The Strength of the Blade

 

 

 

            They called it the Oven, and even the greatest masters did not go there lightly.

            It was a circular courtyard, thirty paces across, specially constructed of white basalt, and ringed with a smooth wall of the same material.  Mirrors were strategically placed along the walls to focus, refocus, and enhance the blazing light of the sun.  At night it was dark and cool, a pleasant place to sit and meditate, with the stars twinkling high above.  But during the searing heat of midday, the temperature climbed to such a hellish degree that raw meat would cook - and burn - and items like paper and wood would burst into flame.

            No less than five masters had perished there, two of them venerable.  No matter that they had passed the test of the Oven before; they had dared it a second time and died for their bravado.  It was the single most dangerous test that any student of the Way could undergo.

            And Ventus was there now.

            Marya could picture him in the furnace-like heat, legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed.  A study of perfect meditation.  And not even a droplet of sweat on his brow.

            There was a shaded archway set into one side of the courtyard; beyond it was a cool shaded room with a basin of cold water.  At any time, anyone in the Oven could give up and head for the shaded room.  But Ventus would never do that.  No, not Ventus, the one the great masters all agreed was the finest student of the Way ever to be trained here.  Marya felt a twinge of bitter jealousy at the thought.

            A gleaming length of steel would be lying across his lap.  His blade.  Only the highest-ranked students were permitted a blade.  And only those who were on the verge of becoming masters had the requisite power to ‘enhance’ their blade, molecularly reforming it into that rarest of substances:  steel.  It was a process that took time and unbelievable amounts of energy.  Most students took six months to complete the process; Ventus had done it in four. 

            Syrian, Ventus’s sponsor, said that Ventus had it within him to become the greatest sensai the world had ever known.  Even now, scarcely twelve years into his apprenticeship, Ventus could best the Master of Arms in two out of five matches.  And Syrian was the greatest Master of Arms the Academy had known in five millenia. 

            Everything Ventus did was outstanding.  There were seven great tests that divided the masters from the students; Ventus had passed six of them.  And now all that remained was the naming of the blade, and the test of the Oven.  If Ventus passed this final test - and he would, Marya was certain of it - he would become the youngest master ever.

            Except that there was a possibility that he might not be granted the title.

            Syrian argued vehemently that Ventus was worthy of becoming a master, but there were other voices within the Council that maintained he was too young, too untested, too untried.  And Baltos, the Head, was silent on the matter.

            For Marya’s part, she hoped they would refuse him.  It wasn’t that they were enemies; Ventus was quiet, reserved, never boastful of his achievements.  And if he wasn’t particularily friendly, at least he wasn’t antagonistic.

            But Marya found his perfection infuriating.  She was two years older and had studied here longer, yet it would be years yet before she was recognized as a master.  Worse, she would never be a mindwarrior.  Only a select few were chosen for that calling; her aptitudes had lain in different directions.  She would be a telepath.  Which meant she would never be trained in the warrior’s arts, never hold a blade, never be a hero...

            “Marya.”

            Master Raithe’s quiet voice jolted her from her musings.  She blinked, realizing her mind had been wandering. 

            “Marya,” he repeated gently.  “Where are you child?”

            She allowed herself a small sigh of disappointment.  “Nowhere, master.  I was just... I’m sorry.”

            A gentle smile flickered on his lips.  It was useless to try to decieve Master Raithe; he was a master telepath.  And even though he would not pry on one of his student’s thoughts...  “I sense your feelings, child,” he said.  “You are... unhappy?”

            “No,” she said, too quickly, then sighed again when he arched an eyebrow.  “Yes,” she admitted, “maybe.  I don’t know.”
            He waited a moment, but she said nothing more.  “Perhaps,” he suggested, “your unhappiness has something to do with the young man who tests to become master today?”

            “Why should it?” she demanded, suddenly angry.  “Ventus is nothing to me.  Why should I care whether he fails or not?”
            “You are right,” he said quietly.  “There is no logical reason for it to bother you.  Ventus is a superb student, but his success does not diminish your own.  Nevertheless, I think the question isn’t whether it should bother you, but why it does.”

