Month 10, Day 13, Tuesday 6:00 a.m.
After the raven-assisted conversation with her father, Siobhan went straight to the guest room Dryden had given her. Trembling faintly with exhaustion, she wrote down the Lino-Wharton messenger spell in as much detail as she could remember it, for later study. Her own grimoire, the place where she kept notes on all the magic she’d learned since childhood, was not as well-protected as the book her fath—as the book Ennis had stolen, but it would have to do until she could learn better wards.
She also realized belatedly that she’d forgotten to ask him about her mother’s ring, which had a powerful celerium Conduit in place of a lesser gem. The thick metal band was an artifact that kept people from noticing that Ennis wore it, which he had activated several times to avoid being forced to give the ring up after losing it gambling. Hopefully, he’d had enough foresight to do so this time before being caught. She doubted she would ever see it again if one of the coppers had taken it from him. But he hadn’t mentioned the ring when he was complaining about their treatment. ‘I don’t remember seeing it, but then again I wouldn’t, not if he was hiding it.’
She threw herself into study until the day of the University examination, remaining in Sebastien’s body the entire time—both so none of the servants would notice anything amiss, and to determine the limits of the artifact’s transformation spell.
So far, there didn’t seem to be any limits, other than an inability to choose her alternate form. Two weeks after returning to the male body, she noticed no degradation, either physically or in her ability to cast magic through the foreign flesh.
When she woke in the middle of the night, which she did often despite her dreamless sleep spell, Sebastien would study the artifact and the encrypted book until she could either go back to sleep or the sun rose. She made absolutely no progress understanding either.
She looked for books on ward-breaking or decryption at the certified bookstore attached to the tutoring center, but found only a primer on wards for children. ‘I suppose the Crowns don’t want unlicensed sorcerers learning how to break their wards.’ She considered asking Liza for help again, but doubted she could afford the woman’s services.
Sebastien woke early the day of the examination. She rubbed her burning eyes and stumbled to the kitchen, where she dug out the richest coffee beans she could find and steeped a cup of wakefulness brew. Dryden’s beans were high quality, channeling the wakefulness magic so smoothly it was like drinking fresh silk.
She refrained from any other magic in order to keep her strength up for the exams. Outside the kitchen window, the street grew busy as both the sun and the city woke.
The servants arrived only shortly before Dryden came down, greeting her somewhat familiarly.
The cook, a middle-aged woman named Sharon, tutted at the large steaming mug and the bags under Sebastien’s eyes. “Titan’s balls, child, did you sleep at all?”
“Some,” Sebastien croaked. “As much as I could.”
“Well, I suppose you’re excited for the test. Radiant Maiden knows I probably couldn’t sleep, either, if I were going to become a sorcerer. Well, sit down, child. I’ll make you something to eat.” She raised her palm in a halting gesture and looked pointedly away when Sebastien shook her head in an attempted denial. “You’ll need your energy—for all that thinking. Nothing rich, don’t worry. A couple eggs and some porridge will set easy in your stomach.”
Sebastien found, once she started eating, that the food did indeed help to settle her nerves.
She thanked the woman, who waved off her thanks with a blush. “Always so polite, Mr. Siverling. My kitchen’s open to such a well-mannered boy any time.”
When Dryden came downstairs, fully dressed and looking impossibly fresh, Sebastien offered him coffee with a wave of her hand.
“You seem quite calm. Are you prepared for the examination, then?” he asked, taking her up on the silent offer and sitting across from her at the kitchen table.
Sebastien carefully didn’t react to the sudden clenching of her heart. She took a gulp of tea. “I’m as prepared as I can be, I think.”
Dryden nodded silently, leaning back in his chair without concern.
Sebastien found some comfort in his nonchalance. If he thought she was in danger of failing, surely he’d be more tense.
She’d read through all the textbooks she bought, from cover to cover, but even for her, two weeks was too little time to fully assimilate that much information. Full understanding and easy recollection required her to add associations between the information to other thoughts and memories, and that took time. There was no way to Sacrifice a book to forcefully absorb its information. Her grandfather had told her stories about research that attempted to forcefully impart knowledge, skills, and even strength of Will to people during the Blood Emperor’s reign. Despite the heinous lengths they were willing to go to, they were left with nothing but dead test subjects and broken sorcerers. There was no easy path to mental improvement.
Still, being able to study magic, even indirectly, from morning till night was like a dream come to life.
This time when she left for the University, she wore a suit that fit. It was one of a handful that Dryden had commissioned for her and which she had reluctantly paid for. By the time she reached the great steel gates at the top of the white cliffs, her legs once again burned horribly, and she was panting for breath.
