Here is a legend about the Uncharted Mountains, old as time itself. The aborigines tell it best.
There is a story about a lost paradise.
Long ago men lived there in peace.
Food was plenty. Gold was spread all through the land.
One day a warrior proclaimed, “I want the food and gold for myself!”
He promised the paradise only to those who followed him.
The Great War began. Many died.
When it was done only ten men remained.
And these were learned men, for they had seen war, and death, and hate.
They left the paradise never to return.
The first recorded attempt at locating the lost paradise came a century ago. Randolf Oldtree was his name—Randolf the Courageous he fashioned himself at the time of his announcement. It was quite remarkable, this news of a man daring what had never before been done. With his interview in the papers and flyers posted all around town noting date of his departure, was it any wonder the multitude of well-wishers that arrived to see the great adventurer take his first steps toward history? But weeks passed with no correspondence, and Randolf the Courageous became Randolf the Silent. His family was sure he’d found the paradise and only needed time to return, but months later the truth of his absence was too great to be ignored. They pleaded with the Society of Explorers to send a rescue party and two men were selected, agreed upon by all with expertise in such matters to be the best Explorers the Society had to offer. Unlike Randolf they departed with little fanfare.
Six months passed and nary a word.
Now, you can imagine the stories. What happened to dear Randolf and the Explorers? Nobody knew. This was the first to attempt to locate the lost paradise in recorded history. Some insisted Rudolf was still traveling, pushing deeper and deeper into the Uncharted searching for the lost paradise. Others that he was captured by a tribe of aborigines rumored to live high in the mountains. Only the most unimaginative acknowledged the unsettling reality that the men must have perished somewhere along the way.
A year after the Society of Explorers sent their two best men to find Randolf, another man entered the national eye, Barril Eastman. A burly man by all accounts with legendary endurance. Oral histories tell of him, on a drunken challenge, walking sixty hours nonstop before finishing at a tavern, seemingly unaffected, and asking the bartender for a pint. He and a team of nine men crossed the Finger and entered the Uncharted. One by one his men returned with messages of their exploration. Handwritten notes from Barril himself were published in the papers and repeated with enough frequency that it seemed the nation spoke of nothing else. The last report wrote of Barril passing Brightcreek Point. Beyond lay the upper slopes. Beyond that, the lost paradise.
And then the messages stopped.
Barril too disappeared.
A frenzy like no other gripped the continent. Dozens of teams set out to find this paradise or perish along the way. And perish they did. Not a single person returned. Naturally this only increased the fervor. Rich men sponsored local Explorers. Poor men set out with nothing more than the clothes on their back, knowing that if they found the paradise and returned they would be catapulted into a life of luxury.
Sometime around then one of the papers tallied a body count of all those disappeared and published the number. Nearly one hundred. Some said they all found the paradise and decided to stay. Some said they were still exploring. But wise men knew the truth.
The government intervened and permitted only the Society of Explorers to send men to the Uncharted. This was largely a symbolic announcement of course. No government could enforce such a law, for the mountains were too big, the temptations too great for such legislation to succeed. Nevertheless, that same year, request for admission into the Society of Explorers rose tenfold. Even women sought to join. There was no actual law saying they couldn’t and the Society took a bold step by sending three women with a team to the Uncharted a year later, a troupe of Journalists in their wake. Reports were conflicting on what occurred—aborigines, storms, wildlife—but what’s clear is that the women never returned.
Decades passed with no success. The lost paradise remained elusive. There had to be something unseen, something not taken into account. Astrologers went to the stars, indicating the alignment of the planets to be less than satisfactory for such a risky endeavor. Anthropologists said the aborigines living at the base of the Uncharted purposefully led a false trail for the Explorers. Orologists pointed to the size and steepness of the mountains loudly proclaiming the improbability that a bipedal animal could manage the terrain.
One hundred years after Randolf first braved the Uncharted not a single person who crossed the Finger with the intent of locating the lost paradise returned. The Society for Explorers began to sending only unmarried, childless men. Privately it was agreed that any man serious about finding the paradise had a death wish.
And then a man named Ashry Pennyweather volunteered to go.
As far as Society members went he was younger than most. But he was handsome and strong and nobody could deny his intellect. Put him in the middle of a crowded room and he’d take every question, ready with a quick response. He was also recently widowed, his wife having died in childbirth. Terrible thing it was. A rising star in the Society, fast tracked for the spot of president in a couple decades if he was smart politically. Her death changed everything.
