"Off you go, lad," the caravanmaster said, not unkindly. "Find your calling in life."

Kirel ducked his head in acknowledgment and kneed Dapple away from the caravan, without looking back. A faint shame prickled him even as the traders fell behind, their plodding pace no match for Dapple's trot. He'd failed, miserably and wholly, no denying it. And now he rode off in disgrace, a dismissed caravan guard with indelible stains of blood and failure on his soul.

Scholastica lay before him, sprawling in all its glory across the bottom of the valley. Despite his private misery, Kirel felt curiosity stirring within. What in nine hells was this place, anyway? Tilled fields lay outside the walls, a sensible arrangement. But mixed in with the tilled fields were gardens? Was that possible? And animals, lots of animals, grazing outside the walls. Okay, maybe they brought the animals in at night. But why the gardens? And that. . . that thing. What the thtock could it be? Some kind of man-made structure marched down a hillside, like a big bridge, but only crossing land. It led straight into the town.

And what a town! Built in a pattern of concentric squares, the town seemed at first glance rigidly organized. Then the chaos of the architecture became apparent. No two buildings looked alike. . . no, wait, not true. A cluster of half a dozen or so big rectangular buildings stood in the first square from the center, all made of dun-colored stone. But could that possibly be a water tank covering the entire central building?

Kirel urged Dapple into a faster trot. Shame or no, he must find out the secrets of this crazy town.

A branch of the road, also made of the special magic-constructed surface, led to the main gate of the town. In large letters, above the gate, a banner spelled out Welcome to Scholastica in the common trade tongue.

The gate stood unmanned. Kirel frowned. His short, unsuccessful life as a caravan guard had taught him one thing fast: guard everything. What kind of town walled itself in, then left the walls unmanned? One where the folk were either idiots, or very trusting.

He looked around for an inn. Instead, he saw lots and lots of people, most walking, some riding horses, and others pushing themselves around on bizarre wheeled contraptions.

"Are you new here?"

Kirel looked down at the speaker with relief. Someone to answer his questions!

"I just arrived," he replied, distracted by one of the wheeled platforms as it rolled by, propelled by the foot of its rider. "What is this place? And what in all hells was that person riding on?"

"A rollabout." The owlish man smiled at him. "Welcome to Scholastica, the place where anything can and does happen. Have you come to study? If so, you'll probably want one of the rollabouts for yourself. They're marvelous for getting where you're going quickly, here in town where most people don't ride their horses."

"Study what?" Kirel cocked his head, suddenly more curious about that than the rollabouts.

"Why, whatever your heart desires! This entire town is devoted to learning. Surely you knew that? Oh. I can see by your eyes that you didn't. Well. If you want to learn, I suggest you go to the Central Square. That's where the administration, such as it is, is centered, right under the holding tank. I wish you well!"

"Thank you," Kirel said. The nameless benefactor smiled and went back to walking wherever he'd been going before he stopped. Kirel aimed Dapple for the central square and tried not to gape too much at the bizarre architecture around him. Why, someone had even built a tiny castle! Not that it was tiny, mind, but compared to the size of a real castle, this represented maybe a fourth of the whole. Graceful, soaring wooden arches neighbored squatty brick buildings, both offset by round, thatched huts. Buildings climbed four and five stories high, in a feat of construction that left Kirel awed. An entire street consisted of two levels: the ground level, filled with small brick cottages, covered by a solid wooden platform, which supported an extra row of wooden structures. Spiral stairs connected the two levels at several points.

By the time Dapple reached the central square, Kirel felt completely overwhelmed, just a simple country bumpkin lost in the wonders of the big city. Was this just another chance for failure? A perfect showcase to display his ignorance and incompetence?

There really was a building crouching under the weight of a vast water tank. Kirel tied Dapple to the hitching post out front and went in, trying not to duck his head. He fancied he felt the weight of all that water pressing down on his neck.

"Can I help you?"

This speaker was an older man, wearing a scholar's robe, seated at a desk covered in papers.

"I—I hope so," Kirel replied. "My name is Kirel. Someone suggested I come to Scholastica to find my next job, and someone else suggested I study here, although not what. I confess, I'm confused. What is this place?"

"Ah, Kirel! Have a seat, this could take a while." The man smiled. Kirel perched on the indicated stool. "My name is Edvin, and I'm here to answer questions. Now, you've asked a big one.

