“Kral! Are you alright?

Moria’s subdued voice wasn’t enough to bring me out of my trance. I was staring at one of the many portraits dotting the hallway leading to the exhibition hall, the sound of heeled shoes stepping on marble a sharp cacophony, dulling my senses. “Everything fine, mate?” Luton’s husky voice, though, was distinct enough to grab my attention.

“Yes, Luton,” I said as I turned around, rubbing my eyes. It was comforting to see him again.

He snickered. “You sure? You’ve been zoning out real often as of late, you know that?” His hair didn’t look like it had been combed ever since we left the Medicon, and his wide, squarish jaw was starting to grow some stubble.

“Just looking at these weird paintings,” I said as I waved my hand around. The object of my attention, now directly behind me, was the portrait of an unkempt middle-aged man dressed in a lavish and free-flowing creamy thobe which seemed to change hues the more I tilted my head to the sides. I turned around and paid some more attention to the framed capasian before me. His white top-hat with thin golden rings was equally pleasing to look at. The copper plaque read “Sival Tharm, 22nd Head of the Owl’s Gems.” That would explain the extravagance.

“Yes, they are very strange, aren’t they?” Moria added, looking around the hallway. To Luton’s amusement, she was tilting her head again.

I looked at the paintings once more. Artists were rare in Rumess, or at least in our western province of Fallor, so they were greatly valued for their sometimes uncanny ability to immortalise people and events. The most skilled amongst them could create portraits that seemed almost lifelike, so there was no shortage of talent, but we had never seen paintings like these before.

Then again, our province was pretty bland in comparison to the great duchy of Saydyn, or, as we used to refer to them, the lands of the nobles. They may have had paintings like these, though there wasn’t much left of those lands anymore. No. The hunters didn’t spare the nobles either when they ripped through Rumess. Yet here stood Nehibia in all its glory and might with its folk none-the-wiser about the chaos outside their own fortified lands. I found myself wishing this place and its people the very same blight that had painted our lands red.

I turned my attention back to the paintings. For all of their intrigue, however, the strange portraits I was now inspecting were lacking an intricacy that was greatly valued in paintings – they were lifeless. Sival Tharm’s beady eyes were staring directly in front of him, and, no matter from where I looked, would always keep his gaze still. I noticed Luton chuckling as he looked at Sival from the side. “Dreadful profile, he has. Looks like a mole-rat.”

“That’s not a nice thing to say.”

“Well, not like he’d care. He’s dead, ain’t he? Besides, you should’ve seen the Knights I shared the bunk with. Lots of ugly mugs, let me tell you that.” He pretended to gag.

“You don’t have your own room?” Moria inquired instantly. “Kral and I have our own rooms! Mine is really nice, actually, and in the lobby there were all sorts of exotic plants from a place called Senn-Ha.” It was hard to stop Moria once she gained momentum. “The fellow capasi there were really nice as well. We must have spent an hour discussing all sorts of rumours,” she continued. I was glad to see her fit in so quickly, given her usual shyness.

“Rumours? Like what?” Luton seemed curious.

“They were claiming that Majestica Eudora is a Vix. I told them it’s nonsense. Everyone would have noticed if he had started to expire. It’s not easy to miss a deformed capa, is it?”

“Or the uncontrolled rage and frenzy. Yes, really does sound like nonsense to me,” I said.

Moria agreed with a nod. “Very unlikely, yes. Although… no one has seen Majestica Eudora for a long time, and he wasn’t at the opening ceremony either, was he?”

Luton was looking at a richly dressed capasi. The hems of her turquoise thobe faded into yellow and embroidered with silver.  He must’ve seen me with the corner of his eyes or something, because he snapped out of it as soon as I laid my eyes on him. “My bunk bed was nice, too. Beats sleeping in the woods, let me tell you that.”

Moria snickered. “Bit of a slow response there, Luton!”

He chuckled.

“Yeah, Luton,” I said. “You’re right though. Had a really good night’s sleep myself. The bedsheets smelled like flowers.”

Moria’s eyebrows furrowed. “Your bed smelt of flowers? How come mine didn’t?”

