ugust 31st was the Initiation day. It was celebrated in the Feast Hall. The only chamber of the Academy Aram had been to was the Refectory, which he reached through the dormitory balcony. He still hadn't walked through the Academy front doors, the ones with the carvings that seemed so big they were probably opened and closed by some complicated mechanism. Each time Aram passed by the doors they were closed, guided by two tall and polished suits of armor, their long spears crossed with each other. But today, at six o'clock in the evening, the front doors would open at last for all the first-years.
“How do I look?” Nick asked, glancing at his reflection in the wardrobe mirror. He had put on the Academy uniform, a white shirt and dark blue suit and pants, but each time he put the square cap on his head, Nick cracked up and took it off.
“I think you look fine,” Aram said absentmindedly, thumbing through the Academy Rulebook. It was thick, covering everything from lessons to formal dinners, from seminars to sports and curfews and so many other things that Aram closed the book with a thud, deciding to finish it some other time.
Nick put on the long dark-blue robe and turned to Aram. “What does the Rulebook say about this gown? I hope we don’t have to walk in this all the time?”
Aram passed Nick the Rulebook, and while Nick was reading the Uniform section and stating happily that the caps, ties, and gowns were just for formal occasions, Aram sat with his back to Nick, took a letter from his backpack and unfolded it, then turned to see if Nick wasn't looking. To his great relief Nick was still busy with the Rulebook.
“We’re gonna have badges,” Nick said, hitting a finger at the front pocket of his suit. “Green embroidery for the first years. There’s even a picture here.” He showed Aram the page with the first-year badge. Aram smiled absently and returned back to the letter.
“Blue’s for the second years, then red, purple, black, and golden. I guess when you’re a sixth-year, you wear nothing but gold!”
Aram nodded, scanning the paper in his hand. He had read it so many times, but there came a moment when he needed to do that again, as if there might be some clue, something that he hadn't spotted all those years.
Theodore came out of the bathroom, and as the witch on the clock had just sat down to have breakfast, they all headed to the Refectory. It was already crowded and the oblong tables stretching through the hall were as always heavy with fruits and tarts and all kinds of jam and honey, hot chocolate and fresh juices.
Someone was waving a hand at Aram, Nick and Theodore, inviting them to their table. It was Gwenlian, sitting between Karishma and Meilin.
“Come over here,” she cried through the hall, “we’ve got three free spots here.”
Aram sat between Nick and Theodore and even though his stomach rumbled loudly at the sight of the tarts with raspberry jam and éclairs with orange custard, Aram didn't devour them like the other day. Something was gnawing at him today, and the letter in his back pocket kept reminding of itself.
“Which selective classes are you going to sign up for?” Gwenlian asked them.
“We’re not sure yet,” Theodore said. “But definitely not painting or baking.”
“Baking is mandatory,” Meilin said, “but it’s only for girls.”
“Just like crafting, but for the boys,” Karishma said.
“That's not really fair,” said Nick, “I'm not crazy about crafting, but I'd love to learn to bake the famous cupcakes.”
The girls laughed.
"What?" Nick said defensively. "Baking sounds better than crafting."
"Oh, knock it off," Theodore said.
"I'm serious. It's kind of dated that only girls bake."
"But he's got a point," Gwenlian said, "it's really dated, just like anything else at the Academy."
"Like what?" Meilin asked.
Gwenlian considered for a second. "Like the robes. I hate skirts, so why do I have to wear a skirt all year long?"
"But we're going to sign up for the Ballei!" Karishma said. "And they all wear those beautiful dresses.”
"Ahh, right," Gwenlian said, and her grey eyes gleamed with excitement. "For Ballei I am ready for the inconvenience."
"I didn't know there was a ballet class at the Academy," Nick said.
"Not ballet, but Ballei," Meilin corrected him. "It's not just ballet, it's something much, much more."
"Like what?" Nick asked.
"It's dance, acrobatics, harmony; it's grace and beauty and elegance. It's music and costumes and stories. Ohh, it's absolutely everything." Karishma looked dreamily at Gwenlian and Meilin. "What do you think of our chances?"
"I think they’re not bad... Meh, look who's there."
The three girls looked at the table under the wall with draperies and wrinkled their noses.