"Scholastica is a place of learning, to put it in its most broad sense. There is a core to the city, consisting of the permanent subjects taught here—mainly academic. The rest of the city is inhabited by tradesfolk. Historically, Scholastica was founded when the scholars at Tyragon suffered a difference of opinion. Those who remained at Tyragon believed that only magic and the military arts were worth studying. Those who left believed that all knowledge is worth seeking. They founded Scholastica as a university, then a craftmaster came along and asked if he could teach too, and it grew from there."

"And how does one decide what to study? And," Kirel's newly acquired financial sense reared up, "how does one pay for the teaching?"

"More good questions. To answer your second question first, we don't use much money here. It's almost all done on the barter system. And for those with nothing material to barter, they can always offer to take extra turns at the chores. We're fairly self-sufficient here, you see, and that means everyone lends a hand in some way.

"As for the other question, some people wander for annums before they decide what to study. We've got a fairly loose structure here, you see, and classes begin every fourth week. There's always at least two levels of the lessons going on, beginning and advanced. So students try a class or two, and if they don't like it, they move on to another subject. The only true requirements here are that students take at least one course each of History, Literature, and Cultures. And of course students must devote two parts of the day to chores."

Kirel leaned back on his stool, balancing on his tailbones. He'd always liked history. And his short, three lunation journey through the real world had shown him how little he knew of culture outside the canyonlands. Literature he'd never studied, unless breeding records counted.

"What about horses? And where do students live?"

"Ah, horses." Edvin's face crinkled with distaste. "Many students arrive with them, although they're not much use in town. They live in a rather large stable complex, some of the permanent structures. Or if you prefer they can be pastured outside the walls. Students live wherever they can find a place empty or folk willing to share. We do recommend that you spend your first annum in the actual dormitories, though. It's a grand experience, and it gives you time to get your bearings. Will you stay with us, then?"

"I think I'd like to," Kirel replied, eagerness coiling through his insides. Here, in a city bulging at the seams with scholars and tradesmen, surely his failures and cowardice would not ruin his future! Hard to imagine the aging scholar before him, with slumping posture and gnarled hands, being called on to kill or be killed. "I have a horse to consider. Is there room in the stable for another?"

"Perhaps," Edvin shrugged. "If not, as I said, there is paetureland aplenty. Have you any interests or skills? Beyond," he added, with a frown at Kirel's sword and bow (he'd lost both shield and bola along the way), "the military. As I mentioned before, those who seek to learn the arts of war need to go to Tyragon."

"No fear, good sir," Kirel sighed, remembering the horror of his only major battle. "I need to put away the sword. I—I'm just not cut out for the life of a soldier." The words of the caravanmaster sounded more appropriate in this context, where not being a proper soldier was obviously desirable.

"Good, good! Your other skills, then?"

Kirel frowned. "I fear I have little to offer. Before I was forced to turn to the sword, I bred horses. I trained them too, of course, in both the high school and the low. Horses are all I know."

"Excellent!" Edvin beamed. "We'll have you do your turn in the stables, then. Stablemaster's always looking for skilled help. Unless you'd rather try your hand at something new?"

"No, thank you. The stables would be fine." Kirel wondered if he'd be put to mucking. He'd never done it before, although the process itself seemed rather simple and he felt sure he could handle it. Shovelling out horse manure seemed far more appealing than facing another battle.

"Chores in the morning, then, and classes in the afternoon. That's settled. I'll call someone to help you get moved in."

"That's it?"

"That's it, young Kirel. I hope you enjoy your learning."

Edvin rang a bell and a bright-faced young girl appeared.

"Robin, we've got a new arrival. Will you please take him to the stable so he can settle his horse properly, inform the stablemaster that Kirel here is to help in the mornings, and secure him a room in Ellsworth Hall?"

"Sure thing, Edvin!" Robin grinned. "Come along, Kirel. Where's your horse? Is it big enough to carry double? I love to ride, but I seldom get the chance."

Kirel tried hard to get in a word or two as Dapple carried them to the stable, but to no avail. Finally he just gave up and listened. Robin told him a lot about the town around him, pointing out which buildings housed people and which housed crafts, along with a fair number of places to eat. Evidently the bakers and cooks occupied no central location. Rather, each master had an individual set up, providing food for the thriving community and teaching different styles and methods at each location. Kirel wondered if he'd enjoy preparing food in a kitchen. He certainly hadn't enjoyed it on the road!

