Month 11, Day 2, Monday 3:25 p.m.
Sebastien changed her mind halfway to the library and instead took the box of magical exercise supplies Lacer had given her to her room and locked them in the trunk at the base of her bed. ‘It wouldn’t do to have someone sabotage my ability to meet Professor Lacer’s expectations.’ Then, she went to the library and got to work.
She had an astounding amount to accomplish, and not very much time to do it in. Even a mind like hers couldn’t coast through what lay ahead. ‘Five days of classes per week. Six classes, four of which meet two times, and two which meet three times, for a total of twenty-one hours sitting in class per week. Say I study six hours per week for every class but Practical Casting, which I must spend more than two hours per day on if I wish to catch up. Another four hours per day for meals, hygiene, walking between classes, and other unavoidable transition time. It might be possible to keep working at a lower efficiency during those times, but I also need time for my mind to relax, or I might start having Will problems. Additionally, if I want to repay my debt before the interest drowns me, I need to get started with the alchemy Katerin and the Verdant Stag need. I can do that on the weekends.’
She looked down at the number she had scribbled on the edge of her new leather notebook. ‘That’s almost as many hours as most people are awake every week. Speaking of, I will probably need to increase my total hours of sleep. Perhaps I can take naps in the late afternoon.’ She was thankful that Professor Lacer had warned her not to take on more than six classes. If she had taken Artificery as well, she would probably collapse under the workload.
She read from the list of books recommended by Professor Gnorrish for a couple of hours, then started Professor Lacer’s homework. It took her longer than she had expected, and the dinner hour was almost over by the time she finished creating ten different fully realized spell arrays that could move the ball around the Circle. She rushed off to eat, then returned to her dorm, where most of the other students were already gathered. Many of them were chatting or working on schoolwork, creating a dull murmur of undistinguishable sound.
Sebastien pulled the pillow off her bed and sat on it cross-legged on the floor, drawing a simple spell array in front of her. She lit her small oil lamp to act as the source of heat energy. By the time she had pushed the steel ball around for thirty minutes, her head was aching and she had trouble concentrating—early signs of Will-strain. If she continued, she wouldn’t be able to cast her dreamless sleep and alarm spells, so she pulled her curtains and went to bed early.
The familiar feel of her heart pounding brought her from sleep into wakefulness. She stood with carefully controlled movements and drew back the curtain to press herself against the cool glass of the window beside her bed. The condensation of her breath fogged up the glass, and she drew a little sad face on it.
The sad face faded away, and she found herself looking at her own faint reflection. Dark eyes, sharp jaw, and shockingly pale hair framing it all. The only things she recognized were the eyes. ‘Those are still mine. My eyes staring out of this mask.’
As silently as possible, she returned to her locked chest and removed the sand wheel. This time, she used a different set of glyphs than the day before, and mentally redesigned the method of movement. While researching the different spell arrays the evening before, she had come up with some more innovative ways to accomplish the goal. Before, she had been directly controlling the ball as it moved around, guiding it with a mental hand. There were other ways to approach the problem, though, a couple of which she found particularly interesting.
She practiced for almost an hour by the light and power of the oil lamp, finding that the magic calmed her faster than she had expected. The steady, soothing whisper of disturbed sand was audible in the stillness.
Shifting from the bed across from her drew Sebastien’s attention, as the girl threw off her covers and stood up.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I wake y—”
The girl waved her arm at Sebastien clumsily and stumbled off toward the bathrooms, her eyes still unfocused with sleep. When she returned a few minutes later, she seemed a little more awake. “Practicing for Professor Lacer?” she asked.
Sebastien nodded. “I apologize if I disturbed your rest, Miss…?”
“Anastasia Gervin,” the girl said, sitting at the foot of her own bed with her legs crossed, her long, loose hair catching the light of the lamp’s flame artlessly.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Gervin.” Sebastien bowed slightly from her seated position.
“Please, call me Ana. There are a few too many Gervins enrolled here to be so formal. It causes confusion. And I know your name already. We met a while ago, when my cousin Alec was being such a braying ass.”
