Worth the Candle, Ch 145: Freshman

I sweated over it a fair bit, but Amaryllis and the others came back safe and sound at around four in the morning, but without the manual. They had met my double’s dad, who was close enough to being my dad, a helicopter pilot for the Anglecynn military who had left after a decade of service to work in the private sector flying helicopters for farmers (aerial applications and photo survey, mostly). That was more or less what had happened with my real dad, though replace the Anglecynn military with Gulf War I, and probably less negotiating with draconic bureaucracies.

He’d been reticent to let them in, but Valencia had taken the reins, and from there, it hadn’t taken her too much to get him to open up. My dad, the real one back on Earth, never opened up, except a few times when he was drunk. I asked that they go light on the details, and they had obliged, giving me only what seemed like it would actually matter. First, my parents on Aerb were divorced, and had been for seven years. Second, my mom had left Fumblebuck after I was put in prison, going to parts unknown. Third, the manual, if it still existed, wasn’t anywhere in my dad’s house, and he had no idea where it might have gone off to.

After a search of his house, which he’d for some reason consented to, they had gone to my mom’s house, which had produced nothing worthwhile, then over to speak with a few of the fake versions of my friends, none of which produced any fruit. Fake Maddie looked different from real Maddie, for unknown reasons, and that was as much as I wanted to hear about it. So far as they could piece things together, the fake Juniper had followed nearly the same trajectory that I had, and most of the differences could be accounted for by what had to change, if it was all playing out on Aerb instead of Earth. I was apparently Aerb’s version of Gary Gygax, unrealistically prolific given that I was building a lot of it from the ground up, creating rules from whole cloth that just so happened to have parallels to game systems I had played on Earth, and then putting in all of the same effort toward campaign creation that I had in the real world on top of that. All, somehow, without the internet for fast research and easy inspiration.

The whole cast was there in Fumblebuck. Fake Arthur had died in a car accident, I had dated fake Tiff, and later fake Maddie, still ill-advised but a little more acceptable on Aerb, and fake Craig had still been really upset about it. The real Craig had been talking about joining the Navy, and the fake Craig had joined the Host, which I thought was likely another way for the Dungeon Master to scatter them all to the four winds, the better that I would eventually run into one or another, no matter what paths I took.

None of it was actually useful though. The quest stayed incomplete. Amaryllis found it frustrating, but I was adamant that I wanted nothing to do with it. Besides, what was the Dungeon Master going to do? Cheat so that only I could figure things out, so that only my presence would accomplish whatever the quest was supposed to accomplish? No, fuck that, I wasn’t going back home.

I was in college, at least for a week, and I was determined to enjoy it.

My first class at the Athenaeum of Sound and Silence was listed as “A Still Magic Primer”. I actually had a passing understanding of my instructor; she was the woman who had written The Commoner’s Guide to Still Magic, one of the most singularly useless texts in all of known existence, though it had fierce competition from the other titles in that series. I did read the whole thing though, against my better judgment, so I thought that I had a bit of a handle on the magus, Genna Ermaretor. She was much more concerned with people than with the actual study and practice of still magic, and while some of that might just have been to fill pages of a rather slender book with nothing of real importance, I thought I saw some passion for the individual stories in the book, rather than the science or practice of magic. It was hard to tell though, and I was trying to go into the class without preconceptions.

Magus Ermaretor stood before the class behind a podium, with a bored student standing next to her for unknown reasons. The student’s arms were in a cramped pose though, so I assumed that she was some kind of mage as well. Magus Ermaretor was a penumbral, a species that could only tolerate about four hours of sunlight a day and fed on shadows in a form of reverse photosynthesis (which was entirely magical rather than using real physics). She had jet black hair done up in a bun, and gray skin, like she’d been rendered in monochrome, an effect which was offset by the garishly bright colors of her dress, reds, blues, and purples in a pattern that instantly drew my eye away from her face.

“Welcome to a Still Magic Primer!” she called to the class with a cheerful smile. There were maybe a hundred people in our lecture hall, and I was near the back, largely because the plan was for her to give me a rubber stamp. The sound was still crystal clear though, like she was standing right next to me, despite the fact that there were no speakers. The student beside her was frowning and concentrating, which clued me in that this was probably the sound component of vibration magic at play.

“In this course, we will discuss the history of still magic, the craft as it’s practiced today, what to expect when you’re down in the temple for meditation, and various other topics that will help prepare you for a life as a still mage.” She cleared her throat. “This is not a difficult course, nor is it one oriented toward practical applications. It is, instead, a required course intended to give you the background necessary to become a part of the common culture of still mages, who will be, after all, your peers and colleagues once you’ve matriculated.”

She spent some time on history, most of which I already knew from The Commoner’s Guide and other supplemental reading, and the parts that were new seemed extremely unimportant. I perked up when she talked about Uther.

“The Penndraig reforms were extensive,” said Ermaretor. “An expansion of the campus was one of the most obvious ones, done to accommodate a great deal more students than had been seen in years past. The temple was changed, with entads from Uther’s vast stores added to allow a much greater density of meditating still mages, less time in the temple for each of them, and a solution to the logistical problems associated with moving people in and out of the temple. He meditated in the temple himself, and picked up an understanding of the art over the years, some of which he used, in his fashion, to revolutionize the field. It was Uther who extended still magic to the domain of cold, Uther who showed that we could produce silence, and Uther who pioneered the deep meditation of the soul.”

I started paying more attention at that one. I hadn’t heard of such a thing, but here it was, being casually tossed off in a freshman level class (not that they followed the year naming convention at Sound and Silence). Unfortunately, her primer on history went on to other, less interesting things, and worse, she was skipping over a lot. It was only because I was familiar with the timeline that I realized she was going through the period of time when the Second Empire had been dominant, without so much as a sly wink about what had happened during that period, or what role Sound and Silence had played in it. I looked over at the other students in the class, wondering if anyone had caught that, or whether there was anyone here old enough to have lived it. Mostly it was humans, and other of the mortal species who weren’t of the especially long-lived. Ermaretor was just blithely white-washing history, it seemed.

“And that brings us to today,” said Ermaretor. “Sound and Silence is a firm and proud member of the athenaeum system, an institution of higher learning as devoted as any of our brother or sister institutions, and an integral part of the economy and governance of the Empire of Common Cause. Should you have your time in the temple, you will join our ranks, and become one of the privileged few.”

That must have been a well-rehearsed lecture, because a bell started ringing very shortly after she was done. As first classes went, it was a little underwhelming, but normal students didn’t get their time in the temple until two years at the athenaeum, so I supposed some amount of filler was necessary.

“Juniper Smith, if you could stay a moment?” asked Magus Ermaretor. The student who’d been standing beside her had left, and she had to strain to be heard about the din of a hundred students filing out of the lecture hall. I made my way down to her.

“I have another class in about fifteen minutes,” I said. I knew where the building was, but I was still a little anxious about missing the lecture, even if it was going to be something like this.

“You’re the bursar’s man,” said Ermaretor. It was halfway between a question and an accusation. She looked me over. “Human?”

“Yes,” I replied. The paperwork said as much. I glanced at the door.

“I’d like to speak with you in private, when you have more time,” said Ermaretor. “My office is in Dinai Hall, on the third floor, and I’m there from the end of classes until just after sundown.”

“Okay,” I said. “What are we talking about?”

“I’ll explain then,” said Ermaretor. “It would suffice to say that my signature on your papers is contingent upon a private meeting.”

I gave an inward groan. “Alright,” I said. “I’ll see you after my last class today.” I glanced at the door again.

“Go ahead, get to your next class,” said Magus Ermaretor. “I’ll see you tonight.”

I rushed off with my bookbag over my shoulder. When I was out the door, I moved my comms tattoo up and touched it.

“Minor hiccup,” I said. “Professor wants a meeting.”

[They’re instructors, not professors,] replied Amaryllis. [But noted. We’ll provide backup in case there’s an attack. Otherwise went well?]

“Sure,” I said. “A bit boring.”

[Keep an open mind,] replied Amaryllis. [Private instruction gets skill levels higher, faster, unless you’re intent on skilling up through combat after the soft cap.]

The abortive attempt at getting something from Fumblebuck was a source of conflict between the two of us. Amaryllis had been poring over the notes that Reimer had left, along with the supplemental stuff he’d mailed later on. She wanted him back in for a sitdown, but I was a little leery of that, especially since it wasn’t clear how much the two systems might have diverged from each other. Reimer’s notes indicated that the system got constant updates and revisions, sometimes without any actual notice. I was trying my best not to worry about it, as Amaryllis put effort into redoing her ‘best possible’ character sheet. In theory, if the game was correct that I could change skills once every 100 / Essentialism levels, then I should theoretically be capable of changing skills again, if I hadn’t been before. (I had not tested it, as it was an incredibly valuable resource that I didn’t want to waste.)

