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The Mystara Chronicles XXVII: "Motivations"

by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)

Alexander had almost gotten used to the frantic pace of Glantrian canal-traffic when their boat punched through the chaos into an area of the city where the number of boats dropped off significantly. Many of the gondolas that he did see were larger things bearing archers and lightly-armed skirmishers, not to mention those who were clearly battle-wizards of some kind, holding staves or thin wands. He wondered at what this might portend.

The architecture in this part of the city- which evidently was the Citadel Quarter- was spectacular both in its appearance and its variety. To his left, Alexander saw a huge black tower rising out of the murky waters like something out of an ominous, prophetic dream. To his right, there was a tremendously tranquil building of white marble bounded by slender towers, like a more elegant version of Castle Kelvin; Castle Kelvin, to the best of Alexander's recollection, did not have its turrets covered with silver and gold, as this did.

After they passed by the spooky black tower, Alexander had a good look at the most massive building that he had seen in Glantri thus far: a castle of red stone with a huge pair of bronze doors serving as a gate. Inside was a tremendous citadel topped by what had to be the highest tower in the city. The gigantic central tower was covered in brass plates engraved with the shapes of dragons. Alexander was awed despite himself at the ability of the Glantrians to build something of this monumental size as an island unto itself, swimming in the canals. Who was it who called Glantri "the city that magic built"? he wondered.

Their boat poled around the red castle, and before long they had pulled up to a wide-stepped landing in front of a building made of dark blue stone. "The House of Ministers," the gondolier announced as he stopped his craft. Zacharel handed him a pair of silver coins before leaping lightly out of the boat. Sarrah and Alexander followed.

Atop the landing was a single man dressed in red robes, his cowl pulled over his head. A particularly grotesque gargoyle jutted out from the side of the building directly over him. He appeared to be asleep on his feet. There was no one else anywhere to be seen, nor could Alexander spot either a door or a window.

The red-robed man's eyes flew open as the three hesitantly drew near. "Yes?" he said. Alexander noticed that, like Sarala, this man had the deep copper-toned skin of a Flaem.

"We're here to obtain some licenses," Zacharel said, showing his Citadel Pass to the man and gesturing for Sarrah and Alexander to do the same. The red-robed man squinted at Zacharel, opened a large book that was not in his hand a heartbeat earlier, and made a few quick notations with a similarly-magiced pen as he looked over each of their passes.

"Enter," he said, nodding to the group, his inspection complete. He closed the book, which disappeared instantly.

"What do you mean, 'enter'?" Alexander asked, bewildered by the appearing and disappearing codex. "Enter where?"

The red-robed man sighed and rolled his eyes. "Walk into the wall, Mundaner."

"What did you call me? A Mun-what?" Alexander knew when he was being insulted, even if he did not understand exactly what he was being called.

Zacharel put out his hand. "Thank you, sir," he said respectfully to the robed man before shooting Alexander a look and stepping, quite calmly, right through the blue stone wall.

"That's it," the Karameikan whispered to himself. "I've seen everything. I can go home now." Then, suddenly, he remembered that this was not the first time that he had seen such a display of magic, that he had before, in Kavorquian's basement. Yes, those strange floating spheres, he thought. The automated constructs of the dead wizard had glided through the walls as if they were not even there. One had attacked Fyodor when he had fallen into a pit trap, another Thalaric had cut from the air. That was the day that Sarrah and I first met, when she was burglarising Kavorquian's mansion with Erren and I was looking for Lord Kaerin's sword and tiara with my friends. That seems so long ago. He shot a glance over at Sarrah, who was staring, slack-jawed, at the spot where Zacharel disappeared. So much has changed. With a sigh, Alexander closed his eyes and strode directly into the wall.

The air was filled with music and the sound of water falling. Alexander opened his eyes, and to his utter disbelief he found himself in a tremendous chamber filled with people, many in the red robes worn by the scribe who had admitted them, but many others in the various forms of eccentric dress that were fashionable here. The columned chamber was dominated by a majestic central fountain. The fountainhead, shaped to resemble a great bronze fish, spewed a torrent of scintillating water a hundred feet into the air; upon its descent, it cascaded down a series of terraced rocks and into a massive circular pool.

Alexander became aware of the fact that although there were no windows to be seen anywhere, the entire chamber was suffused with a gentle, soothing light. Looking upwards, past the apex of the fountain's spew, up into the arched, somehow too-high ceiling of the chamber, he saw what he at first mistook for a tremendous mobile, akin, perhaps, to the trinkets crafted by the gnomes at Highforge. It was a series of great globes glowing different but complimentary shades of yellow, blue, and pink, marking their concentric courses at varying speeds. They moved with a stately grandeur, in a way that made Alexander think that there was some hidden significance to the design, although what that could be he did not know.

After a moment, the gawking Karameikan realised that the globes were not attached to the ceiling at all, but were rather moving of their own accord. "Unbelievable," he said, shaking his head in amazement, although almost at the same time he thought that he ought to know better, that this place would be veritably enlivened through magic should come to him as no surprise at all.

As he watched the spheres rotate gently through space, Alexander suddenly thought of Sarala's story that she had told on Darokin Day, the story of the origin of the Flaems, of spheres in the void. At the time he had been so convinced, so willing to accept her tale as truth even though he did not really understand her words. Now, for some reason, he was no longer persuaded. She can't be right; I don't know why, but she just can't.

