Dreams of the Past I

“Sis! It’s time for dinner!”

“Ah, let me work out this problem. I’m almost done; I’ll be there in a bit.”

My first dream in many years began with a nostalgic scene. I found myself at my study desk, back in our leaky, crumbling house. We didn’t have the money to afford candles, so once the sun set, I would have had to stop studying anyway. Perhaps that’s why I always tried to squeeze as much use out of the daytime as I could. I looked over my books – my old, worn, tattered, moth-eaten books that I had salvaged from other people’s garbage. Every book was heavily used, its pages earmarked. For those books that had missing pages, I had deduced the missing contents from the context of the gap and clipped thin sheets of wood in the books – these sheets had the missing portions – or what I believed to be the missing portions – written on them. As my shoddy, home-made quill raced across the sheet of wood in front of me, leaving behind a trail of shadows that embedded itself into the wood and refused to be removed, the sun finally crested the horizon, plunging us into darkness. I quietly kept my stationary, neatly arranging it on my desk, before getting up and stretching out the tiredness from my limbs. I headed into the next room, apologising for not helping with the preparation of the meal.

We sat around the table – myself, my parents, and my four siblings – and ate our meal in silence and darkness. Candles were a pricey commodity, so even our meals had to be eaten without light. We carried on in this way for a good ten minutes, until my mother finally asked me the question that had clearly been on her mind since the start of the meal.

“The exam next week, are you ready?”

“Mmm… As long as they don’t give us a completely unexpected topic, I should be fine.”

The entrance examination for the Magic Academy. If all went well and I secured a place, I would be the first ever person from the slums to enroll in the Academy. It was an important moment for me, of course, but more significantly, if I could succeed in this, I would become an example for the others in the slums – the other children would have something to aspire towards. The other children would learn that they could go beyond the confines of their birth. It would lead to a better life for all of us.

“I still don’t see why she can’t go on the scaffold with me.”

My father was wholly disapproving of my ambitions. A carpenter by trade, he had intended for me to take over his craft eventually. It was unfortunate that I had no talent for carpentry, and that my own interests lay in learning. If I had been an only child, I might have been more inclined to defer to him on this matter. However, since I had four younger brothers, there was nothing to worry about – they were far better-positioned to inherit my father’s knowledge.

When my fourth brother was born, I knew that I was free to pursue my own interests. Or rather, I knew that I would be free to do so when he grew up. With four potential male heirs, my father had little reason to stop me from going to school.

I had always been an avid reader – as a child, I read everything I could get my hands on. At the time, my family’s poverty meant that “everything” in this case referred to a few specific books and nothing else, but nonetheless I enjoyed reading and learning, and so the chance to enter the Magic Academy was like a dream to me.

Somehow the direction of the mealtime conversation turned to fantasising about what the inside of the Magic Academy was like. My brothers kept chattering excitedly about the grandiose fountains and chandeliers that they believed filled the halls of the Magic Academy. My mother smiled indulgently as she watched them. My father just shook his head. In such a manner, our dinner passed by quietly and without incident.

The scene in my dream changed abruptly, the dinner scene fading out, replaced by an image of myself in a large hall, standing in front of the invigilator’s table, surrounded by noble children or rich children who were staring at me in disgust. The faces of the invigilators when they saw me approach the front of the table to collect my writing materials for the examination were burned into my mind. They had worn looks of apprehension, derision, disbelief. They had given me the materials with an attitude reminiscent of how one holds up a soiled piece of clothing. I noted their expression. I locked my anger deep within me. I kept it aside, to burn as fuel for my furnace. No matter what, I would show them that I would succeed. I made that promise to myself.

