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Caara looked at Willem. “Are you sure we should have signed on with them?” she whispered, shifting from foot to foot as she waited in the corridor.
“What else are we going to do? We don’t have anywhere else to go.” Caara’s older brother was irritated. Caara couldn’t blame him. She’d been asking him the same question for the past two ninedays.
“But the Mages, Will,” Caara said. “Mum and Da will be wailing in the afterlife for us doing this, considering what happened.”
“I know, Caara,” Willem said, scowling. “But Gran and Aunt Iola refused to take us in. We’re both old enough to get employment, but neither of us has the physical capability to do anything useful. So it’s the Mages or the Apothecaries. Do you want to deal with what the Apothecaries would do to us?”
Caara shuddered. The Mages weren’t exactly the most savory bunch, but the Apothecaries were far, far, far worse. No one who entered their service lived more than a year, barring a small handful who proved resilient. Neither Caara with her one blind eye and one deaf ear nor Willem with his twisted leg would be among the survivors.
A black door set with glowing red runes opened. “Caara and Willem Hapsen,” a gaunt man in gray robes called, staring out at the gathered young people with blank eyes. Willem settled his crutch under his arm and took Caara’s hand in his free one. The two of them approached the Mage. He frowned. “You are Caara and Willem Hapsen?”
“We are,” Willem said.
“Name your infirmities,” the Mage said.
“I have a twisted leg that prevents me from walking far or fast, and my sister is deaf in her right ear and blind in her left eye,” Willem said.
“Is she mute as well?” the Mage asked.
“No sir,” Willem said.
“Then she must speak for herself,” the Mage said. He turned to Caara. “What are your infirmities?”
“My brother already told you,” Caara said. “I am blind in my left eye and deaf in my right ear.”
The Mage nodded. “Follow me.” He led them back through the door.
The corridors they were led down were dimly lit with flickering torches. Caara moved closer to Willem. He held tightly to her hand. The Mage escorted them into a small room lined with mirrors. Two mages in bright scarlet robes were sitting at a table in the middle. The gray clad Mage bowed and left the two young adults to face the Red Robes.
“Each of you, speak your name,” the first Red Robe said. Her eyes were the amber of a cat’s, and were just as intense as she looked at them. Caara and Willem gave their names.
The second Red Robe was watching for something. He frowned when Willem gave his name, but nodded in satisfaction when Caara gave hers. “The young man will leave. The young woman will stay,” he said.
Before either of the siblings could speak, the door opened and the Gray Robe returned. He took hold of Willem’s arm and dragged him from the room. Willem struggled briefly, but with a small gesture, the Gray Robe took control of Willem’s body and forced him out of the room. The mixed look of fear and rage on his face twisted in Caara’s stomach.
She turned back towards the Mages. “Why can’t my brother stay?” she asked. “I need him with me.”
“He is not worthy to serve in the position we have for you,” the female Red Robe said. “Question us again and you will be killed where you stand.” Caara closed her mouth.
The male Red Robe stood and handed her a small mirror. “You will keep this with you no matter what happens,” he said. “If you lose it, we will not rescue you from any trouble you get into.” Caara tucked it into the pouch she kept under her bodice.
The woman gestured to one of the mirrors. A border of golden runes appeared. “Step through the mirror.”
Caara wanted to ask how she was supposed to do that, but was too frightened of the Mages to speak. She moved slowly across the room. Pausing in front of the shimmering glass, she took a deep breath and put her hand against it. Her fingers passed through the surface. She moved forward.
A faint heat rushed across her skin and everything twisted around her. When her vision cleared, she realized it was a scorching day wherever she was. She looked around. The land was barren, dead trees jutting out of the ground.
“What do you see?” It was the voice of the female Red Robe. It was coming from the mirror under Caara’s bodice.
“A dead place,” Caara said.
“Explain,” the woman said. Caara described what she saw. “Not suitable for our needs. Step back through the mirror.”
Caara turned around and saw the mirror still hovered behind her. She hurried back through it. The mirror returned to normal briefly before another border of golden runes appeared. The pattern was different and Caara realized that this meant it was probably going somewhere else.
“Step through,” the woman said. Caara took a deep breath and slid through the light.