The days passed quickly after that, every morning I’d wake up, have breakfast, say goodbye to Mother, head to the Cutting Center, take the quiz on the chapter I read the night before, then head to the practice room to do any number of exercises based around trances.
I didn’t interact much with Gerode, my fellow trainee, he arrived around the same time as I did, took his quiz, then Mr. Hillington would take whichever of us finished first into the practice room, give us a task then get the other room. He stayed at his desk during the day, only coming in to give one of us a different assignment.
Sometimes Mr. Hillington tested us against each other. He would make us race to get into a trance, get out of a trance, locate a soul, or move up to the soul-string-split.
I never did see the Otherworld, but, like I told Darren, I wasn’t very inclined to. Honestly the prospect of getting trapped terrified me, no matter how cool it would be to see the Otherworld.
There were about twenty chapters in my textbook, and because I took Saturdays and Sundays off, I figured I would be finished my training in just under a month.
Gerode finished his training about a week before I did; his last week was spent doing his final exam. He spent the entire morning doing tests and quizzes, then in the afternoon he would do intense exercises.
Every other day he would spend the morning studying the textbook, and in the afternoon Mr. Hillington would join him in the trance to teach him how to actually cut a soul. On these days I would just go over the same exercises and assignments, because Mr. Hillington couldn’t give me new ones.
On the last day of the week, Gerode was tasked to taking one long exam that took him the entire morning to complete. When he finally handed it in, a slow smile crept up his face.
“Well, Gerode.” He said happily. “You have completed your training, and you are now a Cutter.”
Gerode just stood there mouth gaping. “Don’t I get a certificate or something?” He asked doubtfully.
Mr. Hillington laughed and handed him a package. “In there you will find a new knife, your schedule, and your keys to the Cutting Center. Congratulations Gerode, it was an honor training you.”
“Thank you!” He cried. “Thank you so much!”
Mr. Hillington just smiled. “It was your doing, not mine.”
I crowded around him as Gerode opened the package. The first thing he took out was the schedule, and looked it over briefly before setting it aside. The next object was the set of keys, which he tucked onto his belt.
“The larger one is for the main doors.” Mr. Hillington added helpfully. “The smaller one is for your office.”
“My office?” He had evidently forgot he would have an office.
“Its number 39. I’ve written it on your key in case you forget.”
The last object he pulled out of the parcel was a small knife, it was in a dark leather sheath, and he pulled it out carefully, as if it could break any second.
“Council’s Order!” I breathed. “It’s beautiful!”
Gerode seemed similarly bewitched; he sat there staring at it, an expression of wonder on his face.
Mr. Hillington was the only one who seemed in any position to speak. “It is pretty nice isn’t it?” He said smugly. “I picked it out myself. I thought it was right for you.”
He nodded numbly.
The blade was etched with spirals engraved in copper, making it seem like it was inlaid with gold when held up to the light. The hilt was black, and curved elegantly around his hand, decorated with more patterns of copper. On hand guard the word ‘Gerode’ was engraved in calligraphy.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” He said once he had regained his tongue. “I can’t express how lovely this is!”
Mr. Hillington waved the praise away, embarrassed. “It was nothing. You’ll need it for the years ahead. Now, if you’d like you can get the rest of the day off. Your schedule starts tomorrow, don’t forget to go upstairs and look for your office instead of coming down here.”
He smiled. “Don’t worry, I won’t forget!” Rewrapping his gifts in the packaging, he hurried out the door, eager to show his wife.
(He did have a wife. That was the one thing that I learnt about him, other than his name.)
As he watched Gerode leave, Mr. Hillington turned to me. “Well, now that he’s gone, I can concentrate on you!”
“You mean-“ I began, careful of having high hopes just to have them dashed.
“Do you know how many chapters are left in you textbook?” He asked.
This was the easiest question I ‘d had to answer yet. “Only four more I said. Almost enough to fill a week.”
“And do you know what this means?”
I finally allowed myself to smile. “It’s my last week?”
“Ah hah!” He snapped his fingers in my face and I flinched back. “You catch on quick! Yes, it’s your exam week now!” He grabbed my arm and dragged me away. “We must start soon. Because you already did your chapter quiz for today, we’ll start with the exercises.” He pushed me into the chair in the practice room and began pacing in front of me. “I am going to get you to go into the basic trance and find a soul as fast as you can.” He fiddled with the pocket watch he always carried with him. “I’ll be timing you, just so you know. Any soul will do.”
