly with her. Now, about you, Dorley. What are your specialities? What will you do once you leave Aulderly?"

"Nothing exciting. My father runs a general trading store in Marlin Helm. We have riverboats that supply Cormaland oak and farm produce to the southern kingdoms. He wants me to return to help him run the store and then take over once I am ready."

"And what do you want?"

"I have no high ambition if that is what you mean. But I would like to have a wife by my side eventually, to help me run the store and build a family of our own."

Brathay gazed sidelong at the boy as they came to a stop outside the impressive oaken double doors leading into the Tower of Interconnection. Here stood a student who represented the mass of the empire's inhabitants, those who wished only to live a simple, peaceful existence, those who essentially kept the wheels of the empire turning. Dorley, with his uncomplicated and self-effacing approach to life, would make an honest, hardworking and loving husband to the right woman. And if Brathay had read Diannus right, she probably knew that much.

"Why an orange?" asked Dorley puzzled. "In my pocket? Why not an apple or something else?"

"I reasoned that if you cannot eat anything with Diannus while you are entertaining her, you will have a ready meal for when you return to your dorm."

Dorley laughed, making his cheeks wobble, but he also appeared to relax.

"Thank you for your advice, Brathay. You know, the wards say that many other seniors refuse to engage the juniors in conversation, which is why I believe there is always an increasingly large group when you join ours. You give exceptional wisdom to us when prompted and have been more help to me than you could know. When I see you the day after tomorrow, I will let you know how things went."

"That would be wonderful. Now off to class with you before you are late."

Brathay smiled to himself and headed into the shadows. Dorley would not need to tell him anything. He would be able to read the signs in Diannus' face to know exactly how things had gone.

Thank you for reading.

Comments, observations, reactions and anything else you'd like to add, gratefully received.

Copyright © 2021 lomax61; All Rights Reserved.
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That you very much for reading.

Any reactions, comments or observations are very much appreciated.

Let me know what would you think will happen next, or what you like to see happen.

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Chapter Comments



5 hours ago, Parker Owens said:

This is interesting; I’m looking forward to more.

Thanks @Parker Owens, it’s a slow start but what you learn in this chapter and the next will help you understand many of the things that happen later.

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4 hours ago, George Richard said:

Fantasy stories always interest me and I look forward to learning more about this world. 

Hi @George Richard, welcome to this tale. I’m pegging this as a political fantasy with lots of intrigue and suspense and cliffhangers… 

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4 hours ago, CincyKris said:

I am already absorbed in your fantasy world of Mulia.  Brathay is a very composed young man.  I look forward to seeing him become undone!

Hi @CincyKris, lol, and undone he will be. I’m trying hard to provide backstory and building the world without downloading too mUch. I hope you keep reading. 

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Like everyone else Im gripped already.  I think this is the first real fantasy world book I’ve read on GA so nothing to compare it with, but I love the intelligence of the conversation.  This could be a really great read and I’m hooked 🤗

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Wow there is a lot to take in with this story, particularly when I am reading it at 7:30 am, it reminds me a bit of the first few years at Hogwarts it’s a bit Potteresque in that the students wear robes to school. 

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Let's hope the trick with the orange works...  Excellent start to a story; we learned a lot and it was interesting enough for the reader to want to learn more...

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I love this story, my regret is having to wait a week (a whole 168 hours!!l) for the next instalment. Also I would love to read more of this world.  Aulderly is the perfect introduction not only to the main characters but also to the maturity of the world that has been so carefully crafted by the author, a world that I would like to inhabit!

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I very nice introduction into the universe you have created for this story.  It sets a good foundation to build upon in the next few chapters.  Brathay is definitely and interesting character based on his education and introspective nature.  The introduction definitely leads us to many more questions I am sure will be answered in the next chapters. Excellent beginning.

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41 minutes ago, raven1 said:

I very nice introduction into the universe you have created for this story.  It sets a good foundation to build upon in the next few chapters.  Brathay is definitely and interesting character based on his education and introspective nature.  The introduction definitely leads us to many more questions I am sure will be answered in the next chapters. Excellent beginning.

Hello @raven1, welcome to the world of Mulia.

You've joined us at exactly the right time, as I am a few chapters from putting this tale to bed.

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