The scene changed again. This time, I saw myself in the middle of the examination. Using real paper, with a proper quill and proper ink for the first time in my life, I scribbled out answer after answer. The questions were easy, standard – nothing that excited me, nothing that forced me to wrack my brains to find an answer. Many of them were testing fundamentals covered in the books I had salvaged, fundamentals I had long since internalised as I tackled harder questions and more difficult concepts. I was alone in my corner of the hall. The desk I was assigned was made of unpainted wood, and signs of its age were starting to show on its surface. In contrast, the other children in the hall, sitting together and seperated from me, were using new desks whose surfaces smelled like freshly applied varnish. I didn’t mind. I was sick of the smell of varnish – our home was filled with it. I focused on my exam, answering questions without stopping even once.

And then I came across the very last question in the examination. It was completely different from the rest. It was difficult. Challenging. Nothing like any of the questions I had ever seen. For the sake of clarity, I’ll simply state that it was a question about the nature of the non-transferability of magic types across similar yet differentiated Affinities – the proof would take far too long for me to include here, and various books have since been written on the subject, both by myself and by other prominent scholars.

Having completed the rest of the examination in a mere one and a half hours out of the alloted five-hour long duration, I focused all my efforts for the next three and a half hours solving that single question. Even as those around me completed their papers and left the hall early, I stayed at my desk, working hard at solving the question. I finally finished the question with half a minute left on the clock. When I finally managed to find the solution, the sense of accomplishment that overtook me – it was amazing. I was hooked. It was like the first time I had managed to solve a simple problem. That same sense of wonder and accomplishment filled my being, enough to let me ignore the annoyed face of the invigilator who had been forced to wait for me. Glancing up from the paper, I realised I was the last examinee left in the hall. I sheepishly handed the tall, bespectacled man the completed paper. He snatched it away from me while remarking with a sneer,

“I knew it was a bad idea to let a lowborn take part. Struggling so much for a simple examination – you’re a disgrace to this hall.”

His insults flew over my head – I’d heard their like before. But even as he insulted me, he diligently carried out his routine duty of scanning through my answers to ensure that I had ordered them correctly in relation to the question numbers. Then he flipped to the last question. The answer to the last question alone comprised more than half of what I had submitted. When he saw that I had attempted the final question, his eyes widened and he started to read my answer intently. I sat in my seat and waited. Until the invigilator had given his approval, examinees were not to leave their seats. I sat there for about an hour as he read through my paper. When he finally reached my conclusion, he lowered my paper and looked at me with an expression somewhere between disbelief and confusion. I tilted my head – being only nine years old at the time, I wasn’t quite able to interpret his expression.

The invigilator coughed and straightened, but his hands were trembling. He spoke to me in a cracking voice.

“Well done. You may go.”

After that, without even watching me go, he turned his back and headed for the back door of the hall at a fast clip, heading deeper into the Academy.

I spent the whole trip home worrying about what I had done wrong – his reaction to my last answer was clearly unusual. Perhaps I had made a fatal error somewhere? My parents comforted me – my father praised me for my efforts. It was the first time he had done so. It was enough to make me forget about my worries, though the memory of the sensation I felt when I solved the question would remain with me for the rest of my life.

In the Magic Academy examination, there was a tradition of having the last question be an unsolveable question. It was a measure to remind the prospective students that no matter how much they studied or how intelligent they were, there would always be mysteries left unsolved. A way of curbing their arrogance. For the nobles and the rich folk, they knew about this tradition from their elders, and so had not attemped that question, since they knew it was unsolveable. In the entire hall, only one examinee had even attempted that question. I didn’t know about this tradition. I thought it was an ordinary part of the test. So I had attempted it. And in attempting it, I had solved it. A question that had troubled scholars for decades, solved in three and a half hours by a nine year old. It was only later on that I found out that I had inadvertently solved a question known at the time as one of the “Five Unsolveable Mysteries of Magic”.

Looking back, this incident was both a blessing and a curse. If not for my attempting this impossible question, I might never have broken through the prejudice of nobility and secured myself a place in the Magic Academy. I might never have learned magic. I might never have learnt to love studying as much as I now do. On the other hand, if I had not attempted this question, I might never have caught the attention of High Chancellor Julio Kronschild.