There were no windows in the waiting room.
Brinn sat in the corner, next to an empty seat, and stared at the floor. There was no interesting pattern; just a soft, solid light beige carpet, warm under his bare feet. He wiggled his toes in it a bit. The fabric of his trousers, white and nearly too long for him, tickled his ankles.
“Hey.” The curly-haired girl flopped into the empty chair, and a clean scent of lilies flushed over him.
“Hey.” She chuckled quietly, and bumped his calf with her foot. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Brinn said automatically. Robin— Robinne? Was that her name? She was the girl who knew nothing.
“You’re quiet,” she insisted. Robinette — that was it. He shrugged, and she sighed. “So, what are we waiting for exactly?”
He looked at her this time. She had her hair up in what looked more like a bouquet of springs than a pony tail, and held herself as if she was bored waiting to get a fitting for a new dress.
“Weren’t you listening? Master Kirie said—“
“Preliminary exam, yes,” she interrupted. She didn’t stumble over the word, Brinn gave her that much, but he wasn’t quite sure she knew what it meant. “That’s not very detailed, is it?”
Brinn sighed. “They will test our skills so they know what kinds of classes we need to start with.”
“Aren’t we all in the same class?”
“We are.” He suppressed another sigh. Reiner had said that his education had only covered the most basic things so far — yet, compared to this girl, and maybe the other newcomers, Brinn seemed to know everything. “Most practical lessons are done in pairs,” he explained. “They want to see how much we already know, so they can pair us fairly.”
“Oh.” She thought about it for a bit. “How do you know?”
He raised an eyebrow. He couldn’t figure her out: why did it matter how he knew it? She wanted answers, and he gave them to her; if she was just going to question those answers, what was the point?
“My brother told me.”
“Oh.” Her hand went to her lips, and her eyes turned sad. “I’m sorry.”
That puzzled Brinn in a whole different way.
She muttered through her fingers: “I heard you talk to the Masters before, they said deceased, so—“
Something uncomfortably shifted in Brinn’s stomach. “We were talking about my parents.”
Her lips seemed to just be curling into another oh, when the door to the examination room opened. A tall apprentice, maybe in his next-to-last year, gave them an unimpressed look through his soft turquoise mask. The way he wore his hair, carefully styled and without a strand out of place, reminded Brinn of Reiner.
“Rose,” the apprentice said, and Brinn stood up. He searched for a spark of recognition in the older student’s eyes, and hid a smirk when he spotted one.
The room the apprentice lead him into was smaller than he’d expected, although at first glance it seemed endless. Tall windows covered one long wall of it; opposite it, the wall was covered in mirrors, reflecting the windows and the weather outside. The glass was too blurred to see through to the city, but he could tell it was sunny.
There were four doors, not counting the one he came in through: three of them stood, equal distance from each other, along the mirrored wall. The fourth was across the room from him — to reach it, he’d have to walk between the mirrors and the windows almost like down a corridor.
The apprentice closed the door behind him.
“You will attempt to reach the other side.” The voice made him jump. To his left, a tall woman stepped out of the shadows. Her head was shaven, and if there wasn’t for a golden edge to her dark-brown mask, it would be invisible against her skin. She wore red, but not as dark as the Captors, and Brinn spotted a rune ring on one of her fingers. Not even the Masters of the Academy had the right to wear those: she had to have done something big to receive the honour from the Council.
Brinn looked across the room again and this time just barely managed to stay still.
Where there used to be just a passage, now stood four older students — one by each door. None of them were the apprentice who’d let Brinn in, and each had a small table by their side. In the space it had taken Brinn to turn to the woman and spot a few details about her, they’d managed to come out from wherever they were, and soundlessly arrange the tables and items on them. The thought made Brinn’s head spin.
“You may take one item from each table you pass,” the woman continued. She spoke with a Caern accent, her words sharp around the edges.
Brinn nodded and took a hesitant step towards the first student and his table. He was something like twelve or thirteen, taller than Brinn but not by much, and his lips were curved in a resemblance of a smirk. Brinn gave him a long look before focusing on his table.
Three things stood on it: a set of brass knuckles, just big enough for an average eleven-year-old’s hand; what looked like a wooden straw about the length of Brinn’s finger; and a hammer that looked like it could break a small bone. Brinn reached towards the table — and the older student caught his wrist and twisted his arm around, pressing him against the wall.
Brinn grunted, his breath fogging the mirror. Reiner had never told him anything about this.
“Do you surrender and agree to pass through the first door?” The Caern woman asked.
Brinn frowned and pushed back. No. There was a knife on one of the later tables, and he decided he wanted to reach it.
He strained against the older student, clenching his jaw against the pang of pain it sent up his arm, and wrapped his leg about the other’s. With a sharp twist, he sent them both to the floor. The other student huffed a curse, and Brinn pulled out of his reach as soon as he could, scrambling back to his feet. He took a step towards the table.
The other’s hand wrapped around Brinn’s ankle, and he lost his balance again, grabbing blindly at the table as he stumbled to the floor. His hip hit the ground hard, and in the space of a breath he realised what he was holding: the straw was loaded with a small arrow. The other student lunged at him, and Brinn blew the arrow towards him.
