The Trick To The Test
~ Rachel Baril
People said the temples had been tossed on the mountain by giants. It was also said that the Mistress of the Sect was chaos incarnate. Whispers flew that those she took in could learn to see not only what existed, but also what didn’t. Those she rejected just said she was a cranky old bat.
No matter how many negative things were said, though, Entrants still tried to become students of her art. In the summer months, when the mosquitoes bit deep, a caravan of hopefuls journeyed from as far as the coast in order to have a moment of her time. If they had enough money and met her high standards of civility, she would let them stay for a night of insect-free sleep.
The villagers who lived at the foot of what they called Her Mountain kept a running tally on which Entrants came down with bruised egos, sore ears, or trailing shredded papers. To those who were white-faced and shaking after an encounter with her, the village tinker lent a sympathetic ear.
“What you have to remember,” he always made sure to say, “is that she said you’d hear from her.”
Very few of the Entrants figured out how he knew what she had said to which person until their second visit. Most were too terrified to focus on anything except their prepared speeches and preventing their voices from cracking. After all, it was one thing to travel to the small village, but to be lectured at by the Mistress of the Sect was another thing entirely . . .
“Also, if you want to be taken under my wing there are many tests you need to pass,” She finished telling the young man. With a quick snap of her wrist, the papers he had clutched were firmly in her grip. She spun and went to the second of three doors. When he tried to follow, she glared.
“This path ain’t yours yet. You’ll take that one,” A gesture to the final door.
He swallowed hard. “Mistress, I thought you would –”
“Ah! Free lesson – don’t summon me, I’ll summon you."
“— only, I’ve come from very far —”
“Yes, wondrous. Now be a good little Entrant and scram.” He had no choice but to use the exit she had provided. The door opened directly onto the marked pathway; he gave a resigned sigh.
As he walked down the long path to the waiting wagon, he reflected that at least he hadn’t been tossed out the way he had come like the boy and girl before him. There was still a chance.
He hoped there was, at least.
True to her word, it was many months before he got a summons. As before, he spent all his savings to get there as fast as possible. Just as before, it was two weeks before an apprentice came to him while he washed yet another load of laundry. He barely held onto his bartered job this time.
The apprentice led him to the Admittance Room, where he was told to sit before the Mistress. She herself was settled on an imposing throne behind a large desk. He prayed that this was a sign that he would be accepted. Carefully, he perched on a low, splintery stool.
"Learn anything yet?" she inquired, going over the papers that engulfed the desktop.
"Er . . . to wait until summoned?" All of his carefully prepared speeches and the tips the rejects had given him vanished. He began to sweat, and tried his best not to hang his head when she glared.
"Everybody says that. One more try, boyo, then you're out on your ear. What've you learned?" She snatched a paper off her desk that threatened to fall and examined it closely. "'Cause it sure hasn't been saving, proper travel planning, or knowing how a person's mind works - that last being the most important if you want to learn here."
He had flinched with each accusation, then spoke quietly, "In your eyes, I don't think I've learned anything."
"Looks that way, don't it. Here's your piece back." A dog-eared roll of paper was tossed at him.
The boy unfurled it and looked at the red marks that dotted every bit of years of work. He nodded and, focusing only on rolling it back up as neatly as possible, tried to stop his eyes from tearing. "No questions, eh?" She grunted. When he looked at her in confusion, she gave an uncaring shrug. "My old, old policy. Seekers of knowledge get to ask one question."
His hands twisted nervously and he brought the roll to his chest, just in case she would tear it as punishment. Only one question? How could he choose?
He looked down at the pages - at his papery child lacerated by a quill and bleeding red ink - and cautiously said, "I don't understand what the marks mean . . ."
"Asking for help, are you?" The words were fiercely accusatory.
The answer became caught in his throat. He wanted so badly to deny what he had said, to ask for another chance to show that he understood at least a little of the world, that he could be her best pupil if only given a chance.
All he could do was nod in shame.
"Can't do it."
"I - I understand," he managed, then made a dash for the door.
It wouldn't open. He all but dropped the roll of papers as the knob refused to twist.
"Eager to get to your robe fitting. Suppose I can almost admire that." A hand with callused fingers drew his ink-stained one away from the exit. "You'll need to slow down, though. Can't keep missing the little details and such. Don't even think you heard the rest of what I had to say - can't give you help, but I can teach you."
An inarticulate noise forced its way out of his mouth.
"Yeah, yeah, you made it, boyo. Now get you gone to the clothes-makers."
He sank to his knees, eyes wide and hands tightening spastically. "How?"
A smile that had more devil than human in it appeared. "You passed the Test of the Red Plume. Very tricky thing, too. Maybe one day I'll think about the possibility of letting you know how it works. For now, go on down to the village and tell old tinker that his old lady's been saddled with another head-in-the-clouds-feet-on-the-seabed idiot that thinks he can be writer."
She looked thoughtful. "And he needs to get a pound of potatoes for supper. Well, don't just kneel there gawping, boyo, bolt and run like a rabbit!"
When the boy was gone, she picked up a paper that had fallen from his hands and snickered quietly at the nonsense marks she had made.
"Honestly. All they have to do is ask."