            “It doesn’t bother me,” she maintained stoutly, but he only gave a slight smile. 

            She sighed.  “It...  well, maybe it does irritate me a little.”

            “Why?”

            “What do you mean why?” she said bitterly.  “Ventus is so... so bloody perfect all the time.  Everything comes easy to him.  The rest of us struggle along and get nowhere, and here he is testing for master.  Master!  And he’s two years younger than me!  It isn’t fair, that’s all.”

            Master Raithe was quiet for a moment, and Marya felt a wave of shame.  She had pouted like a child.  When he did speak, his question surprised her.

            “Does Ventus work at his studies?”

            “Yes,” she said angrily, stung at what she thought he was implying, “but so do the rest of us.  We all work hard.”

            He shook his head.  “I’m not talking about the rest of the students.  I’m talking about Ventus.  Does he work at his studies?”

            “Well yes.  Of course.  But everything comes easier for him.”

            “Does it?”  The question was piercing.

            “He succeeds faster,” she shot back.

            “But does he work hard at it?”

            She was quiet for a moment.  “Yes,” she admitted at last, “he does.”  Ventus was an incredibly focused worker; no-one who knew him could deny it.

            “Then he is not lazy, even though he is gifted?”

            “No.”
            “And do you feel that you are lacking in discipline?”

            She was taken aback.  “No, of course not.  You know how hard I work.” she replied, a little stung.

            He nodded.  “You push yourself hard, maintain good discipline,” he agreed.  “No less than Ventus does.  Then why do you measure yourself against him?  You are an excellent student, with good mastery over the Art.  And you have it within you to be a superb telepath.”

            “Yes,” she said, dejected and bitter, “and that’s all I’ll ever be.  While he will be a mindwarrior.”

            Master Raithe sat back, that gentle smile touching his lips again.  “Ah,” he said, as though they had finally gotten to the root of the problem.  “A mindwarrior.  Yes, I see.  While you will be only a telepath.  Not much glory there.”

            She remained silent, fuming, sensing a trap.

            “Certainly it would be more exciting to be a mindwarrior, eh?  Great adventures, deeds to be repeated in verse and song.  A sword to wield.  But your path lies in a more mundane direction, eh?”

            “It’s not that,” she protested, even though it was partially that.  “It’s just...  everyone knows that only the finest students of the Way can aspire to be mindwarriors.  And I’ll never be...  It isn’t fair.  It isn’t fair to work so hard for something I can never achieve.”

            Master Raithe was silent a moment.  “Who is the most powerful psionicist in the Brotherhood?”

            Marya was confused by the question.  “Baltos,” she answered cautiously.

            “Not Syrian?”

            Now she saw where he was going.  “No,” she said, “not Syrian.”

            “Even though Syrian is the Master of Arms?”

            She sighed.  “Even so.”

            “And is Baltos a sensai?”

            She shook her head.  “No,” she admitted.  “He is not.”

            “Have you ever seen him so much as touch a blade?”

            She sighed again.  “No, master.  I have not.  Baltos is the Head of the Council, the Leader of the Brotherhood.  And the most powerful among us.  But-”

            “But this isn’t about power,” he cut in, his voice rising.  “Or responsibility.  Or influence.  It’s about excitement.  Danger.  About being a ‘hero’.  And that blade.  Isn’t it?”

            She refused to meet his suddenly piercing gaze.

            “What is it Ventus holds?” he asked.

            She shook her head, confused.  “What?”

            “In his lap.  Even now, while we speak.”

            “A sword,” she answered at last, a little sulkily.

            “That is what we call it.  But what is it?”

            “A weapon.”

            He shook his head.  “A piece of metal.  Priceless, to be certain.  But ultimately useless, in and of itself.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “If the blade is passed into the hands of one who does not know how to use it, is it a threat?  And if it is taken from Ventus, is he rendered powerless?”

            Slowly she shook her head.  “No.  No sensai is ever permitted to touch a weapon of any kind for the first three years of their studies.  They are taught to become weapons, in themselves.”