It hit the other’s cheek, and the older boy collapsed over Brinn momentarily.
“Proceed,” the woman said, as Brinn untangled himself from the other student and shakily stood up. He ached to touch the older boy’s wrist or neck and check his heartbeat. He had to fight them to get to the next one: that much was clear enough. But he didn’t need to kill them, did he?
“Is he alright?” Brinn muttered, and shut his eyes the moment after. If you knew them all, you’d know better than to be the one asking questions. He’d broken the same rule again. He opened his mouth to apologise when the woman spoke.
“You’ve passed one door,” she said. “You may keep the item you chose from the first table; and you’ve earned the right to one question. Is that the one you choose to have me answer?”
Brinn thought about it. The other student wasn’t moving, and looking at him made Brinn slightly nauseous — but the answer could’ve been only either yes or no, and neither would benefit him much. He shook his head.
Licking his lips, he turned towards the next person. This one was a girl, with muscles three times more prominent than Brinn’s, a head taller than him. Her table had a silver fork, a perfectly round pebble, and a small vial of tinted glass, sealed tightly shut. Brinn eyed them all from a safe distance, getting used to the game. The fork was the only one that looked like a weapon, but he couldn’t imagine the girl would let him stab her anywhere important with it — even if he wanted to. The pebble was too small to do any real damage, but for all he knew the vial could’ve been empty and useless. He glanced past the girl. The third student’s table was the one with the knife. If he could just get there…
He moved fast, snaking next to her towards the other table.
A heartbeat later, she slammed him against the mirrored wall so hard his vision darkened. He still struggled to blink it away when she hauled him off the wall and into the table.
In the feat of desperation, Brinn threw both the pebble and the fork at her without much aim. She lazily caught the fork: the pebble completely missed. Brinn swallowed, fingers curling around the vial, and backed away into the window. She grinned at him, turning the fork between her fingers.
I can’t win this.
He reached up to touch his throbbing head, half-expecting to find blood. The girl stood still, waiting for him to make a move, and he tried to remember if Reiner had ever told him anything useful for this sort of situation. Brinn had seen his brother fight: Reiner could’ve won all four of these students within seconds, and it would’ve looked like an elaborate dance. But Brinn was as far from a Senior Captor’s skill level as Reiner was from worrying if he’d killed someone he won against.
“Do you have a concussion?” The girl student asked. He frowned up at her. She was mocking, but she was right: he couldn’t keep standing there forever.
Hesitantly, testing his ground, Brinn made a step forward again. There was no shame in only passing through the first door: starting with others of a lower skill level was probably a smart thing to aim for. But if Reiner was to be trusted — and, to his knowledge, Reiner never lied — having a knife so early on would prove to be an enormous advantage.
Be clever, he told himself. He couldn’t win — but perhaps he could distract her enough to sneak past her. Not that he quite knew what would happen if he did reach the knife. He tried to not imagine both the girl and the other student attacking him at the same time.
“No,” he muttered, too late to count as a proper answer to her not-really-question. He stepped forward again, she swung the fork towards his neck, and he twisted back, grabbing at her face, and pulled the lilac-amber mask off.
Brinn froze in place, his hands shielding his face. The girl complied as well, breathing heavily, but kept shooting murderous glares at him. Without the mask, she looked younger. Peering at her, he noticed faint freckles and a blush in her cheeks.
The Caern woman, having moved as silently as the students before, took the girl’s mask from Brinn’s hand and gave it back to the student. The girl snatched it and put it back on her face quickly, eyes now locked on the floor.
“Alaya, my office,” the woman said. The girl gave another quick glance to Brinn — this time, he could’ve sworn there was some fear in it — before striding towards the furthest door and disappearing behind it. Brinn licked his lips again.
“A Captor’s mask is a Captor’s identity,” the Caern woman cut. She was serious, but didn’t seem angry — at least not with him. “She shouldn’t have let you take it as easily. It serves her well to remember a blind attack is rarely the best solution.”
Brinn nodded. Reiner’s lessons ran along the same lines.
“You are going to faint.”
He looked up at her with a frown. “No, I won’t.”
Her lips curled into a smirk. “Try and make it through the next door, then.”
Brinn frowned deeper and adamantly turned on his heel.
The room spun and he stumbled into the girl’s empty table again. His reflection in the mirror blurred.
“What—“ He stopped himself. Two doors, two items, two questions. He uncurled his fingers and revealed the vial in his palm, and put it in his pocket next to the now empty wooden straw. The Caern woman didn’t move as he managed to pull himself back to his feet.
“Proceed,” she said then.
He swallowed. “I can’t.” If someone could cook and serve his pride, he imagined it would taste like those words. Followed by the woman’s dark eyes, Brinn dragged his feet through the second door.
He gave one last longing look to the knife on the third table as he walked out. Robinette was next — he wondered if the first student would wake up by then, or if the Caern woman would have him replaced as easily as the items on the tables.