It became mandatory in recent times that if a member made it known of their desire to enter the Uncharted they had to appeal to the President of the Society. Three times he fought for approval and three times he was denied. It was no secret the President cared deeply for Ashry, and could he be blamed? He, like the others, believed Ashry wanted to go to the Uncharted to die. After the third refusal Ashry wrote a letter asking to be released from his membership in the Society of Explorers and vanished for nearly a year. It became the most scandalous sort of gossip: never before had anybody purposefully left the Society.
Where Ashry went for that year, what he did, nobody knew. Many assumed he left for another continent, East Ynau maybe, or its western cousin. Some speculated he talked his way into the Society of Traders and was now sailing toward the Blue Isle, far away from Carriad and all he’d lost. But then on the one hundred and first anniversary of dear Randolf’s first and only attempt at conquering the Uncharted, an article was published on the front page of every paper in the nation.
Ashry Pennyweather finds Lost Paradise!
The nation was split into two parts, those celebrating the fantastic accomplishment and those making it clear they thought the whole thing was a sham. To make matters worse, Ashry refused to be interviewed. Nobody would have known of his return had it not been for a serendipitous encounter with a Journalist doing some fieldwork at the base of the mountains. His only proof was a small bag of precious stones. The Society of Gemologists put their top men to the task. The stones were rare—in this they were all in agreement—but they could have been bought anywhere. And this to say nothing of the fact that nobody had ever seen precious stones in the Uncharted Mountains before. The evidence was inconclusive.
But Ashry seemed not to care about the whirlwind of speculation. He returned to his home and slept in his own bed for the first time in over a year. He didn’t visit the Society of Explorers. He didn’t reach out to old friends. One day later he repacked his things and left at first light by horse and carriage for the coast. He crossed the Finger on foot and was never seen or heard from again.
There’s a story I like to tell all my students on their first day of class. The details change from telling to telling but the main thrust of what I’m trying to say stays the same. It goes something like this:
There is a story about two little boys.
The first little boy studies the lost paradise by reading books.
He never climbs.
The second little boy practices climbing to find the lost paradise.
He never reads.
The little boys grow up into men.
Both men journey to the Uncharted Mountains.
The first man consults a book and decides to wait two days before beginning his search.
The second man finds a path and begins immediately.
Both men disappear and are never heard from again.
At this point I usually pause with my hands folded behind my back. Thirty or so students look down at me with confused expressions. Some mutter to their friend seated next to them. Others open their notebook and glance at anything that might help them decipher the story. I had a student one year inquire openly whether this class was about the history of the Uncharted or if she’d signed up for the wrong subject. I assured her she was in the right place.
At some point the inevitable happens. I’ve learned over the years to wait for the right moment. And yes! There we are. Class has officially commenced.
I smiled. “What’s your question?”
“Is the moral of the story that the lost paradise doesn’t exist?”
“A worthy assumption, but no. Another guess?”
Nobody raised a hand.
“Perhaps this will help. Please tell me what you know about the Uncharted Mountains. You can call out if you like. Let’s start with one word.”
Shouts erupted from all corners of the class.
I wrote down all the words and shortly the chalkboard was covered.
“Excellent,” I said. “Now, who here can tell me the first person to climb the Uncharted Mountains with the intent of finding the lost paradise?”
A young woman in the back of class raised her hand. “Randolf the Courageous.”
I chuckled. “No doubt Randolf, wherever he is buried, will be pleased to know his reputation continues. But no, it is not Randolf. He is the first in recorded history, this is true, but does that make him the first?”
The hands in the class went down one by one.
“Truthfully, I’m ignorant as well. I assume one of the members of the original aborigine tribes living near the base made the first attempt. That, I think, is most logical. And this question: how many of those aborigines have died attempting to find this elusive paradise?”
Nobody raised a hand.
“Again, another question I don’t know the answer to. I would again assume, however, that the answer is none, at least not in recent times. Why is that? Why is it that those who live in the mountains have so few deaths while the rest of us on the mainland, comparatively, have so many?”
“Because it’s their home,” shouted a young man in the back of the room without raising his hand. “They know where to look.”
“Wes,” he said, turning red.
“A good assumption Wes, but not quite what I was looking for. Other takers?”
Several students shouted at once.
“Because they know the best route?”
“Because they lead false trails for the other Explorers to keep the paradise hidden?”