The stables occupied a large section of what Robin laughingly called the Stink District, home to the tanners and smithies and butchers. Much to Kirel's surprise, the stables stood outside the city walls, all four of them, vast wood and stone constructions that looked capable of swallowing an army of horses with room to spare.

Robin glanced at the sun, well on its way to midday, then directed Kirel to send Dapple to the stable to the left of the gate. There they found the stablemaster, the man in overall charge of the vast horse complex.

"A trainer, you say?" The stablemaster, Rashka, a small bandy-legged man with sharp eyes and large, muscular hands, left off his appreciative inspection of Dapple and focused on Kirel, who nodded.

"That's right. I've bred and trained horses my entire life."

"That's good. If you can train, you can ride, and we've got more horses here than hands that know what to do with them. So many are going barn sour, and nobody to deal with them. You'll be riding as many per day as you can get on to start with. Then, when I've had a chance to assess your skills, I may put you to work in the sale barn."

"Sale barn?"

"That's right, sale barn. We're an active breeding farm here. Didn't anyone tell you that?"

"No, sir," Kirel shook his head. "I just arrived here, and know very little about this place at all."

"Oh. That's all right, then. We've got a breeding program, and we sell our youngsters every annum to bring in some real cash money for this place. No matter what the pure academics think, Scholastica can not live on barter alone. Someone's got to earn money to cover the holes in the system. . . anyway, I'll get you a spot for your boy here. Ever use him for stud?"

"No, sir. He's only four annums, and you know Great Horses don't properly mature—"

"Until six. Bother. He's got spectacular conformation. Breed him yourself?"

"Yes, sir, I did." Kirel smiled, at last proud of himself for an accomplishment. "He and nineteen others were my first crop. My father. . . my father was proud. The others got good prices, but I kept this fine man for myself."

He patted Dapple's neck. His father had died before the last of that first crop sold. At least his father left the world proud of his son, blissfully ignorant of the failures to come.

"Wise choice. Fine, then, he'll be in Big Barn. That's the one over there." Rashka pointed to the stable on the other side of the gate. "Let's go."

Kirel led Dapple behind the little man, who moved at a rapid pace across the well-swept dirt of the stableyard. Robin followed behind, surprisingly silent.

"Stablemaster," Kirel asked, when they reached the stall, a large loosebox. "Is there anywhere I can store my armor, both my own and the horse gear? It needs to be away from dust. I don't imagine I'll need it regularly."

"No, can't say that you will. Have this imp here take you to the smithy. They'll give you storage room, provided you don't mind students looking it over frequently. We don't get much call for horse armor here, and they'll not have seen it often."

"Thank you."

"Remember, be here for the first hour."

"I will," Kirel promised.

The stablemaster hurried back to his interrupted task. Kirel got in a question before Robin's silence wore off.

"How will I know the time?"

"Easy enough," Robin replied. "The dorm has a stash of timekeepers. The jewelers make them to help out."

And then she was off again, telling him about the daily schedule, how a class hour was really two clock hours, and the communal nature of laundry, and the thriving economy that the Admins just wouldn't acknowledge but everyone knew existed. "It just isn't Scholastican enough for them," she said, rolling her eyes. "But come on, be realistic. Everyone needs money."

By then, Dapple stood safe in his stall, munching grain, and they'd reached the smithy. Kirel panted, red-faced and sweating, but still keeping up with the speed of unburdened Robin. The horse gear threatened to spill out of his arms, and he entered the smithy trying to catch Dapple's headgear.

"Over here, lad! Here's a clear spot."

The master smith spotted his predicament instantly and patted an empty worktable. Kirel dropped his load on the table and wiped his face.

"Many thanks, Master Smith. My name is Kirel, and Stablemaster Rashka suggested you might let me store my armor here?"

"Oh, did he now?" The smith laughed, running appreciative fingers over the shining pile of gear. "How well he knows me. And did he mention my price?"

"He said you'd want to use the horse gear in lessons?" Kirel's voice rose in an uncertain, questioning note. It seemed a strange condition to him.

"He spoke true," the smith nodded, testing the quality of the joins on the scaled breastplate. "You've got quite the high quality gear here."