            He nodded.  “So without his blade, Ventus is still deadly.  Why?  Because he is the weapon, not the piece of steel that he carries.  That is merely a tool.  A physical prop.”  He leaned forward, and tapped her gently on the forehead.  “That is what you must learn.  For you are the weapon, Marya.  But your tools are different.

            “Ventus was trained as a sensai by the greatest weapons masters on the planet.  He has faced the most stringent rigors and tests a fighting man can face and has overcome it.  When he names his blade, he will have earned it.  But all that aside - he has never killed.  When he is called upon to do so, that will be the true fire to test his blade.  That will be the true test.  Then will the strength of the blade be shown, and until then it is untried, whether he is named ‘master’ or not.

            “Courage is not about swords, Marya.  Yours will be tried as well.  And if you cling to jealous pride and tools that will not serve you, your blade will shatter.”

            She nodded slowly, understanding his words, understanding their truth.  But in her heart, she still felt the bitter disappointment.

 

                                                            *          *          *

 

            “Ventus of Altagar, step forward.”

            The young man had been crouched on his knees, his head bowed, feet tucked under him.  Marya could not guess how many hours he had kept his position; the council had been in closed session for two days now.

            But despite the time he must have spent on his knees, he stood in one smooth movement, with no betrayal in the lines of his body to reveal that he was cramped or aching from holding his position.  On the contrary, he looked rested and refreshed.  He stepped forward lightly, on the balls of his feet, and inclined his upper body in a bow.

             Master Tiele spoke again, his voice acerbic.  “You are aware of the reason you have been called before the council?”  The gaunt old man peered down his nose at the young man before him; Tiele was one of the most outspoken Council members in his opposition to Ventus being raised to master.  Full of self-importance and condescension, Tiele was a bitter old man who’s face was pulled into a permanent sneer.  Like most of the other students, Marya had always disliked him; today, though, she hoped his weight with the council would hold sway.

            “I am,” answered Ventus, his voice calm and confident, quiet yet firm.

            “Indeed?”  Tiele acted as though he were surprised.  “And what reason is that?”

            “The Council meets to determine my worthiness to be raised.”

            And everyone knew it, though this was a closed session.  Ventus had passed all the tests, and tradition held that he should be raised to master.  Yet he was half-again as young as any other candidate for master.  For two days the Council had conferred, and now at last Ventus had been summoned.

            But why am I here? wondered Marya.  What have I to do with any of this?

            “And what,” continued Tiele, his voice penetrating, “may I ask, are your thoughts on the matter?”

            There was a moment of silence.  It was a trick question, and Marya felt a surge of elation.  If Ventus answered that he had earned the right to the title he would look arrogant and pretentious.  If he demurred, he would look weak and unworthy.

            “I seek to excel,” said Ventus at last, his voice even.  “To perfect myself.  ‘Master’ is merely a title.  Should I be found worthy of it, I will be honored.  If not I am still myself, and will continue to strive for excellence.  In either case, I shall ever be a student.”

            Marya felt her hopes sink at the words.  It was precisely the correct thing to say, and already several Council members were nodding their heads.  Worse, he meant what he said.  It was not a clever and preconcieved answer; it was who he was.  And it was said without pride, without vanity.  For any other student it would have sounded trite and hollow; for Ventus it was true.

            Master Tiele looked as though he had swallowed something the wrong way; his trick question had been turned on itself.  Almost Marya let a smile touch her lips.  She had no love for Ventus, but it was amusing to see Tiele beaten at his own game.

            “Indeed,” he said at last, sarcasm dripping like venom from his voice, “an inspiring answer.  Would you be interested in the Council’s opinion?”  Marya felt her hopes rise again; Tiele was moving quickly now - drawing Ventus out had been a mistake and he did not want to lose support for whatever course of action he had planned.  And the Council would never have summoned Ventus unless it had already chosen a course of action.

            Ventus merely inclined his head in a slight bow.