I chuckled at that one.
“Because they don’t care about finding the paradise.”
I looked for the face to match the voice and saw her in the back of the class, as far away from my position as possible. I raised my hands for others voicing their answer to quiet down and looked at her directly. She was twenty if I had to guess, with long thick hair braided in the current fashion.
“Your name?” I asked.
“Margery,” she said.
“Can any of you,” I asked, drawing the students’ attention once more, “tell me the name of one aborigine in the history of the Uncharted?”
“And yet if I asked each one of you to rattle off the of names of Explorers who perished over the years, you could do so without taking a breath. Randolf. Barril. Tyrell. How many of you want to apply for admission into the Society of Explorers upon graduation?”
Nearly every hand was raised.
“How many of you are desirous of attempting to find this lost paradise?”
Less hands, but still the majority.
“How many of you believe the lost paradise exists?”
The same hands remained in the air.
“I admire your confidence,” I said with a smile. “And too I urge you to think about what your classmate said. If there’s a unifying theme to my class these next several months it’s that the story of the Uncharted, and the story of the lost paradise in particular, is a story of greed, of normal men with unchecked ambition. The aborigines do not care about this paradise. As such, they do not lose their lives in the endeavor. Theirs is not a culture of excess. On the mainland however little children announce their desire to enter the Uncharted with frightening regularity. This is seen as proper, even expected. I’m sure many of you professed such a desire, as I myself did when I was that age. However it is my hope that after my class you will think twice—perhaps even three times—before professing such a desire again.”
“So you think searching for the lost paradise is a waste of time?” asked Margery.
“I think,” I replied slowly, “that finding this paradise—assuming it exists—for no other reason than to stake one’s claim, is foolish. How many of you know, for instance, the flora that grow at the base of the mountains?”
Several hands shot into the air. Others frowned, looking into their notebooks.
“Your name?” I asked, pointing to a young man with a beard so thick it seemed to cover his lips.
“Porto,” he said.
“Please tell the class the names of the mountain flora you know.”
He rattled off several.
“Excellent, excellent. All correct. And each of these serves a unique medicinal purpose. For example, I’ve used yarrow to stem the flow of blood from a cut I received while exploring the lower slopes of the Uncharted. We’ve made use of dozens of others in our hospitals for more serious injuries than a simple cut. My point in saying this?”
Nobody answered. And then Margery’s voice sounded clearly, almost bored.
“If we spent more time learning and less time disappearing we’d be further along than we are now.”
“An admirable summary.”
I found space on the chalkboard and wrote the prompt.
“For your homework to be turned in next week, kindly research plants found in the lower slopes of the Uncharted. Two pages will suffice—front and back. I suggest reading Viceroy’s Plants and Properties if you’re unsure where to begin. Please stop by my office if you have any questions in the meantime. I welcome visitors. That’s all for today.”
I packed my things as the students departed, chatting amongst themselves. Before leaving, as was my habit, I surveyed the room. A single student remained.
“I’m afraid the next class I teach isn’t until Friday,” I said with a smile, resting my briefcase on the lectern.
“I have a question,” said Margery.
“What is it you wish to ask?”
“Why didn’t you talk about Ashry Pennyweather?”
“Would you have preferred I did?”
“I think he’s relevant in a class about the history of the Uncharted Mountains,” she said. “He’s the only person to ever to find the paradise and return.”
“Do you believe him?”
I put my weight on the edge of the table and folded my hands.
“I’m not sure what to believe.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Why do you believe him?” I asked.
“The Society of Explorers believes him,” she said.
“They do, though someone as quick as you can surely figure out why.”
“Because it’s a boon for them, isn’t it? He didn’t die, not like the rest. He became their poster boy.”
I inclined my head. “Very true.”
“You were friends with him, weren’t you?”
“Why do you say that?”
It was common knowledge of course. Anyone who cared to dig into my past with more than a modicum of effort would find the truth. But Margery only shrugged.
“We were friends,” I affirmed, “but that was years ago. Ashry and I didn’t speak before he departed for the Uncharted. In truth I had no idea where he was.”
“Are we going to talk about him at all?”
“I imagine he’ll enter my lecture at some point,” I said with a smile. “You won’t be the last to inquire I’m sure.”
“Do you think he found the lost paradise?”
“I don’t think that truly matters.”
“You’re avoiding my question again.”
“Some questions are harder than they appear.”