Luton lightly punched my arm before I could answer. “Bugger that. How about we go eat? My stomach’s grumbling real bad.”

I looked ahead at the exhibition hall. That’s where we would be having our breakfast, according to Gallant, whom I hadn’t seen since yesterday. The doorway was getting crowded, and standing smack dab in front of one of the entrances wasn’t helping either.

We followed the swarm of capasians making their way inside, paying attention to the many directional signs no doubt designed to make our journey through the labyrinthian Academy a bit easier. The hallway was noisy with the sounds of chatter and the shuffling of feet, adorned with all sorts of weird and wonderful apparel. The absence of any mechas therefore was all the more puzzling.

“Her, the one with the blue thobe!” A capasi to my side said as she glanced at Moria, her rather loud outburst clearly audible despite the commotion surrounding us. “Look at her sandals! Must be the daughter of a peer.”

Luton, having a particular craft for eavesdropping, amongst other things, obviously heard the remark as well. “Oh, Your Majesty! I believe I overheard two capasi having the gall,” he gasped exaggeratedly, “to call you the daughter of a peer! The insolence!”

Moria chuckled, playing along. “What? Me, the daughter of a peer? Why would they say that?”

“Our clothes do look a bit more upclass compared to others, don’t they?” I said, remembering our mystery sponsor. “Though I wouldn’t really liken them to the wares of nobility.”

“She’s just being nice,” Moria replied, her cheeks gaining a rosy tint. “This thobe is really nice, I agree, but it’s not what a peer would wear.” Sometimes I wondered if Moria’s humility was, in fact, insecurity.

“They’re just clothes, mate.” Luton was rubbing his thumb on the thobe. “Feels silky, though, don’t it?”

“That’s my point. Look around us. How many capasians do you see?”

“Loads.”

“And how many of them are wearing clothes as… as nice as ours?”

Luton scratched his stubble. “Not many, yeah. So what? Just clothes, Kral.”

Despite Luton’s apathy, I could see that Moria was lost deep in thought. I decided to reveal what had been bothering me since our arrival. “Not just clothes, Luton. I haven’t told you two this, but—”

“Hey!” Gallant’s voice cut me off before I could finish my sentence. He was approaching us rather quickly from behind, and even though I was slightly annoyed at being interrupted, the hilarious sight of his top-hat bouncing and swaying wildly cheered me up in an instant. “Wait up,” he shouted as he filtered through the traffic towards us, arriving slightly out of breath. “What’re you doing?”

“We were just admiring the portraits,” Moria said, emulating Gallant’s friendly smile.

“I would rather be admiring all those pretty capasi, not that there’s much of ‘em in this little maze,” Luton added, scanning the crowd. His witticisms were much more appreciated when we used to be on the run.

Gallant’s smile widened. “Shall we get something to eat?” He started to walk towards the exhibition hall and we followed, making small talk along the way. Feeling my legs ache slightly from climbing the stairs was quite welcome. I had barely exercised any muscles since arriving at the Medicon.

When we eventually made our way to the exhibition hall, I couldn’t believe my eyes!

“Oh, wow!” Moria gasped. “This doesn’t even look like the hall we were in yesterday!”

She was right. The hall looked like it had been renovated overnight, the myriad of multicoloured banners now gone, the skylights no longer showering the room in diverse hues. The coloured glass that used to filter the sunlight was now completely translucent, casting nothing but simple, yellow light. A veritable mass of capasians were seated at tables in the centre of the hall, talking to each other and creating a cacophony of noise. The formerly metallic walls of the exhibition hall now appeared to be made of wood, giving the whole room a warm, cosy feeling. Lit candles were scattered across the tables and an immense chandelier now hung above the centre of the hall.

Gallant was the second one to comment. “Skar! What a transformation. Unbelieveable.”

“Yes, yes. Anyone wanna actually concentrate on the task at hand? I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” Luton muttered, rubbing his stomach.

Gallant stifled a giggle. Luton really needed to refine his horse references. I wondered how Galant would have reacted if I told him that Luton had actually eaten a whole horse before. You didn’t get to be picky when on the run.