“That’s it?” I said doubtfully frowning slightly.
He fixed me with a look that could freeze the river. “If you had let me finish you would know that it isn’t.”
When he spoke so slowly and deliberately I felt as if I was a child he was scolding, and it infuriated me. I waited for him to continue pacing before rolling my eyes.
“As I was saying, after you find the soul, return, then go back into the trance and try to find the same soul.”
My mouth dropped open. “The same soul? But that’s impossible, there’s to many of them!” Gerode had never told me he had to do this.
Mr. Hillington chuckled. It isn’t as difficult as it may seem.” He pondered over something for a moment. “I suppose it’s an exercise to practice and perfect movement and control while in trance. You will need to be completely comfortable with the state before you may become a Cutter.”
Right, completely comfortable with going into a trance where I can see souls and hover between this world and the Otherworld. Like that will ever happen! I thought, fighting the temptation to roll my eyes again.
Settling back into the chair, I went through the tedious process of going into a trance. All my practice had made me good at it, and it was now second nature to me.
If he weren’t timing me I would’ve looked for a soul that’s was easy to spot out, but as it was I identified the first one I saw. Literally. It was bright yellow, with a green outline; something that I hoped was unique to that soul.
I “slapped” the chair and awoke with a jolt
“Very good!” Mr. Hillington applauded. “Now for the difficult part.” He snickered. “Good luck finding your soul, or should I say their soul?”
Without wasting any time, I dove back into the trance, and searched for the soul, I could see three yellow souls, but I couldn’t tell whether they had a green outline or not.
I decided to go the nearest one, praying that it was the right one. Unfortunately it wasn’t, although I was then close enough to the second one to see that it had a bit of green around it. I made my way to it, verified that it was the right soul, and then exited the trance.
“Congratulations!” Mr. Hillington exclaimed. “You passed your first exercise!”
I breathed with relief. Little did I know that that was going to be the easiest test!
The next few days passed in a blur of hard work and hard studying. Every evening I sat at the table reading and rereading the Cutting textbook. It seemed as if Darren had been studying as much as I had. When I had went to school for that short period of time, I hadn’t been outstanding at it. I was a quick enough learner to keep up, but nothing more, and I knew as sure as I knew my name that I wouldn’t be able to learn enough to get a scholarship into a better school from only one year.
However, that was exactly what Darren was doing. He had always been exceptionally bright, when Mother taught us about adding numbers so that we wouldn’t be cheated he had been adapt at it. Another blessing that school brought was a chance for him to socialize. Back home I was the only person around his own age, and although we got along better than most siblings, it wasn’t anything close to a regular friendship.
On the last chapter of my book, the words seemed to blur into one another. I yawned and closed my book, leaving a piece of orange peel in it as a marker.
“I’m going to bed,” I said, not looking up. “Darren?” I carefully closed the book and glanced across the table at my brother, who was sleeping soundly on the table, his head resting on his textbook.
I stood quietly, and tiptoed away, smiling. It was just like Darren to fall asleep with his nose in a book. Literally.
A few days later I awoke with a feeling of immense happiness, for a reason that I couldn’t fathom. It wasn’t until I had dressed myself for work and eaten breakfast that I realized the reason.
“It’s my last day of training!” I exclaimed, waking Darren with my shout of joy. “I’ll be a Cutter after today!”
“Uggh…” he groaned. “Don’t be so sure of yourself. You could fail!”
“Pff.” I sniffed. “Don’t be such a downer.”
With a sigh he pulled himself out of his bed and yawned conspicuously.
“I’m off to work!” I sang gleefully. “Wish me luck!”
“Hm.” He responded.
I skipped out the door, humming a merry tune just to annoy Darren. The streets seemed brighter that day, although it was overcast and not extraordinarily sunny. I practically ran to the Cutting Center, but forced myself to walk calmly through the waiting room. I didn’t need to open the door in the training wing; Mr. Hillington had it open the moment I reached the door.
“Guess what?” He said excitedly. “It’s your last day!”
I smiled broadly.
“And you know what that means, don’t you?”
I nodded eagerly.
“It’s your exam!”
My face fell. I had forgotten about the final exam that Gerode had to do to pass. Maybe Darren was right after all.
“Cheer up! It’s practically just a glorified test.” He grabbed a quire out of his desk and handed it to me. “You can use the information room, it’s quieter than the procedure room and it doesn’t have as many distractions.”