“It’s either a yes or no.”
I smiled softly. “You remind me of him in some ways. He too was never to be dissuaded from an answer. But did he find the lost paradise? If there is anyone I would believe, it is him.”
Margery looked at me a second longer before putting her notebook in her bag and standing.
“I noticed you didn’t raise your hand when I asked about those who wanted to apply to the Society of Explorers.”
“I didn’t,” she said.
“Have you thought about why I told you the story at the beginning of class?”
She shrugged, but her eyes never left mine.
“It’s important,” I assured her.
“You’ll tell us next class.”
“I imagine I will.”
She didn’t say more. She threw her bag over her shoulder and walked out the door.
The invitation sat on my dresser, to the right of the mirror so that every time I glanced I couldn’t help but be reminded. The date was today, the time, two hours from now. The paper was a deep red and the lettering a black cursive. The finest parchment money could buy.
I was dressed already, my habit for preparedness outweighing the obvious that I had nothing to do until my carriage arrived. I moved from my kitchen to my bedroom, back to the kitchen. My suit, though appropriate for the event, was thick and warm. I attempted to read but my eyes refused to focus, the separate words coming together until it seemed as though the page were nothing but a giant blot of indecipherable ink. I put the book on the kitchen table and sighed.
An hour later my carriage arrived. The driver was an elderly man, a cleft in his chin, and the finest top hat I’d seen in years.
“Good evening sir.”
“Good evening Lamoore.”
“Are you alright, sir?”
“Fine, fine,” I said, waving my hand.
“Very good, sir. To Poford?”
“To the Society of Explorers.”
The open land of Poford—the rolling hills, houses at extended intervals—soon gave way to buildings. Dirt to cobbled roads. Darkness to streetlamps. One story houses to multi-story flats. A bustling market occupied Twillmire Square, smells of meats and cheeses, fresh bread. Seasonal fruit when the weather held. The clack of horses hooves and the steady thunder of the carriage wheels in my ears. Children shouting as they ran through the alleys. Farther into the city, the buildings rose taller, the façade more ornate. The sunset colored the windows a fiery orange, covered the statues in shadow. Carriages passed the opposite direction. Pedestrians on the sidewalks. Men entering public houses after a long day’s work. Women calling to their children to come home.
“Five minutes, sir,” said Lamoore.
I pulled out the invitation from the inside pocket of my overcoat and looked at it again. It was difficult to read in the dying light, but I’d memorized the words the moment I first laid eyes on the lettering.
The Society of Explorers requests your presence for the induction of
Mr. Ashry G. Pennyweather
into the prestigious Hall of the Esteemed
Tuesday, the 935th Day of His Majesty’s Reign
At 8 o’clock
At Randolf Hall
Kindly respond at your earliest convenience
I returned the invitation into my overcoat pocket.
“I presume we’re here?”
Lamoore opened the door and waited for me to exit.
“I suspect I’ll require your help again to return home this evening. Is ten acceptable? I don’t plan on staying longer than that.”
“Of course sir.”
I looked at the line of Explorers waiting to enter the headquarters. “It’s a busy night tonight.”
“Best of luck, sir.”
But as Lamoore returned to the driver’s seat of the carriage I held my position, looking at the face of the headquarters. The marble statues, gilded lettering, stained-glass windows. The twin spires that rose higher than any other building in Poford. I looked at the Explorers waiting for admittance. The way they talked, the laughter, the ease at which they smiled. Their Explorer Pin displayed prominently, winking in and out of the light. I looked at the pedestrians on the other side of the street, whispering to one another. Distrust in their eyes, and envy. I put my hand on my suit, feeling the invitation in my breast pocket. Feeling my heart beneath.
“Are you alright, sir?” asked Lamoore.
I forced a smile. “Fine Lamoore.”
“Very good sir. I’ll return at ten.”
With a nod, I strode toward the entrance.
The interior of the headquarters was warm. This was, undoubtedly, due to the large number of Explorers in the confined space. Waiters dressed in black and white carried appetizers on silver platters. Bartenders served whiskey and other spirits in crystal decanters. A steady thrum of conversation. Women laughed and men leaned close, shaking hands, each of them dressed expensively, earrings and pearls, cufflinks and pocket watches. A banner hung from the ceiling commemorating the occasion. I made my way through the gathered to a bartender and asked for a glass of whiskey, two cubes of ice, which was soon in my hand. The liquid burned as it ran down my throat, but my heart settled and I took the first unrestricted breath since arriving, as though the band surrounding my lungs had been cut away.