My mind wasn’t really on that as I moved on to the next class. Instead, I was thinking that all roads led to Rome. It was a common DM tactic, where three or four different threads could all be pulled on, all of which would tie back to whatever main event the DM had planned. In the context of Reimer? It was one of three visible threads leading back to Fumblebuck, the first being the teleportation key and what it had revealed about the body’s past (which was when the text had been generated), and the other threads being people from Fumblebuck that had spread to the winds. Going to Sound and Silence had led me to Reimer, whose part in all this I hoped was over. If we’d gone to the Athenaeum of Claw and Clocks, I would have bumped into Tiff. There were probably other paths leading back to Fumblebuck, whether it was high school friends sent by happenstance to the locations I was most likely to visit, or some other kind of bullshit.

The further in I’d gotten, the more these parallel paths had become a running theme. In one sense, it was comforting, because it was weak evidence that I had some degree of free will within the DM’s schemes, and the world had simply been set up or manipulated into such a state that there were many mechanisms by which the same beats could happen. In most other senses, it was kind of terrifying, because I was surrounded by threads to be pulled on and clearly visible backup plans intended to manipulate me.

The whole reason that we’d gone to Fallatehr in the first place had been Cyclamine, Amaryllis’ great-grandfather, whose entad-poltergeist had remarked that he was one of the most gifted soul mages still alive following the decapitation of the Second Empire, and that he should, despite the odds and common sense, still have some measure of his power in prison. Later on, we’d found Heshnel Elec, who was one of Fallatehr’s proteges long ago, and he had basically delivered us a quest prompt for a quest we’d already handled. Who knew how many other paths led back to Fallatehr? Would we have found a book that pointed in his direction in our hour of need, if those two other prompts had misfired?

More concerning, what was everything at Sound and Silence pointed toward? What were the disparate threads all pulling on?

I ran out of thinking time when I got to my next class. It was a similar room to the first one, with tiered seating and peculiar adjustable desks, with a section in front similar to handicapped seating on Earth, a place where students who were unusually large or with particular needs could sit and take up more room. There weren’t many there though, just mezin, broshe, and a criios girl hooked up to a tank, presumably to keep her temperature down.

I didn’t know the rules for taking up special seating, so I headed up to the very back of the classroom, where there were two empty seats. The class was “Fundamentals of Vibration Magic”, a basic prerequisite for actually getting authorized to become a vibrational mage. When I sat down, the instructor (never professor, apparently) was already clearing his throat.

To my surprise, I saw a red-haired girl moving from her seat in one of the lower rows, pushing past people and apologizing profusely as she did so. She looked vaguely familiar to me, though I couldn’t place her; her hair went down to the small of her back in ringlets, she wore a vest, a blouse, and a skirt, all of which looked expensive (if I was any judge), and she had rectangular-frame glasses. I caught her looking at me as she moved through the chairs, and I was startled when she went up the stairs and took a seat beside me. She made enough glances at me that I started wondering what was up with her.

Our instructor was a human, which was a bit disappointing, because I liked seeing the different species of Aerb. He had a smooth voice though, and opened the class by asking everyone to signal to him if they would like the volume higher or lower. It was, so far as I could tell, a party trick for an experienced vibration mage, but it was still pretty impressive, given that he was adjusting volume independently for more than a hundred people, while also giving a lecture on the subject.

“So, now that everyone is settled, let me introduce myself. I’m Magus Bertram Leister, second order, and I’ll be introducing you to the wonderful world of vibration magic.” He beamed at us. “My particular specialty is in the middle ranges, which, if you don’t already know, refers largely to sound, hence the calibration. I teach a number of classes at the higher levels, most notably Sonic Offense, Signals Interference, and Destructive Collision. Through our time in this class, I’ll be bringing in a number of my colleagues for demonstrations, lectures, and some question and answer sessions, as I don’t want to focus too specifically on this narrow field.”

The girl sitting next to me leaned over. “Indecisive or ambitious?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“You were in M. Ermaretor’s class,” she replied.

Ah. “Ambitious,” I replied. It wasn’t usual for someone to take both kinds of classes, and apparently it had been noticed that I was on both tracks.

“Me too,” replied the girl with a curt nod in my direction. She was keeping her eyes on our instructor, but she held out a dainty hand, and I shook it. “Is this your first?” she asked.

“First?” I asked. I was trying to keep my voice low. Vibrational mages could have super-hearing, if they wanted to and had the mental bandwidth for focus, but I couldn’t imagine that our instructor was carrying on with a general history of vibrational magic, amplifying his voice at individualized levels, and eavesdropping on students. (Or rather, I could imagine it, but it seemed like a bit much.)

“Do you have other magics?” she asked. She looked around briefly, cupped her finger in a hand, and then with a slight frown of concentration, lit her finger on fire. I diverted my attention from the lecture briefly and looked at it. Aarde’s Touch, the spell was called, the first real bit of magic that I had learned on Aerb.

I looked at her and tried to quietly re-evaluate her. Maybe it was the glasses, but I had marked her as a bookish nerd, probably not too much younger or older than I was, and almost certainly human. But if she was a blood mage … well, Aarde’s Touch wasn’t all that special, Amaryllis had been able to do it when we met, but that was the product of maybe three years at Quills and Blood, a lot of it focused on other things, with her time cut short.

“You’re a multimage,” I said.

She shook her head, seeming annoyed. “Not yet,” she said. “I’m going to be.”

There were a few reasons that wasn’t common on Aerb. The first was political: mages owed some allegiance to their athenaeum, both implicit and explicit, and you could be denied learning on the basis that you were already a mage in another discipline. The second problem was practical: if you spent ten years learning to become a warder, you probably had some bills to pay down, or if you didn’t, then you at least had a trade that you could practice and make some good money on. If you went on to master another magic, what did that really get you, in practical terms? Higher pay? Maybe, depending on cross-applicability and economic considerations. Generally speaking though, it wasn’t done, because a multimage took far too much schooling for not enough benefit, not when you had to stay sharp in both at once. A multimagus was even more rare, because to become a magus in pretty much any discipline took a decade or more, though the title ‘magus’ was defined differently by the different athenaeums.

I wasn’t sure what, precisely, that might say about this girl sitting next to me. She’d asked me whether I was ambitious, on the assumption that I was angling to become a multimage. Did that imply that she had ambitions? With the red hair … well, not every remotely attractive girl with red hair had to be a Penndraig, but unless my ear for accents was failing me, she did sound like she was from Anglecynn.

“Juniper,” I said, extending a hand to her.

She looked me up and down. “Like the flower?”

“It’s a tree,” I said.

“A tree with flowers,” she replied as she took my hand and shook it. “Lisi,” she said. Her hand was limp and a bit cold. “Are you?” she asked.

“Am I what?” I asked, bewildered.

“Anglecynn royalty?” she asked. Again, she seemed annoyed that I was confused.

“No,” I replied. “You?”

“Are you my shadow?” she asked, ignoring my question, or maybe implicitly answering it.

I was mostly ignoring our instructor by this point, as interested as I was in what he was doing. He had pulled tuning forks out from under the table, and was giving a brief lesson in the difference between amplitude and frequency of a wave, which wasn’t new to me, but was at least more practical grounding than I’d been given in Ermaretor’s class.

“I’m nobody,” I said.

Lisi gave a brief huff at that, and immediately began tuning me out. If she was another of Anglecynn’s many princesses, then she was shockingly rude. Hells, she was even rude by dwarven standards; dwarves were blunt, but they were at least making an attempt at communication, rather than barreling on ahead with their own unrelated trains of thought (this was, naturally, painting a whole species with the same brush, and dwarves were as much products of their environments as humans were).

The demonstration of amplitude and frequency was accompanied with drawings on the chalkboard by our instructor, Magus Leister. All vibration, he explained, was about regular change between one state and the other, from the fastest (light) to the slowest (the tides).

