Turrin led them through a labyrinth of narrow hallways, offices, and staircases, until they finally arrived at a set of black doors half again as tall as he was. The doors were set into a wall in a large alcove, and the alcove was lined with chairs, forming a wide and uncomfortable “waiting room” just off the hallway.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to wait here,” Turrin said to Amber. “The proceedings are highly confidential. I’m sure you understand.”
“I’m sure I do.”
Turrin nodded to the two guards that had accompanied them. One of them roughly pulled Simeon’s arms behind his back and held them in an iron grip. The other grabbed a door handle in each hand and dramatically heaved, opening the heavy black doors with a flourish.
Turrin strode through the doors first, followed by Simeon and his guard. Before the second guard dramatically pulled the doors shut behind them, Amber glimpsed a cavernous room dimly lit by burning sconces and occupied by robed, glowering figures. And then the door was shut.
Amber sighed and took a seat.
She didn’t mind waiting. It was part of the job. The alcove provided her with a good view of the hallway, so she could watch the people pass by in order to not get bored. It wasn’t a busy hallway, but a few people scurried past every minute, just enough to keep her from getting bored.
Amber began to pick up on the details of the local dress code. Students wore light, loose shirts and trousers, sometimes with matching vests. Professors and administrators were more formal in their attire, with wide beaded belts, high leather boots, and a few sparkles of silver jewelry.
Color played an important part in everyone’s wardrobe. Those associated with the three great academies wore a lot of black, red, and green—the academies’ school colors. Even the students and faculty from the minor academies wore these three colors—along with their respective school colors, of course—suggesting that the smaller schools were also each associated with one of the big three.
No one walking by gave Amber a second glance. Apparently, outsiders were common in the monk tower. Not that surprising, Amber realized, since this was also the center for admissions. Rich merchants and lords from across the realm were probably a common sight as they toured the city and made tuition arrangements with the headmasters.
Amber was not the only stranger in the building. A young man, dressed in simple breeches and blouse with no obvious school affiliation, had wandered down the hall twice since Amber had taken her seat. He was short, thin, and very blonde. He looked lost. Amber thought of saying something to him, but forgot all about him when Clarissi stepped into the alcove.
The girl was older than Amber had imagined her, maybe eighteen or twenty years old. Her long, red hair was piled artfully atop her head so it just draped her freckled shoulders. She wore the black uniform of a Braal student, highlighted with a gold vest that matched the gold bracelets on her bare arms. The uniform would hide the slight swell of the girl’s belly from the casual observer, but those looking for it—like Amber—could see it easily enough.
Clarissi saw that Amber was alone in the alcove, then marched directly up to her.
“So you’re the bounty hunter. What does it feel like to steal a man’s life from him?” The girl’s dark green eyes smoldered.
“He was free! And now you’ve ruined him.”
“He ruined himself,” Amber said, gesturing to the girl’s belly. “In case you hadn’t noticed. Besides, I would have expected you to be happy. I brought your boyfriend back to you.”
“Back to slavery!”
Clarissi spat the words with such venom, Amber thought for a moment the girl was going to strike her. Perhaps a lighter touch was called for.
“Slavery? What do you mean?” Amber made herself sound more sympathetic than she was, but it was an honest question. Simeon had said nothing about slavery.
“That’s the punishment—service to the city. Maybe he’ll be on the painting crews, keeping the towers white and gold. Or maybe he’ll have to work the sewers. If he’s lucky he’ll end up here in this hole,” she gestured at the monk tower around them, “filing and sorting and performing tuition calculations from sunup to sundown.”
As far as punishment went, none of those options sounded too bad to Amber. She’d assumed the headmasters were going to relieve Simeon of his manhood. Compared to that, a lifetime of filing sounded downright pleasant. She was about to share this thought with Clarissi when they were joined in the alcove by the short blonde stranger.
He sniffed at them. He still looked lost.
“You must be new here,” Clarissi said with a gentleness that surprised Amber. “What room are you looking for?”
The stranger said nothing, but sniffed again, turning to look at the double doors.
With a single motion, Amber drew her sword and stepped between Clarissi and the young man.
“Get out of here,” she said, pushing the girl towards the hallway. “Get the guards before—“
But she was already too late. The young man was at the black doors. His sniffing turned to panting, then hyperventilating. Fur sprouted from his skin like fungus and his jawbone began to stretch with a wet creaking sound.
“Oh no you don’t,” cried Amber as she swung for the young man’s chest.
There was a flash of light and a smell of smoke as Amber’s blade bit home and steel slide between ribs. The beastling clutched at the mark on his breast. He staggered backwards, his hands filling with blood. The fur disappeared. The man’s jaw shrunk to normal size as if it were deflating. By the time Clarissi returned with the guards, the blonde man was dead.