A short man with a ruddy complexion entered my vision, squeezing between two women dressed in yellow and blue, earrings to match. He clapped me on the shoulder and I, fortunate to have taken a sip of my drink, managed not to spill.
“Furl,” I said, smiling, “how are you?”
“Splendid. Just splendid.”
Furl had the look of a formerly fit man having decided, now being older, that it was no longer worth the effort to keep himself that way. Several buttons on his shirt looked stretched beyond the normal reckoning.
“Wasn’t sure if you were going to come or not.”
“I responded nearly a month ago.”
“Not that,” said Furl, waving his hand. “We all reply that we’re coming, don’t we? Have to save face.” He lowered his voice. “But between you and me, I wasn’t sure if I was coming either.”
He grinned. “Something like that. Still, surprised that you’re here after everything that happened.”
“I’m here to pay my respects to a friend who’s receiving a great honor.”
“An honor he’ll never know anything about, will he? Never put a man in the Hall of the Esteemed who was alive and decided not to come.”
“What he did was remarkable.”
Furl shot me a wink and clapped me on the shoulder again. This time, ready for it, I switched my glass to the other hand.
“Remarkable. Sure. That’s one word for it.”
He pointed to a group of men standing opposite my location, though instead of drinks in their hands they held notepads. Credentials around their neck.
“Journalists. Headington allowed them access for the night. No doubt he’ll be the first to rush to the papers tomorrow and see what they wrote.”
On this we didn’t disagree.
“Still, not a bad way to spend the evening, is it? Have you met the new Explorers? Only had two this year, both nearly forty. I heard one of them—Daniel is his name I think, Dan, David, something like that—spent over a decade applying. The other is a woman and frankly I can’t imagine why she wanted to be a part of the Society. Couldn’t walk up a staircase without losing her breath and that’s the honest truth. But I have it on good faith that she’s well connected with Sybyl Westerman, who, as we all know, has the ear of Headington. Not what you know but who you know, isn’t it Gladstone? That’s how you received your job at Kinley’s, isn’t it?”
“I prefer to think it was because I was well-suited to teaching,” I said with a smile.
“Didn’t hurt you were the youngest Explorer in a century.”
“Both Ashry and I fall into that category,” I said, correcting him.
Furl looked like he wanted to say something more, but the band began a new song that signaled it was time to take our seats.
“Glad we’re starting,” he said, looking around. “Haven’t been this hungry since my wife left to visit her family, took the maid, and made me cook for myself.”
He laughed loudly, clapped me on the shoulder for the third time, and walked to his seat. I moved with the crowd into Randolf Hall and then to my table, which was close to the stage and completely occupied with the exception of my chair. Most at the table I knew. A handful of professors at other institutions, a woman named Mrs. Burbage who worked as the intermediary between the government and the Society, two older gentlemen who were members of the Society because of their fascination with the Uncharted and, perhaps more so, their deep pockets.
I took my seat and smiled at each of them.
“Professor Gladstone, so glad you were placed at our table.”
“The pleasure is mine,” I said.
One of the older dark-skinned gentlemen, whose name, regrettably, I didn’t remember, leaned close to me and asked, “Have you seen the new weather reports coming from the Uncharted? Never seen anything like it. They’ve noted unusual cloud formations near the base, and rainfall this quarter is higher than ever. I’d be surprised if the Society sends those two Explorers this year.”
“I’ve seen the initial reports,” I said. “Though I haven’t had a chance to study them further. I’ll be sure to let you know when I have.”
But the older gentlemen seemed not to hear me.
“And this whole business about Ashry’s induction into the Hall of the Esteemed. I know you and he were bosom friends but there’s no proof that the man actually reached the lost paradise. That’s assuming it exists at all, and frankly the evidence supporting that claim—”
The music stopped and the chatter in the Randolf Hall died to a whisper. All eyes went to the stage. I patted the man gently on the shoulder.
“We’ll continue our conversation later,” I said softly.
From the back of the room a tall, thin man made his way to the stage. Cistern Longfellow, the President of the Society of Explorers. Known to all, privy to few, he had the look of a man in constant, subtle irritation. As though, despite the words still unspoken, he knew what followed wouldn’t be to his liking. He wore the same facial expression standing on stage, looking out, his eyes like two flecks of stone. He folded his hands on the lecturn. One of the members of the band coughed and the sound echoed loudly.