"I bet she's signing up for Ballei too," Gwenlian said with a frown.
"I bet she is," Karishma said, her scowl deeper.
"Just look at her face," Meilin muttered. "Thinks she's the best thing since singing cupcakes."
"Who're you talkin' about?" Theodore asked, spreading a thick layer of butter over his toast.
"Natalia Ivanova," Karishma snorted. "The first year Bully Queen."
Aram had been sitting silently, poking his jelly tarts with the fork. He looked at the table where the so-called bully queen was sitting, saw a bunch of giggling girls stare at his table. The one in the center with strawberry-blond hair curling around her shoulders looked especially snooty. Meilin, Karishma, and Gwenlian turned away and glanced down into their plates.
Aram did the same and was soon carried away by the messy thoughts in his head.
“What’s wrong?” Gwenlian asked, taking him out of his reveries. "You seem thoughtful and hardly eat anything."
“He’s looking forward to the Initiation,” Nick explained.
“We all are,” Theodore said. “But we’ll pass the Initiation regardless of the amount of food in our stomachs. So fill it to the brim.”
Aram chuckled. “I know, guys, I just don't feel like eating at the moment.”
"Too bad," Nick said, taking a big bite of a cherry pie, “‘Cause the food here is something special."
Aram forced a piece of raspberry roll into his mouth. It was delicious. “All this free food,” he said, washing down the roll with a gulp of orange juice, “how is it free? I mean, there are so many students here, but no one’s paying. And the free education. The free books, stationery, robes. The enormous castle that needs to be maintained. All the teachers, aren’t they paid? How can the Academy afford all this?”
“It’s the Headmaster, Grindewald Arterberry, who keeps everything free,” Theodore said.
“He must be very rich,” Aram said.
“Not him, but the donors,” Theodore said. “The benefactors. Wealthy magicians. They send donations. Though Will says there are talks about the budget getting cut this year.”
"Who's Will?" Gwenlian asked.
"Wilhelm MacLeod, my elder brother. He's a third-year, a Scarab student," Theodore began telling to the nods of the three girls.
“It doesn’t seem like the budget’s being cut,” Nick said, looking around the Refectory. "Plenty of food, free books, no tuition fee. All is well."
Theodore shrugged. “That’s what my brother says. Maybe it’s just a rumor. Maybe not. Let’s wait and see if this year’s Initiation ceremony is as great as it was on my brother’s year. He’s still talking about that one.”
Gwenlian glanced at her watch. "Girls, we need to hurry. Madame Francine will start signing up the first years in forty minutes."
"There's still plenty of time," Nick said.
"No!" all three yelled together.
"We need to be the first," Meilin said. "Every girl dreams to be in Ballei. Madame Francine can take only ten. She might stop looking after the first fifty girls."
"See you at the Initiation," Gwenlian said, and all three hurried away from the table.
“Ballet,” Nick said with a scoff. “Couldn’t care less.”
"I'd hate to break it to them, but the poor things have no chance," Theodore said, his voice filled with pity.
"Why's that?" Nick asked, and for the first time during the breakfast lifted his stump and placed it on the table.
"Did you see how many tarts and pies they ate?" Theodore shook his head. "I've watched Ballei, it’s got nothing to do with cakes."
"Well, if they get inside those tight things... whatever they're called..."
"You don't get it, Nick, it's not just a dance, it's..."
"You don't mind if I go to the Common House for a while, do you?" Aram said, getting up.
"What about signing up for a selective class?" Theodore asked him. "We need at least one."
"Sign me up to whatever you like," Aram said, his voice lacking interest. He went back to their dormitory room, picked up the first book from his mount on the table, and walked to the Common House located outside the Academy, enclosed inside a yew wall. It was empty for the moment, as everyone was either still having breakfast, or were outside, using the last few hours for singing up to the selective classes, or just whiling away the last day of summer.