(Can I talk, for a moment, about how fucking dumb it was that Aerb had tides? Both the Sun, Celestar, and the stars were in the same apparent position no matter where you were on Aerb, so even if there were gravitation from those sources, it wouldn’t have caused anything that was much like tides on Earth (in theory, the sun’s gravity should have pulled everything to the east at dawn, then everything to the west at dusk), and anyhow, the tides were hexal, meaning low tide happened at the same time no matter where you were on Aerb. So then where the fuck was all that water going or coming from? There were even spring tides and neap tides, caused, on Earth, by whether the sun and moon were working in concert or in opposition, but on Aerb … who fucking knew. Every day, 1020 liters of water were displaced, and there were a whole bunch of complex theories about how it was happening or why, but the tides went in and the tides went out, and no one could explain it.)

A lot of the lecture was about waves, it seemed, but it seemed to mostly be about waves in terms of how they interacted with the specifics of vibrational magic. M. Leister joked that he wasn’t going to bombard us with a whole bunch of equations and terms we’d have to memorize on our first day, but it felt like that was what he was doing anyway. Vibrational magic had a lot of scope, mostly because it was permissive in what was defined as ‘vibration’, extending to almost anything that oscillated to some degree, even if it wasn’t ‘vibrating’ in the sense that I understood it. Still, sound was by far the easiest thing for a vibration mage to deal with, and it was their stock-in-trade. The discovery that light could be produced and manipulated with vibration magic was a relatively recent one, but it took so much skill that only the grandmasters were capable of doing it reliably, and they were gunshy, given the fact that exclusions sometimes happened when people pressed the boundaries too far.

The last thing we went over was the actual source of a vibration mages power, a well of internal energy that could be slowly expanded through rigorous, monotonous mental exercise. We (or rather, the other people in the class who weren’t on fast-track like me) were required to prove that this was something we were capable of by learning an instrument and achieving technical proficiency with it, something that would also come in handy when we were tuning to specific tones. I was really hoping that I would just get a mana bar. At any rate, the major complication for vibration mages was that this internal well of power, called ‘breath’ instead of just ‘mana’, was governed by trade-offs between what was modulated, so that frequency increase at the expense of amplitude decrease (or vice versa) was far less draining than increasing both, and decreasing either was practically free, a convenient way of silencing your footfalls.

I liked M. Leister. He was an engaging speaker, and he moved fast enough to keep my attention, with none of the pauses or drawn out elaboration that I’d always hated in my teachers. He finished his lecture just as the bell rang, which was apparently a skill he had in common with M. Ermaretor. I braced myself to be called down by him, but he was just looking at his notes, not at me.

“We should walk together,” said Lisi. I had practically forgotten about her, except to briefly glance at the meticulous notes she was keeping.

“Okay,” I said. “My next class is in the Canis Building, I’m not sure if we’re going in the same –”

“We are,” replied Lisi. “Fundamentals of Combat Magic?”

“Yup,” I said. “That’s the one.”

We headed out together, with her leading the way on sure feet. I moved my comms tattoo up and touched it once, as stealthily as I could, so that it would broadcast everything I said to the others.

“So, are you one of the Penndraigs?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied Lisi. “Lisianthus Penndraig.”

“Lisianthus?” I asked, mostly for the benefit of Amaryllis. “Sorry, I don’t know the royal family that well.”

[Don’t mention me,] said Amaryllis, across the comm. I couldn’t answer her without speaking to Lisi.

“I’m from a minor house,” she replied. “One of the gavelkinds.”

“Ah,” I said. “So are you part of the Lost King’s Court? I mean, in an official capacity?”

“I’m the Second Under-Princess of Defense,” she replied with a frown. “Understudy to the understudy. If there were any actual roles or responsibilities I wouldn’t be here. If there were any risk that I would ascend to Princess of Defense, I would be replaced in short order. It’s honorary.” She glanced at me. “You?”

“Not a princess at all,” I replied with a smile.

“I want to know who you are,” said Lisi. If she saw any humor in what I was saying, she didn’t show it.

I tried not to wince. “Juniper Smith,” I said. “Originally from Anglecynn, but I’ve been in a somewhat unique situation for the past few months, which is how this opportunity came up. I’m … not sure how much I should share with you.”

“Hrmph,” said Lisi.

[You can tell her,] said Amaryllis. [You’re Advisor on Culture in the Republic of Miunun.]

“I’m the Advisor on Culture in the Republic of Miunun,” I said. “It’s a new nation of tuung, recently founded and not recognized by the Empire of Common Cause yet.”

“You’re not tuung,” said Lisi.

We entered into the Canis Building, which had a weird front door whose door frame was two legs of a giant brass dog, and Lisi kept walking with purpose. It occurred to me that we were probably going to be sitting next to each other again, and I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted.

“I’m there in an advisory capacity,” I said.

“But you’re here,” replied Lisi. She was still frowning, and not really looking at me, like she was doing some complicated math in her head.

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?” she asked. She still had that characteristic bluntness. Now that I knew they were related, I could see a little bit of Amaryllis in the way she talked, but I might have just been reading into things.

“It’s complicated,” I said.

[It’s quite frustrating to only be able to hear half this conversation,] said Amaryllis.

The lecture hall was much like the others, though a bit smaller, sized for forty instead of a hundred. It also had a wider area in the front, with pads placed down and a circle painted on them. They looked like wrestling mats; Colin had been in wrestling, and I’d gone to see his matches a few times.

Lisi found a seat, and looked back to make sure that I was following. Somewhat reluctantly, I took the seat beside her, a slave to my social impulses.

“Complicated how?” asked Lisi.

“The Council of Arches is a seven person body,” I replied. “My role isn’t exactly honorary, but the council can make most of its decisions without me if need be, and I’m not a lynchpin. I –”

My voice caught in my throat as I saw Reimer walk into the lecture hall. He saw me at once, given that it was still mostly empty, and he frowned at me for a moment before coming up the stairs to where we were sitting. That fucker was going to take a seat right behind me.

“You?” asked Lisi, prompting me to pick my train of thought back up.

“I have an entad that allows for extremely fast travel,” I said. “My plan is to commute for the duration of my education. I have a place in Li’o, but once I’m home it’s not much effort to make the transition, and the council is willing to accomodate me.” I resisted the urge to look back at Reimer.

“For how long?” asked Lisi.

“For as long as it takes for me to gain access to the magic,” I replied. “Until then, I’m just a normal student, like you.”

“I take offense at that,” said Lisi. She narrowed her eyes at me. “I’m six standard deviations from the norm.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Hi, I’m Reimer,” said Reimer, leaning down between the two of us and sticking his hand out toward Lisi. “Juniper and I went to high school together.”

“Reimer,” I said. “Please, just butt out?”

Lisi shook his hand, though she seemed skeptical.

[Why is Reimer there?] asked Amaryllis. I didn’t have a real answer to that question, except that he had probably independently signed up for the class.

Before we really had time to say anything more, our instructor walked in. He was intimidating from the first moment I laid eyes on him, that wiry muscle that old men sometimes had, and a face that was lined with tension. He wasn’t human, because he had four arms, but I wasn’t sure what species he was, only that he looked like he was about half a second away from shouting someone down. His head was shaved, with just enough stubble that I could tell, and his shirt was form-fitting, showing the muscles beneath it.

The rest of the class had trickled in, and the chatter around us settled into silence.

“This is Fundamentals of Combat Magic,” he said. He crossed both pairs of arms over his chest. “I’m Magus Oberlin. If you’re wondering about my species, I’m an endling, last of my kind. That’s as much as I want to say on the subject. This is a mixed-track, all-years course, but my specialty is vibration magic, with a sub-specialty in resonant frequency.” His voice was sharp and loud, and didn’t seem to be carried by any sort of magic. It was a smaller room, but still, that was a little bit intimidating.

He walked over to the desk and pulled out a handgun from one of the drawers and set it on the desk with a loud clunk.

“This is a handgun. It will kill most people just fine and takes far less time to train.” He was scanning the classroom, looking at us, and his eyes paused for a moment as he looked at me. I was tall and muscular, and I hoped that was what had caught his eye. “There are things that a handgun won’t work on. The majority of entad armor will stop a small-caliber round, and a minority will stop larger calibers. There are also a wide variety of mages who are immune or resistant to gunfire, including pseudo-mages like the blade-bound. There are species who will shrug off a bullet and monsters who will only gain power from them. Wards will also stop bullets dead in their tracks, if your target is bunkered down. It’s by no means a perfect solution, but it’s the first one you should reach for.”