A crowd of prospective students milled around the entranceway, which was guarded by stern-faced coppers with openly displayed battle wands. Sebastien looked around, counting the number of people in a small section and then multiplying that over the rough size of the group to estimate the number of people there to take the test. Her eyebrows rose.
Over five hundred people stood in the crowd. This was the last round of the examinations that had been going on for the past two weeks, which meant that at least seven thousand people had applied this term. Probably closer to ten thousand. Suddenly, she was a bit more worried about her chances.
Attendants led them to the main University building, which the locals called the Citadel. The looming cylindrical structure was no less impressive up close. The main entranceway was large enough for ten students to stand shoulder to shoulder with another ten atop their shoulders, and yet it still seemed small compared to the building. A huge guardian sky kraken was carved into and around the door frame. It glared down at all who dared to enter. Sebastien shivered as she passed through, imagining she could feel the weight of stone and magic pressing down on her.
She followed the crowd through a straight hallway with curving corridors branching off it in both directions. Finally, they reached a large marble hall with white stone columns holding up the roof. The middle of the hall was rectangular, but on either side of the columns the space was curved into the shape of a half circle. One side was filled with items in display cases, and the other an empty stage. This was the innermost circle of the many-ringed building, like the core of a massive tree trunk.
Huge panes of opaque glass lined the walls, glimmering like the inside of a seashell and shining with a light that reminded her of the rising sun. She would’ve thought they were windows, but they were gathered deep inside the building, with no access to the outside. ‘A modified light crystal spell?’ she speculated.
Row after row of simple wooden desks lined the middle of the Great Hall, each set with a small stack of papers, a fountain pen, and an inkwell.
Each student chose a seat at random until all the desks were full. Sebastien gingerly ran her fingers over the two spell arrays carved into the wood of her desk, trying to figure out what they did. The one on the right contained their test papers, while the one on the left might have been a scanning spell of some sort.
Before she could decipher much, a dark-haired woman wearing a subtly glyph-embroidered dress suit ascended the stage and pounded the floor with her staff. A University staff token, rectangular and carved from stone, hung from a chain around her neck. “Attention! The examination will begin now. Please use the provided materials and answer the questions thoroughly. When you have finished a page of the examination, please place it face down within the Circle on the left side of your desk. Any cheating will be punished by expulsion from the test, with no chance to re-apply for later examinations.” She glared out at them. “If you cheat, we will catch you. You will never study here.”
The prospective students shuffled uncomfortably under the weight of her stare.
‘How will they know? Perhaps the spell arrays on the desk have something to do with detecting cheats. Or maybe they have some sort of transmogrification-based ward in place, a variation on a ward against lies?’ Sebastien didn’t know enough to make a reasonable guess, but she certainly wouldn’t be testing the proctor’s promise.
“Today’s examination lasts five hours. When the time is up, please put down your pens and bring your completed tests to the front for grading. Begin.”
Sebastien waited barely a heartbeat before flipping over the first page of the test. Instead of a question, it simply instructed her to place the wooden applicant token she’d received two weeks before on the paper and re-write her name. When she’d done so, the token lit up and burned a symbol on the paper. Sebastien moved on to the next page. Over the next five hours, she answered question after question, some normal and expected.
“Name eight magical beasts with an earth aspect.”
“List three variations on the glyph for ‘fire.’”
“In detail, explain what happens if you place a glass over a lit candle on a table.”
“List as many things with a sympathy to air as possible, citing the sympathetic connections.”
She’d studied for these kinds of questions, or been taught by her grandfather long ago. She also had no problem with some of the mathematical questions, but others gave her a bit of trouble, like, “Riding a gryphon, you leave Gilbratha at noon, heading for Paneth. Assume the gryphon is wind-aspected. Assume a southeasterly wind is blowing at seventeen kilometers per hour, and you are casting a fleet-footed spell on the gryphon, channeling an average of three thousand thaums of power per minute. How fast do you fly, and when do you arrive in Paneth?” She stared at the question, then turned over the next test page, hoping more information had been given. She knew Paneth was somewhere to the north, but hadn’t memorized the distance between Gilbratha and Paneth, and didn’t know that a fleet-footed spell would even affect a flying creature’s speed. Too many variables were missing. ‘Is this a trick question, with some hidden answer?’
Then there were questions that seemed pointless or unrelated to magic.
“List the most influential members of Gilbrathan history over the last one hundred years.”
“List the following statements in order from most likely to least likely. David is a magician. David is from Lenore. David is a magician from Lenore. David is…”
“What is the proper response if you suspect someone is casting an endless nightmare curse on you?”
Finally, some questions were simply bizarre, like the page that had a drawing spelled to move as if it were alive, showing a unicorn at the edge of a clearing with a fenced paddock. It instructed her to arrange for the unicorn to enter the paddock, and from there to harvest hair from its mane or tail.
