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Finally he cranes his neck to the side slightly and interrupts my tirade. “Enough. You have expressed yourself, and because you are a civilian and don’t know better, I have allowed it. And now, you will no longer speak on this subject unless you would like to be disciplined again. Is that understood, Candidate?”

I nod. “Yes.”

Aeson’s lips curve into a shadow-smile. It is dark, sarcastic, confident, and very scary. “Good. Now, because you are in an unusual position of not knowing better, and you’ve indeed asked me a logical question, I am going to answer you. But only this once.” He pauses, examining me, my minute reaction.

I remain still, not giving him any excuse.

“The main reason I cannot permit hoverboard use outside the classrooms and training halls is because we cannot afford to let even one orichalcum-based piece of technology to go missing and fall into the wrong hands, and potentially be stolen from this compound. Yes, I know Candidate Dubois is responsible and would never intentionally misplace or misuse the hoverboard. However, he sleeps at night, and cannot be vigilant around the clock.”

I glance at Blayne and he is listening carefully.

“The second reason,” Aeson says, “is that there can be no favoritism displayed in the process of Qualification. If I let Dubois fly around on this thing, even with his legitimate need-based reason, I would set a precedent. Other Candidates would make rightful demands to be allowed equal use of hoverboards, and that’s something we cannot do. There are other reasons, but these are the main ones, and I hope—Candidate Lark—that I have satisfied your need for a logical explanation.”

He grows silent, and watches me again.

“Yes, thank you,” I say in a subdued voice.

“Good. Now, you are both dismissed for today, and I will see you both back here tomorrow night, at the beginning of your Homework Hour. We’ll work from eight to eight thirty. In the meantime, you are not to speak of the nature of this activity to anyone, because again, I want no Candidate speculation about preferential treatment. If asked, you may say you are meeting with Instructors to get help with your homework.”

Blayne nods, and starts pushing his wheelchair to the door. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Kass,” he says.

“Command Pilot Kass is the proper address,” Aeson tells Blayne, but without reproach.

“Sorry, Command Pilot Kass,” Blayne mutters. “Thank you for all the work you put in with me. I am sorry to be taking up your time—”

“No problem.” And Aeson nods at him curtly with what is nearly a smile.

I see that brief fleeting smile and it is remarkable what a difference it makes to the hard angular lines of Aeson’s face. No sarcasm, no provocation, just openness. Like a burst of sunlight, just as quickly hidden by the usual cloud-mass. . . .

“If it’s permitted to ask,” I say, lingering at the door after holding it open for Blayne despite his raised brows. “Why am I here? Why not someone else more suitable to help him train? There are plenty of big strong guys in our dorm who would do a better job.”

Aeson turns to me once before returning to his observation consoles and plural surveillance screens. He is tall, pale, reserved, and there are definite signs of exhaustion on his face. It’s the only hint that he’d been seriously injured just recently, and may still be unwell—or at least not one hundred percent, healthwise.

“I could tell you it’s to keep an eye on you, Lark,” he says in a bland voice. “But really, there isn’t a particularly exciting explanation. Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not that interesting. The simple fact is, you happened to be here already, and you are sufficiently up to the task. As your Instructors say, you might have something—some quirk, some potential. So now, by all means, show me you are not merely an unremarkable teenager with an inability to keep her mouth shut, and with poor impulse control. Prove me wrong. Now—dismissed.”

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