The Common House was a round, four-story building with separate chambers that were meant for reading or doing homework, and were occupied with bookcases crammed with books, desks with notebooks and inkpots, fringed lamps, comfortable armchairs in front of the fireplaces that were now empty and cold, as well as reading nooks by the windows. Aram entered the chamber of the first-years, sat behind one of the desks, took a piece of snow-white paper from the drawer and lay it before him. There was a silver inkpot on the desk, and a quill and a dip pen. He tried the metal-edged quill first, but as he was used to slouching over his writings, the feathers kept tickling his face, so he picked the other pen, dipped it into the inkpot and began writing a letter to his grandfather. Afterwards, Aram folded the paper and placed it into an envelope he took from the same drawer, wrote down his home address, sealed the envelope and put it inside the book he had brought with him. Then he looked around. During all the time he had been in the first-years’ common room, no one had entered. The arrows on a longcase clock in the corner of the room had met on eleven. There was still plenty of time before the Initiation ceremony.
Aram chose the nook at the far end of the chamber, and settling comfortably, looked at the book in his hand. He had picked History of Magic, Vol I. That wasn't a bad choice, Aram thought, but he wasn't going to read it now. He placed the book on the nook, took the dog-eared letter out of his pocket and unfolded it for the thousandth time.
Then he read it, his lips pressed together. Today he would officially become a part of their world and maybe meet people who knew them. As it always happened, Aram held up his breath the closer he came to the end of the letter.
Forgive our decision and do not hold grudge against your...
Aram raised his head. Four boys were standing in front of him, but he had been so engrossed with the letter he hadn't heard them approach.
"You owe me a Pegasus," said the one in the middle. The three goons around him smirked.
"Do I?" Aram asked calmly.
"What's that?" said the boy on the left. He tried to pull the letter out of Aram's hand, but Aram managed to jerk his hand back.
"Is that a letter from your mommy? Why won't you read it out loud?"
Aram folded the letter, put it inside History of Magic, Vol I, and held the book tightly in his hand.
"Not gonna share with us your mommy's letter?" the boy on the left asked, making his company smirk.
"I said you owe me a Pegasus, Tiny Tim," the lad in the middle said.
Aram remembered his name. Cillian. He rose to his feet and looked Cillian in the face. Cillian was taller and bigger, surrounded by goons, but Aram’s Grandfather had told him to never lose dignity, even when facing trouble alone.
"My name is Aram Nazarethian, and I don't owe you anything."
Cillian clenched his hands into fists. Aram knew what was to happen next. But another thing his Grandfather had told him when he was growing up in the village, sometimes bullied and poked at by other boys, was to hit first.
"If they have come to beat you up, then they will beat you up," Grandpa Kevork told him once. "Hit them first. You'll still get beaten, but will leave your mark."
Cillian had just pulled his hand back when Aram's fist punched him below the right eye. Cillian staggered and clapped his hands on his eye. He sank to his haunches while his goons stared at him in total confusion.
"Pedro, get him!"
Grandpa Kevork had given Aram one more advice:
"When possible, run."
And he ran.
The three boys rushed after him, but Aram slipped into the corridor before one of his pursuers managed to grab the collar of his T-shirt. The years of climbing up the trees and hills hadn't passed in vain: Aram jumped onto the windowsill and leaped out of the Common House a second before the three bullies emerged into the corridor. First thing that could offer him a sanctuary was the yew wall of the mazing garden. Aram ran through the opening and hid behind the wall. They must have guessed where he had run. Aram could hear them approaching the yew wall, the shuffle of their feet, their heavy gasps. He moved deeper into the maze. After thirty feet Aram turned around to check on his pursuers and bumped into someone who was running from around the corner of the maze. Aram fell on the ground. The book in his hand flew a few steps away and he hurried to pick it up.
"Watch your step!"
Aram saw the person he had ran into. It was a young man, tall and willowy, with a long, pointy face and hair reaching his shoulders. He was wearing Academy robes. The badge on his shirt was red, only Aram didn’t remember what year it represented.
"Sorry, I didn't see you," Aram said, squeezing History of Magic, Vol I in his hand.
"Next time open your eyes," the young man said, and disappeared behind another yew wall.