Then, Sarrah was at his side, slipping her arm through his. He pulled her, the closest thing that he had to a friend in this place, nearer to him. Alexander imagined that he knew how she felt. Just a thief from Specularum, she had seen so little of the world until she had gone north with Erren, until their decision to rob a wealthy man's house outside of Penhaligon. Alexander meditated a moment on the staggering coincidence of it all that had brought him and his companions to the house of Kaerin Penhaligon at the exact same time that Erren and Sarrah happened to be there. And now, Erren was in a prison cell while Sarrah was free in the most magical city in the world.

Does she miss her? Alexander thought. That was something that had bothered Varis, that Sarrah could so easily desert her long-time companion. He had never said it, but the philosopher's accusation was plain: she will do it to us as well, when the scales are no longer in our favour. Alexander knew better. He knew that Sarrah had attached herself not to the group but to him, that she did so because of her- what was it exactly? Was it love? Was it physical desire?

Alexander heard the voice of Varis inside his head: Fool, she was planning to leave for Glantri with Sarala with or without you.

"Can I help you?" Alexander shook himself out of his reverie. The speaker was another red-robed man with nervous hands and a long, thin face.

"Yes," the Karameikan replied. "We're looking for...uh..."

"We are here to obtain licenses," Zacharel, heretofore unnoticed, interjected.

"Of course you are," said the red-robed man. "Just down that hall, if you please."

The three nodded their thanks and moved on towards the area indicated. As they did, moving around the great arc of the many-tiered fountain, Alexander nearly stopped in his tracks when he saw that on the far side of the fountain, in what could only be described as a small artificial grotto, were two mermaids sitting on low, flat rocks. He sputtered at the sight, and, sneaking a glance, could see that Sarrah's ruddy face seemed pale.

"Zacharel," he said, "there are mermaids in the fountain."

The young Glantrian mage looked over just before the two slithered back into the crystal-clear water. "I told you you'd be impressed."

"Impressed isn't exactly the word that comes to mind," Alexander replied. He tore his gaze away from the fountain, the mermaids having not yet again come to the surface. "By the way, where is that music coming from?" The violins and celli had moved from the simple folk melodies that they were playing when the companions first entered the House of Ministers to strangely beautiful music with very intricate counterpoint. In response, Zacharel pointed to a corner of the chamber where various stringed instruments were hovering in mid-air, playing themselves. "Of course," the Karameikan said, numb to new mysteries.

But as awe-inspiring as this feat of magic was, equally awe-inspiring was the magnitude and complexity of the Glantrian bureaucracy. After waiting in line for licenses to bear weapons and armour within the city limits for what seemed like hours, Alexander and Sarrah were finally told by a puffy-faced clerk that, since they were Mundaners, they first needed to be vouched for by an Arcaner. Alexander was already on edge, but being called a "Mundaner" for the second time today irritated him even further.

"Sir," he said as politely as he could under the circumstances, "you must forgive me but I am not from these parts. I simply do not know what you mean."

The bureaucrat clasped his hands together and smiled from behind his desk. "I am sorry, sir, perhaps I spoke too soon. Let me query you, then: are you skilled in the art of magic?"


"Ah, yes." The little man cracked a knuckle. "Well, then, under Glantrian law you are known as a Mundaner. One of the consequences of being a Mundaner is that you are not able to obtain a license either for carrying weapons or for wearing armour unless you are personally vouched for by an Arcaner, or one who does practice the magical arts. Do you understand?"
Yes I understand, Alexander thought. I understand that if we met in a tavern in Penhaligon I would have you face down on the floor in five seconds, you arrogant prick. Sarrah would have you down in two. He ground his teeth, furious. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that Sarrah was looking at him expectantly.

"Are you able to furnish such an individual?" the bureaucrat asked. "Because otherwise we will have to confiscate your weapons and armour."

"Just hold on a minute," Alexander said, striving to contain his anger. "We have a...friend here who is a mage. He's getting another license. Can you hold on while one of us goes to find him?"

"I'm sorry, but, as you can see, we are very busy today." He gestured to the long line behind the two. "You will have to wait in line once more."

Alexander nodded curtly and balled his fists before turning sharply on his heel and storming off.

"Where are we going?" Sarrah asked, taking long strides to keep up with him.

"To find Zacharel," Alexander replied. The thought of needing a sixteen-year old kid whom he barely knew simply to fill out some government paperwork drove him crazy. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Alexander heard Varis' voice warning him about Glantri, but he shook it away.

Of course, it was not such an easy matter to find the young mage. The House of Ministers was a labyrinthine building, and the two were thoroughly frustrated when they found Zacharel at long last. The Glantrian had obtained, for the price of ten golden ducats and to his great delight, a license to cast spells in the city. Alexander- with each passing second caring less and less about these stupid pieces of paper- promptly impressed the youth into service to obtain his own licenses.

All told, they spent their entire afternoon in the House of Ministers, and when they emerged at last from the building through its magic door, the day was coming to an end. "Thirty gold," Alexander said in disbelief, shaking his head at the price of the two licenses he held in his hand. That is more than what I earned those five days from Corunglain to Trintan. He looked at Zacharel, noted the three daggers thrust in his broad brown belt. "Do you have a license for those?" he asked sarcastically, pointing.