The distractions he was talking about were posters on the walls that showed the Cutting Process, a bit of Cutting history, and maps of the Cutting Center, the city, and beyond. I personally would enjoy having those as references to help with the exam, but a part of me believed that might be why it was not allowed.
He beamed as I settled myself in the stiff chair in the info room, trying to make myself as comfortable as possible.
“Brilliant!” he grinned and clapped. “Best of luck! I’m sure you’ll do just wonderful!”
I just nodded and swallowed nervously, looking back at my test papers and leafing through them. Mr. Hillington was right in that there weren’t many questions. I began at the beginning, working through the ones that I had already answered in previous tests, then I moved on to questions that I knew the answer to off the top of my head, after that the ones that I could figure out with some trouble, and lastly the ones that I had difficulty working out.
Thankfully the test went by quickly, despite the many questions. I shuffled the papers together and stood. As I’d expected, Mr. Hillington was at his desk, however, he wasn’t alone.
Upon hearing me open the door he whipped around and smiled. “Ah, Miss Alander!” He beckoned me closer. “Meet the newest Cutter trainee, Gabby Trappers. Trappers, meet Alander!” Gabby was quite a bit older than me, perhaps in her thirties or so, and she held out a hand. I shook it, smiling politely, “Miss Alander has just completed her final exam, and will be out of our hair shortly.” He continued. Gabby smiled light heartedly. “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to watch, we must get started on our first tests and reading.”
“That’s all right. I already know how it works thanks to my sister.” She said.
“Was she a Cutter too?” I asked, hoping that Mr. Hillington would get her settled and mark my exam.
“Yes she was. Still is, actually!”
Mr. Hillington finally interjected. “Speaking of Cutters, here’s you first reading material, you can go in that room over there, and come out when you’re done answering your questions.” He smiled. “In the meantime I’m sure someone is eagerly waiting for me to mark her exam.”
“I’m sure she is!” She gave me a friendly nod. “Good luck on your exam.”
“Thanks!” I replied. “See you around.” She walked into the procedure room and shut the door after her.
“Now.” He said, taking the papers from me. “Time to mark this test of yours!” I grinned excitedly.
“There isn’t a practical part of the test?” I asked, surprised.
He shook his head. “You’ve proven yourself enough throughout the rest of the week.” He began flipping through the pages of my test. “Give me a minute to mark this. It won’t take long, I’ve got the answer key right here!”
I sat down on the chair in the practice room and waited to get my exam back, getting more nervous by the second. After what felt like an eternity, he called for me. I stood, my hands shaking. I didn’t know what would be worse if I failed, having to redo the training with Gabby, or not being allowed to. Not being allowed to. I thought. My family needed the money more than I needed the pride.
My family! How could I face them if I’d failed, we’d staked everything on me becoming a Cutter. Holding my head high, I walked out to meet Mr. Hillington. I had done well. I must have, it was all things I knew, all things I studied.
To my immense relief he was smiling when I arrived, and a package similar to the one he gave Gerode was in his hands. “Congratulations, Miss Alander!” He exclaimed, handing over the package. “I suppose I don’t need to tell you what’s in here, do I?”
I laughed, perhaps finding one of his jokes actually funny for the first time. Without bothering to wait, I tore it open, and set my schedule and keys aside, digging for the knife. I expected a dagger or small knife like Gerode’s, contained in a sheath, but what I found was quite different.
A small, sharp letter opener, encased in a wood tube with a gold rim. I unscrewed the top half-the cover, and ran my fingers lightly over the delicate serrated edge, my other hand wrapped around the handle. It was so small, so tiny, and yet…
“It’s perfect!” I whispered, trying to express my gratitude. “Thank you, so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
He smiled, but seemed a tad annoyed. “You can than John for that, he’s the one who picked it out.” He shook his head. “I thought that you would want something fancier, and, well, bigger!”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, silently thanking Mr. Teller, a man I barely knew, for knowing me so well. “It really is.”
He sighed, twirling his mustache. “As long as you like it, I guess that’s all that matters.”
I smiled. “Still, thank you. For everything, not just the knife, but for training me, and graduating me.”
I smiled a little sadly. “Good luck!” He shook his finger at me. “What I said all those days ago was true. You’ll make an excellent Cutter.”
I hoped that was true, I hoped it with all my heart.