The food was good. Desmond tried to focus on that. It was filling, it was tasty. Somewhere, they had a good source of fresh vegetables and even meat. Of course, of course, Des remembered, there was magic. For all he knew, there was a magical potato farm next to the magical stairway.
The food was good, but everyone was very quiet. After a few minutes, Jefshan repeated, “there’s no going back. It’s like Wesley said. All those people — and none of them ever came back, did they?”
“No.” Talia’s head shake was slow and sad. “So what do you think happened to the twenty-eighth candidate? I mean, people don’t go back, right? As far as we can tell. And they’re not here, and…”
“Hey.” A chair scraped across the floor and a blue-clad person from the next table over pushed up close to them. “Hsst. That’s not the sort of question you want to ask here.”
Their cravat was the same color as Desmond’s, but it matched their eyes perfectly. Their hair was the fairest Des had ever seen on someone, and they had an intense, serious expression as they glared at Talia.
“Why not?” Talia frowned at this new intruder. “It’s simple math.”
“Look, ‘there were twenty-eight and now there’s twenty-seven,’ that part’s simple math. That’s the easy part.” They scooted their chair until they were sitting between Talia and Wesley. “I’m Meshron; this is my third year here. And I can tell you, don’t ask that, not yet.”
“‘Not yet?’” Wesly glared at him. “Then when?”
“Best bet is second year, if they don’t cover it in your history classes. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But if you get to third year and haven’t heard — then you come find me.” Meshron’s face twisted up. “Or… maybe not me. I may have to have an argument with my compatriot, sorry. Anyway — don’t ask now. Just, uh, learn a lot, and be glad you’re in the twenty-seven. And in Impulse! That’s the best place to be, you know, the honorable school of the first thing that comes to mind. Some of the best collared people — they’d be famous if they weren’t collared — come from Impulse.”
Des had no idea of Meshron was joking or not. He looked at the older student, but their face gave away nothing. After a moment, he cleared his throat.
“So, sit on the burning question for a while and worry about… what, instead?”
“Well, classes start tomorrow, that’s a good one. There’s the rest of your dorm of people, there’s why our uniforms aren’t all the same blue, there’s where the food comes from – lots of questions. And none of those will get you in trouble.”
“So?” Talia asked. “Why are our uniforms all slightly different blues?”
Meshron’s grin was entirely unapologetic. “That, I’m afraid, would be telling.”
“Oh, come on, you won’t tell us anything?”
“Nothing at all.” Meshron scooted back to their original table, leaving their little group frowning and curious.
“So,” Des said slowly, “we’re blue because we chose Impulse, right? That was that choice. But what about that collar’s-choice turn? Does anyone know what that was?”
::No::, his collar murmured. ::And you won’t for a while. But you’re on the right track.::
Jefshan frowned. “We don’t… get to know, yet, I think. It’s being cryptic.”
“Mine,” Kayeye said slowly, “says that I don’t have the knowledge yet to understand. What’s that even supposed to mean?”
::That you don’t have the knowledge yet,:: Desmond’s collar answered, sounding, for all that it was in his mind, quite bratty.
“Probably that there’s some context?” Jefshan guessed. “Or there’s something that we’re not supposed to know yet. But let’s see. They look like… three different shades? And then there’s some variation within the shade.”
“So I got mine handed to me, and it was this — set of colors already.” Desmond looked down at his cravat, trying not to go cross-eyed looking at it. “There’s a possibility it’s just the first one Grenor grabbed, and Meshron was just messing with us — which does seem likely, considering everything else said.”
“Just a smokescreen, then?” Talia frowned. “To cover up the question we’re not supposed to be asking yet? I suppose that’s possib—” a yawn cut off whatever was coming next. “Oh! My pardons. It’s been such a long day, and I don’t even know what time it is now.”
“It has.” Desmond stretched backwards slowly before returning to attacking his food. “Do you think the tests are over? All the stairs and the throwing magic at us and the decisions?”
“I think…” Jefshan considered. “I think they’ve sorted us out now. All the tests were to see where we started, right? Or something like that. So now we have our house and whatever else they determined, and — then classes, I guess. I wonder if we’re all going to be in the same classes. I wonder what they’re going to teach us.”
“It seems like a lot of work for just putting us back in school.” Talia frowned. “I mean, if it’s just going to be more history and literature, we could have stayed in our neighborhood classes and working.”
“It can’t be just that, though.” Desmond touched his collar lightly. “We have these. That means we’re — well, don’t you think it means we’re going to end up doing the things collared people do?”
“That’s a really broad range of things.” Wesley ran a few fingers over their collar. “It’s — how do you do classes for that for everyone?”
“Well, maybe we won’t be in the same classes?” Des offered. “Or maybe the first year is all about everything with the collars, and then they sort us out after that?”
“It can’t all hinge on the stairs, can it?” Talia was looking worried. “I mean, if we did a bad job on the stairs…”
“We don’t even know what a bad job would look like,” Jefshan soothed. “We just know that it means something. It could’ve been just to keep us busy for a while, get us here one at a time instead of all in a lump.”
“But the arrival times…” Des touched his collar again. “Did you get an arrival time? Nobody was in the lobby when I got here.”
“Eleven a.m,” Talia offered.
“Ten ten,” Wesley put in. They went around the circle; everyone had been given a different time, off by five minutes.
“So…” Wesley seemed to be thinking as he spoke. “Then does it matter who got in first or last?”
Des had already been thinking about that. “Well,” he offered, in an intent to placate, “they’re magical stairs. Who’s saying they didn’t bend time as well?”
Even as he said it, he had to admit it was a scary concept.
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