Chapter 18 – Orientation


Month 11, Day 1, Sunday 2:00 p.m.

Sebastien stood in front of the mirror in Dryden’s foyer, what belongings she owned in the new suitcases behind her, ready to move to the University. Students were required to stay on campus, but Dryden had offered to let her keep any things that might attach her to Siobhan, like her female clothes, in the room she’d been staying in at his house.

She fingered her hair where Katerin had bleached her other body’s hair, inspecting a few blonde strands. It was blonde to the point of being almost grey, but she could detect no change from the rest. ‘So things like bleaching hair in one form don’t transfer to the other. I supposed as much from my prior observations, but still, this artifact casts the most complex spellwork I’ve ever seen.

Despite her continued interest in the stolen book and the amulet, she’d learned no more about them, only growing her list of things she didn’t understand. The amulet didn’t seem to be continuously active while she kept Sebastien’s form, at least so far as she could deduce. It didn’t seem to be gathering any power from its surroundings, either, which had worrisome implications and sent her imagination running amok.

It could be gathering ambient energy constantly, either so slowly I don’t notice it, or in a form I don’t have a way to measure. Perhaps it is somehow linked to a power-gathering Circle back wherever the University explorers discovered it, or a Circle that is hidden away somewhere.’ Those were the good options. The bad options only made her more desperate to decipher the book.

The amulet could have a finite amount of power, which it depletes every time I activate the transformation.’ This was how most artifacts worked. If it was the case here, eventually she would run out of transformations, and either be stuck in her true form, a wanted criminal, or wear the form of a stranger forever. But she’d also never heard of an artifact that could be triggered on Will alone, so she was trying to be optimistic.

The last option for its power source was the most chilling.

Perhaps the amulet is using me as a Sacrifice, every time it activates. I don’t feel any different, but how would I know for sure?’ She had heard stories of esoteric, ancient magics that used the very life force of a human as Sacrifice, able to power awe-inspiring effects. Being sucked dry like that could bring a young person close to the brink of an early, unnatural death as the thread of their fate was snipped short. ‘I’ll switch forms as little as possible till I figure out how the artifact works. Just in case.

She would leave the stolen text embedded deeply in the mattress inside the room Dryden had left her. She hadn’t even told him its location. ‘I hope it will be safe there.’ It made her uncomfortable to leave it, but if she took it to the University and someone discovered it, it would be one of the most idiotic ways a criminal had ever been caught.

Dryden walked down one of the twin staircases that led to the second floor, impeccably dressed as always. He smiled at her warmly, and she found her own lips twitching upward in unconscious response. He had that effect on people, drawing them in. “I’ve grown used to your company in the house,” he said. “Perhaps you’ll drop by from time to time? I dislike eating alone, and I hear the University cafeteria meals leave much to be desired.”

Sebastien grimaced, thinking of her now much-depleted chest of gold. She’d given the University three hundred gold for the basic admission fee, and another fifty for each of her six classes. After the money she’d spent hiring Liza for the messenger spell and paying for books, clothing that would let her fit in among her classmates, and various necessary magical components, she had barely a quarter of the original one thousand gold left. When Katerin had insisted on lending her such an enormous amount, she’d assumed it was simply a way to raise the amount of interest she had to pay. Now, it was obvious Sebastien had miscalculated how expensive things would be.

“I probably cannot afford anything better,” she agreed with a nod. “At least I look rich and well-bred.” She tilted her head and body to watch herself at different angles in the mirror. ‘Like this, I make quite the striking sight, if it’s not too bold to say so about myself,’ she thought, smirking slightly. On Sebastien’s face, with a nose that was too long and angular and lips that curled up naturally at the edges, the expression looked natural, arrogant in a less aggressive way than it would have on her face as Siobhan. The flip-flopping of identities was still strange, and yet, somehow she had grown accustomed to it.

Dryden chuckled, leaning on the banister to watch her.

