Month 10, Day 13, Tuesday 2:00 p.m.
When Sebastien passed through the door at the end of the hall, another proctor took her test and replaced her previous wooden token with a new one dated three days in the future. “Come back for the oral examination at the stated time. Don’t lose your token,” the man said in a bored monotone.
As she left, Sebastien passed a reception area where other prospective students, who she assumed had passed the written test at some earlier time, sat waiting in front of a pair of double doors.
As a girl entered the room beyond, Sebastien glimpsed the seven professors who would be in charge of her fate. They sat in a semicircle, each with what appeared to be a student’s test on the curved table before them.
‘Damn.’ She had hoped, considering her score, that the verbal examination would be completely separate from the written. ‘Only green,’ she thought again, clenching her fists. ‘How did I perform so poorly? I should have been better prepared. But then…perhaps that wasn’t truly feasible this time because of the time constraints.’ Sebastien learned quickly, but even she couldn’t make up for six years of focused training and learning instead exchanged for survival and the occasional bit of knowledge eked out where she could find and afford it. ‘Until now, I couldn’t have even paid for the study books I bought.’
When she arrived back at Dryden Manor, she locked herself in her room and returned to studying, feverishly thinking back on the test’s questions, trying to determine which ones she’d answered incorrectly.
Dryden knocked on her door as the sun set. “How did it go?”
“I passed. Not by a particularly large margin. The second part is in three days, so I have to study,” she said, not even looking up from the problem she was scribbling on the loose paper before her, the one about riding a gryphon to Paneth. She was sure she’d gotten that one wrong.
He was silent for a few seconds, long enough that she’d already mentally dismissed him. “Come eat dinner,” he said.
“I don’t have time. Can you send someone up with a tray for me? I’ll eat here.”
“No. Come to dinner, Sebastien. I doubt whatever knowledge you can cram into the next three days, much less the next thirty minutes, will make a significant difference. You need food for stamina, and Sharon and the others worked hard on this meal, partly to congratulate you. Besides, we can talk about best practices when being interviewed while we eat. As long as you passed, the panel of professors has complete authority over the decision to admit you, so it will be all about impressing them. Not just with your knowledge, but with your mannerisms, and the way you answer their questions.”
Sebastien stood without a moment’s further hesitation, striding past Dryden and down the hallway to the stairs. She looked back over her shoulder to where he was still standing. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go eat.”
With a small chuckle, he followed.
“So tell me about the oral exam. Should I go into auxiliary detail when answering the questions, or keep it succinct? Will they ask questions specifically to trip me up, ones with no right answer, or a very specific type of answer they’re looking for, rather than a solution based on logic? Or is it going to be questions to try to determine my background and character, rather than my knowledge?”
Still sounding slightly amused, he answered, and dinner took longer than usual because they talked so much throughout it.
Three days later, Sebastien returned to the University. She was sitting in the reception area marked on her token and watching as each prospective student entered the double doors before her. None who entered returned through the same door, likely to keep the rest of them from questioning those who had finished about what the professors had asked.
She reviewed every topic she could think of and remembered the lessons her grandfather had taught her about confidence and deportment. ‘Never let them see weakness, girl,’ his voice whispered in her mind. Dryden would agree with him.
When it was finally her turn, she pushed open the doors boldly, her chin high as her gaze swept over the room. She closed the doors behind herself, then walked to the center of the room, not too quickly, and not too slowly. She focused so hard, she was halfway to channeling Will despite the lack of a spell to cast.
“State your name,” the professor in the middle called in a bored tone.
“Sebastien Siverling,” she said, her tongue rolling smoothly over the words, as if the name really were her own.
The professors, except for Thaddeus Lacer, who sat at the end of the table, farthest away from the door, and was busy rifling through the test in front of him, examined her with varying levels of interest.
“Green five-fifteen,” the professor in the center said.
A couple of the others grimaced slightly and seemed to lose what minor interest they’d shown her.
‘They’re already weary,’ she realized, looking at their wan expressions and the way they leaned back in their chairs or crossed their arms over their chests. The only one who still seemed to be fully alert or interested in her written test beyond the score itself was Professor Lacer. They weren’t the only panel of professors in charge of the verbal examinations, but, with the number of potential applicants, they would’ve still been doing this for weeks already, and must have spoken to hundreds, if not thousands of students before her. ‘This is not the best placement. I might’ve been better received if I’d been earlier in the queue,’ she thought with a tightening in her chest.