“Explorers,” he began once the sound died, “we are here tonight to honor one of our own. The Hall of the Esteemed requires four virtues for admittance. Courage. Intellect. Humility. Purpose. Explorer Ashry Pennyweather exemplifies these virtues. With courage he journeyed to the Uncharted Mountains, not with a group but as a lone Explorer willing to risk his life. With intellect he succeeded where others failed. With humility he returned, neither boastful nor arrogant about his achievement, nor seeking wealth for his accomplishment. And with purpose he returned to the Uncharted once more. It is fitting that he isn’t in our presence tonight. It is fitting that shortly after he returned from the Uncharted he left once more. He dines tonight on a meager meal of food gathered or killed in the mountains. He will not return to a comfortable bed but sleeps on hard rock. He will be cold. A simple mistake will end his life. He will be attacked. He will have to fight for his life. And if he succeeds twice where no other man has succeeded before, and if he chooses to return, he will face the same dangers. While you sit in safety tonight remember the trials he faces tomorrow.”
President Longfellow’s eyes scanned the room, settling on my own.
“Tomorrow upon entry into this building you will find Explorer Pennyweather’s picture in the Hall of the Esteemed. Several pages of notes he took in his journal, and a collection of precious stones he gathered from the lost paradise, will accompany his painting.
President Longfellow lifted an empty glass that was on the lectern before he arrived.
In unison everyone lifted their glasses.
“Ashry Pennyweather,” we said. And despite the hollow space within me, I forced a smile and drank.
To become an Explorer—to pass the admission exam, to earn the right to wear the Explorer Pin—one has to know orology, herbology, astrology, geology, nephology, and zoology. There’s also petrology, pharmacognosy, physiology, xenology, and oceanography. And indeed, a true Explorer would further be proficient in mountaineering, bouldering, tracking, hunting, fishing, to say nothing of their excellent health and remarkable ability to brave, and survive, even the worst conditions.
The truth of the matter is that to become an Explorer, one must either have a remarkable—if not unprecedented—ability to memorize and recall even the most obscure information, or one must be wealthy. And indeed, it’s not for nothing the Society of Explorers receives more in generous donations per year than they could possibly spend in a decade.
But for the recent graduates not born into money—and this, of course, being the vast percentage—their only remaining option for admittance rests on their intellect. This has led to the formation of study groups over the years, current students and recent graduates of tertiary schools across the continent coming together in hopes that one of their number can succeed where others have failed. Several years ago I was invited by one of my former students to a study group held in Lutney, a city ten miles from Poford. The group, small at first, grew considerably. Most of the attendees have failed the admission exam multiple times, some, perhaps, deservedly so. But others are so obviously intelligent it’s a wonder the Society doesn’t admit them all.
The hard reality is that only one in a hundred applicants becomes an Explorer. Most give up somewhere along the way, having been rejected a dozen times, eventually deciding to gain admission into another Society instead. The dream of becoming an Explorer, for all but a chosen few, remains that: a wish unfulfilled. But I admire their determination, the youth of this country who devotes years to the pursuit. I am not so young that I, knowing the sacrifices, would willingly put myself through such an ordeal again, but neither am I so old that I’ve forgotten what it means to chase a dream.
I arrived promptly at nine to the Lutney Library.
Inside were two dozen young men and women seated near the entrance, tables brought together, their shoulders hunched, eyes on the page. Voices low, questions asked, answers given, notes taken. Beyond were books on their shelves, and the smell of ink and old parchment. I turned and acknowledged Lamoore through the window, and he waved his goodbye in return.
“Professor Gladstone!” came a fierce whisper.
Those who weren’t previously aware of my arrival turned, and I smiled, taking a seat at the head of the extended table.
“Good morning,” I said. “I trust you all are studying hard.”
They smiled in return, the exhaustion of mental effort clear on their faces.
“As always, you have me until noon. I am at your disposal.”
Uncharacteristically, none of the gathered returned to their work. Instead a hand rose in the air.
“Hannah,” I said. “How can I help?”
“Well sir,” she began, flicking her eyes to some of the others. “We were—I mean I was—wondering about Ashry’s introduction into the Hall of the Esteemed.”
“It was a marvelous ceremony.”
She swallowed and opened her mouth but nothing came out. A man named Abbot picked up the thread.