His attention was caught by the snapping of a twig down in the valley. Laban held himself still, forcing even his breathing to silence, and turned his eyes to follow the sound. The disturbance came not a moment too soon; he’d been starting to doubt the quality of his informants.
It was a few moments before the girl emerged from the dense cover of the trees. She walked barefoot up the slope, a purposeful look on her face, and though she looked up she didn’t seem to see him hidden between the branches. She was a thin child, short for her thirteen years, with stunning red hair which flowed down her back. She looked so like her mother.
She came blinking into the sunlight, paused for a moment, then seated herself cross-legged on the ground. Now she was closer, he could see she’d been crying.
He’d been thinking for so long about what he’d say when he met her but now she was here, tearful and intense and real, he felt everything he’d rehearsed slipping away from him. Nothing in his thirty-one years had really prepared him for this.
She pulled a slate from her pocket and began scratching something; Laban couldn’t make out what she wrote but she’d fallen into an intense concentration, stylus moving rapidly across the slate as she worked.
He lowered himself from his perch, slipping silently to the ground, and took two small steps towards her. He knew he’d made very little sound – certainly nothing that couldn’t have been attributed to the shuffling of a small creature or the gusting of a summer breeze – but she stopped writing and looked straight up at him, fixing him with the penetrating stare of those bright green eyes.
“Excuse me,” he said, aiming a small bow in her direction. He watched the battle between fear and curiosity play across her face. He knew this was the most important moment, in a way, and it was out of his control – if she was too scared to be intrigued, there would be no sense in persisting. Yet he badly wanted her to pass this first test.
“Who are you?” she asked at last.
He breathed a silent sigh of relief, but he couldn’t yet afford to relax. “My name’s Laban. I’m sorry to disturb you, I was just going home.” He took another couple of steps towards the rock face, tucked his fingers into familiar crevices, and started to climb.
Her incredulous voice interrupted him. “You live here?”
“Yes. Well, almost – just on the other side of the hill.”
“You can’t.” The flat certainty of her tone amused him; she had a typical child’s arrogance. “I’ve been up – it’s just a cliff. You can’t live there.”
“Well, I do,” he said, and continued to climb.
Once his fingers reached the sharp ridge of the summit he decided it was time to show off, so with one smooth movement he somersaulted over the ridge and dropped comfortably onto the rock ledge some ten feet below. He moved just far enough inside the cave to be sure that he was no longer visible from the hilltop and paused; waiting, listening. It was only a moment before his ears picked up the sounds he was hoping for – the echo of someone clambering up the rocks.
She was bold enough to follow him, then. That boded well.
The hall fell silent at the headmistress’s entrance, but all eyes were on the man who followed two steps behind her. The Imperial Assessors were the only men who ever visited Mersioc Regional School for Girls, and this one looked particularly austere in his formal grey tunic. He was carrying a large box of what could only be their assignments, and the girls craned their necks as if there was a chance they could glimpse the contents of the letters. The rivets on the Assessor’s boots caused his footsteps to click, echoing into the rafters as Isabelle led him onto the stage at the front of the room.
“Good morning, girls,” Isabelle said warmly. “And congratulations to you all on your Day of Assignment. You’ve been my charges for seventeen years, but today you become adults. I’m sure you’re all looking forwards to learning what your future lives will hold.”
“Are you excited yet?” Gisele whispered to Eleanor.
Eleanor shrugged, trying not to show any particular emotion for fear that the whole of what she was feeling would flood out.
“We’ll see what happens,” she said. The assignments had already been made, the letters already written; it was too late to change anything now. That knowledge didn’t comfort her.
Annette leaned across, twirling one of her blonde ringlets idly in her fingers. “Oh, but we all know you’re going to get something great. You’ve always been so good at all the physical stuff, and you’re clever, you’re bound to get something exciting.”
Gisele nodded. “I know you don’t want to let yourself think too much about the Specials,” she said, “but there are loads of good opportunities for someone like you, even outside of the military.”
“Well, we all know it’ll be a mistake if they don’t give me a place in the Special Corps,” Eleanor said. But despite her confident words, her nerves made her feel sick to her stomach.
“There’s a letter here for each of you,” Isabelle continued from the front of the room, holding up one example. It was carefully folded and sealed with the Imperial crest. “And inside you will find details of your future career in the Imperial Service. But before we begin, I’m sure our honoured guest has a few words to say about the process.”