lungs full of the sharp odor of the sea.

The navy was not the only employer of marine society boys and girls. Other agencies happily took on Madam Opera's children: the army, with its smart uniforms and regular mealtimes; the mathematicians, with their numbers and demand for genius; their rivals, the concometrists, who measured the length and breadth of everything; and various miscellaneous trades and guildhalls seeking apprentices or workers.

The agents arrived to make their selections at a set time in a year. The hiring season started in the early weeks of Calor-the first month of summer, the first month of the year. It ended in the last weeks of Cachrys-the second month of autumn, before the weather became unfriendly for easy travel. This was a time of great anticipation and glee, the older children always eager to make good their escape, the middle children keen to become the top dogs of the foundlingery and the younger ones excited simply by the atmosphere of expectation and change.

Rossamund had watched it happen many times already over the years, but this year it was his turn to take part; yet for some inexplicable reason, each time the hiring agents had come, he had been passed over. He did not know why and no one said; the agents just came, reviewed a lineup of all the older children, asked questions of the masters and Madam Opera and read out the tally of their choices. He knew he was not very tall or impressive- looking, like others around his age. He also knew that he was clumsy, that he had trouble tying the knots Master of Ropes Heddlebulk taught, that there were times when his mind would wander and duties be left incomplete. Yet Rossamund did know a thing or two. Not only had he learned simple dispensing from Craumpalin, but he knew a good deal of history too.

The Emperor ruled all that mattered, and the Emperor's Regents had control of the scores of ancient city- states that made up the Empire, city-states like Boschenberg, clinging to the coasts and fertile places. It was an Empire founded sixteen hundred years ago by the great hero-empress Dido, although the current dynasty-the Haacobins-were usurpers and not of Dido's line. Rossamund had read of the many battles on land and sea. City- states warred with each other and with their Imperial master for yet more control. He knew of soldiers-musketeers, haubardiers, troubardiers and the rest-and especially about the great rams (giant ironclad vessels of war that prowled the vinegar seas, their decks congested with mighty cannon). He knew the names of famous marshals, legendary admirals. He had read of the skolds, of course, and had even seen a few of those who had served his own city. He was fascinated by the lahzars.

But most of all he knew about monsters. He knew that there was an Everlasting Struggle, the ever-present battle between humankind and the bogles and nickers and the nadderers-the sea-monsters. Much of what he read grandly declared that humankind was winning, that the monsters were in steady retreat, that one day they would be exterminated from all the Empire. Yet occasionally Rossamund read some article nervously suggesting that in fact the bitter fight 'twixt man and bogle was at best locked in stalemate, at worst that humankind was losing. A terrible thought-people driven into the sea by slavering, relentless terrors.

Yes, Rossamund did know a thing or two, yet six times now this hiring season, men from the navy board and other agencies had been around to review the hopefuls. Six times now children had been selected to go and lead adventurous lives, so many now that the eldest and most of the second-eldest were gone, never to return. Six times now Rossamund had been passed over. One of the eldest children in the foundlingery he might now be-if still not one of the tallest-but this was little compensation for the shame of being left behind. He had been left behind by Providence-knows-who as a baby, and now, it seemed, he was being left behind again.

He was certain that he could not stand yet another year stuck in the cramped halls of moldering wood and old, cold stone.

Gosling too was waiting to be chosen for work outside the foundlingery. It was his only chance to achieve all the things for which his high birth had destined him-as he often boasted. In the last five months child after child had been selected to take up his or her long-awaited occupation, but not Gosling. In a raging sulk he had set about a regime of spiteful pranks, most failing owing to Fransitart's shrewd vigilance. But it was Rossamund he specially tormented.

Two weeks after the incident at harundo practice, Gosling somehow found him reading a small book about rams. Rossamund had hidden himself away in the tiny garret library of sagging wood precariously extended from the roof of the main building. It was all but forgotten by most. Dust was so thick on the floor that Gosling had been able to sneak up behind Rossamund and poke him as hard as he could. Rossamund was not startled: he could always smell Gosling well before he saw or even heard him.

'Whiling away the hours, are we?' Gosling snarled, unhappy that he had failed to spook his victim. He snatched away Rossamund's reader and made to ruin it.

Rossamund had played this game before. He simply folded his arms and frowned.

'Preparing to go abroad aboard your precious rams, eh? Fat lot of good reading these has done!' Gosling leaned right into Rossamund's face. 'Don't think you're any better than me, m'lady. You're still here too! No one wants you.' Gosling stood straight, his arms folded and his nose in the air. 'My family will be coming back for me soon, you'll see. Then I'll show you who's better.' Gosling had been saying this ever since he had been taken into the foundlingery. His expression took on an even nastier curl. 'Not even old Fransi-fart will make you feel better then, when you're left behind and watching me go back to the quality I was born to!'

'Do not say his name like that…' warned Rossamund.

'Or what? Or what?! What a fine bunch you and he would make-Rosy Posy and ol' Fransi-fart! What a stink!'

Rossamund scowled. 'He treats you as good as anyone-and better than you deserve! Call me what you like, but leave your betters out!' As true as it might be, this sounded lame even to Rossamund, and had no effect at all on his tormentor.

'He's a pocked-faced old ignoramus, and when Mamma and Papa come back for me, I'll get them to buy the whole stinking, tottering place and then kick him and the rest out to rot! Or…' Gosling finished with a malicious grin, 'burn this all down to the cellars!'

Rossamund was speechless. He glared and spluttered. He failed to defend the honor of his dormitory master, or Verline or anyone else.

Gosling swaggered off, sneering and making noises like a baby. 'Oo, I'd better stop. Madam Rosy is going to make me eat my nasty little words. Oo…' Just before he disappeared through the warped wooden door, he hurled Rossamund's reader at him. Rossamund ducked, but it still managed to glance his left cheek.

That's the last time! Rossamund vowed to himself. Days gathered into weeks. Rossamund despaired utterly of ever receiving an offer of employment. Then, with the end of the hiring season three weeks gone, and the cold month of Lirium well under way, an official-looking stranger arrived at the foundlingery. He was shown about the institute by Madam Opera. News of the arrival and the tour flashed around the foundlingery more quickly than the burst of a skold's potive. While sitting alert in Master Pinsum's matters, letters and generalities class, Rossamund spotted the stranger watching proceedings from the door, giving the distinct air of seeing all and missing nothing.

When gaps in his duties allowed, Rossamund continued to watch the stranger furtively, silently nursing his urgent, yearning hopes for a new life of adventure and advancement. He observed Gosling doing the same from a different vantage. Perhaps here was someone with an offer of employment for one of them? Perhaps for both? Perhaps, on this very ordinary midautumn afternoon, one of their lives was about to change forever…

But after the seventh bell of the afternoon watch, it was Rossamund who was summoned to Madam Opera's rather large, riotously cluttered boudoir-cum-office.

Gosling would not be pleased.



Sthenicon (noun) a simple wooden box with leather straps and buckles that fasten it to the wearer's head,

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