“Where are we supposed to be seated?” Moria asked, looking around the room. We weren’t alone in our confusion. Many capasians ahead of us were also looking around aimlessly, trying to figure things out.

“Good question. I can’t see any banners around. I guess we can just pick any seat?” I said.

Before anyone could pitch in, a short and stocky capasian standing beside us spoke. “ ‘Scuse me,” he said meekly with a familiar accent, almost reminiscent of the way some spoke back home. “You’s lots can sit anywhere you pick your fancy – there ain’t no fixed seating here.” His auburn hair was spiky, and, from the look of it, drenched in Uulin fat.

“Oh, I see…” I said, unsure of how to converse with the stranger.

The spiky-haired capasian wiped non-existent sweat off his brow. “Nice t’ meet you by the way. They call me Gadget,” he announced, nodding his head as was customary. I did the same.

Moria bowed more formally. “I’m Moria. Always nice to meet helpful people!”

Luton perked his head up. “Luton, mate. Pleasure,” he said, rather nonchalantly.

Gallant tipped his top-hat. “Nice to meet you. I’m Gallant, Knight Stallion. You?”

Gadget’s left eye twitched. “Eagle’s Reach. I like tech, traditional tech. Is why they call me Gadget.”

Judging from his accent and his way of speaking, Gadget was even more of a country bumpkin than we were. There was, however, something I just couldn’t quite place about him.

“Traditional as in steamtech? That’s really interesting,” Moria remarked. “We ar—”

“Are very, very hungry.” I interjected, recalling the warning that my mystery sponsor had issued. It would be best not to attract too much attention.

The audible growl from Gadget’s stomach helped.

Moria’s face had curdled when I interrupted her, but she regained her composure and cleared her throat. ”Are you having breakfast with anyone, Gadget?” My sponsor’s warning kept echoing through my mind, bouncing off the walls of my cranium.

You and your friends are an unlikely bunch, and I fear you will attract too much attention, too much of the bad and unwanted kind.

“No, ain’t having breakfast with nu’un,” Gadget replied, taking a look around as if to emphasise his lack of company. His right eye twitched.

Moria smiled. “Why not join us, then?” She looked at me and Luton. I shrugged, trying to keep myself from tensing up. Paranoia was a trait I had gained on the run from the hunters. Still, even though I had to be cautious at all times, there was no reason for me to be suspicious of everything.

Gadget’s face lit up. “That’d be nice! I’d quite like that, thanks.” He didn’t seem to be shy or anxious in the least.

“Which province do you hail from, Gadget?” Gallant asked nonchalantly, but his pinpointed Strassty betrayed his intent to display a lack of interest.

“From Deilia,” Gadget answered, taking a small pause before continuing. “A Nehibian, like ya’ self. But youse noticed my accent, didn’t ya? Go on and call me an outlander if you’d like. I know how you folk talk about us,” he continued calmly without a trace of hostility. “My pa and I did a runner from Yasria ‘bout 5 years back, when the rebels first hit. Pa’s a transporter. Came in real handy.” He grinned.

“Skar! I knew it!” Gallant exclaimed, before adding quickly: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”

Yasria was a duchy in Ipsis, the region neighbouring Rumess. I used to hang out with a bunch of Yasrian boys when I was younger. No wonder Gadget’s accent seemed so familiar. The impulse to tell Gadget about our origin almost took over, though my dear old companion, caution, kicked in before I would have done something stupid.

Luton had had enough of our ramblings and started to move forward, complaining about our dawdling. We made our way through the crowd of fellow students, all unique in their own, peculiar way. The general tone and dialect of speech here was quite different from where I grew up. Capasians here spoke more softly and slowly, accentuating their words rather frequently. It felt antagonising, really. I found it difficult to picture these folk ever doing a hard day’s work in their lives. Back home, life was tough and the folk were hardy and pragmatic, but it wasn’t something we detested. There was a purpose to everything. After all, my father’s pragmatic frontiersman adages had probably been the very reason we were still alive.

“There’s some seats there.” Gallant pointed to a set of empty seats at the edge of one of the tables near the lower end of the hall. We hurried to occupy them before someone else could lay their eyes on the prize.