He reached into the desk and pulled out a second handgun, this one of a slightly different make. He set it down next to the other handgun. “This is a void gun,” he said. “It’s considerably more difficult for potential targets to deal with, and is brutally effective at making holes in things. It’s also banned for personal use by the Third Empire, with no exceptions.” He strode forward, leaving the guns behind him. “These are two of the three low hanging fruit, if you have interest in being more lethal. They will make you deadly with little time, effort, or cost. The last of the three best tools is the right mindset, the ability and will to act with extreme violence at a moment’s notice. I won’t be teaching that here, but I can give recommendations, if it’s a skill you still need to learn.”

He drummed the fingers of one hand on the table. “There are two essential varieties of combat magic. The first is a tool added to the toolkit, existing magic turned toward violence because it’s one of those weapons we’re never without. Mages might be called upon to use when other tools,” he gestured to the guns on the table, “are not available to us. Based on my past experience, that’s why most of you are in this class. You will be learning magic here, at this athenaeum, or have already, and you want to know how to effectively use it against others, so that in a time of need you’re not trying to do something novel.”

He drummed his fingers on the table again. “If that’s your purpose in coming here, there will still be things for you to learn, but it’s not the focus of this class. Fundamentals of Combat Magic is a course aimed squarely at the other type of combat magic, the one focused entirely on incapacitating the enemy, not as a petty bonus of the magical arts, but as the sole aim of magical education and practice. Raise your hand if you intend to be a combat mage.”

I very slowly raised my hand. To my surprise, Lisi raised her hand too, not casually, but like she was straining to make sure it was noticed. I looked around the room a bit. We were in the minority. Seven people had raised their hands, and that was including me, in a class of maybe forty. I found myself wishing that I hadn’t raised my hand.

“You,” Magus Oberlin said, pointing at me. “Name.” His fingers were thicker than a humans, and I stared for a moment before answering.

“Juniper Smith,” I said.

“Why do you want to be a combat mage?” he asked.

“I don’t currently have much of a choice about whether I’ll be in combat or not,” I replied. “Given that it’s a certainty, I would rather have as many possible options for how to kill.” In truth, I was already a combat mage, or at least as close to a combat mage as you could get with skills piped directly into your brain and no formal education.

“Have you killed before?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. I braced for more questions, but mercifully, he moved on to the others, asking the same things of them. He saved Lisi for last.

“Why do you want to be a combat mage?” he asked.

“With respect,” she said. “I’m already a combat mage. I was trained at Quills and Blood.” Her cheeks were flushed.

“Bare augmentation?” he asked.

“No,” replied Lisi. “I can form the Claret Spear.”

“I see,” frowned Magus Oberlin. “And why do you want to be a combat mage?”

“Comparative advantage,” replied Lisi. Her lips were thin. “I’m predisposed towards violence and lacking in empathy. I will make a better combat mage than anyone else.”

Magus Oberlin nodded. “Good,” he said. He returned to behind the desk. “Those of you who raised your hands, it’s you who this class is for. If you’re here because you’d like to know and practice the combat applications of your magic, as a secondary aspect of your education, you’ll get something out of this class, but that’s not my primary aim.”

He looked out over the class. “The first lesson, and the focus of the rest of our time, is lethality. In a normal combat situation, it will be assumed that you are attempting to kill your opponent, and that they are attempting to kill you. Unfortunately, there is no perfect, idealized combat scenario. If you are a combat mage, you will likely be working for either the Third Empire or one of its member polities at the behest of Sound and Silence. That employment often comes with political and mission constraints, which might limit lethality. To give one example, hostage taking has been an effective aspect of warfare since the dawn of time. More insidiously, sometimes the powers-that-be wish to limit casualties because of how it would appear to the public, even if that requires risking a mage’s life.”

“Still mages in particular are often called in for the purposes of capture, rather than strict lethality. There aren’t many on this campus who will say a word about it, but during the time of the Second Empire, still mages were routinely employed to bring in subjects of interest alive so that their souls could be altered and they could first divulge every secret they knew before being volunteered into the ranks of expendable soldiers.” He grunted slightly. “It was not a policy that was as singularly effective as it might seem on first glance. In fact, if you read any number of texts on the era, or take Atrocity Studies, many writers will intimate that it was horrifying because it was an effective tactic. This was not the case. Dissidents who would otherwise have quietly gone to prison adopted high lethality means of defense, turning every arrest into a fully lethal fight. Sometimes support staff died. Sometimes void weapons, poisons, or other means were used, and still mages died, despite the best efforts of those involved. In other cases, when there was no hope to inflict damage, the potential targets, useful sources of information about their resistance networks, would simply kill themselves, condemning themselves to the hells as a price to be paid in the war waged against the Second Empire.”

Magus Oberlin looked around at us. “There are three primary takeaways here. The first is that in practical terms, a combat mage will be asked to refrain from lethality for reasons that may or may not be sensible, and if you are a soldier, you won’t always be privy to that decision-making. The second is that lethality is a consequence of escalation, something that happens when lesser means fail, or would guarantee defeat. And the third, naturally, is that there are prospects worse than death. By some measures, there are prospects worse than eternal torture at the hands of the hells.”

I could only barely fathom wanting something so badly that I was willing to suffer an eternity in the hells for it. Most of the worlds where I made that trade, it would be naked utilitarian logic, given that I knew when faced with eternal torture I would be so unable to comprehend the actuality of it that I’d just be running the numbers. I was a lot more likely than pretty much anyone else to run into the sort of situation where I had to choose between my own personal concerns and those of the wider world, and I’d already committed myself to the wider world, for sufficiently large quantities of ‘wider world’, but I had trouble mapping that to what members of the Second Empire resistance would have been feeling.

(Were it possible, I might have liked to spend time at the athenaeum just to learn more about this sort of thing. The books I had read about Aerb were broad spectrum, some of them suggested by a bookseller or marked as worthwhile by Amaryllis, but that was a far cry from being able to talk to people who had devoted a significant part of their life to learning about these things. I had no idea how the resistance would have operated, given that people could turn into snitches once captured, and even the anima exa could have memories pulled from it, even if that took a staggering amount of time and expertise.)

“This course will be broken down into individual case studies,” said Magus Oberlin. “We will discuss the lethal means available to every school of magic, starting with vibration and still magics, as well as the most common methods of defense against them. This is not to teach you how to attack and defend against every school of magic, which would take a lifetime, but to give us the fundamentals of combat magic through practical examples. Mixed in with that will be mock battles, carried on under Marquise Chamberset’s rules. Grades will be given following an individual question and response session with me at the end of term. That’s all for today’s class. If history is any guide, at least five of you will put in petitions to drop, and I see no reason not to give you adequate time before the next bell. Juniper Smith, a word.”

I sighed under my breath, and got up from my seat to go down and talk with him. I had one more class left, and at this rate, I was going to end the day with a whole host of small quests.

“You’re Finch’s man,” he said as he looked me over. “The multimage.”

I looked around us, where the rest of the students were still filing out. Many of them were looking our way. “That’s not public information,” I said, keeping my voice carefully controlled.

“Our conversation is private,” he said. He punctuated the final word by raising the volume, without any apparent effort on his part.

“Lip reading,” I said. “Entads.”

“To my office then,” he replied with a raised eyebrow.

I nodded and followed behind him as he left. Ermaretor had called me the bursar’s man. I didn’t quite know what kind of strings Finch had pulled behind the scenes, but I had hoped that the bursar and his secretary were the only ones who had a clear picture of what was going on. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case.

Magus Oberlin had a nice office. I would have expected, I don’t know, swords and guns up on the wall, but instead there were just lots and lots of books and a broad desk. He sat down behind the desk, then steepled his fingers with one set of hands while he gestured for me to sit opposite him with the other set. I wondered, idly, where he got his shirts from.

“Are we warded in here?” I asked.

“Against vibrational magic, yes,” he said. “Against entads? No. I could call in a warder and take up the rest of the day for both of us, if you’re that worried.”

“No,” I said. “It should be fine.” We try not to let Finch know anything that we don’t want the general public to know. “What did you want to talk about?”

“You’re a multimage,” he said. “Bone, blood, skin, and gems, according to Finch, all unregistered and unlicensed, without any trace of formal education.”

I frowned at that. I wasn’t actually sure how Finch knew that, but if he’d kept talking to eyewitnesses after we’d first met … I would have to do an inventory of everything I had done, and in front of whom, cross-referenced against what Finch could be presumed to have found out. It was good to know that I’d hidden at least some of my abilities.

“That’s all true,” I said. “I assume that Finch has some reason to trust you?”

“I trained him,” said Magus Oberlin with a smug smile.

“He’s … a mage?” I asked.

He shook his head. “He’s Uniquities. He worked under me for five years.”