            “We are at an impasse,” said Master Darc, speaking for the first time.  Tiele glanced back at him with irritation at being interrupted, but the dwarf continued as if he were oblivious.  “On the one hand, you see, we have an exceptional student, who has met all traditional requirements to be raised to master.  Exceeded them, truth be told-”

            “And on the other hand,” Tiele cut in smoothly, “we are proposing to raise a stripling boy who has scarcely lived his seventeenth summer to the title of master.  He is untried, untested, and worst of all, inexperienced. The very idea is lunacy, exceptional student or no.”

            A beat of silence passed then, as if Tiele was expecting the younger man to make answer.  Ventus merely waited, head slightly bowed.

            “We have reached a decision,” intoned Master Syrian, speaking for the first time.  His voice was quiet yet penetrating.  “You will undertake a journey on behalf of the Brotherhood, a simple mission to Tedestos, on the Far Plains.  The Council, as you know, is deadlocked on this matter, but we are missing three of our council members.  Yrtiss is beyond the Black Forest and Enwai is on a mission to Tyr; neither of those two worthies are close enough to be recalled on such short notice, especially not for so mundane a matter.  But Master Natuil serves the Brotherhood in Tedestos.  His business there is of pressing importance, but it is likely that he will have finished it by the time you arrive.”

            “If he is finished with his mission there,” said Tiele, cutting in again, “he will accompany you back to the Citadel, where he may confer with the Council and cast his vote on the matter.  During the return trip, he will have opportunity to observe you and better educate himself.  If he is not finished with his mission, you will remain with him until he is, and the matter will rest until his return.”

            Of course, thought Marya ruefully.  In true form to council, when a difficult decision comes, they delay making it.  Perhaps, if they delay long enough, Ventus will age enough that his being raised to master will not go against tradition.

            “As your status is presently neither that of student nor master,” continued Tiele, “according to Brotherhood law, you must go with a companion.  Someone to oversee your activities.  Ordinarily this would be a master, but as there are no masters to be spared, an advanced student will do.”

            For a moment the gravity of the insult Master Tiele was implying didn’t register.  They mean to send him on an errand... away from the Citadel?  And under the direction of... a fellow student?

            It was a job for an apprentice, not a student, and certainly not a master.  And Brotherhood law or no, to place another student - any student - in a position to ‘oversee’ Ventus was ridiculous.  He was as far above any of them in skill and power as they were above the apprentices.  Whoever was selected for the purpose would have a fool’s mission...

            Marya felt a sudden chill rush through her.  It couldn’t be, she thought.  Please, please, not me.  Anyone else, but not me.

            Tiele glanced in her direction briefly.  “We have, of course, deliberated over the choice of who to send as your companion.  The duties implied will be twofold.  First, he - or she - will have complete charge over the mission during the journey to Tedestos, and you are to submit yourself to his authority.  Second, the companion will oversee you and make a full report to the Council upon your return, including offering an opinion on whether you are worthy to be raised.

            “Naturally, the decision of who to choose was not made lightly.  It is important that the one selected be as unbiased as possible.  Many of the other students regard your ability to learn so quickly with a certain amount of reverential awe.  Such are likely to regard anything you do in the kindest light.”

            “Not to mention,” growled Syrian, “those students who might be jealous of Ventus’s rapid rise.”  His eyes flashed angrily as he spoke, and it seemed to Marya that his words were meant for her ears.

            “Granted,” Tiele admitted grudgingly, irritated at the sudden interruption. “There may be a small minority which begrudges your... natural ability.”  The distasteful way he pronounced the words betrayed his contempt.  “In any case, I believe we have come to a fair and equitable decision.  Master Raithe has put forth his student Marya’s name as a candidate, and I agree.”

            I don’t,” Syrian said pointedly, and this time there was no doubt but that his steely gaze was focused on her.

            “Your objection was noted, Master Syrian,” Tiele said, riding right over him.  “However, most of the Council agree on the matter.  Therefore it is decided that the student Marya shall be appointed head of the expedition to Tedestos, to leave at first light tomorrow.”