Sebastien stared down at the skittish black-and-white creature. She brought her pen to the page, and the unicorn shied away, as if it could sense the approach of the comparatively gigantic item. She pulled the pen away and took a moment of precious time to think.
Finally, she placed the pen nib in a clear spot on the paper and wrote, “Hello. Would you mind going into the paddock? I promise you will not be harmed. I would like to trade with you for a few of the hairs from your mane or tail. In return, please name your price.”
The unicorn stared at the words forming in its sky for a long while. Finally, it blew a little bubble from its mouth, which grew until words could be read within in. “I wish to become a pegasus.”
Sebastien allowed herself a small, triumphant smile. A pegasus was the progressed form of a unicorn, the wings growing after an intense accumulation of magical energy. Normally, forcing the evolution would be impossible, or be so costly only the richest and most powerful of people could afford it. It was certainly not worth a few simple hairs. In this case, however, it was as simple as drawing wings on the back of the unicorn, for which she was rewarded with little ink representations of its hair.
The five hours passed quicker than Sebastien would have thought possible, but the stack of unfinished questions on the right side of her desk never reached the end. A couple people were forcibly escorted from their seats, presumably for being caught cheating, but Sebastien paid as little attention to them as possible. When the dark-haired proctor at the front of the room pounded the floor with her staff again, this time to announce the end of the tests, Sebastien set down her pen immediately, despite being in the middle of a frantically scribbled sentence. She would not be disqualified for cheating. Her hand was cramped into a clawlike position, and she gingerly massaged it. Around her, the proctors forced a few others to set aside their pens by magically dissolving them within the testers’ hands.
“Please bring the completed pages of your test to the grading Circle,” the woman called, her voice seeming unnaturally loud after Sebastien’s intense concentration.
Sebastien gathered up the pile of scribble-filled paper, which was definitely larger than the initial stack had been. ‘The test must be never-ending. If completion is impossible, I haven’t failed to complete it,’ she thought hopefully.
The proctor motioned for the first student that reached her to place their test in the center of a waist-high pedestal, which was inlaid with stones that looked like small versions of the crystal balls some diviners used.
The student did so, and after a tense moment, the crystal balls shone a bright yellow.
“Fail,” the woman announced expressionlessly. “You may attempt the entrance examination again next year.”
The entire room grew tense as the students realized their fates would be announced so quickly, and for all to hear.
The student stared at her in horror. “Fail? That cannot be, I—”
The proctor waved her hand, and Sebastien caught a faint glow of spell residue from her staff before the student’s words went silent, though his mouth still moved. “Do not hold up the line. You have failed. You may attempt the test again next year.”
One of the other proctors came to lead the young man away by the arm, murmuring to him with a slightly more compassionate expression, though Sebastien couldn’t hear what he said over the sudden clamor of unease among the rest of the test-takers.
The next three tests received varying colors from red to yellow, along with more “Fails,” from the woman.
The first person to pass was a familiar face, one of the girls who had been part of the group that tried to skip to the front of the admissions line. Her stack of completed papers was as big as Sebastien’s, and it caused the crystals to glow a deep blue.
The proctor even graced her with a small smile as she announced, “Pass.” Instead of being escorted out of the building, the girl was motioned to the door at the end of the hall, and carried her test with her.
Watching the results of those ahead of her, Sebastien deduced that the grades were connected to the color scale, like a rainbow. The mid-point between yellow and green, the color of a sickly leaf, seemed to be the edge between passing and failing. Generally, those who had completed more pages scored better, but not always. No one scored better than a rich imperial blue.
‘Is it even possible to score purple? Perhaps if one were able to finish all the questions available, leaving none behind unanswered. Or, perhaps none of us have answered enough questions correctly.’ It was her turn at the front of the line before she knew it. She placed her stack down in the center of the Circle, too tense to try to decipher or memorize its Word array. The wait, though she knew it to be merely a few seconds, seemed an eternity of agony.
When the crystal balls glowed a solid green, she barely heard the proctor announce her pass. She felt dizzy and took a gasp of air, belatedly realizing she had been holding her breath. She nodded her thanks to the woman, took her test papers back, the first page of which had been marked with “green five-fifteen,” and walked off toward the door at the end of the hall, vacillating between immense relief and disappointment.
‘I passed, but only with green. Darkish green, to be sure, but still just green. If I had known we would be graded by a non-human proctor, I would’ve researched best practices for the answer format and attempted to find information about the grading criteria.’ Sebastien worried that she may have condemned herself to failure from shortsightedness. After all, this was only the first half of the examination. ‘I go before a panel of professors, now. The University is renowned for their standards.’
She wanted to stop and put her head between her knees, or maybe scream out loud, but instead she lifted her chin and kept walking. ‘I have no social or political connections, and I scored only green. I’m doomed.’