“So, how are we going to get our food?” Luton asked, sitting down. The look on his face implied hunger. I caught sight of a group of senior students from the table across ours, making loud, bawdy jokes and laughing hysterically.

Moria was quietly tapping the table with her nail. “We’ll probably have to wait, just like everyone else.”

As soon as Moria finished her sentence, the room dimmed. The skylights dotting the ceiling turned pitch black, not allowing any sunlight to filter through them. The candles spread throughout the exhibition hall, however, gave off a beautiful ambiance, draping dancing shadows across oaken walls. The noise died down.

A voice echoed throughout the hall. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.

“Good morning, young Eytes.” It was Principal Essitor. ”Some of you will be having your first breakfast here at the Academy. To celebrate this felicitous event and to congratulate your enrolment, the Academy kitchen staff has prepared a variety of delicacies for you to savour. Seniors, you might want to toast the new arrivals.”

Just like that, the voice cut off. The hall erupted in applause and cheering, especially from the older members of the Academy. A large group of uniformed Stallion Knights were shouting their cohort motto.

“Who was that?!” Luton yelled over the crowd.

Gallant was the first to respond. “Principal Essitor Den-enald. I wonder what those delicacies are.”

A line of plainly dressed capasas appeared in the hall, putting many different types of foods on the tables. They avoided the large amounts of still standing capasians with practiced grace and an almost supernatural efficiency.

In front of me was placed a decently-sized bowl of fried Jasomyne rice with spinach, topped off with two soft boiled eggs oozing creamy egg yolk. A small bun had also been provided and it looked quite familiar to something we used to have back home. Another waiter simultaneously placed a glass of peach-coloured juice right next to my left hand. “Thanks,” I said, smiling. My stomach started growling as well now. Everything looked so tasty.

“That’s all we get? Some rice?” Luton didn’t seem too happy with our breakfast.

“An’ eggs,” added Gadget.

Moria readjusted her position on the chair. “Looks good to me,” she said, picking up a metal fork and gently sticking it in the eggs. They bled yolk liberally.

I would have agreed with Moria, but I was too busy eating. The eggs were so soft they positively melted in my mouth, eliciting a grunt of satisfaction from yours truly. Luton took a large mouthful of seasoned rice. “Not bad, actually,” he slurred, bits of rice cascading from between his lips.

“This is a nectar bun, isn’t it? One of Ommolon’s?” Moria said, picking up the small, steaming bun we had been given. She gingerly took a bite. Nectar bulged out of the bun and coated her platter in orange dots.

Gallant raised his eyebrows. “You’ve had these before? In the Outer Lands? Huh.”

“Of course we have!” I might have spoken a bit harshly. “What makes you think we wouldn’t have?”

“I meant no offence, Ommolon’s treats are quite expensive, and you know…” Gallant replied hastily. “Yours might have been a bit different than these ones,” he added softly, turning a bright shade of red. I clenched my jaw.

Moria, however, didn’t seem to mind Gallant’s implication that we had been enjoying cheap imitations. “It does taste different.” She just swallowed her first bite and seemed pleasantly surprised. Luton and Gadget were devouring their rice with unbridled ferocity. “It’s… well, not sweeter. I can’t really place it, but it’s different. Definitely some other type of nectar.”

Luton took a bite on his bun. “Tastes like a bun,” he said, while staring down Gallant.

I forced myself to relax and let it go. Nothing good would come out of joining in this conversation. I resumed tending to my food, knowing I’d have a taste of the nectar bun myself in a couple of moments. Mine was violet, unlike Moria’s, which was coloured orange.

Gallant cleared his throat. “Kral.” He had barely touched his breakfast. “There’s two capasians over there who’ve been staring at you for a while,” he said, pointing behind me with his eyebrows. “One of them keeps on whispering to his friend while pointing at you.”

Luton stopped eating. I turned around and recognised the bold duo instantly. It was the pinstripe suit capasa who mocked me at the ceremonial hall entrance yesterday and his cream blazer-clad expressionless friend. Both were wearing similar type of silver gauntlets. What had he said? “He forgot to kiss his mummy goodbye?” His friend Osrak, if I recalled his name correctly, seemed to be just as emotionless as when I first saw him.