            Marya realized her fist was clenched so hard her fingers were hurting.  Not fair! she thought in silent turmoil, furious at being chosen for such a task.  Not fair!  Why?  Why me?

            Ventus’s face was slightly flushed; Marya could not tell whether it was from anger, humiliation, or frustration.  He shot a quick glance at her, then bowed stiffly.  “It shall be as the Council commands,” he said quietly.

 

                                                            *          *          *

 

            “Why?  By the eyes of the Dragon, why?”

            Master Raithe merely looked at her.  “Why what?” he asked, pretending nonchalance.

            “You know what!” she said angrily.  “Why me?  Why send me?  With him, of all people!”

            Master Raithe shrugged.  The gesture was so out of character for him that it would normally have given Marya pause, were she not so furious at him already.  “You have not been beyond the Citadel walls since you were admitted here as an apprentice.  Ventus, who aspires to be a master, has journeyed beyond on four separate occasions.  As I recall, you protested bitterly the last time you were passed over for the opportunity to serve the Brotherhood beyond these walls.”

            “Yes, but...”  It was true; she had been upset the last time a student - a younger student - had been selected for ‘outside’ work.  She was the only senior student never to have been called upon for an errand which entailed traveling into the outside world.  “But that isn’t why you chose me - why you put me forward as a canditate! - for this... this farce!  You know how I feel about Ventus!”

            “Possibly better that you yourself,” he rejoined.  “It was the perfect solution.”

            “Perfect solution to what?” she demanded.  “A way to humiliate me, to demonstrate that I am so useless to the Brotherhood that I am regulated to a babysitting mission?  Worse, Ventus is no apprentice to need his hand held for such simple work.  It is insulting.”

            “More so to him than you,” he pointed out, “and yet he has agreed to it.”

            “But why?” she persisted.  “Ventus has already proven his worth, time and again.  Even I admit that, though I might not like him.  Why force him to make a pointless journey?  And why send me with him?”

            Raithe sighed, and for a moment the lines on his face showed his true age.  He looked tired.  “The decision was... the best we could get.  This is a strange time for the Brotherhood.  Master Tiele and other Council members - many others - feel that Syrian has pushed his star pupil to become master for... political reasons.  They are, to my mind, unfairly biased against Ventus, for the boy has proven himself already, but they will never willingly raise him to master.  Tiele controls most of the Council, but Nyn has - on occasion - been able to gather support on important decisions.  And Tiele sees Syrian as one who has aligned himself with Nyn.”  Raithe paused for a moment, coming a little to himself, and shook his head.  “None of that concerns you, of course.  The Council presents a united front to the rest of the Brotherhood; obviously no student would know anything of the politics-”

            “Everyone knows,” she said, shaking her head.  “Tiele opposes Nyn, and Baltus remains neutral, mostly keeping silent, but siding with one or the other whenever he wants to, and he usually sways the vote.  Syrian is one of those who side with Nyn, everyone says so.  And... they say the same of you.  That you are aligned with him, I mean.”

            “Do they say that?”  He sounded slightly surprised.  “Well, I suppose I have cast my vote with Nyn a few times - though I’ve disagreed with him on occasion too.”  He shook his head again.  “None of that should concern you, though.  You have been selected to accompany Ventus; that is all you need to know.”

            His sudden abruptness sparked a flare of anger in her.  “I won’t do it,” she said stubbornly, crossing her arms.  “You can’t make me.”
            “No?  I was under the impression that I was a master and you were a student.  I’m not making a request; I’m giving a command.  Should you refuse it, you will find yourself engaged in duties an apprentice would not want, with no end in sight.”

            She fumed silently for a moment.  “It’s not fair.” she repeated.

            “Fair?  What is fair?  A word children use when they want something.  I am your teacher, Marya, and though you are gifted you still have much to learn.  I send you for Ventus’s sake, yes, but even more for your own, and I do not do it lightly.”

            “But-”

            He shook his head.  “My decision is made; it is not open for discussion.”  He turned away from her.  “I suggest you gather your things; you depart at dawn.”

 

                                                            *          *          *