His palms were sweating, and he doubted it had anything to do with the fact that it was already so hot out despite being early in the summer. For the hundredth time in a minute, he wiped his hands on his pants and wished he could scratch the sweat off his scalp.
The professors were still assembling themselves in front of the crowd that stood before the great wooden doors of the Arbour. Clenching his teeth, Sage stole a furtive glance through the little crowd. He couldn’t see Briar in the sea of combed hair and solemn faces, but he spotted Ash further down the line, looking as stoic as ever.
Behind the professors stood the rest of the Arbour’s body. Kell was easily visible despite the number, standing high above the others as the sun caught her hair and turned it to fire. And though he couldn’t see her, somewhere in that mass of people was Arcana.
Murmurs brought his attention back to the line of professors. They seemed to have finally organized themselves into a neat line, squinting against the sunlight. The grandmaster stood at their centre, wearing the same frown he always did despite the delighted atmosphere thick around the two groups of students. It was a joyful day, from the mood to the blue sky and sunlight, but one would never be able to tell by looking at the grandmaster’s sour expression. Sage wondered if the old man was capable of a truly genuine smile, or if he had long ago lost the ability.
“Children,” the grandmaster called, and it seemed as though even the birds quieted to hear his words.
The sweat burst out on Sage’s palms with renewed vigour. Part of him was still unable to wrap his head around this. He had made it. He had survived fifteen years of brutal training to become one of the most renowned and elite warriors in the known world.
His heart skipped and thudded harder beneath his ribs. It had been such a close thing, too. He hadn’t known before yesterday morning, but part of the final test was a physical fight before the grandmaster—a fight against one of the teachers—while answering questions shouted at random. He had done very well, except for one particular historical note that had seen fit to slip his mind at that perfect moment.
Master Bane grunted as he swung his sword at Sage’s feet. Sage leaped back, breathless, and his mind went blank just as the grandmaster’s gravelly voice asked, “Why did the Great Kingdom fall?”
Sage ducked away as the biting edge of Master Bane’s sword came for him again, screaming through the heavy air of the training cave. He barely heard Bane’s dry laughter as he fought to remember Mistress Heather’s voice droning through years of history lessons. Why had the Great Kingdom failed? It seemed like such a simple thing, to keep a kingdom running. All you had to do was keep having children. Having sons…
“The line of Turi’s sons died out!” he said, just as Bane swiped at him again. Sage blocked the attack with a grunt, shoving the professor away from him. “There were power struggles in the Wastes as the line of sons became less stable, and the last official blood relative was assassinated by noble lords who thought the royal line only cared for the good of the Wastes and their own power. Once he was dead, the lords created counties according to each geographical region, and it has remained so ever since.”
The grandmaster remained silent for what felt like a very long time, simply watching Sage and Bane spar. Then he lowered his head in a nod. “Very good.”
The relief that had flooded him after that was incredible, and it had been enough for him to win the duel and earn his place among those lucky few who became Children of the Arbour.
That relief and pride still pumped through his veins as he stood among his peers. Only the truly strong and bright became Children of the Arbour. So many lost their chance—by ill luck, poor choices, or simple lack of skill.
“You are the ones who will defend the weak,” the grandmaster said, voice clear and firm. “You are the ones who will protect those who cannot protect themselves. You will teach those who must be taught, and guide those who require a light through the darkness.
“Yours will not be easy lives. You will always find hardship to overcome and limits to test. It is up to you to choose whether or not to fall prey to weakness, or to persevere and to stand tall and true, and remind those who might doubt you that you are the heart of this nation. It is a life of hardship and secrecy, but it is one you are born to, and one you have conquered.
“For you are Children of the Arbour, and you are born to greatness.”
The silence that followed his words was deafening. It crushed Sage, pressing on his shoulders until he couldn’t breathe.
He was a Child of the Arbour.
He could leave. He could change the world if he wanted. He had been given that power, that skill.
As he struggled to catch his breath, he glanced to the left and spotted her on her knees on the grass, lips moving as she prayed in silence. Briar would go to the City of Kings to become a diviner. It had always been her dream. Ash would probably go home to console his grieving family. Kell had to remain behind to finish her final year, and Talia promised to keep in touch, though she had to remain at the Arbour as well.
It was the end of everything he had ever known.
Two days later, Briar was gone, and he no longer had a reason to stay.