“Sorry,” I said. “You worked in Uniquities with him?” I was trying to wrap my head around that and reshape the model I had of Oberlin.

Oberlin nodded. “I still ply my trade for them, when there’s cause.”

“Okay,” I replied. “That’s … good news, I guess. The bursar said that I needed signatures.”

“You’ll have mine,” replied Oberlin. “No real point in you coming to my class, unless you need to keep up the charade for some other reason. But Finch thinks that you’re the kind of person who trouble follows like a stink follows fish, and he asked for my help to make sure that if you get into shit here, you have someone to help bail you out.”

“I’m doing fine so far,” I replied, feeling just a touch defensive. “If you have intensive lessons to offer, I’m all ears. I also have access to a time chamber, if you want to spend a month or two training me. I have a lot in the way of liquid assets at the moment. I could pay you.”

Oberlin frowned at me, and finally looked momentarily nonplussed. “Tell me how you came by your magics.”

“What does Finch think?” I asked.

“Finch and I were talking by mail,” replied Oberlin. “Securely, in case you were wondering. We didn’t have room on our one-time pads for idle speculation. If you want my guesses, which are probably better than his, I’d say that you’re not the real Juniper Smith. There are dozens of ways to fake an identity, and most places aren’t too serious about stopping it from happening. That still makes you an impressive example of a multimage, but it’s less impressive if you’re a few hundred years old.”

“Wrong,” I said. “But it’s more believable than the truth.”

“Which is?” asked Oberlin.

I hesitated. “I can learn incredibly fast, under the right circumstances,” I said. “So far as I know, I’m a bog standard human, but I was introduced to blood magic from a neophyte student four months ago, and now I’m capable of doing bare augmentation.” I shrugged. “Not much more to it than that.”

“What other magics do you have?” he asked.

“Flower magic,” I said. “Library magic.” Soul magic.

“Soul magic,” said Oberlin.

“That would be pretty dumb of me, given the anolia,” I said. “The next time one looked at my soul, I’d be revealed as a soul mage, and then … I don’t know what the penalty is here, but in Anglecynn it would probably come with the penalty of death.”

“If you were good enough, you could carve it out before the anolia stopped you,” said Oberlin. “Finch told me that he floated the idea of one coming to the Isle of Poran for the sake of security and the idea was immediately shot down.”

Carving out Essentialism was my plan, if it came to that, though I would be loathe to lose it. Anolia couldn’t see into the soul instantly, and I was pretty fast with my Essentialism so high.

“Question,” I said. “Why in the hell are you telling me this?”

“I want your trust,” said Magus Oberlin. “According to Finch, you’re one of the more lethal people he’s met, with a great number of skills under your belt and a stockpile of entads. And here, at Sound and Silence, things have started to go rotten.”

“Rotten how?” I asked. Here comes the quest.

“There have been deaths and disappearances,” replied Oberlin. “Most of them linked to the temple in one way or another.”

“I heard of one death,” I said with a frown. “Dehydration or something. Or some entad interaction.”

“Five deaths,” replied Oberlin. “Four disappearances.”

“But … no one knows about it?” I asked. “How is that possible?”

“That’s what I need your help in finding out,” replied Oberlin. “The one death you probably heard about was a scandal, but that was because it happened inside the Li’o’te Temple itself. The others have either been in the city, or in the case of the disappearances, somewhere unknown. I suspect that it’s a coverup of some kind, though by who and for what purpose is a mystery. At best, institutional malfeasance.”

“And I’m, what, some unconnected person who you know is clean?” I asked. Gods, how many times had I used that line as a DM?

“You also have skills, and Finch has pulled some strings to get you down into the temple itself,” nodded Oberlin. “To hear him tell it, you were itching to go for your own reasons.”

“Who can I trust?” I asked.

Oberlin smiled. It was the first real smile I’d seen from him. “Finch said that you would dive right in.”

“Yeah, he knows me well enough to know that,” I replied. “Give me a week and I’ll destroy the conspiracy or cult or whatever it is, but first I need to know what you know, and I need to know who it would be dangerous to talk to.”

Oberlin raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t take you for the cocky type,” he said.

“I have a good team,” I replied. “Some people with centuries of experience, some with skills that are utterly unique to them.”

“Good,” nodded Oberlin. He opened up his desk and took a folder from inside it, which he slid across to me. “Do you have somewhere safe to put this?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Give me a second.”

I stood up and pulled back the sleeve that concealed my vambrace, then turned it so that I was in my panic/survival set, Space Plate, Ring of Upward Bliss, Ring of Partial Incorporeality, Bracelet of Panacea, a pair of unicorn bones in a bandolier, dead fairies, and the Needler with twenty copies dangling off my belt. Oberlin moved back a step, probably reflexively trying to put some distance between us given that I was fully armed and armored with unknown entads, but I just folded the folder up, slipped it into a loop in my bandolier, and then switched Alvion’s Vambrace back to mundane mode, safely hiding the envelope away in extradimensional space.

“Interesting,” said Magus Oberlin. “You’re better equipped than Finch suggested you would be.”

“Finch isn’t the only one hiding things,” I said. “Take that reveal as a token gesture of goodwill.”

Oberlin nodded. “Let me know before you make a move. If you’re just learning things, better for both of us to have some deniability about what’s going on. Maybe that’s paranoia, but I’ve spent too much time thinking about the risks a soul mage poses.”

“Were you … alive during the Second Empire?” I asked.

Oberlin gave me a skeptical look. “No,” he said. “Are you the kind of idealist that thinks soul mages aren’t out there, manipulating things as best they can from beneath the screenings that the Third Empire does? Do you think the Third Empire doesn’t have tame soul mages of its own to rip their way through captured prisoners?”

“You know that for a fact?” I asked.

Oberlin shrugged. “Could be.” I’ll take that as a yes. “You should get going, if you have another class for today.”

“Okay,” I replied. “What are your thoughts on teaching me in the time chamber?”

“I’d have to get an anolia to check you over,” Oberlin replied. “The athenaeum keeps a cluster on staff, and I’m friends with a few.” He was eyeing me as he said it.

I’d have to junk my skill in Essentialism back down to zero in order to pass that particular test. I was loathe to do it, in part because it had taken a long time to get so high, because it would be harder to raise up again given what had happened in the past, and because it was a really useful skill I didn’t want to be without.

“I’ll pass on that inspection for now,” I said. It was a tacit admission that I was, in fact, a soul mage, or if not that, that I was hiding something in my soul that I didn’t want anyone to see. Anolia were invasive, that was true, but I wasn’t particularly convinced that I could sell indignation about that test.

“Suit yourself,” said Oberlin with a nod. “If you prove yourself, maybe I’d be willing to relax that requirement.”

I left his office shortly afterward, and was surprised to find Lisi and Reimer leaning up against the far wall. They were close enough that I thought they’d probably been carrying on a conversation with each other. They both looked at me like they expected something from me.

“I don’t have time for this,” I said. “I have to get across campus for Ethics.”

“We have it too,” said Lisi with a short nod.

“Okay,” I said. I took off without waiting for them, even though I only had a vague understanding of where to go.

“What did you talk about with him?” asked Reimer as he fell into step behind me.

“Classified,” I replied.

“By what authority?” asked Lisi. “If it’s by a classifying authority of Anglecynn, there’s a good chance that I have clearance. Do you have a codephrase?”

“Not Anglecynn,” I replied.

“You implied that you were working with Anglecynn,” said Reimer.

“Yeah, I did,” I said as I pushed out a set of double doors and into the midday light. “Didn’t I say you’d be better off not getting involved in any of this?”

“Like I was ever going to listen,” said Reimer. “You’re trying to push me out of this like I’m some NPC.”

“NPC?” asked Lisi.

“Non-player character,” said Reimer. “It’s a whole thing. Like a bit part in a play.”

“Oh,” said Lisi. She turned her attention back to me. “What business does the Republic of Miunun have here?” she asked.

“Classified,” I said.

“Wait,” said Reimer. “What’s the Republic of Miunun?”

“It’s the government he claims to be on the advisory council of,” said Lisi.

“How in the fuck did that happen?” asked Reimer. “And how … why would that girl you were with be a part of it?”

“Classified,” I said again.

“Are you classifying things as we speak because you don’t want to talk about them?” asked Lisi with a frown. “That’s bad practice.” She turned to Reimer. “What girl?”

“Uh,” said Reimer. “Classified?”