Sebastien couldn’t help the twitch of a smile at the description, though she didn’t allow it to disarm her. ‘She might commiserate with me in private and then do the same with others behind my back.’ Aloud, she said, “I remember. I wasn’t sure you would.”
The girl gave her that same crooked smile she had the day of the entrance application. “You may be more memorable than you think.” Before Sebastien could try to figure out what she meant by that, she continued. “You have quite the dedication, to wake up in the middle of the night just to practice. No wonder Professor Lacer picked you.”
Sebastien knew the girl was mistaken, but didn’t want to say so. “I find it best to be prepared.”
Ana gave a little smirk. “It is a good policy, but do you not need to sleep?”
“I have trouble sleeping,” Sebastien admitted. “I’ll lie down again in a while, when I’ve grown tired.”
Ana hummed noncommittally, returning to her bed and closing her eyes.
Drawing her curtains again to help shield the light of the lamp, Sebastien did the same. Thicker curtains would be useful to keep from disturbing the other dorm residents, if she wanted to continue practicing magic at her bed while they slept.
With two sessions of sleep, Sebastien again woke feeling more refreshed than she normally did, despite the strain she had been putting on her mind.
Sebastien’s first class of the day was History of Magic. For once, Damien Westbay did not seem to be there. Nor were any of the other people she recognized from her student group.
Professor Ilma, a woman with faintly blue skin evincing a partially inhuman heritage, got right into the meat of the class, wasting no time easing them into things.
She started at the beginning. “When was magic first discovered by humans? Historical research and archeology suggest the earliest thinking humans had rudimentary magic. Fires started without tools, animals charmed to do their bidding, structures molded beyond the capabilities of concurrent technology. It is not known whether humans discovered magic organically, or whether those who walked the earth before us had some hand in our uplifting. Theories in favor of both arguments are plentiful among historians. You’ll be writing an essay that considers the most valid arguments for both sides, due next week.”
She waited while the class hurried to scribble that down, then continued. “However, some say the ability to do magic is not the thing that led us to our current civilization. Magic is merely a tool, and it is our ability to cooperate and work together for the betterment of all that has led to our current greatness. And yet!” She raised one blue finger higher. “And yet, it has taken us thousands of years to reach this point. Part of this may simply be the nature of civilization—incremental growth based on our forefathers’ accomplishments. Part of this may be that the ancient world after the Cataclysm was too dangerous for real human society to thrive. It was hard to build a city at a time when a Titan might walk by and crush half of it, like a child kicking at an anthill…and then eat all the ants that lay scattered about for good measure. Let us speculate for a moment about the cause of the downfall of the Titans, the Fey, the Brillig. So powerful, with magics even our most distinguished cannot match, and yet, they are gone, and we are still here. Why? Is it simply the natural state of things that all powerful beings must one day fall, that all empires must crumble?”
Sebastien was enraptured.
Professor Ilma gave them a list of books she recommended reading and shooed them out of her classroom.
Her second class was Sympathetic Science. Sebastien almost jumped when Anastasia Gervin slammed her hand down on the desk beside her, but looked up to find the other girl glaring in the opposite direction.
Ana turned to Sebastien, assuming a bright smile. “Sebastien. You don’t mind if I sit here, do you?”
‘Who was she glaring at?’ Sebastien shook her head mutely, keeping the consternation from her expression. “Not at all. Please feel free.”
Anastasia’s cousin, the one with the bushy dark eyebrows, shot Sebastien a glare that she ignored, while Westbay plopped himself down on Sebastien’s other side.
She felt herself stiffening and hoped it wasn’t noticeable. ‘This feels remarkably like a pincer attack.’ However, other than a shrewd look from Westbay, no one did anything to justify her apprehension.
An old man wearing a jacket he had probably bought in his teenage years, when it would have been stylish, walked in and introduced himself as Professor Pecanty. He had a lilting cadence and a slow rhythm to his words that made everything he said sound like poetry. “Let us talk about metaphor. ‘Silken lies fell from her lips.’ ‘Her hair was spun gold.’ ‘I swam through an ocean of uncertainty.’ These are a few examples. Consider, that three strings of silk are used in Rimple’s minor truth-telling spell. A sprinkle of gold glitter is a component in Curoe’s fairness potion, to make the complexion and hair bright. Sea spray gathered on a moonless night is used in a couple of forgetfulness hexes.”