The young mage glanced down and shook his head. "Arcaners do not need licenses to carry weapons," he said before whistling for a gondolier's attention.

Alexander and Sarrah shared a look. "I hate it here," he said.

* * *

The stone paths that ran alongside the canals of Glantri City were lined with elegantly crafted iron poles. As the day fled before the advance of the night, gentle glimmers began to appear atop each of these poles until, as the sun hid from sight behind the gold and bronze towers of the city, they shone forth spheres of white light. Alexander stared at them from the tavern room of the Red Drake and wondered at how even this amazing sight, given time, would seem commonplace. Perhaps there is a lesson here, he thought. Perhaps I too should look for wonders in those things that are familiar to me.

"Like beer," Alexander said aloud. Here, in the Red Drake, it came in great pitchers with cut lemons. "What labour went into producing such a thing as this!"

"What?" Zacharel asked, wiping foam from his lip.

"Nothing." Alexander drank deeply and looked around the tavern. It was not much different from the inns to which he was accustomed in Karameikos and Darokin. The clientele were the kind of folks that Alexander liked seeing in bars: craftsmen, labourers, the occasional gondolier or the like. The Karameikan was happy to know that even in a place like Glantri City, there could be found people like this. He knew that he had nothing in common with them, that they were not born to wealthy families, nor did they fill their days with rakish wanderings. Nevertheless, he enjoyed what he knew might be considered an affectation of sorts, a fantasy that allowed Alexander to feel a greater affinity with these people than actually existed.

Zacharel, on the other hand, did not seem to be that excited by the Red Drake. Sipping wine, he was regaling Sarrah with tales of elvish culture instead. Alexander had listened for a while, but the young man's disdain for human accomplishments had begun to get on his nerves. Zach, you're not an elf: you're human, he had wanted to say many times. At last he just opted to ignore him, staring out the window at the city by night, trying to get used to his strange new surroundings and occasionally taking a peek at his lover out of the corner of his eye.

Like most of Traladaran stock, Sarrah did not take sun well; her face was reddish and slightly burned by the long weeks of travel. Despite this, and despite himself, Alexander's desire mounted as he noticed the way that she tossed her long black hair as she laughed at something Zacharel was saying. His blood grew hot at the smooth expanse of her neck, the way that her small breasts strained against the fabric of her blouse as she leaned against the table. She caught his eye and favoured him with a smile and a quick wink.

Damn her, he thought. She is growing more subtle somehow. Her actions and motions seemed more purposeful lately, as if she were performing in some way. For me? he thought. Is she trying to make it up to me? That was fine with him. Pairing her natural sexual intensity with a waxing sense of self-awareness could spell only exciting things for the two of them. Like Tia and Landaria all rolled up into one.

Curse you, Kantpatcalites, don't think about her! He felt the blood that was flowing to his crotch drain out in a moment. Shaking his head quickly, Alexander downed what was left in his glass and refilled it from the pitcher at the centre of the table. He was actually relieved when Sarala walked into the inn a moment later.

"Sarala!" he called, waving the shapechanger over. The Flaem had exchanged her travelling clothes for black trousers, tight across her slim hips but loose about her lower legs, and a white shirt that wrapped around her body and was tied with an orange sash. Her long auburn hair was held atop her head in an elaborate black clasp, the almond shape to her eyes accentuated with kohl. Around her wrist was the golden bracelet that she had claimed from the loot of Haradraith's Keep. If Alexander thought that she had seemed pleased before, when they had first caught sight of Glantri, now Sarala was positively beaming.

"What are you so happy about?" Zacharel asked as she drew near and pulled up a chair.

"I am glad to be back in a familiar place, Zacharel, that is all. Come, let us have a drink together, shall we?" The shapechanger called for a mug.

"I would say that you are considerably more happy than one would expect, seeing as you have been in Glantri for days now and in the city since this morning," Alexander said, hoping to tease some more information out of her.

Sarala finished pouring her beer and drank deeply. "You are right," she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "I suppose I owe you the whole story, seeing as we owe each other our lives. Not you, Zacharel dear," she said, noticing the youth looking at her with wide eyes. "The three of us. Has Alexander not told you about Haradraith's Keep? Get him to tell the tale some time; it is a remarkable story."

She folded her arms on the table. "Let me start with an apology, and then let me try to explain my motivations if I may. I have not been as forthcoming as perhaps I should have been, especially so considering our bond. My experiences in the south were not pleasant, and knowing that my true nature was not one that was welcome in your lands"- she cast a quick glance at Alexander and Sarrah as she said this- "I felt that I had to be as silent as possible concerning my identity and my purposes. Please allow me to rectify this now."

What more can she possibly reveal? Alexander thought, marvelling at Sarala as she spoke.

"I am the personal assistant to one of the greatest alchemists in Glantri, Herr Henning," Sarala said. "It is my job to obtain rare ingredients that he needs for his experiments, as well as to deliver materials to contacts that he has throughout Brun. It was on his behalf that I was travelling in Karameikos." Alexander noted how her story had changed, how she had left out that she had been on her way back from Alphatia when she had been set upon by orcs in the Black Peak Mountains. Was that all a lie? the Karameikan thought, Or is she leaving out that detail so that Zacharel would not be scandalised?