She ignored him, inspecting herself critically. The gold coins she’d sewn into the lining of her suit jacket, inserted in new hidden pockets in her vest, and jammed into the double-layered collar of her boots weren’t noticeable. She’d done the same to all her sturdier clothes. She was trying to be more prepared for the unexpected, but she’d also always thought secret pockets, compartments, and the like were fascinating. As always, her numerous other pockets were filled with a carefully organized set of spell components and her Conduit. ‘Even if I have to escape Gilbratha suddenly, with only the clothes on my back, I won’t be totally helpless.

She didn’t require any help with her luggage, but Dryden sent his male servant to carry it for her anyway. “For appearance’s sake. Second first impressions, and all that. You have the ward bracelets?”

Sebastien showed him the two thin wooden bands on her wrist, bound together by a small bead of pewter. In an attempt to be more pessimistic and thus more prepared for things that might otherwise make her think back and say, “if only,” she had created a few more warded objects—very simple artifacts—based on what she had learned from the larger project. Now she, Dryden, and Katerin could warn each other of danger. To trigger the alarm, they would simply need to break their own bracelet by pulling it apart at the weak pewter bead, which would make the one it was linked to grow startlingly and uncomfortably cold.

Katerin and Oliver shared a more powerful linked artifact that allowed them to send actual messages as long as they didn’t travel too far from each other. Items like that were not uncommon, but their expense was prohibitive, and they carried a greater danger of being used against you. They could be used to track the object that they were linked to, and weren’t as easy to destroy as the disposable bracelets, which were no longer linked as soon as their magic was triggered.

If Oliver or Katerin triggered Sebastien’s bracelet, she would immediately escape the University, and hopefully avoid capture. “I’ll drop by next weekend, if I have time. I promised Katerin I would do some alchemy for the Stag, and I don’t know if it’ll be safe to do so at the University.”

“I look forward to it.” He smiled as he watched her go. “Good luck. I know you’ll do wonderfully!” he called after her.

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes at him as his loud shout drew attention from passersby, but couldn’t help the smile of excitement on her face. She lifted her hand above her head and waved at him without looking back.

The bridge over the river closest to the University was packed with traffic. By the time she and the servant made the long winding walk up the white cliffs and stood before the gates at the top, it was late afternoon. She’d arrived early to avoid the anxiety she had felt that day standing in the application line, but still felt overwhelmed by the crowd.

There were thousands of people milling around. Most were a few years on either side of twenty, close to her own age, and human. But not all.

Some of the new students—recognizable from their wooden tokens—were older, one even an old, stooped man. Many of the students had foreign features—evidence that the Thaumaturgic University of Lenore was indeed the best arcanum in the world. People traveled from far and wide to study there.

There were non-humans, too, some more obvious than others, and some that might have been mixed-species. Scales melting into skin, strangely colored or shaped eyes, extra or inhuman appendages. Witches were accompanied by their familiars, and there were a couple of vague-eyed people who might have been shamans or animists.

The occasional paper bird gliding through the air above the crowd caught her attention—enchanted messages, spelled to take flight and deliver themselves to set destinations or recipients.

She grinned. ‘With some time to prepare, you could bombard an enemy with a flock of paper birds spelled to deliver themselves to them. If their flight is strong enough to carry even a few grams, they could be quite dangerous.

She found her name on the very, very long list of new students, a few thousand names from the top, because it was organized by placement on the entrance exam rather than alphabetically. It told her the name of the student liaisons in charge of her group’s orientation and where to gather. She walked to the indicated spot.

A blonde young woman with short hair and a broad face, her features somewhat unfeminine but still striking, waited in the middle of a group of Sebastien’s fellow new students. At first, it seemed she was taller than the rest of the crowd by a good two feet, and Sebastian wondered if she might actually be half jentil, or some other giant variant, but a few bodies shifted to reveal the woman was standing atop some kind of barrier spell, which shimmered a dull yellow in pulses like a heartbeat. She had an air of easy confidence that, together with her looks, made her seem approachable.

As soon as the bell finished ringing to mark four o’clock, the student liaison called out, “New students! Please listen for your name to be called! If your name is confirmed on my list, I am your orientation guide and your student liaison. If not, please check the rankings list again or talk to one of the administrators.”