As Professor Pecanty delved deeper into the connection between ephemeral concepts and magic, part of Sebastien’s mind began to spin a thread of curiosity.
Dryden had told her various stories about his travels through the surrounding countries, and even a couple of forays into the lands held by other species. He’d had more than one amusing or embarrassing incident stemming from cultural difference.
Like the time everyone at the table except him had burped, and then his host had been offended that he didn’t, which was a vulgar indication that Dryden didn’t like the meal.
Or the story about how he’d almost been killed by the town guard when he offered his hand to help a limping woman wearing a red sash, which denoted her status as a revered giver of blessings, and thus untouchable.
Or the time he accidentally proposed to a woman old enough to be his grandmother by hauling water from the well for her. That one had been particularly hilarious, as everyone had been too embarrassed to tell him why they were acting so awkwardly, but no one thought to ask him if he knew what he’d done. The misunderstanding had lasted for several days of increasing confusion as everyone kept working at cross-purposes and misconstruing his later actions based on that first innocuous favor.
‘But we don’t hold those customs or belief here in Lenore. So what about the sympathetic connections he’s talking about? Here, red is associated with passion, blood, and death, not divine blessings, isolation, or being “set apart.” Could I use a red sash for those qualities? Does magic somehow choose which meanings an item can be used for? Or could I use any of them?’
She frowned, scribbling notes and questions in her grimoire. She felt like some larger understanding was revolving just out of reach, revealing only a part of itself to her through the darkness. ‘Different people will have languages with different structures, tell different stories, use different metaphors. To them, it’s us who would seem strange for connecting silk to a truth-telling spell, or sea spray gathered on a moonless night to a curse.’
She shifted uncomfortably, Pecanty’s rhythmic voice fading from her focus as her fingers tightened around her fountain pen. ‘People all around the world use transmogrification. It’s the earliest form of magic. We were doing things with transmogrification long before we learned the principles behind how to replicate these effects with transmutation. Have there been historical uses of components that have fallen out of use in favor of new interpretations of their sympathetic connections? It seems impossible for anything else to be the case. Humanity’s perception of the world has changed greatly over the last few thousand years. So if transmogrification worked for ancient humans, and it works for foreigners, and even other species whose cultures are completely different, these sympathetic connections couldn’t be an inherent property of magic…right? It couldn’t be that we’ve somehow instinctively discovered completely contradictory sympathetic connections for the same colors, and numbers, and components. It has to be created by…us?’
The idea was strange, and vaguely frightening. She set down her pen and tried to focus on the lecture. She needed to learn what Pecanty had to say, in case they would be tested. She couldn’t afford to perform poorly due to distraction.
After class, she stayed behind to ask Professor Pecanty about her revelation.
“Experimental evidence?” he echoed, as if the words were foreign, or perhaps egregiously unrelated to the topic. “Why, the proof is all around you. Transmogrification works on those intrinsic qualities, and attempting to cast a spell with a component that does not meet the qualifications is either difficult or impossible.”
She frowned. “But how does it work? Who decides what the intrinsic qualities are? If I began telling everyone that pigeons can read the evil in their heart, and they believed it, would I be able to use pigeon eyeballs in an intent-scrying spell? Or would I, who knows pigeons cannot, in fact, read the evil hidden in a heart, be unable to use them? Does magic warp to fit new understandings or beliefs? If so, how quickly? Are there transmogrification spells used historically that no longer work today? What if I were the one who truly believed pigeons could read the evil in my heart, and everyone else thought pigeons were simply stupid flying pests?”