Aram didn't know how long he had been wandering through the maze. He came upon small buildings with stone dragons coiling around their pillars, with dome-shaped roofs and statues of various magical creatures erected around the gardens. These were the houses were the classes would be taking place from tomorrow on. Aram looked up into the sky. The sun was shining brightly above his head, it was noon, and there were still many hours before the Initiation Ceremony. He knew he couldn’t hide in the maze forever. Sooner or later he would have to face Cillian and his goons, and receive a good punch from each of them, or maybe even two. That was inevitable. But as for now, he could spend another hour or two on the Academy grounds, especially when he had a letter to be sent. The grounds were so big that even after wandering around for so long Aram was sure he hadn't seen even half of it. Each time he took a turn, a new building or an arbor, or a fountain came into the view. There were statues also, carved from marble or forged in bronze, of humans, dwarves, centaurs. He read their names, but they didn't tell him anything. Aram knew nothing about this world, had no idea where to start his searches, but he had never felt so close to the truth before.
Following the direction arrows Aram reached the Academy gates. Theodore had said there was a postbox by the gates. And there it was, a large, built-in postbox inside the outer wall that surrounded the Academy and its grounds. Aram tucked his letter into the slit, then stepped back and took a long glance at the wall. It was tall and looked ancient, might had been built centuries ago. He took another look at the Academy castle. He could stare at it for days and nights, and it would still mesmerize him and simultaneously send shudders down his spine. Who had built that enormity? It looked old, cold and chilling, and was definitely built a long time ago. How did they erect it? With magic? Had it always been a place of knowledge? And was there anyone who knew all the passages and chambers of that castle?
Aram stopped staring at the Academy when he reached the arena where he’d seen the Pegasus on the first day. Cillian said he owed him one; did that mean that the Pegasus hadn't returned? There were no Pegasuses on the arena now, but horses with riders who were playing some sort of a game on one part of the arena, while a man in a kimono was training students on the other side. Aram joined the audience of a group of boys and girls who were leaning against the fence and watching the training. The man and his students had weapons Aram had never seen before. They were neither swords nor peaks or axes, but looked a mix of everything at the same time: long spears with edges like daggers and leather-bound handles in the middle. The man in the kimono hit one of his students with the spear’s edge, forcing her down on the grass. The blow was strong enough to kill her, but a second later she stood back on her feet. The edges were probably blunt, Aram realized, watching the training session. He didn't remember a lesson like this in his list of first-year classes. If this was a selective subject, then he needed to sign up as soon as possible.
"There he is!" Aram heard a familiar voice. A moment later Nick and Theodore appeared on his right and left. "We've been looking for you forever," Nick said.
"Have you signed up for this class?" Aram asked them.
"For swordsmanship? ‘Course not," Theodore said.
"We've signed up for music," Nick said happily.
"Music? Instead of this?" Aram pointed at the fighters in the arena.
"Relax, swordsmanship's for grown-ups. We'll sign up in two years," Theodore said. "'Course if we make it that far."
Aram and Nick exchanged grins. Theodore still sounded as grim and hopeless as on the first day.
"Wasn't there anything better than music?" Aram asked.
"There was, actually," Theodore said. "But by the time we got there, it was either music or painting."
A rider fell off the horse on the other side of the arena, and a part of the audience leaning against the fence went to see what the deal was.
"What is this game about?" Aram asked, looking at the six riders, four of whom carried long poles, and two were holding up large hoops.
"Pixie Polo," Theodore said. "It's played with eight players actually, four on each side. They’re just having fun now, practicing. Will used to play when he was a first year, but that’s Will. I’m not sure the coach will want someone clumsy like me…”
“What are the rules?” Aram asked quickly, wishing to stop another session of Theodore’s regular self-condemnation.
“I think the Rulebook has a detailed…”
“I haven’t got the Rulebook with me now, so be my rulebook for a couple of minutes.”
Theodore took a deep breath, as if he was going to do something very hard, then leaned against the fence and pointed at the two riders with the hoops standing on opposite sides of the arena. “These are the gates. Unlike soccer or many other games with a ball, you don’t aim at the enemy’s gate here, but at your own. The three riders on each side, using their poles, have to send the balls through the hoops. Those are just the basic rules, but there are a lot of details, penalties, and many other things.”
“But why Pixie Polo?” Nick said.
“’Cause when the real game takes place, those vile creatures are set free upon the arena, and will do anything to hinder the players, up to clinging to their clothes or startling their horses. Nasty things.”