When she had finished the roll-call, she said, “My name is Tanya Canelo. If you do not make my life difficult, you can call me Tanya. This,” she gestured to a young man who Sebastien couldn’t quite see past the crowd, “is my counterpart, Newton Moore.”

He waved. “Hello, everyone! You can call me Newt!”

Tanya continued. “We are both University aids in our fourth term. That is the latter half of our second year, for those of you unfamiliar with University workings. As your student liaisons, you can come to us with problems, questions, or to ask for help. I don’t tutor people personally, but I can help you request study aids and can interact more directly with the faculty. We also have the power to assign certain punishments.” She met their gazes with one eyebrow raised threateningly.

“I do offer tutoring,” Newton called, a little awkwardly. “Though my time is limited. I’ve a sign-up sheet that will be posted in your dorm.”

Tanya nodded. “When you are in your fourth term—if you make it that far—you’ll have the chance to apply for various University aid positions. They pay, both in gold and in University contribution points. Follow me.” She hopped down from her barrier, the spell dissolving as soon as she did.

Sebastien pushed through the crowd to get a look at the spell array scratched into the dirt, but other people’s feet scuffed it out before she could.

Tanya and Newton led their group east, past the looming, predominant building of the University, the Citadel, to a large rectangular building with four different sets of double doors set at intervals along its side, rising multiple stories high. “This is the student housing building. For you, the dorms.” She intoned the last word ominously, which stoked some muttering from the other students.

Halfway down the ground floor hallway, Tanya opened another set of double doors onto a long, proportionately narrow room. A row of small beds was settled against either wall. Brick walls that only came to about five feet high divided the beds from each other, and the room into cubicles, with curtains around the inside of each. Two windows on the far side let in the only natural light, but there were light crystal fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

No privacy, no sound or light-proofing, and no door. At least it’s not bunk-beds.

Tanya stepped aside and waved her arm grandly. “You will all share this dorm room. Beds are first-come, first-served. Girls on the left, boys on the right.”

There was a brief pause as they all digested what she meant, and then they rushed into the room.

Sebastien led the pack. She didn’t hesitate, moving directly for the last bed in the row, next to the two windows. ‘The boys’ side. I’m not a woman, here,’ she reminded herself. It grew noticeably chillier the farther from the door she went, but that didn’t bother her. She knew how to store warmth in a fire-heated rock, and more than anything, she preferred not to be sandwiched between two other beds. The spots nearest the door seemed highly coveted, judging by the scuffle that had immediately broken out between a handful of boys, so the far side was the only other option.

Unconcerned, Tanya strolled along the aisle between the two rows of beds, watching the hierarchic struggle play out between both groups of students. “Curfew is at midnight. While you’re not required to sleep at that point, you cannot disturb the rest of your dorm-mates. I would suggest learning some sound-muffling spells, for your own sake as well as others’. If you’re found out after curfew, you’ll be punished. As student liaisons, we can assign punishments such as demerits and detentions, and act as witnesses for more severe rule breaking. Troublemakers can and will be expelled.”

Newton, Sebastien saw now that the crowd had spread out, seemed to have grown upward before the rest of his body could catch up. He had the awareness of his gangly elbows and knees that spoke to a bit of clumsiness, and his clothes, though nice, were faded or worn in spots. In contrast to Tanya, he smiled encouragingly at the students rapidly filling up the dormitory.

To Sebastien’s surprise, the boy she had argued with at the admissions queue, the one with the tired bags under striking grey eyes, took a spot just two beds away from her. He was followed by most of his rich cronies.

His pretty female friend, again wearing a suit with trousers instead of a skirt or dress, took the bed directly across the aisle from Sebastien.

As Siobhan, Sebastien had worn a man’s suit more often than not, because it was convenient and comfortable. But among the University students and their wealth, such clothing on a woman was rare enough to stand out.

The other girl moved with instinctive grace, from the movement of her limbs to the tilt of her head to the placement of her fingers.

Sebastien had never been one of those girls who focused on beauty. Magic was both more interesting and more useful. She had to admit, though, that the girl’s ridiculously smooth skin, big limpid eyes, and shining honey-colored hair drew the eye. She wasn’t the only one who found herself staring a little longer than she meant to, but she was the first to realize what she was doing and mind her own business.