"When I was captured by Blackmaer," Sarala continued, "I lost many things." Her voice was quieter now. "Among them were all of the materials that I had acquired for Herr Henning, as well as some of my own personal items."

"Like what?" said Zacharel, warming to the story, intrigued by the look of loss on Sarala's face.

"Like my spell book, for one," she said. "There were other things, but that is a story for a different day; I do not wish to talk about it." Alexander remembered when he first saw her, naked, bruised, filthy, kept in a cage for Blackmaer's amusement. Alexander had never dared to ask what exactly the mercenary captain had done to her, and Sarala had not once volunteered any information regarding it. He himself had a hard time thinking about the time when they had discovered her, when their new-found companion Galebes had been killed right in front of his face by the giant lizard Blackmaer kept as a pet. He could only imagine how Sarala felt about her ordeal.

"So you are..." Sarrah asked, eyes wide, searching for the word.

Sarala smiled and, murmuring a few words in an indecipherable tongue, opened her hand. A globe of light, no more than a few inches across, materialised above her outstretched palm. Around the circle of orange smaller globes of white and green circled it in a dazzling display. "An Arcaner, yes." She clapped her other hand over the light display and it vanished in a puff of orange spoke that rapidly dissipated.

"Well done!" Zacharel said with a smile. "How did you manage those independent secondary manifestations so precisely?"

"That is what the Great School of Magic is for," she replied. "I myself have attended the school in the past."

"I can see that!" the youth said enthusiastically. "But back to your story: I take it that you had a reserve spell book here in the city?"

"I did take that precaution, yes," Sarala replied. "It cost me quite a bit in both ducats and time, but in the end it seems to have been worth it. Having been without magic of any kind for months, I now feel like myself again."

"I'm very happy for you," Alexander said, trying to smile.

"Thank you," she said, taking a swig of her brew. "How have you found the city so far?" Sarala asked. "Did you see all the sights?"

"Actually we spent most of the day trying to get these stupid licenses," Alexander answered, waving the pieces of paper in front of her.

Sarala laughed. "The ministers can be somewhat tedious, I know, but it's hard to keep track of anything in a city of this size, and especially with as many Arcaners as there are. Now put those away before you attract the attention of a thief; the black market for licenses is something not to be ignored."

Alexander flushed and stuffed the papers back in his pouch. I am more used to telling oafs like Fyodor to mind their surroundings than to be told myself, he thought. His eyes swept the crowd of the Red Drake, looking for anything suspicious. He saw nothing.

"Look, I have an idea," Sarala said, leaning forward in her chair, adjusting a lock of hair that slipped out from behind her ear. "I would like to introduce you to Herr Henning. The master has many needs, and he pays well for services rendered. You need work, yes? This is the kind of thing that you do, isn't it?"

Alexander looked at Sarrah. The thief's brown eyes radiated excitement. She gripped his thigh under the table. "What kinds of services do you mean, exactly?" Alexander said, wanting to make sure that he understood what he was getting into.

"It varies," Sarala said. "For example, he is always in need of rare materials, so he needs men to obtain them for him. Also, he has many rivals and enemies that oftentimes need to be confronted with steel. The great thing about working for Herr Henning is that you never know what the next assignment will be. And, as I have mentioned, he pays very well."

"And a man like that will hire us?" Alexander said, doubtful for some reason.

Sarala nodded. "I will personally vouch for your competence."

"I think it would be wonderful, Sarala," Sarrah said, eyes gleaming.

"That's a good girl," the Flaem said, patting her on the cheek. "You listen to this one, Alexander: she's a lot more than a pretty face and a vicious swordsman."

"You know, I can speak three elvish dialects," Zacharel said, forgotten. "If you need somebody who knows elvish culture, I could help, too." He looked defensive and embarrassed at the same time.

Sarala just laughed. "How old are you, sixteen? I think you're a bit young for this kind of work. But I tell you what. I have some business at the school tomorrow morning. Maybe we can go together and I will try to put in a good word for you. How does that sound?" The young mage's eyes gleamed with pleasure and he nodded enthusiastically. "Good. So everything's settled then?" She nodded at their nods and downed the last of her drink. "I have some friends to catch up with. I will meet you here tomorrow morning for breakfast and then we'll leave for the school together." She rose from her chair. "Oh yes: we're going to have to get you new Citadel Passes." Sarala took a step towards the door. "And Alexander, please, by Rad, shave that ridiculous beard."

* * *

It had come, just as Alexander knew that it would. Zacharel, sensing the tension, had tactfully decided to visit some of the other taverns in the region, leaving the two Karameikans alone. Alexander could not remember exactly why it was that he had become upset with Sarrah, but he felt the last vestiges of anger leave him as she smiled shyly at him, her nimble fingers pattering suggestively on his thigh. He apologised then, for what he did not know, and Sarrah answered in kind, resting her head on his shoulder.

Soon afterwards, inevitably following their thoughtless reconciliation, they retired upstairs to the room that they had rented. Alexander was torn, torn between lust and sleep, between familiarity and the unknown. When Sarrah pressed her open mouth on his, he met her embrace only briefly before holding her away. "Do you think that this is a good idea?" he asked.