We mercifully reached the lecture hall and went about finding our seats, but Lisi apparently wasn’t the sort to simply let things go just because we’d walked into a classroom. Unfortunately, there were three seats in a row, and we all ended up sitting together, mostly because I was worried about what would come from Lisi and Reimer sitting together (and what might already have come from them talking to each other outside Oberlin’s office).

The course, Ethics, was a mainstay of the modern athenaeum system, and it was one that Amaryllis had taken at Quills and Blood, so I had some idea about what to expect. What had happened was, essentially, that someone at some point had pointed out that the athenaeums were complicit in a lot of the crimes of the Second Empire, whether that was by furnishing the Empire with trained personnel, or more directly using their considerable sway to make things worse (for given values of worse). Obviously this was a serious structural problem that no one wanted to have repeated a second time. Less obviously, the solution was to teach people to be ethical, which was to be done early in the education process for people who were going to find themselves in a fair bit of power. I couldn’t tell whether this was laughably idealistic thinking, or simple virtue signaling, but I was leaning toward the latter. I was expecting it to be the most boring thing in the world, so I was mildly surprised to find myself paying attention.

“It’s important to note that the Second Empire did not see themselves as doing anything wrong,” said our teacher. “It’s a trite Utherian observation that everyone is the hero of their own story, but the Second Empire was more than simply a lack of perspective, of the inside view being different than the outside view, it was an ideology with a great many thinkers, thinkers who weren’t justifying their actions to themselves as so many people do, but who were operating according to that ideology. We don’t talk too much about that ideology these days, which is a shame, because it increases the chance that if you see it in the wild, you’ll find it attractive, and be unequipped to deal with the imperial memeplex.”

She grinned at us. “So let’s dive right in and talk about trolls. Through the course of the Second Empire’s one hundred and seventy-one year history, there were two consistent, opposing, and complementary trains of thought, held by two overlapping groups. The first group was progressive, concerned primarily with the betterment of people, and saw itself as the heir to Uther Penndraig, who brought so many well-loved reforms and technologies into the world that he was regarded as something of a saint by those people, someone touched by a higher power, which he might well have been. The second group was a group of abject pessimists, who thought that it was only a matter of time before either civilization or life itself would be wiped from the face of the universe. They also saw themselves as the heirs to Uther Penndraig’s empire. From the marriage of these two broad groups comes the imperial motto, ‘Ever onward, against the dark’.”

She took a sip from a glass of water. She was looking over everyone in the lecture hall, more than a hundred of us, her bright eyes looking for signs of engagement. “The trolls were perceived as a problem by both groups. They were a tall, brutishly strong species, with low impulse control, fast breeding, and fast regeneration. The trolls were barely intelligent enough to form rudimentary kingdoms, even with social and cultural technology imported from elsewhere, and those kingdoms were, on the whole, violent toward their neighbors and nearly incapable of engaging in trade. The Second Empire didn’t particularly want any of the troll lands, but its member countries found themselves constantly defending against the troll kingdoms. Even when such defense was relatively assured, it was still a drain on resources, one that the Second Empire found to be wholly unacceptable. They were, after all, pressing forward and trying to make the world a better place, trying to secure a future against a hostile world, twin tasks so monumentally important that problems like the trolls needed to be looked at with a clean and clinical eye.”

She looked out at the class. “This, I think, is the Second Empire as it should be taught. Yes, the end result was xenocide, but from the inside that wasn’t how it looked. If we’re to keep ourselves from repeating their mistakes, we need to familiarize ourselves with that inside view, the better to see the errors in their ways. I’ll go through the remaining history of the trolls very briefly, for those whose schooling skipped it. The first concrete action that the Second Empire took was to topple the troll kings and institute leadership of their own, administrators who would oversee what was only barely a government and institute the particular type of planned economy that was in vogue at the time. They dealt with the inevitable problems that follow from that sort of thing, which the Second Empire would become well-acquainted with over the years, dissident populations, asymmetric warfare, worker strikes, and the general problems that come with governance by force rather than governance by consent. The trolls remained a problem for the Second Empire, but now one that was entirely their own burden to bear, and an early test of the second imperial experiment. Cultural programs were employed to help bring the trolls into the fold, but their low impulse control and low intelligence wasn’t something that could be entirely cured through such means. Many of the trolls who were brought into the developing cosmopolitan society would wind up committing crimes that got them sent to prison, which was a further burden on the empire.”

“At some point, someone began thinking that it would be better if there were fewer trolls in the world, or more likely, people had thought that all along and a shift in social mores happened which allowed them to speak previously unspoken thoughts. The Second Empire started with relatively innocuous measures in that direction, as compared with what they would do later on. They called it voluntary sterilization, a measure done chemically, magically, and virally, all in service of reducing the birth rates of the troll kingdoms down to virtually nothing, usually implemented by the imperial governors and their staff, none of them trolls themselves. When there were few takers for voluntary sterilization, incentives began to be offered, and the trolls, lacking impulse control, began to comply en masse. Populations began to drop dramatically, and it was accounted as one of the early successes of the Second Empire.”

Maybe I should have mentioned this before, but our instructor was demonblooded. She had two small horns, light purple-red skin, and black hair that was carefully plaited. It was hard to think that people were going to be participating in the Demonblooded Festival in a few short days and putting someone that looked like her to death almost purely for the misfortune of how they were born. It was something that I was keeping in mind within the context of what she was saying.

“They saw what they did as humane,” our instructor continued. “They erased a culture from the world, extinguished a language, wiped away a species, and removed what they saw as a somewhat significant problem. The ‘voluntary’ sterilization program was seen as an unmitigated success, and those who worked on it turned their sights to other populations that the collective might be better off without, largely r-selected species of lower intelligence. By that point they had done the majority of the groundwork and knew how to do such things simply, easily, and with cost efficiency. They had gotten good at arguing their case to others.” Her smile had become subdued. “Most of you aren’t here because you really want to be. You probably think that of course you’re not evil, and you don’t need a course to tell you how best to not commit atrocities. This course is required for anyone going into combat or biological tracks, and for many, it will seem like a burden. It’s a difficult course to teach, I’ll say that outright, because what we really desire here is not that you will all memorize some key set of facts, or attain a particular mode of thinking, but that you will be transformed such that the ethical mode of thought is your default.”

The bell rang not long after that, and I was left kind of stunned, not because anything she’d said had been all that novel to me, but because she hadn’t seemed to deliver the punchline. I got up from my seat and went down to speak with her.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Juniper Smith, I’m hoping that the bursar spoke with you?”

“Oh,” she replied with a faint frown. “Yes. There’s no need for you to attend this class.”

“Okay,” I said. “I just wanted to make sure that there was no issue.”

“No,” she replied. She gave me a skeptical look. “Why would there be?”

Because you’re an ethics professor? “No reason,” I said. “Some of the other instructors have wanted to speak with me.”

“I don’t see a need for that,” she replied. She had been putting papers into a messenger bag, notes that she’d been consulting, or spare mimeographed copies of the syllabus. “I can finish the paperwork on my side tonight and get them to the bursar as soon as possible.”

I didn’t like that response. “Can I ask … what should the Second Empire have done about the trolls?” I took note of Lisi and Reimer standing by the door as the rest of the class continued filing out. They were clearly waiting for me, which I didn’t enjoy, and they were talking, which I also didn’t enjoy.

The instructor froze at the question. “Are you asking because of actual interest?” she asked. “Curious.”

“It’s curious?” I asked. “Wasn’t that the point of the lesson? Thinking about ethics?”

“It just doesn’t happen often,” she replied. “I could count the number of times someone had approached me outside of class to talk about the lesson on a single hand.”

“Really?” I asked.

“The class is mandatory, as I mentioned,” she replied with a shake of her head. “There are some significant pressures in place for instructors not to outright fail someone, and the class sizes are large enough that what I’m attempting to do, which is to shape minds, can’t really be done effectively.” She finished packing up her things. “If you’d like, I can give you some outside instruction, though I wasn’t under the impression that you were going to be here long, or that your attendance was anything more than a formality.”

“I was honestly just curious,” I replied. “I mean, as you described it, the Second Empire was facing an outside threat, an expensive one, and one that they didn’t really have much of a way to deal with without spending an enormous amount of money on either administration or defense. I’m right in thinking that the troll kingdoms were warlike?”

“They were,” replied the instructor with a nod. “The glib answer is that the Second Empire’s first mistake was in committing xenocide, but I think that ignores how they viewed themselves.” She glanced at the door. “Do you have a fifth class today?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, so long as I’m not keeping you,” she said with a nod. “Do you think that the lesson would have been better with some contemplation of things that the Second Empire could have done instead?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess … I guess I just expected it. You present a problem, you show how they dealt with it, and then there’s no alternative solution. Right? The trolls were always going to be nipping at the Second Empire, presumably. I’m not really a student of history, but that’s how you laid it out.”