The professor closest to the door, an overweight man with an elaborately braided beard, suddenly spoke. “List all of the known base natural elements and their common interactions.”
Sebastien took a deep breath, partially to buy time to organize her thoughts. “The base natural elements are copper, lead, gold, silver, iron, carbon, tin, sulfur, mercury, zinc…” She continued speaking until she ran out of breath on the final element, “…and celerium.” She took another deep breath and began to speak about the common interactions. Dryden had assured her that a little showing off never hurt, and as long as she didn’t go too far, would only aid her cover as a rich young man from a family wealthy enough to afford the University. “Iron and oxygen react together, usually in the presence of water, to form rust. This is a form of corrosion. When exposed to a source of heat powerful enough, a source of carbon such as wood will react along with oxygen and combust, creating fire, which releases heat, light, and other oxidized products such as smoke and ash. Wood ash contains lye, which can be filtered out in water and heated with fat to create a soap, which is a surfactant, meaning the new element will dissolve in both water and oil.” She continued on for several minutes, wishing she had a more organized way to remember the elemental interactions besides simply spewing out whatever popped into her head next.
The instructor stopped her before she was finished. He didn’t give any indication of satisfaction, but neither did he seem dissatisfied. “That is all from me,” he said.
The next professor leaned back, crossing her arms in front of her chest and peering at Sebastien with eyes of an unnaturally bright green color. “On the Isles of Coldpine, the monks strengthen their bodies until a sword will break against their skin and their fingers can carve out a furrow from the hide of an earth-aspected weta. They use no sorcery, witchcraft, or magical battle artifacts to achieve this. Tell me how they do it.”
Sebastien stared at her blankly. She’d never heard of the Isles of Coldpine or the monks on it. She turned her focus inward, thinking furiously. ‘How would someone use magic, but not sorcery, witchcraft, or a battle artifact, to enhance their bodies like that?’ She knew she couldn’t hesitate too long if she wanted to impress the professors, but she truly had no idea. “They train extensively,” she said aloud, trying to sound confident, “from a young age. During the course of their training, they imbue their bodies with magic until it is bound to the flesh itself. I…” She cleared her throat uncomfortably. “I imagine there are multiple ways it could be done. Repetitive chants to gather magic while they practice, beasts fought in a spelled combat ring that imbues the winner with the strength or characteristics of the loser, perhaps even glyphs carved into their bodies to draw in energy from their surroundings.”
The woman’s lips thinned. “You imagine. You do not know.”
Sebastien’s shoulders pulled back even tighter and she gave the older woman a shallow bow, chin-length blonde hair falling in front of her face. “I do not know. But I am eager to learn.”
The woman’s lips lost some of their tightness. “I have no more questions.”
The next professor in line Sebastien recognized. It was Munchworth, the man she and her father had gone to meet when they first arrived in Gilbratha, hoping he would be willing to sponsor her through the University, or at least put in a kind word for her with the other professors.
Instead, he had sneered and mocked them. His greying hair was thick and fashionably swept back, but his chin was weak and he had a constant nervous twitch, some part of his body always jerking.
Sebastien had trouble keeping her own lips from pulling back into a sneer. She didn’t know if she entirely succeeded, judging from the sour look on Professor Munchworth’s face.
“Who were the most influential figures involved in border skirmishes over the last fifty years?”
“Thaddeus Lacer, Raisa—” She cut off as the professor at the end lowered the test papers and raised his head at the sound of his name.
Professor Lacer looked over at Professor Munchworth, what might have been a very faint smirk playing at the edges of his lips.
She swallowed and continued, listing a handful of people.
Professor Munchworth wasn’t satisfied. “What were the causes of the Third Empire’s success and eventual downfall?”
This question required more thought. She hadn’t read about the Third Empire in preparation for the test, but she remembered her grandfather talking about that time. “The Third Empire came from beyond the northern ice oceans about three hundred years ago, when skirmishes between this continent’s countries had just settled, leaving our armies weak and many of our cities struggling to provide food from razed fields and orchards. The Blood Emperor was one of the most powerful thaumaturges alive, an Archmage with Grandmastery in several crafts, including blood magic, which was the signature of his Empire. His armies were well-trained, well-armed, and we had no good defense against the blood magics, which decimated our forces only to strengthen theirs with the Sacrifice.”
Thaddeus Lacer was watching with interest.
“The Third Empire ruled the entire continent, including Lenore, for over one hundred years, ruthlessly crushing the first rebellions,” she continued. “The Blood Emperor placed a lot of emphasis on advancements in magic, and is credited with a lot of the modern evolution of sorcery. After the disappearance of the Emperor, a struggle for leadership among his generals destabilized his regime. The individual countries of the continent, each of which had benefited from the Blood Emperor’s initiatives to spread organized magic and had grown powerful again under his rule, banded together to overthrow the Third Empire. They attempted to form a Council, but infighting splintered the group and our countries split. Most of the Council still agreed to ban blood magic, after which they scoured the continent of the Blood Emperor’s abominations and those who practiced that craft.”
Professor Munchworth’s glower had grown increasingly dark as she spoke. “The Third Emperor did not disappear. He died at the hands of a Lenorean assassin. As for his advancements in magic? He approved horrible experiments upon humans, on children. Blood and offal ran in channels from the door of his palace. He deserves no credit for our current progress. I have to wonder, was the Siverling family not able to afford competent tutors?”
Sebastien shoved angry words back down her throat. “I apologize if I have spoken without care. I am the sole remaining member of the Siverling family, and I’m sure my tutors did the best they could,” she said, hoping the man would feel awkward enough to stave off any other attacks.
“Hmph. Rank the magical discoveries of the last two hundred years in order of importance.” He raised his eyebrows triumphantly.
Sebastien wanted to smack the smug expression off his face, even more so because she knew he had caught her. Though some innovations stood out, she couldn’t even be sure of listing all the discoveries of the last two centuries, let alone ranking them in order of importance. She did her best, but her chest clenched with each small growth of Munchworth’s smile.
When she was finished, he settled back in his chair. “Entirely incorrect. I have no more questions.”
The female professor after him had short-cropped hair and nails, and her fingers and forearms were covered in knife and burn scars—all signs of an accomplished alchemist. Her question confirmed Sebastien’s guess. “What are the useful parts of a gregorian snail?”
“All of them,” Sebastien responded immediately.
Professor Lacer gave a small snort of amusement.
Sebastien hurried to clarify. “Generally, all parts of a magical animal have some use. The mucus can be used as a thickening agent in most salves and lotions, especially those meant for the face. The shell can be ground down…” Her explanation trailed off as the professor waved her hand.
“You are correct, no need to continue,” the woman said. “List three battle potions.”
“Smoke cloud, liquid fire, and…blood clotter.”
“It is not an offensive potion, but still very useful on a battlefield. It allows soldiers to wait on medical attention without bleeding to death from certain types of wounds.”
“No more questions.”
The man next to her wore defensive bracers and a spelled breastplate, even in the safety of the University, and looked like he could walk around on his fingertips without strain. “If the Blood Emperor were still alive today, how would you fight him?”
“I would not,” she said without considering how her words would be received.
The professors shifted, frowns growing on their faces.
Professor Lacer had put down her test entirely and was staring at her, now.
‘Stupid, idiotic, thoughtless,’ she mentally berated herself. ‘You aren’t in a lesson with Grandfather. You cannot simply blurt out your thoughts without censoring them. This examination determines your future.’ The pressure must have been getting to her even more than was obvious. She thought quickly to come up with a reasonable explanation for what she had said. The real reason—sensible, rational cowardice toward a figure who might not just kill her, but even use her as a still-living spell component—would have likely seen her denied and tossed out. “I have no battle experience. If I attempted to fight the Blood Emperor directly, I would die immediately,” she tried, hoping that didn’t sound too bad.
The professor with the armor didn’t seem satisfied. “You understand that it is Crown law that all licensed thaumaturges must oppose any use of blood magic, and stand against its practitioners?”
Sebastien pressed her hands to her sides, keeping her fists from clenching in frustration. “Of course. I am willing to do my duty, and if there is no other recourse, I would of course fight against any blood magic practitioner directly. However, if the Blood Emperor were to appear before me, I believe it would be most effective for me to immediately alert the Crowns and local law enforcement, who might have a chance to actually do something against him.” She was mostly telling the truth, despite her willingness to use minor blood magics like the raven messenger spell. That had been cruel, to be sure, but she would never sacrifice a human, or pursue whatever other evil spells blood magic allowed. The Blood Emperor would be a danger to them all. She just wasn’t so foolish as to get herself killed for no benefit. She could find a way to report the danger once she reached Gilbratha’s closest neighboring city.