"I do? I mean, I thought all horse armor was the same." Although, now that he thought of it, the only other horse armor he'd seen with the caravan hadn't looked nearly as nice. Perhaps there was a reason for the envious glances of the other guards, beyond the fact that all Kirel's gear matched?

"Oh, no, young man. See this?" He held up the underside of the breastplate, indicating the joins. "Fine work here, very fine. And the metal itself. Do you even know what you've got here?"

"Uh. . . steel?"

"No, not steel. You'd never have managed to carry the full load, if it was steel. This here armor is made of adamantium, one of the more rare elements. It's by far harder and yet more lightweight than steel, and this full set of horse armor must have cost someone a prince's ransom. Where'd you get it?"

No accusation of wrongdoing colored the smith's tone, just curiosity. Kirel swallowed a lump in his throat raised by the question.

"The horse gear was my father's," he said softly. "He wanted me to have it after he died. My mother had given it to him as a bride-gift, and he wanted it to remain in the family."

"Your father must have been a wise man." The smith patted the armor, then smiled at Kirel. "No fear, Kirel, your gear is safe with me. I've a mind to set the firsters to oiling it every lunation. That way they can learn how to properly care for high quality metal and get a chance to see something few here have encountered before, expertly worked adamantium. Fair deal?"

"Fair deal," Kirel agreed. His armor was worth that much? Amazing, then, that Jackon allowed him to keep the stuff. Obviously the usurper knew as little of the armor's value as Kirel did.

A question struck him. "Master Smith? Is the rest of my armor anything unusual? My body armor, I mean."

"Well now, let's have a look." The smith abandoned the horse gear and advanced on Kirel, who stood for the inspection, feeling rather like a horse being looked over by a prospective buyer. "Hmm. Rings over boiled leather, not much good against arrows by itself, but you've got that underlying chain. . ."

The smith fingered the rings of the fine chain mail and smiled. "Ah, yes. More adamantium. How ever did it get extruded so fine? Someone certainly knew what he was doing when this was forged. Helm, please?"

Kirel unclipped the helm from its resting place on his swordbelt. The smith turned it over and peered inside. "I'm not familiar with the individual maker's mark, but it's also got the King's Seal of Larantyne. Who are you, lad? One of the royals?"

Kirel felt his eyes widen, incredulous. "Me? No, I'm—well, I was Lord of Tanivar Estate, well south and east of here. I've heard of Larantyne, of course. Who hasn't? But I've nothing to do with them."

"Was Lord? Sounds like a story there, but it's yours. If you choose not to tell it to a curious stranger, that's your business. But someone shelled out some serious money to gear you up. Your father, I assume?"

Kirel nodded. "I know he sent away to somewhere for the armorer, but neither he nor the armorer mentioned where."

"And yes, if you'd like to keep your personal gear here, that'd be fine. I'd hate to think of someone getting wind of this stuff in the dorms and greed getting the better of common sense."

"Me, too," Kirel said, with heartfelt fervor. Why, all this time he'd been soldiering across the countryside, he'd been wearing his fortune on his back! And Dapple's, too, of course. Good thing no one dishonest had ever realized the worth of his gear. "Thank you."

"No problem, lad. I'm happy to help. Just give a bit of warning if you'll be needing any of this, so I can be sure not to use it that day for any demonstrations."

"I will," Kirel promised, then turned to his guide, once again silent and respectful in the presence of a craftmaster. "Robin? Can you show me where I'll be staying, so I can change into normal clothing and bring this stuff back here?"

"Sure thing, Kirel," Robin nodded, then all but dragged him out of the smithy.

"Sorry. That man is just so big! And it's always so loud in there. One of these days I just know a journeyman will squash me like a bug."

Kirel chuckled, then set his still slightly overwhelmed mind to remembering the route to the dormitory.

This time, Robin told him where to find entertainment on the restdays (small performance houses scattered through the neighborhoods), where to get ordinary, everyday clothing (Needler's Hall), and, of course, which of the ale-houses were most popular among the students.

Ellsworth Hall turned out to be a vast mansion, done in what Robin called Shandar Provincial style. Apparently the architects, the bricklayers, the woodworkers, and the plumbers collaborated on building the dorms, then knocking them down and rebuilding them in a different style every few annums. The name stayed the same, but the buildings changed often.