Sarrah gave him a bemused smile as she wiggled out of his grasp and pulled her blouse over her head. "You've always thought so before."

"That's not what I mean." Within moments, her yellow skirt was lying in a heap by her feet and she was tugging at his shirt, treating his chest and neck to soft kisses as she did. "I mean, is it a good idea to take up Sarala's offer? We don't even know this Herr Henning."

With a giggle of triumph, Sarrah wrenched his shirt over his head and cast it to the ground. "So what? It sounds good to me. You take what you get, right?"

"Yes, but we barely know anything about this place. It's so different here than in Karameikos."

"We'll get used to it." On her knees in front of him, she loosened his belt in a heartbeat, her fingers tugging at his trousers, his manhood, engorged despite his distant mind, bouncing comically in its freedom.

"This place is godless," Alexander said, noticing with an ever-less concerned mind the way that Sarrah tossed her hair as she gazed up at him with smouldering eyes. "What kind of a land would not honour the Immortals?"

"I don't know," Sarrah replied, smiling at him wickedly. "But this is the only god that I worship, my lord," she said, taking him into her mouth. Alexander knew that she was just playing around, of course, or lying, or both, but he didn't care. Any thought of pushing her aside, of demanding that she listen to him and discuss his concerns was dispelled by the wave of pleasure that bore over him. She was a quick study, her skills, rough once but now perfected by many weeks of practice, honed and designed solely for his pleasure. She knew how to make him forget.

Yet as they coupled that night- a long, drawn-out affair that would leave them both exhausted and sore- Alexander felt something that he had never known before in his dealings with Sarrah: a disgust, a loathing that clouded the corners of his mind. Sarrah did not seem to notice, but after she fell deeply asleep, Alexander lay awake and wondered at how he felt suddenly so alone, so lost, a stranger even in his own body. For a moment he thought that he would cry; horrified at such a display of weakness, he pulled himself together, rolled over on his side, and concentrated on emptying his mind, making it absolutely and irretrievably black. From emptiness would come rest; and from rest, he hoped, would come healing.

* * *

"I left my spell-casting license back at the inn," Zacharel whispered to Sarala. Alexander turned his head slightly, the better to hear the youth. The gondolier who was ferrying them through the canals of Glantri City was singing a ditty to himself, and doubtless did not hear the young mage's pronouncement.

"That was a foolish mistake," Sarala whispered back, barely loudly enough for Alexander to hear. "You have your Citadel Pass?" The youth nodded yes. "Good. If you were missing that we would have to turn back; the guards won't let you in the school without it. Don't worry about the other. Just keep your mouth shut and act wizardly. If you get caught, say that you had it with you when you left the inn this morning." Zacharel nodded in return, but Alexander could see the worry on his face.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please, keep your hands inside the boat, eh? Thank you." The gondolier interrupted his low, rather tuneless singing to chastise Alexander and Sarrah, who were letting their fingers drag through the water of the canal.

"Sorry," Sarrah mumbled, squinting at the boatman. The city of Glantri was spectacular, no doubt, but the abundance of metal plating that lined many of the towers caused a dreadful glare. Alexander found it best simply to keep his eyes closed and to relax to the gentle swaying of the boat.

The gondolier returned to his soft humming as the craft made its way through the relatively lightly-travelled waters of the Citadel Quarter. Alexander ran a hand across his cheek, feeling the beard that he had refused to shave. He hadn't even trimmed it this morning, although their room at the Red Drake had been most thoughtfully equipped with all manner of shaving supplies. He was being petty, he knew, but he did not care.

"Look, there she is. Look, look!" The gondolier nudged Alexander in the leg with his foot, causing the Karameikan to open his eyes once more. The boat was pulling up to an extremely large plaza made of what appeared to be black marble. Many Glantrians were strolling along its length or speaking in small groups but there was no mercantile activity of any kind visible to the eye, nor any buildings on it save for a single tower near its middle.

"This is the Great School of Magic?" Sarrah asked, seemingly confused.

"No," Sarala replied. "This is Alexander Platz. The school is on the far side." The Glantrian pointed at a building connected by a bridge to the far side of the plaza, all grey stone, silver plates, and tarnished bronze. Alexander wondered that a city so miraculous would bear such a mundane sign of age. Could the mages' power not keep it eternally bright?

"Why is it called Alexander Platz?" he asked, shielding his eyes from the sun.

Zacharel laughed. "It's not named for you, Alex."

"Well, obviously," Alexander replied, annoyed.

"It is named after the founder of our nation, Alexander Glantri," Sarala explained. She was wearing a black bustier and a peculiar skirt made of contrasting layers of black and orange fabric. A black shawl, held closed by a simple brooch, completed her outfit. She looked elegant to Alexander's eye. "His remains are interred here, in the City Belfry." Sarala nodded towards the tall tower- pink marble streaked with red- in the middle of the plaza. Looking at it made Alexander feel uncomfortable for some reason.