Professor Pecanty blinked at her for a moment, rocking back on his feet. “Who decides the intrinsic qualities?” he repeated, as if the question was slightly humorous. “Why, it is the purview of the young to ask such questions. It seems one with such an…analytical mind as yourself might do very well in the Natural Sciences. Myself, I think such questions are perhaps unknowable, better left for the wisdom of those species closer to the heart of magic than us humans. Magic does not require my interrogation to exist, merely my acceptance and what small understanding my years have allowed me.” He gave her a small smile that she imagined he thought seemed wise and learned, gathered up his things, and left her standing alone in the empty classroom, seeming completely satisfied with himself and his answer.
“He basically just said I only have such questions because I’m not old enough or wise enough to know when to quietly accept what is served me and be grateful for it,” she muttered.
As she left the room, Damien Westbay fell into step beside her. Apparently he had been waiting outside the classroom for her to exit. “Pecanty is incurious,” the boy said without preamble, letting the statement sound like a devastating judgment. “Professor Lacer says failing to hold an opinion on a matter says one of two things. Either, ‘I do not wish to invest the resources to understand the matter,’ or, ‘I understand the matter and the evidence is weighted toward only one answer, and that answer is neutrality, at least until more evidence is presented.’” The boy spoke in the articulate, clipped tones of Thaddeus Lacer as he quoted.
“He says most people don’t understand that, however, and what they really mean is, ‘I am above all this,’ ‘I am wise,’ or ‘I am lazy.’ And they are likely deceiving themselves about which of the three it is.” He turned his head toward Sebastien, gauging her response to this.
“Professor Lacer is not incurious,” Sebastien said, forming the certainty even as she said the words. Westbay had pronounced the word as if it were a slur, and she found herself agreeing with him. ‘How dull, to never wonder. How unambitious. One does not become great by only accepting what is given to them and never reaching for more.’
Westbay gave her a small smirk. “He is not. And neither am I. I hope you didn’t think you were the only one given extra exercises.” Before she could respond, he sped up and turned the corner into a classroom, his expression saying better than any words that she was dismissed from his attention.
‘Observe, a wild example of the contraceptive personality, in its natural habitat.’ She resisted the urge to glare. Glaring would mean that he had affected her, something she refused to allow to be true.
After a quick lunch and another visit to the library, she checked her map, confirming that she was meant to leave the building altogether for Defensive Magic. She made her way to the north side of the University grounds, walking fast so the fifteen minutes between classes would be enough to arrive on time.
Green grass and trees gave way to bare, white ground by the time she arrived. The Flats, contrary to their name, were not flat at all. In fact, some of the white stone buttes seemed to have been deliberately molded with large platforms, squat walls, and even a few hoops. She did a double-take as she passed what seemed to be a pit of spikes, a faint sense of alarm rising in her. There was a building in the distance, but their professor met them out on the grounds.
She recognized this professor from the entrance examination. He was the one with the muscles and the armor, who had asked her about fighting the Blood Emperor.
He had them line up, then paced before them while speaking in a loud voice that carried far and bounced off the surrounding stone. “My name is Elwood Fekten. I served in the army during the border skirmishes, and the Haze War before that. I have no need for titles. You will call me Fekten. The man who taught this subject before me did so in a classroom, with a textbook. He was very knowledgeable, and his students became knowledgeable. They understood that a banshee’s wail is deadly from five meters, and will burst your eardrums and knock you unconscious from ten. They had learned that the best way to avoid this is to cast a vibration-cancelling spell and send up distress sparks, since any call for help would not make it out of the bounds of the vibration-canceller. Can anyone tell me why following these instructions would lead to your death?”
Fekten stopped pacing, spinning to face the woman closest to him. “You. Speak.”
The woman’s eyes were wide. “Umm…because as long as you’re holding the vibration-cancelling spell, you cannot cast anything else? Well, unless you have an artifact.”
He shook his head and continued walking. “While that is technically correct, it misses the point.” He stopped in front of Sebastien. “What about you? Tell me why the accepted response will get you killed.”