The capasian in the pinstripe suit winked at me and started imitating the way I had supposedly reacted to the presence of the Mecha yesterday. I’m sure I didn’t look that horrified. Luton noticed this and hurled a nasty curse towards them. Luckily, his message was lost on the sea of noise in which we were swimming.

“What’s they want with you Kral?” Luton looked irritated.

“Ignore them. Just bullies.”

“Yeah? We’ll see about that.” He started to get up and I panicked. Letting Luton take control of things was not a very wise decision.

“By the way,” I said hastily, putting down my fork. “The lady at the registration desk told me that my time at the Academy has been paid for, but she wouldn’t tell me by who. What about you two?”

Gadget laughed. He was missing quite a lot of teeth. “Ain’t nu’un paid for my studies, that’s for damn sure.” Nobody found that to be as funny as he did, though Gallant smiled politely.

Moria quickly added: “Same here. I’ve been meaning to ask you about that as well. Maybe we should ask at the reception desk again?”

“Definitely. Let’s do that straight after this. I want to know what’s going on here. I don’t feel very comfortable about…” I paused and waved at everything around us, “all of this. Just too convenient, isn’t it?” I still wasn’t sure how much of our past I could bring up with Gadget here. Gallant didn’t need to know for that matter either.

My Rimmpannel beeped and vibrated. Moria picked up her own panel and swiped at the screen. I did the same. Luton didn’t seem interested, focusing only on his food.

 

Eyte Kral Fenley,

Please report to the exhibition service desk. You are to receive three hundred Vee, courtesy of recent events. This currency is usable only within Academy grounds.

 

I looked up. I wasn’t the only one to receive the message. The efficiency of these Rimmpanels impressed me so much I began to contemplate my choice of cohort once again. The Eagle’s Reach was allegedly waist-deep in all this Rimm stuff.

“Yuh, how ‘bout this!” Gadget exclaimed. “I ain’ thought they’d just give us money like that.” He started picking his teeth with his nails and casually flicked a half-eaten speck of spinach behind him, before grinning at me. “Seems like y’all folk ain’t the only ones being paid for anymore.”

Gallant put his Rimmpanel down and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Must be because of the Majestica’s recent decree.”

“You mean regarding our capas?”

Gallant nodded.

“I sure don’ see how givin’ us money’s linked to that,” Gadget added, rubbing his hands on his clothes. He then excused himself and left for the bathroom, with Gallant following soon after. I couldn’t think of a better opportunity to bring up our sponsor, so I told my companions about the letter I had woken up to in the Medicon, leaving a couple of details out. Moria didn’t need to know I was keeping a very careful eye out for her.

For the first time in a long while, I saw Luton’s face adopt an expression of utmost gravity. “They know about us already? Bugger. So much for being the master of disguise.”

Moria didn’t seem too worried. “Well, we’re not in danger right? We just need to keep our guard up. We’ve kept ourselves out of trouble so far.” She paused and then shrugged. “I don’t see why anyone would sponsor us, though.”

I spoke a bit too loudly. “Exactly!” A small capasa sitting right next to Gadget’s empty seat flinched. I gave him a smile to express my apologies. “We need to get to the bottom of this. I don’t want to dance around these arrows falling from the sky.” Luton glanced up. “Ehm, metaphorically.” It was uncanny how he could switch so fast from having a few brain cells to none at all.

Both Gallant and Gadget made their way back to the table before we could discuss further. I could sense though that the three of us were in agreement about discussing this further. A steaming buttermilk strudel with apples followed our short discussion. “Compliments to the chef!” Luton said to no one in particular.

A voice boomed throughout the hall from out of nowhere. “All Eyte students of the Academy must report to Sir Gorak at the Capasian Affairs Hall. The matter pertaining to your capas must be addressed.”

I swallowed. I had been dreading this very moment. My seal had already broken. Keep your capa concealed at all times, the letter had said. By the time the announcement faded, I was already fabricating lies and half-truths.

Gallant grinned. “Told you this was about our capas.”

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