The gondola came to a graceful halt by one of many landings at the base of the plaza. "All right, we're here," the boatman announced. "Time to 'grease my palm', as they say in Thyatis, eh?" He grinned foolishly. When he had first picked up the foursome, the chatty gondolier had taken much interest in the fact that Alexander and Sarrah were foreigners. He said that he had an uncle who had lived abroad in Thyatis for many years, and claimed to know a lot about the empire. Alexander personally did not care a whit about the man's obviously exaggerated tales about life in the great Thyatian capital, and was happy when he had finally stopped talking.

The group disembarked from the boat and Sarala paid the man his fare. A series of short steps led from the landing to the plaza proper, and these were quickly climbed. Alexander pulled his silk-lined cloak around himself more tightly; despite the clarity of the sun, it was a cold and windy morning.

A deep, sonorous bell began ringing from the belfry. In response to the bell, many of the elegantly dressed humans and elves strolling the smooth black marble of Alexander Platz moved towards the western edge of the plaza. Here was a covered bridge that led to Parliament, the enormously elegant building of white marble that Alexander recognised from yesterday. Others, many dressed not in finery but in simple or even ragged robes, moved towards the northern bridge that led to the Great School of Magic.

"It's the third hour," Zacharel remarked, rubbing his hands together, whether for warmth or in anticipation it was impossible to tell. "I don't want to be late."

"Relax, Zacharel," Sarala said, resting a hand briefly on the youth's shoulder. "The test is going to be difficult. Do not waste your strength in worry." Zacharel nodded, his eyes focused on the grey stone of the Great School of Magic.

The group of four hurried across Alexander Platz. As they drew nearer to the phallic mausoleum, Alexander saw that high atop it, near the bell at its summit, were a group of statues, men and women dressed in long cloaks or layered dresses with shawls. "Do you see that?" Zacharel asked Alexander, pointing at the statues. "They are magical. The statues are dressed appropriately for what the weather will be like on any given day."

"How do they know what the weather will be like?" Sarrah asked. Zacharel only smiled.

Soon they had crossed the plaza and had arrived at the covered marble bridge that led to the school. Guards in full regalia stood in front of the bridge, checking the papers of those who queued up to enter. When they got to the front of the line, the four proffered their passes. Sarala spoke a few quiet words to the guards. Alexander did not catch what she said but she appeared to be explaining something about their reason for coming to the school. It seemed as if they were to be allowed to enter when one of the guards held up a hand and pointed at Sarrah's sword-belt, demanding to see her weapons' license.

The others had left their weapons in the Red Drake, in the lock-boxes that the inn had in every room, but Sarrah had refused to be parted with her exquisite short sword. She had claimed the blade off the corpse of a rival thief in Specularum, she had told Alexander, one who had tried to double-cross her and Erren. Alexander had suspected that it was enchanted for some time- ever since Fyodor had brought up the idea as he and his old companions left Kaerin's mansion- but Sarrah herself did not know for certain. All that she knew was that the blade retained its edge magnificently well, was perfectly balanced, and found gaps in armour with an uncanny regularity. She was not likely to leave it behind in a Glantrian inn.

One of the guards took her license and examined it, passing a small crystal cube over it. With a nod, she was waved on, and the four crossed the short bridge together. The windowless bridge was more like a stone tunnel than anything else, and although Alexander could not see his surroundings, he knew that he was passing directly over the water. The bridge ended in a stone wall, with no visible sign of a door. For a moment, Alexander was confused, but then he remembered the strange entrance to the House of Ministers. Here we go again, he thought as Sarala, the first in line, walked directly through the wall. Zacharel followed, showing no visible signs of concern. Alexander and Sarrah shared a glance and passed through simultaneously, eyes closed.

When Alexander opened his eyes he found, to his surprise, that he was standing in a courtyard. When he had first laid eyes on the school from the far side of Alexander Platz, the Karameikan had assumed that it was merely a massive building. He now realised that he had been wrong, that the school was really constructed more along the lines of a castle, with a series of spire-capped buildings arranged around a central courtyard. The yard was filled with people, most dressed either in finery or wizard's robes, but many others in peasant's garb. Those who carried themselves with extreme dignity and meticulous care were as equally represented as those who looked like they had been living and sleeping in the same set of clothes for many days in a row.

"Fantastic," Zacharel breathed as he looked around, although Alexander was not sure what exactly was captivating him so.

"You are standing on perhaps the most important grounds in the entire world," Sarala said with not a trace of exaggeration in her voice. Alexander raised an eyebrow and glanced at Sarrah, but the thief, aroused by Sarala's statement, seemed to be taking it all in with as much enthusiasm as Zacharel.

Suddenly there was a bright flash, and standing a short distance away from the companions where there was no one a moment ago stood a tall, thin man in faded blue robes. His hair and beard were jet black, and although both were cut in a fashionable style, they were rather unkempt. The man strode immediately towards a young woman, rather voluptuous to Alexander's eye, wearing an extremely tight black-and-gold wrap-around robe. It looked more like something in which one would imagine a princess relaxing before bedtime than a garment one would expect to see someone wearing in public. The glories of Glantri, Alexander thought to himself.

"Leranda!" the man addressed the woman, who turned to look at him with surprise. A young man with whom she had been speaking turned and quickly made himself scarce. "Of course I would find you here, flirting instead of doing what I instructed! Perhaps Harriden is right and you really are just a fool who is unworthy of the generosity that she has been shown! I suggest, you harlot, that you march right back to that office and finish that report before I revoke that precious scholarship of yours. Now go!" The girl curtsied quickly and turned to hurry away, her pretty blue eyes full of tears.