Sebastien’s eyelids flared slightly wider before she got her face under control, hiding the burst of apprehension being singled out had caused her. “If you knew ahead of time that you were dealing with a banshee, you would go into the altercation with a vibration-cancelling spell already cast, preferably in artifact form so you’d be free to cast other magic personally. However, banshees rarely make straightforward attacks. What if you don’t know you are about to be targeted by one? Rather than scream, they are more likely to sing. Their song has a quality that encourages loss of focus, so by the time you realize something is wrong, they’re probably already close enough to slit your throat. Also, your banshee can scream on half a second’s notice, but most sorcerers cannot cast a spell that quickly. If you do manage to cast the vibration-canceller after she starts singing—say if you had an artifact able to cast it, perhaps—you still have to deal with the actual banshee—who is not in fact completely helpless—while you are inside a field that is either dampening vibration so well that your own movement is hindered, or which is allowing through some vibration, which means maybe the banshee can still affect you with her voice while she tries to stab you with a kitchen knife.” Her grandfather had told her just such a story when she was young.
Fekten didn’t immediately shake his head and walk away. “So what would you do, if you suspected you were being stalked by a banshee?”
“Ideally, if you were traveling through lands where such a thing seemed likely, or a town where people kept going missing, you would have prepared in advance for various types of danger, including a banshee. Wards, an artifact or two, that sort of thing.”
Fekten nodded slowly, then looked around at the other students to ensure they were paying attention. “And are you prepared thus, Siverling?”
“No,” she admitted, thinking even as she said it that, ‘Perhaps I should be so equipped.’ Aloud, she said, “So, when I suspected I was being stalked by a banshee, if possible I would cast a deafening hex on myself, then try to slip from her sight without noticeably panicking, and from there either run away altogether or wait in ambush to attack her from a distance.”
Fekten snorted and walked on. “Better. Still not perfect. Preparing you to think of the correct response as well as giving you the ability to carry it out is the purpose of this class. I am here to teach you how to avoid being killed by malicious parties. I cannot stop you from killing yourselves through stupidity or negligence, though some of you will undoubtedly meet your ends that way. This class is not about safe casting practices, it is about defeating or, more realistically for you lot, escaping an enemy. If you were hoping to get to attack something in this class, to let out some pent up aggression with destructive spells, you will be disappointed for quite a while. I do not have enough time to teach you both what you need to know to defend yourself and how to act on that information, so we will be doing our best to learn both at once, and it will be unpleasant.”
He stopped pacing and turned to the Flats. “A strong body is a strong mind. At your level of skill, if you cannot escape properly, you will just die, since I doubt that you can kill anything larger than a pixie. No, we will start with running, and then move to strength training. I will explain the dangers of the world as we do so, and you will pay attention and remember what I say, or there will be even more training.”
“Training” sounded more like he meant “torture,” and though there was some nervous shuffling and a few mutters of discontent, as soon as he turned around and glared at them, everyone shut their mouths.
“Your training clothes are in the sim room. Follow me, and do not dawdle. We have little enough time as it is.” He led them to the distant building at a quick jog, assigned them loose-fitting clothes, and shooed them into the changing rooms.
The next forty-five minutes were some of the most grueling of Sebastien’s life, as Fekten led them through exercises while lecturing on the dangers of pixies and how best to deal with them, without ever seeming to grow tired or out of breath.
Sebastien hated physical exertion, and despite a certain stamina gained from being forced to carry all her worldly belongings and walk for miles when they couldn’t find a wagon to ride in the back of, she wasn’t very good at it, either. Running, tossing, and pulling herself about required a very different kind of fitness. Luckily, she was not prone to holding excess weight, but she had never been one for physical labor, either, and her male form didn’t seem an improvement in that aspect. However, she consoled herself that if she ever had to sprint away from the coppers again, this would be good training.
A few minutes into the training, she gave up simply powering through on her own and surreptitiously cast an esoteric spell on herself. It muffled her pain slightly and allowed her thoughts to detach from it rather than focus constantly on the burning discomfort. It helped a little. Of course, it was difficult to keep the spell active while still paying attention to Fekten’s lecture and completing the exercises, but the effort was worth it, in her opinion.
The last thirty minutes of class were spent stretching and answering questions about the lecture Fekten had given.
Finally, he let them leave, with an admonition to arrive already dressed for class the day after next if they did not want to perform unspecified punishments.
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: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8