Baltis followed the crowd of other initiates down the cobbled path. They were wearing their charcoal-grey academic robes, just like he was. The twin suns were bearing down on them, and he was sweating heavily beneath the folds of cloth.
“Come along,” their guide said, an older man with grey hair and a pinched face. He wore a much lighter robe, a lilac silk decorated with silver, and he looked much more comfortable in the summer heat. “Get inside,” he said, “find yourselves some shade.”
The large, grey stone building loomed at the end of the path, surrounded by an eight foot wall covered in creeping plants. Baltis hesitated a moment, taking it in. If he was lucky, this would be his dormitory.
He eyed up the long, beautiful windows with their elegant frames and coloured glass, the perfectly cut stone bricks, and the archway leading through the wall, which the others were now passing through.
Nothing back home compared. Not even close.
Perhaps he’d take some architecture lectures.
He was lost in thought. When he came back, he noticed he’d lost the group. He surged through the archway, hoping to find them in the dormitory’s courtyard, but there was no sign of them.
What a fool, he thought. His first day at the academy, and already, he was lost. Only he could lose his way on a guided tour.
“You look abandoned,” a voice said behind him.
A woman approached, her smart footsteps snapping on the cobbles. She wore the lilac robes of an academy official, but she didn’t look many years older than himself. Her red hair was bushy and wild in the hot, humid air, and the beads of sweat on her face and her furrowed brow told him she wasn’t enjoyed it one bit.
“I fell behind,” he said.
She gave him a sharp smile, her lips forming a threatening crescent. “That was foolish, wasn’t it?”
He shrugged, not wanting to meet her eye. He could feel her gaze on him. It felt heavy. “I was admiring the building.”
She seemed to relax, her shoulders dropping slightly. “You like it? It was built in the reign of Granseth, and he had a great love of architecture. He drew up the plans himself.”
“Are you an architecture master?”
“Not master, not yet,” she said. “I’m still a student. Going into my final year.”
“Then how did you…?”
She looked down. “The robes? I volunteered to help show the newts around the place. So I suppose for today, I’m an employee of the academy.”
He smiled, tilting his head. “Newts?”
Her red lips cracked open into a smile, a more genuine one than before, showing her teeth. “Yes, that’s what we call you starters. You have so much to learn. Like your way around the grounds, apparently.” She looked up, frowning. “Your group will be far gone by now.”
He glanced up at the building again. It was at least five storeys, though it was hard to truly tell, because the windows didn’t sit level with each other. “We were told that, if we got separated, we were to return to the common and wait there.”
“You know your way back to the common from here?” she asked.
“I’m sure I could find it,” he said. He hesitated. “Do you think they’d mind if I took a look inside, anyway?”
She frowned, folding her arms. The robe sleeves flopped over each other. “Yes. No-one’s allowed access to the dormitories on First Days without an escort, especially newts. We’ve had too many fights and thieveries for that.”
His heart sink. Perhaps another day. “Fine. I’ll make my way back to the common.”
He drifted off down the path, making his way back down the hill.
“Wait,” she called.
He turned around to see her hurrying down the path after him, struggling with the robe entangling her legs. “You know, I could show you around the dorm.”
“You count as an escort?”
She pursed her lips. “No, since I’m only a student. But since I’m wearing these robes, no-one else will know better, will they? Besides, we’re unlikely to run into anyone in there. The next tour isn’t for another couple of hours.”
He stopped in front of her. “Why the sudden change of heart?”
It might have been his imagination, but her wide cheeks seemed to redden. “We could always use more students in the architecture department.”
He stared at her, unconvinced.
She sighed. “Fine. I’ve never had a chance to study the inside without other students milling around, getting in my way.”
The central hall was high and wide, the windows along the roof casting the room in bright sunlight. Pillars sat at regular intervals, standing beside hard, dark wooden doors with black iron handles. The floors had been polished to a sheen, the stones filed so they were perfectly level.
Their footsteps echoed around the high ceiling.
“Now, you can look around, but don’t go far,” she said.
“You’re starting to sound like an escort.”
She pouted. “Well, if we get separated and you break something, it’ll be me taking the blame.”
He waved a hand. “Don’t worry, I’ve never broken anything I didn’t mean to.”
She gave him a sideways glance, her teeth pinching her lip.
He followed the corridor, stopping to admire the beautiful pillars. Each was slightly different, engraved with images that told stories. He paused beside one which seemed to show a woman emerging from the ocean, calling out to a lone sailor on a ship and dragging him beneath the sea.
“King Granseth was a great lover of stories,” whispered a voice in his ear. He flinched away; she’d been closer than he expected.
She took a couple of steps back, looking a little sheepish. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
A gentle scent lingered on the air near him, a fresh scent. Fragrant herbs and soft fruits, it must have been the perfume she was wearing to mask the heat of the day.
