One more time, Des opened a small black door under a wide sweeping staircase. He hesitated, hand on the doorknob. Was this a test? Was he supposed to try the wide stairs?
His collar was quiet. He held the door politely for Halthinia, who smirked at him and stepped through.
This time, the hallway was not dark. Smooth, off-grey tiles went forward about the width of the stairs above, and then split in three directions. Halthinia waited at the split for him.
The collar was quiet. Des raised his eyebrows.
“This isn’t the sort of challenge your compatriot can help you with, I’m afraid. As a matter of fact, listening to it in this case could cause you a great deal of sorrow in the future.”
“We’re supposed to work together,” he complained. “And you want me to ignore it?”
“Yes. Because this is a very important point.” Halthinia held up a device the size of a deck of cards to the golden collar adorning their bare neck. “You will obey orders; that is your primary directive as a collared person. You will consult your collar; that is your secondary directive, and a requirement of the magic. But this is more important than anything else: you will not forget your self. If you do, horrible things can happen — to you, to your collar, to the city. And, as such, certain decisions must be made without your collar’s input, and without concern for its opinion on the matter.”
“It’s as if…” Des posited carefully, “you are choosing the shoes you’ll wear for the next year? And your mother and father and sisters all wish to pick those shoes as well? But your feet will be the ones that pinch and blister if you pick shoes that don’t suit.”
“That is a very good analogy.” Halthinia’s eyes went to Desmond’s shoes. Des’ eyes, in turn, went to Halthinia’s robe. It was a very stately look, suitable for judges and other public figures. Des wasn’t sure he wanted to wear it every day, even if it did come with more comfortable shoes.
Thinking about shoes made another question come to his mind. “Who pays for all this? The school, the uniforms, the testing?”
Halthinia’s smile was mischievous. “Why, you do, of course. That is-” Both of Halthinia’s hands went up, forestalling Des’s questions. “-the school profits from the labor of the collared people. Not all of the profits go into the school, of course; some goes into the comforts for the collared people. But you, the school, you are considered one now, much in the way you and your collar are now considered one. Except for decisions such as this one.”
Des wasn’t entirely sure he’d been avoiding the decision, but Halthinia’s reminder brought him abruptly back to the intersection in front of them. “So, uh…”
He didn’t want to guess; that didn’t seem to be the way this place worked. And he wasn’t supposed to listen to his collar on this matter….
“This is where you decide how you are most comfortable handling things. Are you an intellectual,” Halthinia gestured to the left, “preferring to learn things from books? Are you more physical, preferring to work through a problem with your hands?” This came with a gesture directly forward. “Or are you intuitive, preferring to feel your magic?”
His mother would say he went with his gut. He knew that much. She’d always complained that he spent too long feeling and far too little time thinking. It meant he said the wrong thing more often than not, did the inappropriate thing when there was something to be lost because it felt right , got angry when he should smile. Like shouting at Halthinia that it wasn’t fair, as if fairness had anything to do to with anything.
His sisters would say that he was far too intellectual, that he spent too much time in his books and his thoughts, that he thought far too high above their station. He was pretty, they’d point out. He should be worried about pretty things and not about numbers he’d never be able to work with in the real world. Kids from Lesser Hunstsworth and Red Aisle did not end up in jobs where they spent a lot of time counting, not unless they met the right people. Like figuring out a magic trick to go up the stairs. Like asking inappropriate questions like what does it feel like when a collar dies?
HIs father would say that he was too physical. When he got angry, he’d hit things. People, sometimes. He was prone to getting into brawls that left his mother and sisters despairing and his father trying to tell him, once again, that he needed to calm down. Brawlers, too, didn’t get jobs that let them sit comfortably. Sometimes, brawlers ended up on conscript ships, and those were the ships least likely to be seen again, when they went to the edge of the horizon.
He hadn’t punched anyone since he got here, but, then again, he hadn’t been given anyone he wanted to punch, either.
Desmond sighed. “Is it this hard for everyone to decide?”
“Some people decide quickly and without thought, and it is easy for them.” Halthinia’s answer came with a small smirk. “And some people deliberate forever on what other people think of them.”
Desmon winced. “If only my family agreed.”
“To be entirely frank, if your family agreed, you would be far less likely to be here. That’s part of the choosing, you see.” Halthinia patted Des’ head lightly. “What does your gut tell you?”
He smirked, a little amused. “That it’s only one of three choices.”
“Very good, very good.” Halthinia smiled broadly at him. “I’ll be quiet and let you think about it, shall I?”
“I hope you brought a picnic.” Des sat down on the floor. “I might be a while about this.”
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