"Ah, this is good fortune," Sarala whispered. "Zacharel, come with me. Speak only when spoken to." She grabbed the young man by the hand and pulled him towards the dark-haired man. "Excuse me," she said, coming up behind him. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I was a student here some time ago and I believe that you are-"

"I am Angan Forrestir, Master of Admissions," the man said imperiously before Sarala could finish her sentence. "Who are you and why should I deign to even acknowledge you?"

"My name is Sarala, Master Forrestir, personal assistant to Herr Henning." She curtsied deeply, spreading the black and orange folds of her dress

"Henning," Forrestir snorted. "What does that tattooed old fool want with me?"

"Nothing, Master Forrestir, except to introduce to you a student from New Alvar who seeks consideration for a scholarship. He comes personally recommended by the great Belcadiz wizard Reynaldo Veliz." She tugged at Zacharel's hand, and the youth stepped forward and bowed deeply.

"Veliz?" Forrestir asked, stroking his beard. "I did not know that he took on non-elven students."

"He rarely does, sir," Zacharel said with pride.

"Yes...well, you undoubtedly know that scholarships to the school are given out only in limited numbers."

"I do, Master Forrestir."

The administrator eyed Zacharel. "Humph. Well, Leranda is probably on her way out, which would free up her funds. Very well. Come with me. You too, assistant. One of our better young students is working on a project that your Mundaner master might be able to help her with."

"I would be happy to relay the request to my master." Sarala curtsied again, with an excruciating courtesy that, to Alexander's eye, was almost certainly feigned.

"Yes..." Forrestir turned and began to walk across the courtyard. The shapechanger turned to the others and waved them on.

"Thanks for the introduction," Zacharel whispered.

Sarala nodded. "Do not be intimidated by him," she whispered in return. "He tries to appear tough, but really he is a peaceful man. And an extraordinarily powerful mage."

The centre of the courtyard was dominated by a garden that, although not large, was unparalleled in the beauty of its plants and the form of its construction. Students and instructors, many carrying scrolls or large books, wandered throughout the courtyard, entering and exiting the buildings alone, in pairs, or in larger groups, some chattering and joking noisily, others engaged in quiet conversation. Alexander heard a noise above his head and craned his neck in time to see a griffon circling in the sky above, its rider gently urging it down until it disappeared from sight behind what appeared to be a walled-in stable.

Forrestir led the way to a tower built in the easternmost side of the courtyard. It was made of the same grey stone from which much of the rest of the school had been constructed. Silver runes and designs, engraved all around the tower, sparkled in the morning sun. "This is the Administration Tower," he said, waving with his hand at the building in front of them. The Master of Admissions cast the door open and barged inside, not bothering to hold the portal open for the others.

When the four entered the tower they found themselves in a large, chaotic office full of an important feature of Glantrian life: long lines. Queues of young students stood in front of various desks where school bureaucrats were assisting them in the filling out of paperwork. Alexander spotted Leranda carrying a case full of scrolls. When she saw the form of Angan Forrestir weaving his way through the chamber, she quickly changed direction and ducked out of sight.

The Master of Admissions led them to a smaller office off of the main one. Windowless, it was fairly neat, although large stacks of administrative documents could be seen in various places on Forrestir's desk, side-tables, and even the floor. The office was lit by a glowing globe that hung from the centre of the ceiling, and Alexander could detect a soft, pleasant breeze. Undoubtedly magically created, he thought.

"Close the door behind you," Forrestir said as he moved across the room towards the large mahogany desk that dominated the far side. Alexander did his bidding as the administrator took his seat in an oddly shaped silk-and-velvet chair, then froze and stared directly at the two Karameikans. "Who are you?" he thundered.

"They are two of my hirelings," Sarala said smoothly. "Specialists from the Grand Duchy of Karameikos."

"Specialists in what?" Forrestir shot back, rolling up the sleeves of his thin robe.

"They are rangers," Sarala replied. "They aid me in finding certain plants that Herr Henning needs for his potions."

"Mundaners?" When Sarala nodded yes, the Master of Admissions humphed and withdrew his gaze from them, turning his attention to his desk, moving papers and objects around somewhat. "Be seated," Forrestir said with a wave of his hand. "The non-magicians in your party may amuse themselves by looking at the pretty pictures on the wall while we wizards discuss matters of grave import. Yes, I'm speaking to you two," he said disdainfully as Alexander pointed to himself, puzzled. "You may sit over there. Yes, in the corner. Where the pictures are. Ah, now you've got it. I am sure that you will find them most interesting."

"I think I can take him," Sarrah murmured to Alexander as they walked towards a trio of stuffed leather chairs that formed a circle in the corner of the large office, by the door. A collection of small paintings was mounted on the wall, depicting different views of Glantri City.

"Silently looking at the pictures," Forrestir said loudly, staring down Sarrah when she turned to glare at the wizard. After a moment or two, he smiled and turned to Sarala and Zacharel, who were seated in front of his desk.