“I did,” she replied. “We risk getting too bogged down in the specifics, but the troll ‘problem’ was debatably not a problem at all. The trolls could barely cobble together an army on their best days, and the real problem was that trolls would simply wander in over national borders, something their kings would generally not do anything about. It took trained personnel to deal with a troll, which was a cost to the Second Empire, but it wasn’t a cost that couldn’t be borne. They just felt no need to bear that cost in the long term, or considered that cost too high.”

“Because of their ideals?” I asked. “Because they were looking forward and trying to make progress, or worried about the end of the world?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “And if you believed that the world was going to end, then perhaps you would look at the numbers in your ledger, see the cost incurred by suffering the trolls to live, and make a judgment call.” She shrugged. “It’s difficult, to seek the nobility in the Second Empire, but I think it’s vital, because it explains how and why they did what they did. I should note that what happened with the trolls was very early on in their history, before anyone can start laying blame at the feet of the Guild of the Essential Soul.”

[Juniper, status?] asked Amaryllis.

I swallowed once. There was no point in this conversation, not really, but it was bugging me. I still needed to meet with Magus Ermaretor, then hopefully figure out what the hells was happening down in the temple, who was involved in this presumed shadowy conspiracy, and find some way to shake both Reimer and Lisi, hopefully permanently.

I wanted to see the numbers though. Surely the Second Empire must have run them, right? Someone, somewhere, had to have seen that the trolls were a cost incurred by the Second Empire, and then … well, it would make so much more sense if they had been placing too low a value on the trolls, or if they had just been genocidal monsters, or whatever. Voluntary sterilization seemed so harmless, the equivalent to handing out condoms, and if someone on Earth had done that … well, if someone on Earth had done that and specifically targeted human races that they didn’t want to exist anymore, well, there we might have some fundamental problems with actual racism, not that it would be terribly better if it were classism instead. But it was different with the trolls, because even from someone who was arguing against the Second Empire, the trolls were regarded as stupid and impulsive, and they were that way even if you changed their socioeconomic context. Was any of that trustworthy or true?

It was all irrelevant. I wasn’t there to debate ethics, I was there to get a rubber stamp so I could gain power and move on to the next thing.

“I might have some more questions,” I said. “Tomorrow, though.”

She gave me a skeptical nod. “I’ll send the paperwork over to the bursar tonight.”

I left the classroom, and almost immediately had Lisi and Reimer in tow, which was not my preferred state of affairs.

“Reimer said that you were with a woman who looked like a Penndraig,” said Lisi.

I cast a murderous look at Reimer.

“In my defense,” said Reimer. “Lisi’s actually kind of threatening.”

“Thank you,” said Lisi. “I am a blood mage.” She turned to me. “So who was she?”

“Classified,” I said. “Just a moment.” I moved Parson’s Voice up and pressed against it. It was really difficult to use it discreetly, especially sending messages intended for both ends, so I’d decided that I just wasn’t going to bother, not around these two, not when Reimer had probably already told Lisi everything that he knew. “I’m out, sorry that took longer than expected. I have a meeting with Ermaretor, then I’d like an escort home. Lisi and Reimer are with me.”

[Noted,] replied Amaryllis.

“We were going to get something to eat,” said Lisi. “The campus cafeteria is surprisingly good.”

My stomach was rumbling. There wasn’t all that much time between classes, and I hadn’t brought a snack.

“Who were you talking to, if it’s not classified?” asked Lisi.

“It’s definitely classified,” said Reimer.

I tapped Parson’s Voice again. “Any particular reason to keep this secret?” I asked. “Point of contention number two?”

[Lisianthus is not the ideal entry point,] replied Amaryllis. [How much did Reimer tell her?]

“Probably everything,” I replied.

[We’re not situated well for this,] said Amaryllis. [We’re a country whose entire citizenry, bureaucracy, and army is currently located within a foreign city, and will be for the next two weeks.]

“You could go back,” I said. “Split the party again.” I didn’t actually know where Amaryllis was, but I assumed that she was close by, ready to come running in case there was any danger.

“You know that it’s rude to talk to other people with us next to you, right?” asked Reimer.

[My plan was that the curious members of the Lost King’s Court would come to me on the Isle of Poran and step into Bethel,] said Amaryllis. [That would have given me significant leverage for rejoining Anglecynn, to the extent that it’s going to be possible for me to do that. If they go to the Isle of Poran now, they’ll find it nearly abandoned.]

“Lisi,” I said, still touching Parson’s Voice. “How much back channeling do you do with the kingdom of Anglecynn?”

[It wouldn’t be back channeling, it would be channeling,] said Amaryllis.

“It would be channeling, not back channeling,” said Lisi. “And the answer is practically none. I was supposed to have a shadow, but I haven’t found him yet. I may not rate one.”

“Okay, well, my superior says that it’s still classified,” I replied. I made sure that Parson’s Voice was still pressed when I said that, so Amaryllis could hear. We both knew that she wasn’t my superior, but I thought she would probably catch the humor in my voice.

“Do you want to eat with us?” asked Lisi.

“I have a meeting with one of the magi,” I said. I hesitated. “Tomorrow, maybe.”

“What kind of shit have you gotten into, Joon?” asked Reimer.

“Classified,” said Lisi, rolling her eyes at me. “Dinner together then?” she asked Reimer.

“Uh, yeah, sure,” he replied.

They split off, together, which was worrisome, and I continued on to Ermaretor’s office.

“Oh, Juniper!” she said when I came in. “Lovely that you made time to come. Close the door behind you.”

There were blackout curtains in her office, covering the large windows. I wondered why in the world she’d been given an office with such big windows if they were going to be permanently closed to the outside world, but maybe it was a status game of some kind. Her office was nearly as colorful as her clothes, which highlighted the monochrome greys, blacks, and whites of her hair and skin. It was stark, in its own way, and a little bit disorienting.

“How was your first day?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. “I met some people, I guess.”

“But you’re not staying here for long,” she replied with a nod of her head.

“No,” I replied.

“And tell me,” she continued. “Are you a traveller on the path made by others?”

“The … what?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she replied, shaking her head. “You would know it, if you were.”

“Can I ask what this meeting is about?” I asked. “The bursar said that there shouldn’t be any trouble, so long as I could make it through a week of classes.”

“The bursar says many things,” Magus Ermaretor replied. “Can I ask, do you meditate?”

“Some,” I replied. Only when doing library magic. “Why?”

“It’s important for the temple,” she said. “It’s not mandatory that people take classes on meditation prior to going into the temple, because the environment there is conducive to it, but many take one or two supplemental practice sessions. Free of charge, naturally, since it helps to ensure we make the most of a scarce resource.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll look into it.”

“One class, mandatory,” she replied, staring me down. “That’s one of my requirements.”

“One of?” I asked.

“You have to understand that what the bursar is asking is irregular,” she replied. “If something were to go wrong, questions might be asked, and while the bursar is the one sticking his neck out, it’s those of us he’s roped into this that will be splashed by his blood when the board of directors beheads him.”

I hoped that was figurative.

“What are the other requirements?” I asked.

“I’d like to know who you are and where you come from,” she replied. “Not the full truth, mind you, but at least the story that you’ve been telling people who have asked, with enough details that I can know if you’re an unsavory element, at least you’re one that’s done his homework. It wouldn’t do to have your threadbare backstory exposed with a gentle wind. There’s no one investigating you now, presumably, but if they do in the future … well, I have a future here, one that I’m looking to protect.”

“I’m the Advisor on Culture for the Republic of Miunun,” I said. “We’re a fledgling nation with very little in the way of magical power. The plan is for me to be rushed through initiation, then study independently in a time chamber for as many years as it takes.”

“A time chamber?” she asked.

“Sand magic,” I replied. “It allows years to pass in the space of a day.”

“With private instructors?” she asked. Her black eyebrows drew down as she looked at me.

“No,” I said. “The plan was to learn mostly from books.”

“That would be a long, arduous process,” replied Ermaretor with a twitch of her lips. “You would be spending years of your life just to get a thing done quickly. Why not hire a proper still mage?”

“With respect, we’re in a precarious position. Outsourcing magical abilities doesn’t seem like it would be too smart, at least not at the present moment.” I shrugged. “It was decided that I could wear another few hats to better serve our interests. Advisor on Culture, chief still mage, and chief vibrational mage.”