The spoiled rich boy met her gaze and gave her a long look, his expression inscrutable.

Conscious of the need to keep a low profile, she didn’t stare him down in return, instead turning to make sure all her things fit within the chest at the foot of her bed. It wasn’t that hard. She only had a few sets of clothes for Sebastien, and the rest was just various magical components, books, and her grimoire. She would have to ward it against intrusion and tampering later.

When they had finally settled, some looking more dissatisfied than others, Tanya spoke again. “Before any of you think to complain to us about your living situation, let me explain how this works. No amount of money or favors done outside the University itself will get you out of these beds. Only contribution points are worth anything here. As you are below fourth term, your options for earning said points are limited. You might get a handful from your professors, but unless you’re an ass-nuzzling genius, that won’t be much. If you decide you’re competent enough, you can compete in the end of term exhibitions. These take place in front of the whole University, and people from all over Gilbratha and beyond come to watch.”

“Sometimes even the High Crown comes to watch the upper-term students,” Newton interjected.

“If you manage to perform impressively, you’ll gain contribution points, and next term, you and three others who performed similarly might be able to purchase a smaller dorm room. One with just four beds and an attached bathroom.” Tanya looked at the girls’ side of the room as she said this.

“Perform exceptionally well, and you could find yourself with just one roommate, or even a room all to yourself on one of the upper floors. Alternatively, you can use contribution points for other things, like one of the improved meal plans, or any of the prizes on display in the Great Hall, which I encourage you to peruse when you have time. When you’ve completed three terms of study and gained your Apprentice certification, they consider you competent enough to benefit the University in other ways. These options expand as your level of training increases, and the compensation increases accordingly. Work hard enough, and you might even walk away from the Great Hall with a wand created and charged with spells by Archmage Zard himself. He donates one or two prizes every semester.”

At that, the dissatisfaction on most faces melted away, taken over by excitement and avarice.

Tanya stopped at the end of the aisle and looked out one of the windows for a moment. Then she turned to Sebastien. “Siverling, was it?” Her voice had lowered from its “announcement” volume, but not nearly enough for a one-on-one conversation.

Sebastien straightened, her heart pounding as she attempted to show no more than mild surprise. “Yes, Apprentice Canelo,” she said, wondering why the woman was singling her out.

“I haven’t heard of your family before,” she said, watching Sebastien with her arms crossed. She didn’t seem exactly hostile, but something about her gaze made Sebastien wary.

“The Siverlings were based in Vale prior to my move to Gilbratha,” Sebastien said. She’d visited that city when traveling with Ennis. It was far enough away that most people who lived in Gilbratha would have never been there, and large enough that no one from Vale would be surprised not to recognize her if they met.

“Hmm. I heard a little of what happened during the examination.”

Sebastien’s heart sank. “That was my own foolishness,” she said, her voice low.

“Really?” Tanya raised her eyebrows. “Does your family have a connection to Professor Lacer? Perhaps from the border skirmishes? I heard he made an exception for you, and that’s unheard of.”

Sebastien shook her head. Her neck and cheeks felt hot, and she wondered if she was blushing noticeably. “The Siverlings have no connection to Professor Lacer,” she said, trying to keep from going into any details that could later be used against her. She had already known she behaved stupidly, but she clearly hadn’t considered all the ramifications. ‘Gossip travels quickly.’ She tried to keep her expression calm. “I can’t speak for him. Perhaps he saw what the other professors didn’t, or perhaps he acted merely out of the kindness of his heart,” she said, adding silently, ‘Because he saw I was going to be banned forever.

A couple of meters away, the grey-eyed boy snorted incredulously. “I don’t believe that’s the case.” He tilted his head in challenge.

Sebastien blinked at him a couple of times. ‘This boy is being antagonistic for no reason now.’ Half the room was eavesdropping unabashedly, and curious whispers had started up between some students. She resisted the urge to glare at him and tell him to mind his own business, as she doubted that would help her avoid more attention.