The man crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, still frowning. “What is the most important resource for an army?”
‘Is this a trick question?’ Aloud, she said simply, “Magic.” With it, one could provide all other resources, though of course not without cost.
His frown did not disappear. “I have heard all I need.”
The next professor, a thin, dark-skinned man, wore thick glasses with gold rims covered in little knobs and dials, an artifact of some sort. “If you mix red light and green light together, what color do you see when shining said light on surfaces painted black, white, red, and green?”
Her heart sank. She knew mixing light was different than mixing paint, and that was as far as her understanding went. She muddled through the answer as best she could, but the professor simply shook his head when she was finished.
“What would you do if the containment glyph on a cold-box artifact meant for fluid preservation was damaged? Please note the dangers you would face.”
Dryden had seemed confident they wouldn’t ask questions an untrained sorcerer couldn’t answer, but surely this was practical knowledge she couldn’t have gained legally? She did her best to answer the question, nevertheless, and once again was judged with a disappointed head shake.
Her fingertips were trembling. She pressed them against the sides of her legs to disguise any outward sign of her inner state.
The man turned his glasses-obscured gaze to Professor Lacer, wordlessly turning the last of the questioning over to him.
Lacer stared at her silently for an uncomfortably long time, till even the professors seemed to think it strange, shooting him curious or irritated glances. Finally, he waved his hand.
Sebastien jumped as the wall behind her moved, a panel sliding away to reveal a swiveling blackboard mounted on an axle. ‘Is there some sort of monitoring spell tied into the blackboard waiting for him to motion at it and activate the sliding panel? Or did I just see a casual display of free-casting?’ She tried not to let her eyes widen too much.
“Show me how you would create a blue-burning fireball that will follow wherever you walk, floating above and slightly behind you, while avoiding contact with obstacles or living creatures,” he said, motioning to the stick of chalk strapped to the edge of the slate blackboard. “You can simply use glyphs to indicate any components or Sacrifices.”
She moved over to the board and picked up the chalk. The array for a spell like that would be complicated, especially with all the conditions he had included. She’d never done anything like it.
“You have two minutes,” Professor Lacer added in a bored tone.
Sebastien still didn’t start drawing. A mistake would mean she needed to erase parts and re-draw them, which would cost her even more time. When she had a basic idea, she drew the main Circle, no bigger than her fist, and then a triangle within it. She connected that to a component Circle almost as tall as she was, meant to gather ambient heat from the air, and if it was there, light as well, as the Sacrifice for the flame. She didn’t have the time to create detailed instructions for the fire production, simply writing the glyphs for “light” and “fire” in the circles, which were not perfectly round since she had no tools besides the chalk itself. That was the easiest part of the spell.
She wrote instructions for the fire’s behavior within in a ring around the main Circle, in full words rather than glyphs and numerological symbols. It was sloppy, but she would need reference texts to create the array, otherwise.
“Stop,” Thaddeus Lacer commanded.
Taking the chalk from the board, Sebastien looked at the sloppy mess of a spell array before her and wanted to cry. Surely, this couldn’t be what he wanted. It would follow behind her only if she carried the blackboard with her, and she wasn’t sure if her method to cause the flame to float outside of the main Circle and above her head would work. But with only two minutes, how could she do better?
“Do you have experience as a sorcerer?” he asked.
‘Is that a trick question?’ She turned toward him. “Practicing magic without a license is illegal,” she said. “However, as a child I had a…teacher, who gave me practical demonstrations by performing the spells he taught me about.” It was partially true, at least. An avoidance rather than an outright lie.
Professor Lacer was inscrutable, but Professor Munchworth snorted and said, “If you ever had a teacher, either they were incompetent, or you are a simpleton. Your grounding in the basics is scattered and disjointed. When you don’t know the right answer, instead you try to conceive of it from whole cloth. It’s the kind of sloppy thinking that gets you and those around you killed. Your attitude is lacking. I have heard enough, I think. I call for the vote.”
Professor Lacer was still watching her with that dark gaze, but said nothing.
When no one protested, Munchworth continued. “Three votes against is a fail. All for?” He didn’t raise his own hand, and neither did the man who had asked her about fighting the Blood Emperor or the one with the artifact glasses.
Professor Lacer didn’t move, either, but he continued to stare at her.
‘Four against,’ she counted silently. Sebastien’s heart sank into her churning stomach like a rock. She stood there for a moment as the room went fuzzy in front of her eyes and she felt like she might pass out. Shame and horror warred within her for dominance. If she couldn’t enter the University, how was she to repay her debt to Katerin? How was she to learn magic? How was she ever to become more than she was, to move past the feeble scrabbling for knowledge and power that had characterized her life for the last six years?
Heat rose up from her belly, bringing her heart pounding with it. “No,” she said simply.
Professor Lacer leaned forward, his elbows resting on the table and his fingers steepled in front of his mouth. “What was that?”
“No,” she said again. “You cannot fail me. I deserve to learn here. I may not have the foundation of knowledge I need yet. I know that. It’s why I am here. I may not have the social connections of some of your other students, either.” She looked to Professor Lacer, thinking of the rude, rich boy, who they never would have treated like this. “Nevertheless, I have what is truly important. I can learn whatever you put before me, given only a bit of time and the resources to do so. I have—”
“Silence!” This time, it was the artificer who spoke. “Our decision has been made. Do not disrespect this council, if you wish to find yourself before us again next year. Perhaps by then, you will have learned enough to pass our examination.”
His words did nothing to cow her. If anything, they fanned the inferno of rage within her. The small part of her that was screaming for her to put away her pride and practice caution was burned away. “No,” she said again, her voice deepening, hoarse with outrage.
The artificer’s face settled into a glare, and he reached into the inner pocket of his vest, pulling out a glimmering wand. A simple flick, and she felt a blanket of stillness settle over her, dampening the air as if she were standing in a bubble of water. No sound reached her.
‘Now they will not even let me plead my case?’
The professor who sat closest to the door got up and opened it to wave for one of the proctors outside, no doubt for them to come and drag her away like those who had been caught cheating in the written examination.
‘It’s over,’ she thought, with the same despair she might have felt if someone had told her she would never walk again. And then, one last time, ‘No. If I cannot tell them, I will show them.’ She turned back to the sloppy array behind her, and with the crash of her Will against the world, activated it.
She was standing too close to the large component Circle, and felt an immediate chill as it began to suck heat from her flesh. She stepped even closer, putting most of her body in its range. She would need serious heat to power a flame hot enough to turn blue. She focused on a spot in the air above her, glaring at it as she guided the energy of the spell. A tiny flame burst to life, hanging on nothing.
The chalk spell array glowed with the wasted energy, and she clamped down even harder on it, till the only thing in her mind was the fire. The sphere meant to power the flame darkened like a bubble of shadow enclosing half the blackboard, most of her body, and the surrounding air. But the flame brightened from orange to yellow, and then to blue. She shivered violently, but forced herself to remain standing and otherwise put it out of her mind.
The flame floated closer and circled around her head. When she took a step, it followed behind her.
She brought it back around to her head, and forced it to avoid her hand as she swiped at it, the warmth—such a contrast to her frozen fingers—burning even from inches away.
She turned back to the professors, belatedly realizing that the silencing spell had fallen away. “I have the Will,” she said simply. She released the flame, which died immediately. Her numb legs gave out, and she collapsed gently to the floor, sitting and staring up at the semicircle of professors, some of whom had stood. The door was still open, held forgotten by the professor who had been calling for a proctor, and a group of prospective students stared into the room.
Professor Munchworth glared at her. “Leave. You are expelled from the test. Do not return—”
Professor Lacer, still sitting, cleared his throat. “I am overriding the panel’s decision.”
The others turned to him in apparent shock.
Before anyone could speak, he continued. “I believe I get one every year, correct? It will be him.” He turned to Sebastien, whose extremities, except for her feet, which had been out of range of the large Sacrifice Circle, had started to burn.
She was almost too tired to shiver.
“You will be required to take one or two classes determined by me each term. In this case, it will be my class, Practical Will-based Casting. You will take no more than six classes in the coming term. My authority in this, and all other areas of your formal education, will continue throughout your stay at the University, and you will be required to perform to my satisfaction to maintain your status as a student. Do you accept?”
She didn’t even hesitate. “I accept.”
He nodded and gave her the most muted of smiles. “Welcome to the University. Report to me after class on the first day. Now get out.”