Just as Alice and Johanna and fifty-seven other Examiners were taking station around the city, activity back at the Guild was building up to a new peak. This time around, a total of one hundred and eighty-four Upper Sixth pupils, Candidates for the final Exam, are being organized and balloted to fairly decide routes and starting times.
As before, a white ball denotes a route which at least begins Overground. A black ball denotes a route which will at least begin Underground. The associated number dictates the Candidate's starting time. If eight candidates at a time are started off at ten minute intervals from one of sixteen possible starting points, the very last batch will be leaving in three hours and forty minutes' time. For some, it will be an excruciatingly long wait: for others, a chance for three hours more last-minute preparation time.
Everything has been meticulously computed and plotted out. Each Candidate will be vectored through four out of fifty-nine checkpoints and be interviewed by four disparate members of the teaching faculty. Two hours have been allotted for the Test, including four vivat voce sessions of approximately ten minutes.
If the Candidates start running at the appropriately significant time of midnight, all those who are fated to Pass will have returned to the guild by six am, to the hugs and relief of those who love and care for them, who will inevitably be waiting for news in the courtyard and outside on Filigree Street. (Guild servants have been ordered to circulate hot drinks and refreshments for their comfort). Even then, it's still only a conditional pass: results of the Oral Exams are yet to be collated and totalled. Any candidate performing well on the practical skills – ie, one who comes back alive – who has performed badly on the theory, will then be offered a last chance to resit the oral exam.
Only a select few know what happens to the Fails. However, Lord Downey has recently been known to have been in heated debate with Vetinari and Lady de Meserole. This year, a different scheme may be trialed for the first time.
Two such candidates are preparing in their room. As Upper Sixth girls, they have progressed from arrival at the age of eleven, where First Year bods sleep thirty to a dorm in a cold, Spartan, attic. They have passed through smaller dormitories with each succeeding year, and now in their final year are privileged to share a double study bedroom with a chosen close friend.
Emilia Mountjoy-Standish relaxed back onto the bed, and watched as Jocasta Wiggs deliberated over what to wear. In other worlds, seventeen and eighteen year old girls agonise over what to wear to parties and nights out and worriedly solicit the opinion of their friends as to the merits of one style over another, of a low-cut top versus a high hem. Here, the principle is broadly similar – what can I wear that will have the most impact on a man? – but the application is different. The phrase This will really slay the boys! has a different application in Alice Band's Tump House, as it does in Raven House (Miss Smith-Rhodes), Black Widow House (Madame les Deux-Epées) and Scorpion House (Lady T'Malia).
Jocasta nervously turned and twisted, observing herself from as many angles as possible in the full length mirror.
"I'd leave the sword, Cass." Emilia advised her. "You drew Under, remember? A sword isn't an underground weapon. It'll get caught up and snagged if you've got any narrow passages to drainhole through. And if you miss your man and hit a stone wall with it, you'll break it. No room for swordplay down there. Why do you think the Dwarves aren't a sword culture?"
"Yes, but what if I draw old Two-Swords?" Jocasta pointed out. You know what she thinks about a properly dressed Assassin having a sword with her at all times. She'll mark me down straight away!"
"She would, wouldn't she? But would you ever catch her doing anything Under, if she has a free choice? Two-Swords is like a cat, wherever you throw her, she'll land on her feet. Then she'll claw your eyes out for spite and settle down to a nice bowl of cream. There's always a bowl of cream in it for Two-Swords! Besides, there's nearly sixty purple sashes out there, you'll only see four of them. That's a one in fifteen chance, isn't it? Leave the sword. It'll get in your way!"
Jocasta reluctantly unbuckled her sword belt. Unburdened of its weight, she felt lighter and better balanced.
"It beats me how you can stay so calm!" she burst out.
Emilia shrugged. "I get it from my dad, I suppose. He once told me about the Glorious Revolution, where that man Keel was leading the rebels and running rings round him. At the same time he had a foul vicious tick called Carcer threatening all sorts of Hell if the Army didn't pull its finger out. Dad said when he realized it couldn't get any worse, he'd never felt calmer nor more serene in his life. It was like taking drugs, he said. When Snapcase got inhumed and he realized it was all over – but nobody was going to be cashiered or demoted or court-martialled, the new administration wanted it cleared up with minimal fuss – the sense of relief made him feel like he'd been sentenced to death and reprieved. (1) Two guesses as to how I feel right now!"
"Errr… by any chance, and you realize I'm only guessing here, all calm and relaxed and floaty, as if you've been taking drugs?" Jocasta hazarded.
"Give that girl a coconut!" Emilia said, swinging her legs off the bed.
"Now let's run through our checklist of essentials, shall we? Lockpicks."
"Throwing knives, standard set"
"Throwing knives, standard set"
"Set of fast-acting antidotes to common poisons"
This went on for some time.
"Millie!" Jocasta suddenly moaned. "You're going so much sooner than I am!"
"Can't be helped. I drew White Three. That means I run at midnight. You drew Black ninety-One. That puts you in the very last group of runners at, oooh, three-forty."
"You'll be back long before I even start. But I won't know for sure because…"
"..those of you who complete the course and return while there are still candidates at the tail-end waiting to depart will be rigorously segregated and directed to a temporary holding area apart from the departure zone." Millie said, aping Lord Downey's directions. "How do you think I'm going to feel? I'll be a licenced Assassin and bursting to tell everyone, but just because I run first and get back between two and half-past, that leaves over an hour for me to be in limbo!"
"I know. And we won't properly see each other again until way after six in the morning!" Jocasta almost wailed.
Millie shrugged. "Shape up, kiddo. We may never see each other again, full stop. But we knew the risks when we joined up."
They looked at each other, thoughtfully and with love.
"It's been a great seven years. With you. Miss Band. Everyone. But mainly with you. Even if I don't come back, and believe me I fully intend to, I want to say I've never wanted it any other way. I don't regret a thing, Cass. "
The call in the yard and corridor went out for "First eight for the Run to assemble in the courtyard! Midnight runners, you have five minutes. Five minutes."
Jocasta and Emilia kissed, for what might have been their last time. For the past two years they have been kissing each other quite a lot, and sharing a bedroom for the last year has been a blessed bonus.
"Imagine Miss Smith-Rhodes doing this?" Cass murmured. Millie responded, like a mantra:
"Sex is whet Rimwerds Howondalendians cerry coal in!"
They giggled over the old shared joke, and kissed again.
"See you in the morning, Cass. Promise."
Millie stepped out into the hall, and the door closed behind her.
Jocasta felt alone and forlorn. She settled down to three hours' wait. She was Running in the last, the twenty-third, group.
1 See "Night Watch"