Tanya clasped her hands behind her back and leaned in closer, a small, conspiratorial smile on her face. “Hmm. Are you just that good, then? I’ll have to find out your secret, Mr. Siverling.”

Internally, Sebastien groaned and dropped her head into her hands. ‘I need to redirect this conversation somehow.’ Outwardly, she shrugged. “I really have no secrets to tell. I’m more interested in learning the secret of that spell you used to raise yourself above the crowd earlier,” she said.

Tanya waved her hand dismissively, but the small smile remained on her face, maybe even growing a little. “You’ll learn a variation in your second term.” She turned back to the rest of the dorm, raising her voice fully again. “That is, if you manage to last that long. The University is competitive, you know that. Some of you may not be aware that, for every term before your Apprentice certification—in addition to those of you who fail naturally—the lowest one out of every ten people will not continue on to the next term, regardless of passing grades or test scores.”

There were some murmurs of uncertainty. “In addition to those who fail?” someone echoed.

“If you were admitted, you were judged adequate. You beat out approximately seventy percent of this year’s applicants. To continue, you must not be merely adequate, you must be better than your fellow sorcerers. If you fall into this sub-par category, but have not failed your classes, you must either leave the University or re-take that term’s core classes. Due to the competitive nature of your fellow students, you may find people wish to push you down in order to climb higher by walking on your back. Pranks and petty theft are common. However, any truly harmful pranks or attacks on your person will be met with punishment. The University supports adversity. It does not allow damage to the future generations of leaders who are trained here.”

Tanya’s words made Sebastien’s stomach clench. She had continued to study after the examination, but with the alarm ward project for Dryden, she hadn’t even had the time to get completely through her reference texts a second time. ‘It shouldn’t be so dismaying. Just as I couldn’t learn enough in the initial two weeks, two more weeks isn’t enough to fix that deficiency. It’ll likely take me all term to reach an acceptable standard, and perhaps even longer than that. I hope it’s enough.’ She’d noticed that Tanya said the University would not allow harm to the future leaders. Perhaps the wording wasn’t meant to insinuate anything, but she wondered if it would cause as much backlash if the person who came to harm was a poor, unconnected civilian who just happened to score higher than the Crown Family children.

“After the first three terms, there’s no limit on who can pass, but the classes will get harder, and the spells more demanding. Not everyone can keep up with the necessary growth of their Will. Don’t expect to graduate without reaching at least two hundred fifty thaums instant capacity.”

“If you have doubts,” Newton said, “I encourage you to take one of the remedial classes in the evening. They’re free.”

Tanya nodded. “Remedial classes have someone available to supervise your casting and handle emergencies, just like the practice rooms. It’s safer than practicing on your own and risking Will-strain or death.” The room grew very silent. Tanya cast her gaze over the first-term students. “To be clear, some of you are going to die. Statistically, one in fifteen will misstep or catastrophically lose control before reaching Master level.” She let the silence hang for a moment after those ominous words.

“We’re here to help. Maybe for some of you, we can change those numbers,” Newton said. “If you’re feeling stressed or worn-down, there are resources available to all students. Please don’t take chances with your life or sanity.”

“Yes. The University has a lot of protections in place and resources for those who feel they or those around them might be in danger. All the structures are spelled to withstand damage. There are wards drawn into the floor around every desk in the classrooms to contain misfires. There are dozens of practice classrooms where you can do your practical work under supervision of an upper-term student. The professors are trained in crisis management. The University has some of the best healers in the world, as well as a wing in the infirmary dedicated to spell damage. There is a section of every building reinforced and set aside to use as an emergency shelter in case of dangerous rogue magical beings or effects. Those locations are in your on-boarding materials. Make sure you have them memorized.”

Tanya sighed, looking suddenly tired. “The mortality rate is this high despite these efforts. If you are found to be endangering the life of another student through reckless use of magic, get ready to be expelled.” She glared around at them, letting the threat hang in the air.

Tanya turned back to the double doors, motioning for the group to follow her. “Ward your area and belongings, if you know how. Nothing permanent, however. You’ll likely be moving dorms by next year, even if you’re not one of those who manages to earn the points for a better boarding arrangement.”

