From between the marble balcony’s glass-paneled doors, Ennalen watched the narrow avenue. Fine linen curtains billowed and played about her in the early morning chill. The nights recently had turned cold enough to redden the nose and cheeks as one strolled the College grounds. She suppressed a shiver and hugged the ancient book in her arms. Soon there would be snow.
She savored a long, settling breath and the delicate, floral tang it brought from the garden below, from the last of that year’s Golden Julias—a frail autumn blossom that happened to be her favorite. Weeks had passed since emerging from her self-imposed isolation within the stale labyrinth of the Main Library, but the novelty of fresh air had yet to abate. Not that she had any complaints; she seldom ventured out during the winter months anyhow, preferring the geniality of late spring. Besides, if events progressed as she intended—especially given how long she had toiled, and how many times she had been convinced this point would never arrive—then missing a few nighttime strolls across campus would be a paltry expense.
Ennalen quashed an urge to move downstairs and wait in the front courtyard, then scolded herself to be still. If by some chance the person she anticipated had slipped by unseen—not impossible given his talents—he had explicit instructions never to sneak into the building. She greatly doubted he would have been either noticed or caught, but her rapid ascension to the office of Magistrate had yielded plenty of watchful detractors within the Ministry of Law, and the late, precarious stage of her plans demanded more prudence than ever. Besides, even in the hours before dawn, visitors were formally announced and seated in the common room to learn whether or not they would be received. And, of course, when he arrived he would be.
Ennalen ran her thumb along the coarse pages of the book she cradled, the one she had pulled from amongst the study’s expansive, ceiling-high shelves. A wry smile tugged at her mouth because she knew upon those pages played out a story far older than the crumbling volume itself, a story for which as a child she had never particularly cared. Life, it seemed, was replete with its little ironies.
The blush of dawn warmed to a powdery blue as the new day grew and brightened. As much as Ennalen resented leaving her vigil, her regular duties beckoned. She stepped back into the study, latched the doors, and bitterly resigned herself to patience for at least one more day.
• • •
To Ennalen, the acolyte sent to collect her looked small, delicate—even for someone so young. She thought his slender, feminine features attractive, but they also emphasized his unease, which she found quite satisfying. She liked the two-step distance he kept behind her, though the boy should have had no trepidation being in the company of any College Member, even a Magistrate like herself. He served Thaucian the Second, the ruling Lord Elder, and personally attending the Lord Elder of the College of Magic and Conjuring Arts meant enjoying the highest degree of protection.
They headed toward the New Tower in silence save for the brush of their robes on the walkway. Ennalen inhaled deeply and relished the smells of the coming winter but kept the enjoyment from her face; her pleasure was precisely that—hers. Not that anyone would have noticed, of course. College Gate had long been closed for the night, relegating the laity to the remainder of Fraal University. Most apprentices were either deep in their studies or getting precious sleep. Most resident professors, freed from the distraction of pupils, used the night for personal pursuits, magical or otherwise.
While the hours following sundown often left the grounds abandoned, the abundant signs of their exhaustive and recent care would have been obvious to even the most passive observer. Ancient, ivy-covered buildings of dark, rough-hewn granite, with their imposing towers and steep spires, sat like islands surrounded by perfectly-trimmed seas of thick grass normally the color of jade but now turned topaz with the passage of autumn. An elegant system of tidy cobblestone paths, worn flat by two millennia of use, branched from each structure. Trees, plants and flowers of all the varieties the world had to offer, even those native to distinctly different climates, thrived under the supervision of the groundskeepers. Never was one leaf astray, nor one blade of grass bent, and all of it achieved without the aid of magic.
When the College was first formed, the Board of Elders agreed that those studying within its walls, delving deeply into the realm of the preternatural, required an unquestionable firmament on which to base their endeavors. Therefore, never had an incantation been uttered to benefit the appearance of the grounds. The tradition counted amongst the College’s oldest and most revered.
Ennalen grew more appreciative of the surrounding beauty with each passing year. Many would find it ironic that she, who conducted her affairs with notorious detachment, could hold the artistry of the College’s landscape in such high regard. But only the shallow of mind would think acknowledging beauty necessarily begot a flood of cumbersome sentimentality. Hence the reason she preferred to walk the campus at night: the fewer around to ruin it with their idiocy, the better.
“Did the Lord Elder mention what this was about?” she asked without turning to her escort.
“No, Magistrate. He did not.”
Ennalen knew such confidences were unavoidable for those who closely served an Elder. Living in the Tower meant overhearing or becoming involved in matters of extreme delicacy or outright secrecy. When the time came, she would decide whether to reward the boy for his loyalty or kill him for daring to think she would believe such a ridiculous lie.