“You didn’t startle me,” he said with a smile. “You were saying about Granseth?”
“Yes,” she said, moving closer and tracing the pillar’s images with a finger. There was a space, roughly the size of a single image, that was simply a blank, blue tile. “This is a Siren, I’m sure you’ve heard of them. They lure unsuspecting men away from safety with their songs, and…”
“What do they do with them?”
“They drown them,” she said simply, but this time she was the one not meeting his gaze.
“Is that all there is to it?” He pointed at the empty square. “It seems like something’s missing.”
She cleared her throat, red peaks appearing on her cheeks again. “Well, according to some legends, there is more. The Siren is possessed by a great hunger. The hunger drives her to steal a man’s flesh, to have her way with him. Once she is sated, she feels corrupted, so tries to rid all memory of the encounter by dragging the man to the depths. She will live in peace for a while, until the hunger takes her again.”
“That’s foolish,” he said after a while. “There can’t possibly be enough sailors killed to sate the desires of every Siren out there. We’d hear about it.”
She gave a light laugh. “Yes, you’re right. There aren’t enough. Those Sirens must be starving.”
Again, she was a little too close, and again her perfume tickled his nose. She was studying the pillar, leaning over him slightly. He took two steps back and she glanced at him, a kind of uncertain look in her eyes. “Shall we continue?” she said.
They carried on down the corridor, turning left and heading up a flight of stairs made from a subtle blue stone. They emerged in a narrower corridor, this one with doors at regular intervals on left and right.
“It’s so quiet,” he said.
“It is,” she agreed. “It’s strange to see them like this. Usually these halls are brimming with life.”
“So, for this day only, the people who live here aren’t allowed in?”
“That’s right,” she said. “They sleep in the common instead. It gives the newts a chance to see what academy life looks like. They leave their rooms as they usually live in them, covered in books and with beds unmade.”
“Only right now, there’s no-one to see them,” he said.
She didn’t reply.
His hand drifted to one of the door handles.
She watched him carefully, saying nothing. Once again, her gaze felt heavy on him, and he wondered whether he was making a mistake. He met her gaze, finding himself staring at lapis-blue eyes. Had they been blue before? He hadn’t noticed.
He pushed the door open.
The room was compact, consisting of nothing more than a bed, a wardrobe, and a desk. A stack of books stood as tall as a child on the desk, a book open beside the chair. They were all related to the study of Remurdian history.
The bed had a chipped wooden frame that sorely needed sanding down and re-varnishing. He tested it with his hand. The mattress was soft and springy, and the pillow fluffed, at least.
“Someone lives here,” he said.
“Not today they don’t.”
“Isn’t that strange to think? We get to see how they left it, and they’ll never know.”
“Yes,” she said, and that crescent smile was back. “No-one will know. After all, you haven’t had your induction yet. The academy doesn’t know you exist.”
Those words seemed strange to him, but before he could think any further, she moved into his space. Her fingers traced up his arms softly, and he smelled the perfume scent of her robe, and her nervous excitement beneath it. She moved to embrace him, her chin resting on his shoulder, and her hair tumbled over his face.
Her skin was so soft, so flawless.
The touch of her fingertips was gentle, like the lapping of water at his skin, as they traced down his back and, ever so slowly, grasped bunches of his robe. Before long they were both frantically tugging their clothes over their heads.
He pulled her bare body to him, holding her tightly and breathing her in, as though he was gasping for air. She couldn’t fill his lungs enough; her scent was too sweet, too desirable.
She pulled away with a gentle smile and perched on the bed. He sat beside her and her arm was around his neck, goading them both down.
He was atop her, and her skin was radiant in the glow of the sunlight streaming through the narrow window as he moved in and tasted her mouth for the first time. Her tongue subtly searched for his and their tips touched momentarily. She drifted away, her teeth teasing his bottom lip, and her wide, shining blue eyes seemed to ask for more.
“Should I?” he uttered, his throat dry.
Her eyes scrunched with a smile and she nodded slightly, her teeth still holding him.
He pushed against her, feeling a hint of resistance before he sank inside. She was warm, hot, almost, and seemed to clamp onto him from the first thrust.
There was no escape.
She released his lip and let out a light, cooing moan, right beside his ear, enough to wordlessly urge him on. A groan escaped his lips and his hips moved, first slowly, then faster as her moan became a pant and her body pushed back against his. She whispered words he didn’t know in his ear and her delicate fingers traced down his back, pulling him into her in sync with her own thrusts. Within seconds, he felt her thighs tense, and her calves slammed into his back as she locked him in.
They found a rhythm, their bodies moving in tandem as their moans grew louder. The world itself seemed to melt away, until he could have been convinced they were out at sea, a thousand miles from the shore and they were the only people in the world.
And at that moment, the strange words she whispered in his ear began to make sense.
“Come for me,” they begged. “Come for me. Come to me. You’re mine. You’re mine.”