They exited the north doors of the student housing building, and Tanya pointed out the High Tower to the east, which sat at the edge of the cliffs, looking over the sea. The whole thing belonged to the Archmage, and according to Tanya, held both his living area and heavily warded rooms where he practiced the most powerful magic in the country. “See those chunks cut out of the top level? Those aren’t just windows. Someone tries to attack by sea, and Archmage Zard uses the heavy artillery to turn them into kraken food,” she said. “The smaller buildings next to it are mostly professors’ homes.”

They went west from there, passing the servants’ quarters, which were in a rectangular building much like their own dorm, and arrived at the cafeteria. “Your schedules should have a free period in the middle of the day to allow you to take meals, but it’s not required you do so at those times,” Tanya said before leading them through the process of ordering food with their student tokens.

Sebastien was pleasantly surprised by the quality, until Newton explained that normally, any luxurious or expensive foods could only be purchased with contribution points, and this meal was merely a one-time bonus. Their tokens got them into the cafeteria, but students without points could only order more basic items, and had a limit on how many dishes they could add to their plate each meal.

After they finished eating, the student liaisons led them outside again. They pointed out the Flats to the north, where the white cliffs rose higher and lost their covering of dirt, creating a few flat buttes and many wide open spaces.

Another tower rose out of the midst of the trees as they moved further west. This was Eagle Tower, and restricted to professors and high-level student aides, who used it for research and experimentation.

Beyond that was what Tanya ominously called “the Menagerie,” warning them not to act like idiots with plants and animals they didn’t understand. “Every term, at least one person is sent to the medical wing because they were too stupid to realize you don’t touch possibly dangerous things you don’t understand. You do not sniff them. You do not taste them. And you definitely do not decide to be friends with them because they’re just so darn cute.

Finally, they swung around to the library, where Newton explained how to navigate the building, reserve private study rooms, and more or less find books on specific topics. There were crystal balls set on podiums around the central atrium, and these operated as index and search artifacts. They were engraved with a sophisticated silver spell array that could retrieve information from a complicated organizational catalogue. Newton demonstrated their use by writing some keywords on a small card of paper and feeding it into the brazier attached to one. He stared into the crystal, then led them to a far corner of the library and pulled out an old book on the care and feeding of under-bed dust bunnies.

Sebastien couldn’t wait to try it for herself.

The large majority of the library was off-limits to students under Apprentice level—those who’d completed at least three terms. Restricted books were held in archives below ground level, along with a huge emergency shelter that Newton was quick to remind them of. Books that were deemed possibly dangerous to inexperienced casters, but not illegal, resided on the higher floors. After three terms and an Apprentice certification, you could access the second floor as well as the ground floor. A Journeyman, at five terms, could access all the above-ground levels. Getting access to the archives in the basement required Master certification or special dispensation, and sometimes both. They could also use contribution points to access certain restricted areas early.

The ground floor of the library held enough books that Sebastien could have spent years among their pages. Still, she couldn’t help but look up through the atrium with envy, chafing at the thought that all that knowledge would be out of her reach for at least three terms.

Finally, Tanya and Newton returned them to their dorms, did another head count to make sure they had lost no students along the way, and left for their own, much more private rooms.

Sebastien placed a basic perimeter alarm ward around her bed with a hard wax crayon. She didn’t want anyone sneaking up on her in her sleep. A simple spell she’d learned from one of the books Katerin bought her locked the trunk at the base of her bed.

Some of the other students prepared similarly, while others either watched apprehensively or shrugged off the danger as exaggerated.

It’ll have to do for now, until I can learn stronger protections.

Finally, she cast the dreamless sleep spell on her pillow, set another newly learned alarm spell on her pocket watch to wake her in the morning, and shoved some wax in her ears to drown out the sounds of the other students. ‘It’s too bad I cannot draw attention to myself in these exhibitions. I would really like to buy my way into a more private room.’ She struggled to fall asleep, the drawn curtains not enough to make her feel safe in a room with a hundred and fifty strangers.

Want to get an email with links as soon as a new website chapter comes out, and/or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up here:

Liked it? Take a second to support Azalea Ellis on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments