Between keeping one eye on his hastily-sketched map of the campus and one on where they were walking, and half an ear attuned to Gabriel’s chatter, Toby’s attention was well divided as they made their way to their first class. He hated to snub any of his fellow students, but he simply didn’t have any focus to spare for the returning upperclassmen they passed along the paths; luckily, they mostly ignored the two freshmen as well, so at least he wasn’t offending anyone. Hopefully he’d soon have his feet under him and would be able to pay more mind to people in the future. People were always important.
“So I saw the other paladin this morning when I was out nosing around,” said Gabriel, suddenly catching a bigger share of Toby’s attention. “The blonde?”
“Yeah, Trissiny,” he replied. “Left here, Gabe. Your other left, up the stairs. Yeah, I met her last night. Nice girl, very down to earth.”
“Mm.” Gabriel slouched along, hands thrust into the pockets of his sweeping black coat. It was a striking effect; between the coat, his prominent nose and tousled black hair, he looked like a self-important crow, though Toby privately thought he’d be a lot better-looking if he would stand up straight and dress more carefully. “Tall, too. Not bad looking, either, in a sort of gangly way. It’s funny, the Hand of Avei not looking anything like the Avenic ideal.”
“Avei has absolutely no interest in how pretty anyone is,” Toby said wearily. “The so-called ‘Avenic ideal’ is just Imperial society deciding that curvy, dark-haired women are attractive because that’s what Avei happens to look like. I seriously doubt she’s pleased to have her name attached to it.”
“Yeah, well, no offense to Miss Trissiny but I happen to think that ideal is pretty great.” Grinning, Gabe finally removed his hands from his pockets and made a vulgar squeezing motion with them. “I like a lady with a little something I can sink my fingers into.”
Toby came to a stop. They had arrived at the uppermost level of the University, which housed the administrative offices, the dining hall, greenhouses and Helion Hall, their destination. He turned to face Gabriel directly, tucking the map into his pocket.
“You know, Omnu pays attention to what’s around me. The gods don’t watch everywhere all the time, but from things he’s revealed during my meditations, I can tell that he makes a point to be aware of events in my vicinity.”
“Uh, yeah, you guys are great together,” Gabriel said, frowning. “Why are we stopping?”
“There’s a paladin of Avei at this University, as we were just discussing, which probably means that Avei is keeping an eye on things here. Avei, goddess of war and justice, and the protector of women. A goddess of the Pantheon, and thus predisposed not to give you the benefit of the doubt, Gabe. So maybe it would be smart if you didn’t walk around campus loudly talking about girls like sides of meat in a butcher’s window.”
Gabriel paled slightly, which didn’t go at all well with his copper complexion. “Ah, well…you didn’t let me finish. I just think it’s a shame, how society imposes such arbitrary standards on women. Good on Avei, ignoring all that when picking a paladin.”
Toby snorted, turning and resuming his walk. “Nice save.”
“Yeah, that’s me. Slick as buttered silk.”
The entrance to Helion Hall was up a short flight of broad marble steps, just left of the dining hall. Both boys paused in the foyer, peering around.
“This is a bit more like home,” Gabe noted. “I was half-afraid this whole place would be made of logs or something.” They stood in a handsome, vaulted entry hall with a glossy marble floor. Dark wood paneling was interspersed with flute columns rising to a dome two stories up, which was inset with stained glass windows. “Which way from here? You still have that map, right?”
“I think that’s a hint,” said Toby, pointing. Opposite the door ahead of them was a hefty wooden desk, currently unmanned; on either side, hallways opened. The one on the left was marked with a small cardboard sign reading FRESHMEN with an arrow pointing down it.
“Well, sure, if you’re gonna go paying attention to stuff. Showoff.”
Toby nudged him with an elbow, grinning, and received a good-natured jostle in return. Together, they strode off as the sign indicated. After only a few feet, the left wall vanished and they found themselves walking down a marble colonnade. Aside from the pillars holding up the roof, all that stood between them and a lovely, terrifying view over the side of the mountain was a chest-high fence of wrought iron.
“Oh, good, an outdoor hallway,” Gabriel groused. “Does it snow in winters around here?”
“I think we’re too far north for that.”
“Well, that’s something. Does it rain?”
“Yeah. You can tell, because everything’s not, y’know…dead.”
“Sir, I believe I have spoken to you about throwing logic around when I’m being melodramatic.”
The open walkway curved around the outside of the apparently round building. It terminated at a heavy-looking wooden door, which proved to be either not as sturdy as it appeared or impeccably balanced; at any rate, it swung open easily to admit them to their classroom. The boys found themselves at the bottom of a small amphitheater, with rows of small desks and chairs occupying two ascending levels. They entered at a little stage on which sat a lectern and another, much larger desk, which was against the opposite wall near the other door.
Their classmates had already arrived.
Trissiny immediately caught Toby’s eye and gave him a bright smile, which he returned. Of the other girls, only Teal glanced up upon their entrance, also grinning delightedly at him. It was good to see them both in good spirits. The rest of the freshmen girls were apparently absorbed in a conversation taking place between the drow and a tiny fluttering ball of light.
“Three to one,” Gabriel murmured. “I like these odds. It’s like a buffet.”
At that, though he had spoken barely above a whisper, the dark elf turned her head to fix Gabe with a chillingly neutral stare, and Toby fought down the urge to slap a hand to his face. Gabriel fancied himself a ladies’ man, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, the drow quickly turned her attention back to the conversation.
“I know it’s not in the student handbook or any official University policy,” the pixie was chattering loudly enough to be plainly heard, “but I read and listened as much as I could about human customs from anybody who’d help me learn them and yes I know neither of us is human but we’re staying here now and it’s only polite to respect their customs and anyway I think this is a good one, right? I mean, it makes sense, right? So since it’s our room we can make it our own official rule: if anybody’s having sex, they hang a sock on the door handle so everybody knows not to accidentally barge in on them.”
“Fross,” the drow said with serene patience, “casual sexual encounters are utterly out of the question for me for cultural reasons, and with all due respect, I doubt you will be able to find a physically compatible partner on this campus. This appears to be a non-issue.”
“Also,” added a dark-skinned girl in a huge hat and coat, one row down, “apparently boys can’t even get in the tower.”
“What do boys have to do with it?” Fross began buzzing around in agitated circles. “So if the rule’s never needed that’s fine, that doesn’t hurt anybody or cost anything, which is so much better than if it turns out that we need a rule and it’s not there and then somebody ends up embarrassed or worse, right? I mean, we’re new here and there’s no telling what might happen and life is unpredictable and all, especially since neither of us knows all that much about the customs! You get what I’m saying?!”
“It’s a comfort thing,” said the green-haired woman softly. “Rules help us know what’s expected of us in unfamiliar surroundings.”
“You present several compelling arguments,” the elf said seriously, her eyes tracking her darting roommate. “I find your proposal agreeable. We shall consider it a rule.”
“Okay. Okay, good.” Fross slowed her oscillations, settling into a hover over the desk. “Okay, that’s fine, then!”
Gabriel chose that moment to swagger up the stairs ringing the amphitheater and lean against the nymph’s desk, grinning. “Hi there. I’m Gabriel.”
“Well, hi!” She turned to face him with a bright smile. “My name’s Juniper!”
“Juniper, I have never been so delighted to learn anything in my life. So, did you invite all these people? I was hoping we’d have privacy.” She laughed delightedly, but from the next row up, Trissiny lowered her eyebrows, staring hard at Gabe. Once again, Toby repressed a groan. Hassling female students was the quickest possible way to get on the Hand of Avei’s bad side. Not that Juniper seemed at all averse, but even that had its inherent risks. Obviously the dryad wouldn’t be here if she were hostile, but fae were unpredictable at best. He had to let his friend make his own mistakes, but…maybe smaller ones, to start out?
His ruminations were interrupted when the door on the far wall opened and a slender blonde woman strode in.
“Class rule,” she announced. “Anyone not in their seat when I reach mine will be expelled. From a catapult.”
Neither Gabe nor Toby wasted a second wondering if she could possibly be serious until after leaping into chairs; Fross was a streak of light that slapped into the back of a desk chair hard enough to set it rocking. Professor Tellwyrn ignored all of this, turning her back to drop an armload of heavy books on the desk, then casually kick the door shut. She strolled toward the podium, interweaving her fingers and flexing in a way that set her knuckles loudly cracking, and eight pairs of eyes (assuming pixies had eyes) silently studied the first living legend they had ever encountered.
She didn’t look particularly impressive, and certainly didn’t look three thousand years old. Tobias had met a few of the older elves in the course of his training, and though age didn’t show on their faces, there was a serenity, a gravity to their every movement that his new history professor lacked. Arachne Tellwyrn was a slim woman with her blonde hair tied back in a simple tail; she was pretty, but not eye-catchingly so. In fact, she looked about like one would expect from a member of a race characterized by delicately pointed features and large, expressive eyes. Her ears came to the sharp points that marked her as a wood elf, but then again he’d known she wasn’t from this area.
The Professor halted next to the podium, resting a hand upon it, and slowly dragged her gaze across the room. Her eyes were green, and vibrant enough to be striking even from across the room. Suddenly, she grinned lopsidedly, but it was not a humorous expression. There was something predatory in the set of her eyes.
“Who can describe Imperial relations with the pirate bands with which the Tiraan Empire has treaties? Miss Punaji, do not answer. Miss Awarrion.”
The drow lowered her hand. “Tiraas has nearly identical treaties with the Punaji pirates of the Azure Sea in the east and the Tidestriders of the Grand Mere in the west. In fact, these treaties and their attendant Imperial support are largely the reason those two bands have grown to dominate their respective territories. The pirates agree not to harass Imperial shipping, and in return are not attacked by the Tiraan Navy. Indeed, both are expected to render aid to one another during any crisis on the seas.”
“Correct, but shallow. From another perspective, the Empire is in essence paying pirates to exclusively prey on overseas interests. How has this not provoked a war with other nations?”
“The Tiraan Empire is a famously, or in some circles infamously, expansionist power which consolidated its rule of this continent more than a century ago. By entering into relationships with the pirates which depend of them having a steady supply of non-Tiraan victims, the Empire tacitly promises not to extend its control to foreign shores, which would make any ocean between them unavailable to the pirates according to the treaties. The Empire gains maritime vassal states to secure its borders, other nations gain the assurance that Tiraas will not encroach upon theirs, and the pirate bands gain patronage and safe harbor on this continent’s coasts. All parties incur costs, but ultimately benefit.”
To Toby’s left, the girl in the hat twisted her mouth as if tasting something awful, but Professor Tellwyrn nodded approvingly at Shaeine. “Excellently reasoned. Can someone explain how mortals have historically interacted with fairies? Juniper, Fross, do not answer. Yes, Mr. Arquin?”
“By staying the hell away from them,” said Gabriel with a grin.
“How colloquial, Mr. Arquin. Care to expand on that slightly?”
“Well, everyone knows, or should, not to accept gifts from fae, or make any deals with them, or try to attack them. And to always be as polite as possible if you do meet one. But, yeah…honestly, the best policy is to avoid them as much as possible.”
Professor Tellwyrn folded her hands behind her back, fixing him with a flat stare. “Why?”
“There have been no wars against fairykind, no major interactions at all. Why this aversion?”
Gabe glanced over at Juniper; for a wonder, his gaze stayed above her collarbone. “Because…we don’t understand them. Most experts, I mean, most philosophers and mages and the diplomats who’ve tried, believe we can’t understand them. They run on a whole different kind of logic, sort of like demons. They’re extremely powerful and totally unpredictable. The only safe thing is just not to bother them.”
“We’re scary?” Juniper looked so hurt Toby wanted to get up and give her a hug.
“See, Mr. Arquin?” said Tellwyrn. “You do know a thing or two, once it’s pried out of you. Someone describe the nature of Imperial relations with the drow city-state of Tar’naris. Miss Awarrion, do not answer. Yes, Miss Punaji.”
Grinning, Zaruda lounged back in her chair. “As I understand it, the Empire just went in and pretty much re-did the place overnight. Put up sun crystals, like the dwarves have underground, taught the drow about agriculture, imported a bunch of soil and plants and stuff and basically turned their big empty cave into a place that can support itself with plenty of food without needing to raid the surface. I understand before the treaty with the Empire, the drow valued food more than gold.”
“That’s an awfully generous move from a huge, militaristic power which was previously at a state of undeclared war with the Narisians and all other drow,” the Professor said dryly. “Are you maybe forgetting something?”
“Oh, right. In return, they get peace, of course, and also Tiraas gets first dibs on metals and jewels and stuff out of Tar’naris, pretty much for free.”
“Essentially correct. Tar’naris controls access to several of the continent’s richest mineral deposits, for which it has little use. To be more specific, by the treaty the Narisians have first access to their own resources, but deliver a yearly quota to the Empire in perpetuity in exchange for the magic that makes their caverns verdant. And yes, to drow, access to plentiful food is a bounty whose value simply cannot be overstated. But Tar’naris is only one of three drow city-states controlling an egress from the Underworld into Imperial territory. Why does Tiraas not have similar treaties with the others? Mr. Arquin?”
“Because they’re too crazy to deal with.”
“How eloquently dismissive, Mr. Arquin. I don’t suppose you’d like to add a little more detail to your analysis.”
Gabe grimaced, but straightened in his chair, continuing. “Well, of the other two drow cities, one has refused a treaty like the Narisian one without saying why, and the others literally are too crazy to deal with. Or at least too aggressive. You can’t do diplomacy with people who attack diplomats on sight.”
“Again, more or less correct, though it would be closer to truth to say that the Akhvari explained their reasons for declining commerce and the Empire failed to understand them. What has been the most significant drawback of normalized relations with Tar’naris? Yes, Mr. Caine?”
Toby lowered his hand. “Dwarves.”
“’Dwarves’ is not an answer, Mr. Caine. It is not a sentence, nor even a sentence fragment.”
He shifted in his seat, repressing annoyance. “The dwarf kingdoms were the Empire’s biggest trading partners when it came to metals and stone. With the Empire suddenly getting a lot of free minerals, they stopped buying, and the dwarven economy was hit hard. They’ve been…a lot less friendly, since.”
“Economies; the dwarves are hardly a monolithic entity. But you are correct. Who can summarize what is known about demons? Miss Falconer, Mr. Arquin, do not answer. Oh, this should be good. Yes, Miss Avelea?”
“I prefer Ms. Avelea,” Trissiny said firmly. She glanced speculatively at Gabriel. Everyone was now looking speculatively at Gabriel, except for Gabe himself, who was looking speculatively at Teal.
“I prefer not to be contradicted. Life is a succession of disappointments, Miss Avelea; embrace it. Your answer?”
Trissiny visibly gritted her teeth before replying. “Demons are the evil creatures native to the infernal plane, also known as Hell. They are servants of Elilial, the Black Goddess, who rebelled against the Pantheon, and for her crimes against the mortal races and the other gods was hurled into Hell, where she became ruler by slaughtering all who opposed her. All demons hate mortal creatures and constantly seek to enter the material plane to spread destruction in whatever way they can.”
“That was better than the rant I was expecting. For future reference, Miss Avelea, reciting Church dogma in this class is no way to attain a passing grade; you’ll be lucky if I don’t make you eat soap. However, in this one case, the Church has the right of it.” Professor Tellwyrn folded her hands in front of her, peering around the room as if to make sure everyone was listening. “Whether demons are constantly seeking to escape from hell and invade us is up for debate; some experts even within the Church theorize that many of them accidentally wander in through hellgates and cause havoc much the way a bear accidentally caught in a tavern would. But it is unquestionably true that most if not all demons are specifically hostile to life on this plane, and there is strong reason to believe the majority if not the entirety of Hell answers to Elilial. And they certainly have mounted a number of organized invasions, which were repelled only at great cost.”
“You don’t agree with the Church?” Gabe said, suddenly looking a lot more interested.
“Raise your hand, Mr. Arquin, we are not baboons. And the matter is not that straightforward. Religious institutions by nature view the world in simple, dichotomous terms, whereas the infernal plane is probably as huge and diverse as this one. Mortal excursions through hellgates have never gotten far, and we have only cataloged nineteen sentient and eighty-three other varieties of demons. We know less about what goes on in Hell than we do about what’s under the ocean; it would be tremendously foolhardy to pretend total understanding of it. Enough about that. Who has observations to share about paladins? Miss Avelea, Mr. Caine, do not answer. Yes, Miss Awarrion.”
“Paladins are the designated servants of the gods. An individual is selected by a deity to serve as that god’s Hand on this plane, which entails chiefly taking action when, for whatever reason, the god in question cannot or will not. Paladins gain a variety of powers and gifts from their patron, which vary by deity, but all called by gods of the Pantheon are able to summon holy light, which has healing properties to life native to this plane and is destructive to demons.”
“Textbook, Miss Awarrion, but incontrovertible. Anyone have something to add? I’m fishing for recent history. Mr. Arquin?”