"Now," he said to the Glantrians, "we admit only the most capable, most promising of wizards." Alexander looked at Sarrah, who threw herself down in a chair with her back to the administrator. He could see the anger on her face. "The Great School of Magic is, as you undoubtedly know, the most prestigious school of spellcraft in the entire world. For one hundred and twenty-five years, the very best wizards have come here to hone their skills and conduct their experiments."

As Forrestir droned on about the accomplishments of Glantrian magic and minutia of Glantrian economics and politics, Alexander found himself entranced by the paintings on the wall. At first glance he thought them to be merely extremely life-like; a moment later he realised that the scenes depicted therein were moving. People were walking on the plazas, gondolas were moving in the canals, and even the clouds drifted slowly in the sky. Alexander tapped Sarrah on the knee and pointed to at the magical paintings. "Amazing," she whispered.

"To insure the quality of those gaining admittance," Forrestir was saying, "we test for general learning and magical aptitude. Now first I will need to know your identity and motive for coming to this school."

"Well," Zacharel said, "my name is-"

"And do not attempt to lie," the Master of Admissions thundered. "We employ spells of truth to discover falsehoods."

Alexander, entranced now by a picture that depicted the city in winter, did not doubt that this was no bluff. He watched a skated boat of sorts being pulled by a white dragon over the frozen canals and shook his head with wonder. Although his blood burned from the way that Forrestir had insulted him and Sarrah, he had to admit that the pictures were incredibly compelling and of far greater interest to him than the chatter of wizards. If I am going to spend any time here, he thought, I am going to have to get used to this kind of treatment.

"My name is Zacharel Dun," the Glantrian youth was saying, his voice firm, his cadence practiced, as if he had repeated this speech in his mind many times before. "I hail from New Alvar. I have come to the Great School at the bidding of my master Reynaldo Veliz, who thought that my craft would benefit from study with the great mages who teach here."

"Yes, I can see that," Forrestir interrupted. Alexander tore his gaze away from the moving pictures to sneak a glance at the trio on the other side of the room. The Master of Admissions was reading the scroll that Zacharel had brought from his instructor. "Master Veliz says that you are an adequate student, who has overcome some of his deficiencies of nature with focus and effort. What do you have to say about that?"

Zacharel paused before speaking, and when he did, his voice seemed less sure. "Master Veliz is an elf, as are most of his students. The art comes more naturally to their race than to ours."

"Perhaps," Forrestir said, rolling up the scroll. "However, it is no secret that the greatest mages in the world are all human. Elves, on the whole, lack the ability to concentrate intensely for long periods of time. That is our race's advantage, Dun, and it is a sign in your favour that a wizard of the calibre of Master Veliz has testified to this quality in you." He popped the cap back onto the end of the scroll case. "Very well," Forrestir continued. "Enough of this prattle. Let the testing begin."

"Right now?" Zacharel asked, the nervousness audible in his voice. "Me?"

"Me?" Forrestir mocked. "Well, I wasn't speaking to her and certainly not to those two!"

"I can't take this anymore," Sarrah said, rising in her seat.

"Silence!" Forrestir thundered, glaring at Sarrah for a moment until, the Karameikan suitably cowed, he returned his gaze to Zacharel. "Dun, you are here to beg for a scholarship to the Great School of Magic. To be a mage means that you are able to think on your feet under less than ideal conditions. Are you ready to show me your capabilities or not?"

"I am." Zacharel's voice was firm and decisive. Alexander saw that Sarala had a bemused smile on her face as she observed the proceedings.

"Excellent. Then let us begin. Identify this spell." Forrestir began moving his hands in the strange, stilted gestures that signified spellcasting, while murmuring a series of indecipherable words. He ceased, and suddenly the sound of a cat meowing could be heard from the corner of the room. Alexander turned to see the animal, but he could not see the feline anywhere.

"I am not familiar with the spell," Zacharel said, his voice shaky, "but I can draw some conclusions about it. My guess is that it is some form of illusion, but an illusion that targets the ears instead of the eyes."

"Good answer. Unfortunately, what you have told me is extremely obvious, the kind of answer that any Mundaner could make. Give me the kind of answer a mage would give. Can you describe the spell?"

"It is an auditory illusion in which the locus of effect is movable. The power matrix is likely to be on the simple side, based upon the energy expenditure of the dweomer and the somatic component of the casting."

"Very good." Forrestir replied. "Now, by what degree does the sound rise and fall? Quickly now, quickly!"

"Well, it's variable, obviously," Zacharel sounded more confident now. "So considering the relative simplicity of the spell, this means both that the degree of difference has to be integrated into the initial casting rather than being dependent upon ethereal manipulation. Because of this, I would also say that the magnitude of the manifestation is dependent upon the integrative skill of the mage, although, again, because of the degree of complexity of the spell, it is not likely to be manifested at a level that-"

An explosion and the sound of breaking glass sounded outside, shaking the room and interrupting Zacharel's near-indecipherable academic description. Alexander leapt to his feet and grabbed for his blade. His fingers closed on air as he realised that he had not brought his sword with him. Sarrah, however, had her short sword in hand.

"What was that commotion?" Forrestir shouted, but the two Karameikans were already moving towards the door, towards whatever danger might await them outside, as heroes and fools are both wont to do.