Araenè opened a door at random and glanced through it at the bare room thus revealed, maybe fifteen paces or so across, unfurnished except for a single chair and gauzy draperies blowing in the warm breeze. The room’s windows were narrow and numerous, so there was a lot of gauze. Pinkgauze. The chair, carved with ornate swirls and ripples, had been painted pale violet. Its cushions were a deeper purple. The walls were a sky blue. The combination of colors in the small space was a little … well, it was a little …
Ceirfei, peering with interest over Araenè’s shoulder, murmured, “Sugar cakes.”
Araenè had to laugh. That was exactly right. The room was exactly like a plate of cakes rolled in pastel sugars, the sort given out to children too young to have any subtlety. She shut the door, gently, and looked up and down the wide white marble stairway upon which they’d found themselves. “This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” she admitted, glancing sideways at her companion, “when I said I’d show you the hidden school.”
“Well, we certainly are seeing some new parts of it,” Ceirfei said, in a very serious tone that was like a smile.
He wasn’t nervous. He didn’t mind being lost. Araenè was relieved. If Ceirfei wasn’t nervous, she didn’t have to be, either. Embarrassed at her inability to find her way to places she knew, maybe. But not nervous.
She opened the door again. The room was still filled with pink gauze and blue-painted walls and that ridiculous violet chair.
“Up?” asked Ceirfei. “Or down?”
They’d already explored a series of chilly, windowless rooms far underground: one with long shelves stacked with delicate porcelain plates and platters and bowls, far fancier than the ones anybody actually used; one with all sorts of fancy scented candles shaped like animals and birds and fish and flowers; and one with, prosaically, about a hundred sacks of rice and bundles of noodles. Araenè had hoped that last one would lead them back to the familiar kitchens, but instead they’d found themselves entering a long, hot gallery with dozens of high windows that let in the rich afternoon light and the sharp briny scent of the sea. Finally they had come out of that gallery upon this wide spiral stairway. The gallery seemed to have let them out right in the middle of the stairway, because from this landing, it coiled endlessly up and down a perfectly smooth shaft of white marble, with nothing visible above or below but more loops of wide, shallow stairs and the occasional landing. Looking down made Araenè dizzy and looking up made her tired, but the pastel-sugar room didn’t seem to hold much promise. And going back along the gallery would be boring.
Araenè had meant to show Ceirfei some of her favorite places within the hidden school: not just the kitchens, but also the aviary where the little birds flitted among potted trees and flowers, and the room of glass, and the hall of spheres and mirrors. But today she couldn’t seem to find any door that would cooperate at all. Not even the “friendly door,” Akhan Bhotounn, which was nearly always accommodating. Araenè might have called out to Master Tnegun for help, but if she did that, she would have to admit, not only to Ceirfei but also to her master, that she couldn’t find her own way back to familiar places. She didn’t want to do that. She was already slow to learn things the other apprentices all seemed to absorb as naturally as bread absorbs melted butter.
Besides, she wasn’t really nervous, yet. And Ceirfei didn’t seem impatient. That made sense, actually. He was never very eager to return to his family’s home, though the Feneirè apartment in the palace was beautiful and filled with every luxury, with servants to do all the work and bring you things.
Araenè never commented on the way Ceirfei preferred to visit her at the hidden school rather than ask her to come to the palace. She knew all about needing to get away from your home and family, so you could be yourself instead of the person everybody else wanted you to be. And no one worried much about chaperones or propriety, so long as they stayed in the hidden school—Master Tnegun and the other mages being presumably capable of keeping track of one young apprentice and her visitor. Even if her visitor was a Feneirè and the son of Calaspara Naterensei herself.
Araenè glanced at Ceirfei again. He still had that particularly sober expression that meant he was actually thoroughly amused. If he wasn’t worried about his parents’ fretting, she didn’t see why she should be. Really, Ceirfei was lucky in his parents. Mostly. In some ways. Anyway, he was lucky just to have a home and a family to go back to. Not that she would ever say so.
Besides, if it got too late, so that Ceirfei’s mother might miss him or Master Tnegun might miss her, or if they stumbled across anything frightening, she could call out then.
“Up,” she decided, because she knew Ceirfei would prefer it. He was a kajurai, and kajuraihi always preferred heights to any kind of secret subterranean chambers. “Up would be better?”
Ceirfei looked at her, knowing exactly what she was thinking. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Definitely up,” he said gravely.
Araenè couldn’t suppress a laugh. Embarrassing to be lost? Maybe; but if she had to be lost and wandering through unknown parts of the mages’ hidden school, well, there was surely no one better to be lost with than Ceirfei. “Definitely up!” she agreed, and ran ahead of him, taking the shallow steps two at a time.
Steps and steps, white marble underfoot and white marble walls, with a cool breeze blowing down from above. At first, the spiral stair didn’t seem to lead anywhere at all. There were no landings for the first four or five turns of the stairway. Araenè dropped back to a more sedate pace, breathless and starting to feel the strain in her calves. She might have suggested they go down, but no, she’d selflessly offered to go up … Ceirfei caught up to her, gave her an amused sidelong look, and took her hand in his.