“They’re worried about spies?” asked Ermaretor. Her frown had deepened.

“As I’ve said,” I replied. “We’re a fledgling nation. In another few years, we’re probably going to be pretty important, given a number of advantages we’re going to leverage. People already seem to know that, but our intelligence services are, frankly, rather poor because they’re still being built, and we don’t have the necessary expertise to properly vet outside hires.” A lot of this was completely true; Amaryllis thought it was fairly likely that one or two of the teachers she’d hired for the tuung were agents for either foreign nations or other agencies who answered to the Empire.

“Interesting,” said Ermaretor. “The bursar appears to be playing with fire. You understand that once you’ve undergone the initiation, you’ll be beholden to Sound and Silence?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “You get a portion of my salary for services rendered, and some other binding stuff.”

“A week isn’t long enough to teach you our culture,” said Ermaretor. “I’m skeptical that you could become a mage of either flavor just from an extended period studying books, but if you did, you wouldn’t be one of the right stripes.”

“I’m completely fine operating under the framework that everyone else does,” I said. “It’s very important that I don’t spend the next several years at this athenaeum though. I’ll divert a portion of my salary and do whatever else is asked of me, so long as I can learn the art in my own way.”

Ermaretor leaned back. “Very well then. I believe I’ve done my due diligence. A single session of meditation though, that’s the remainder of your obligation to me.”

“Plus classes?” I asked.

Ermaretor looked aghast. “Of course I expect you to attend. How would that look if you didn’t?”

“Just checking,” I replied. I wasn’t sure that I was going to skip out on Ethics, and I definitely wasn’t skipping Combat Magic, but not forcing me to attend seemed entirely sensible. “I’ll attend the meditation class you recommended and do my best to make sure that you’re in the clear as far as potential problems go. We want this to be as smooth as you do.”

That, at last, seemed to unruffle some feathers, and I left her office shortly afterward.

“It went fine,” I said to Parson’s Voice. “No attempt on my life or anything, just some political stuff, plus a cryptic question at the start, something about a path.”

[Do you have more than that?] asked Amaryllis. [I’m around the corner, coming to meet you.]

“Hold up,” I said. Four people in robes were approaching me. Two were likely human, a man with a neatly trimmed beard and woman with a mask, both older, but the other two were more exotic species, tywood (a sand-dwelling species), and rhannu (who reproduced via mitosis). They were all looking at me, and not looking happy.

“You’re human,” said the rhannu. She was on the small side, five feet tall, with purple streaks in her hair that I was pretty sure were from dye, and purple streaks on her skin that were part of the coloration her species had. I was pretty used to the wide variety of species on Aerb, and I’d read The Book of Blood more or less cover to cover, but I still took a moment to look for the other distinctive features relative to the human baseline. Larger eyes, smaller forehead, a large set of ears and a small one beneath it, and an extra finger. Nothing you couldn’t do with a little CGI. They hadn’t been from one of my more exotic phases, their interesting breeding aside.

“Can I help you?” I asked, looking between the four of them. All older, I thought, though it was tough to say how much. Thirties? Forties?

“You’re human,” the rhannu repeated, jabbing a finger my direction.

“I have no idea who any of you are,” I replied. “So, I’m just going to leave.”

“We’re the Student Council,” said the tywood (three feet tall, lizard-like, with knees that bent backward).

“Okay,” I said. I was bewildered. “I don’t actually know what the student council does here, or what your powers are, but I haven’t had dinner yet.”

“You’re human,” repeated the rhannu for the third time. “You’re here under provisions that were put in place in order to help and protect special cases. They’re not for humans, they’re for rhannu and renacim, among others.”

The rhannu reproduced via mitosis, like cells did. When that happened, each would get a portion of the skills and memories of the original, and my guess was that this worked via the soul somehow. They would die if they didn’t split every thirty or forty years, and each half had to spend some time building back up into a whole person again, mostly mentally rather than physically. Now that she mentioned it, I could clearly see how Sound and Silence might have to have some kind of provision for her species.

“Is it the link between the Li’o Temple or the Rod of Whispers that doesn’t transfer when you split?” I asked.

“Both,” she said, crossing her arms. I’d thought there was an outside chance that me knowing a bit about her rather rare species might help, but if anything, it had the opposite effect. “My ancestor was the one who helped get the Special Returning rule created.”

“Alright,” I said.

“What are your special circumstances?” she asked.

I looked between the four of them, trying to figure out what was going on, other than that the rhannu was upset, which was obvious enough. “I don’t think I’m required to say,” I replied. “And like I said, I haven’t had dinner yet, so.”

“The SSSC has broad authorities,” said the human man. He was gray at the temples, but a bit baby-faced despite that. “We might not be able to expel you, but we can censure instructors. After we talk to them, it’s doubtful that they’ll want to sign off on the form.” There was no passion in his voice whatsoever, but his speech was quite cold.

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

“You’re cheating the system,” said the rhannu. “Two years, would that be so hard, to be just like everyone else? You’re using a rule that’s not for you.”

This was going sideways in a hurry. If I had things right, the bursar had been the one to have me follow this ‘Special Returning’ rule, because he had the authority to do so, but per the rules, I needed a week of classes and a sign-off from the instructors, which was now under threat. I didn’t think Oberlin would give a fuck, but this was exactly the sort of thing that Ermaretor had been worried about.

“You’re right,” I said. “We’re using the rule in a way that it wasn’t intended to be used.” I probably can’t get away with just saying that it’s classified. “I’m here on behalf of the Empire. I’m investigating the recent deaths. It’s vital that I be allowed to operate as a normal student, and unfortunately, this was the only way that we were able to accomplish that.”

That shook them out of their subroutines. “You’re … a spy?” asked the tywood, who hadn’t yet spoken. His voice was surprisingly mellifluous.

“Spy is a strong word,” I replied. “Undercover though? Yes, that would fit.” I looked between the four of them. “We don’t know who’s involved, and that’s what I’m trying to find out. Going in with guns blazing wouldn’t suit that approach.” I was really hoping that none of them were reporting to the enemy, whoever that was, but I didn’t think that I had much of a choice here, given that they were capable (and presumably willing) to sink my shot at two of the most difficult to attain magics.

“We’ll be checking up on this,” said the rhannu. She folded her arms across her chest. “You understand that.”

“I do,” I replied. “Send a certified letter to Uniquities. I’ll have them confirm.” And if they don’t want to, then I’m sunk and I’ll disappear from this place like I was never here, but hell if this isn’t a problem. “I need to know who informed you that I was here under the Special Returning rule.”

“We don’t need to tell you,” replied the rhannu. “We were told in confidence.”

“But,” said the man, stroking his chin, “If there really is something nefarious going on, then it’s possible we’re being manipulated.”

The rhannu turned on him. “How?” she asked. “Manipulated by actually following procedure?”

“Yes,” replied the man with a nod. “Historically speaking, that’s a common tool of people with nefarious intent, and one of the primary failure modes of anonymous or pseudonymous reporting.”

The tywood let out a sigh. “Later. We’ll send out a certified letter and go from there, before we take any action.”

“Even if it is clandestine imperial business, isn’t that worse?” asked the rhannu. “The empire can’t come in and do whatever they please here, and they’re weakening institutional trust.”

“Assuming anyone finds out,” replied the bearded man. “And given that he must have sanction from someone at the top, that implies that the matter has already passed some level of institutional review.”

“Perhaps storming across campus to confront him was a mistake,” replied the masked woman with a monotone that I couldn’t help but think was a little sarcastic.

The rhannu seemed to realize that she’d lost much of her support in a few short minutes. “Fine,” she said. She turned back to me. “When you find something, let us know. That’s our condition.”

“‘Our’ is a strong word, Jiph,” said the masked woman.

“It’s my condition,” said the rhannu.

“Okay,” I said, having no actual intent to do so. “I’m working toward the best interests of S&S. Hopefully this will all be resolved soon.”

The rhannu, Jiph, stormed off, and the other members of the student council followed after her. I mentally added that to the list of things that I had to worry about, which was growing fairly long at this point. Had they all stepped out of a meeting together to come find me? It seemed bizarre.

Amaryllis came up next to me a few minutes later, wearing her full plate with the helmet firmly in place, a necessary precaution given that there was a greater risk of her being recognized than previously thought.

“How are we doing?” she asked.

“Good,” I replied. “One day down, four to go, about half a dozen sub-plots to keep track of. No homework though.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 145: Freshman

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