The stairs went far down, leaving the sounds of the city behind high above. Ardí carried an oil lamp and led his appointed novice to a small room on a landing, where he set the oil lamp on a small table. He pulled back a curtain and led her onwards. The next chamber was a short corridor, with another heavy curtain at the end of its left side. Its mirror followed, so dark now Sylvie could make out her tutor only as an irregular blotch. He gently pushed her into the final chamber, and lifted her hand to place something in it. A nut. She could feel its edges and uneven surface.
“See if you get anything from this. Don’t worry if you don’t, right the first time. Take as much time as you want. You can come out whenever you want, and try again another day.”
She nodded, too distracted to consider if he could make out the gesture. Once she’d sat down crosslegged on a smooth blanket, Ardí left, closing the curtains on the way to the outer chamber.
Sylvie stared at the nut as she turned it in her hands, willing to see something that wasn’t the random green and purple lights her eyes made up in the darkness. She imagined Ardí sitting in the lamplight and reading notes. He had to be very quiet; Sylvie couldn’t hear a thing, even though she thought she should hear the sound of a sheet of paper being turned even through the curtains, in the silence this far underground. After a while she held up the nut to her ear, and closed her eyes, in case sight wasn’t the way to go for her. It didn’t make any difference.
This wouldn’t be half as bad if she’d know what sense it would be. How could she tell she was doing something wrong if she didn’t know if what she was doing was the right thing to begin with? She twitched as she heard something, but caught herself. She had scratched over the shell of the nut without meaning to.
The thought of failing and being washed out of the school made her sick, so she tried to ignore it, and took some more time.
Even breaths. Sense, don’t think. It sounded easier than it was.
After a while there was a faint crackling sound, just at the endge of hearing, and her heart raced as her imagination suggested that the heavy curtains petrified, trapping her all alone in the dark. She got up quickly and touched the fabric, which moved easily under her fingers. Embarrassed – had she been dozing off here, into a nightmare? – she sat down again for another try, but it was just a token effort. Very soon she had a last idea – licking the object of this little experiment – but since that didn’t lead to any interesting impressions, she rubbed the nut dry on her tunic, and gave up for the day.
She told herself that she had been trying for a long time, but she didn’t look Ardí in the face when she came out of the silent chamber.
The practise was repeated, with different objects. A lump of clay. A piece of wood. A bowl full of water. A quarz crystal. A small silver ingot. One day, they went to the top of the highest tower, and she held nothing, there to feel the wind and sniff the air.
In between, her tutor talked with Sylvie. It was a bit odd, being asked what she liked, and why she did, or didn’t. At first she gave short answers, too busy wondering what Ardí wanted to hear to just say what came to her mind, but eventually she was drawn out.
“My favourite place is the spirit wood.” Sitting in one of the small gardens had reminded her of it.
“I’ve never been in there. What do you like about it?” Sylvie hesitated, looking for words, and Ardí tried to help her get started. “Can you describe what it looks like?”
She frowned. “It’s big, and green, and tangled.”
“And that’s what you like?” It hadn’t sounded enthusiastic.
Sylvie nodded and shrugged at the same time.
Another voice interrupted them. “Excuse me? I think you may be asking the wrong questions.”
Ardí got up and greeted, “Eda Eralai,” then respectfully waited for her to speak. Sylvie was on her feet, too, having followed his example, and stood a step behind him and to the side. She was a bit awestruck at having one of the senior teachers take an interest in a novice like her, but the older woman smiled, and spoke with a soft, warm voice. It helped, even over the surprise that Eralai addressed her, rather than her tutor.
“I have been at the edge of the Spirit Wood occasionally. The trees must be very old.”
Sylvie nodded. She had wondered about that. “Do you know how old?”
Eralai shook her head. Sylvie was surprised a grown-up, a teacher even, would admit to not kknowing something that easily. “It must be hundreds of years, maybe even thousands.” After a short pause she asked, “Have you actually gone into the wood?”
“You weren’t afraid?”
“Yes, I mean no. I mean, not of the wood. I was running away. I thought they might not follow me inside. The wood felt safe.”
“What do you mean?”
Ardí asked, “Do you mean you thought you’d be safe because the others would be more afraid of it than you?”
“I did, but it’s not what I meant. It just felt safe. Good.”
“How did that feel?” Eralai ignored Ardí and watched the girl closely.
Sylvie spread her arms, and said the first thing that came to her mind. “It’s like warm water flowing up my skin. Or through me.” She frowned. That didn’t make sense, did it?
“Flowing up from the ground?” The teacher’s voice was soft, neither incredulous nor mocking.
“And where does it go?”
“All through me.” Remembering the feeling, she smiled and stretched tall as she could, spreading her fingers high above her head. A moment later, she crossed her arms self-consciously and looked at the senior teacher, who still smiled.
“Very good; that should be helpful.” Eralai turned to Sylvie’s tutor. She spoke a little faster to him, more businesslike, but sounded cheerful. “Have you tried with something living yet?”
“We had a nut right on the first day.”
“Well, try again. The first try, pretty much everyone who hasn’t come into sensing already it too nervous to get it right. And if a live seed won’t work, get a small plant in a pot.” She addressed both of them before taking leave, “I’m sure you’ll manage.”
So, there they were again in the dark. At least it wasn’t the same nut. Well, Sylvie thought this one was shorter and rounder. She sighed, wondering if her elders were quite as smart as she’d thought, before concentrating on her task.
She stared at where she knew it was in the darkness, and saw nothing, strained her ears, and heard nothing. She concentrated on taking even breaths and being patient. The nut remained a lump in her hand, with a spark of warmth near one end.
What? Sylvie waited, but the feeling didn’t go away. With a bright laugh, she got up and bounced off the corridor wall in her rush to tell Ardí.
He raised his head from his notes, and his eyebrows high. It was a look of interested surprise, but it also reminded Sylvie she should act a bit less childish. She bounced on her toes, anyway. “I think I have it. Something, at any rate.” She lifted the nut to her eyelevel, pointed and said, “Here, it’s warm here. Inside the nut. It’s so odd…”
Ardí peered at the little thing for a moment and then smiled, and sighed. “I’m afraid we’ll have a different tutor for you, then.”
“What? Did I do something wrong?”
“Oh, no. Sorry I scared you. It’s just that someone who feels could help you more than I, because I see.”
Sylvie thought that over. Of course she had known about the principle, but never considered how it affected learing and teaching. “So, what does it look like, to you?”
“Like a light, yellow-green spark.”
“And what is it?”
“That’s the part that will sprout. Most of the nut is food for the new plant.”
“I should have known that.”
“Oh, don’t worry. You’ll learn.”