Privately, Kirel thought that sounded rather wasteful of good building materials, but it wasn't his decision to make. Perhaps the deconstruction process allowed re-use of materials? He followed Robin inside, met the dorm matron, and accepted his room assignment, along with a rather battered timekeeper.

Robin left him there, at the door of his new room, with a cheerful wave and a wish for good luck. Kirel opened the door and entered with a sense of both reprieve and loss. Sure, the endless chatter had been a bit annoying, but now he was on his own in a terrifically strange land.

The room wasn't as bare as Kirel expected, given its purpose as student accommodations. A warm, multi-colored rug lay on the floor, and a proper four-posted bed took up a good bit of space along one wall. True, the bed was rather narrow, but Kirel supposed it gave someone a good chance to practice turning the bedposts without worrying about reprisals from some angry lord for any errors. And in fact—Kirel moved closer and had another look. Yes, sure enough, uneven blotches marred the stain, and one of the posts displayed a distinct inward lean. He chuckled and tossed his saddlebags on the bed.

A tall wardrobe stood opposite the bed. Kirel opened it and found it lined with aromatic wood, but otherwise empty.

The room boasted a window and a fireplace on the other wall. The window overlooked a row of small cottages and a bit of cobbled street. The fireplace stood cold and empty, with a small woodpile waiting beside a stand of fire tools.

Then Kirel made a happy discovery. A door at the foot of the bed led into an indoor privy and bathing room, shared with another room on the other side. Whoever inhabited that room seemed something of a slob, but Kirel felt willing to overlook the toiletry items scattered about, the untidy heap of clothing in the corner, and the towel draped across the shower curtain rod. Who cared if the room was a bit messy? The indoor facilities promised a real treat after three lunations on the road.

Kirel returned to his room and stripped out of his armor, with a grimace at the sweat stains on the padding underneath. He'd have to clean the stuff somehow. But how? Robin said everyone did their own laundry, and Kirel had never washed so much as an old shirt before. Oh well. Likely he'd find someone willing to show him the arcane mysteries of laundering if he asked.

Once free of the armor, Kirel grabbed his own towel and had a shower. Oh, wonderful, blessed Ancients, that invented such marvels as indoor plumbing and left the knowledge for their descendants!

Feeling clean for the first time in lunations, Kirel emerged from the shower and went back into his own room to dress. He didn't want to upset the unknown neighbor by disturbing his possessions.

Brushing out his shoulder-length hair, wearing nothing but the linen towel, Kirel stared at the pile of armor on the bed soberly. Soon, now, very soon, the armor and all it represented would be safely away from him, along with the sword, dagger, bow, and sense of failure. Never again, gods willing, would he have to feel that sickening impact of sword against flesh. Never would he have to see the startled look in a man's eyes as he died.

Never, of course, except in his own dreams and memories. What was he doing here, in the middle of all these fresh-faced and hopeful students, eagerly preparing for their future? The bleak mood, so much a part of him on the road after the battle where he'd killed a man, settled back down on him like a cloak. He didn't belong here. He didnít belong anywhere, with this combination of guilt, disgust, and self-loathing eating away at him. He hadn't just killed the man in battle. That would have been a good thing, according to some. No, he'd killed the man, then fallen to the ground beside the body, retching helplessly and unable to stop. Blood, so much blood. . . and he'd been unable to face the horror again. The caravan master removed him from duty in disgust, when Kirel refused to fight any more. He just couldn't do it. Wounding that would-be thief back in the tiny village just outside his own lands had been bad enough. The man's cries still haunted Kirel's dreams at night. But killing a man, actually killing him. . . it had killed something inside Kirel, as well. He just couldn't do that ever again. And that was a shaming thing, because it smacked of cowardice. Kirel, once the Lord of the manor leading men into battle, couldn't face it up close and personal.

Somehow, Kireld broke free of the black thoughts. Slowly, he twisted his mousy brown hair into a neat braid, then donned regular clothing from his saddlebags for the first time since he'd left home: loose, rust-colored cotton trousers, equally loose white cotton shirt, and knee-high soft boots. No good for riding in, true, but the patchwork leather houseboots were certainly equal to a walk across town to the smithy.

Soon, the armor and weapons would be gone from his sight. Would it help? Would he be able to put aside the crushing sense of failure and disgust? Would he ever be as carefree and happy as the folk of Scholastica seemed to be?

There was only one way to find out. Kirel gathered up his arms and armour and set off for the smithy.