“Yeah, paladins were supposed to be gone. At least until recently; there hadn’t been one in twenty years, since the last Hand of Omnu died, and none had been called by any of the gods for more than ten years before that. Most people thought that since magic had advanced so much and most fighting is done with wands and staffs nowadays instead of swords and armor, they were pretty much obsolete and the gods had given up on the whole thing.” He grinned wickedly. “Then boom, Toby and Trissiny are called out of nowhere, and the Church was caught with its pants down.”
“Such a way with words you have, Mr. Arquin. You’re not wrong, though, and the world is avidly waiting, now, to see if more paladins will be called again, and herald a new Age of Adventures.” She snorted. “Gods, I hope not. Speaking as a retired adventurer myself, we managed to cause enough havoc without having ready access to cheap magical weapons. These days you can buy a wand for less than a horse used to cost… But that’s a subject for another class.”
She stepped behind the lectern and leaned forward on it, looking them over slowly. Then, again, that diabolical smile spread across her face. “Welcome,” she said, “to the Unseen University.”
“Unseen?” Gabe looked around at the others. “I thought it was just called the University.”
“Hand, Arquin. This institution’s name is hidden; it is part of a geas laid upon this land at its founding. Only initiates of this University know its name, and you will find yourselves quite unable to share it with outsiders. In this way you may recognize one another in the wild, as it were, which you’ll find a very useful thing. Graduates of the Unseen University are almost the best and brightest, and definitely the most dangerous, people at large in the Empire, and beyond.”
She drummed her fingers on the lectern once, then straightened. “Since none of you are stupid, you’ll have deduced the theme of my little question-and-answer session. There are other schools in the Tiraan Empire, several of them with academic standards that, I must acknowledge, surpass our own. The student body here is composed of…well, look at yourselves. Several of you are here for diplomatic reasons, rather than having been strongly encouraged to attend by the Throne, but all of you have this in common: you possess the academic qualifications necessary to attend a competitive school of higher learning…” Her wolfish grin widened. “And you are simply too dangerous to be allowed to run around unsupervised.”
Toby slowly lifted his hand; Professor Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow in his direction. “What happens to people who are too dangerous to be unsupervised but don’t have the academic qualifications?”
“A complex question, Mr. Caine, and one which has as many answers as individuals to which it pertains. Later in your tenure here, you will in fact be exploring that very subject. For now, suffice it to say that you should be grateful to find yourself here and not there.”
She stepped around from behind the podium and began to pace slowly up and down the stage. “Given the unique nature of our student body, we do things a little bit differently here. Book learning is all well and good, and you can expect to do a great deal of it, but our entire curriculum is strongly skewed toward the practical. This class, for instance, has been billed as History 101. Undoubtedly, you were surprised to find there is no textbook. Yes, I do expect you to learn some history, because understanding the past is a necessary first step in not blundering back into it, but in truth, this class will be an ongoing examination of the forces that move people, both as individuals and nations.” She spread her hands wide, smiling more kindly around the room. “Why, in other words, do people do what they do? This is something you, in particular, will very much need to understand. You’ll all go out into the world and be expected to have a great impact on the course of events. In fact, more of you than otherwise are going to end up leading large groups of people.”
Tellwyrn folded her hands again and resumed her pacing. “You’ll find this same emphasis reflected in your other courses, to varying degrees. Our music program is, in fact, designed to produce fully competent and accredited bards, individuals who are roving entertainers, diplomats and on occasion, mercenaries. As such it covers a great deal that would horrify the music students at Tirasian University even to contemplate. Herbalism is a required freshman course rather than an elective, and could be more correctly called ‘How Not to Have an Embarrassing Plant-Related Death.’ On the other hand, martial arts are martial arts, and not much goes on there that doesn’t elsewhere, though in that area our standards are toweringly high.
“The point is,” she went on, coming to a stop, “everything you think you know about school, you can forget. Those of you who aren’t familiar with Imperial academic traditions are actually at something of an advantage here. All but one of your first-semester classes will be taken in the company of the people in this room. You are a unit, my dear freshmen, so I suggest you begin getting used to one another. There is no organized competition, as such, between your class and the others…” Again, she grinned that disturbing grin. “…but some of them may take it upon themselves to organize their own. You have been warned. Which brings us to the homework. You will each have on my desk by tomorrow night a two-page paper, detailing in brief a general tactical analysis of each of your classmates, including strengths and weaknesses, and how you personally expect to be of assistance to them.”
Tellwyrn smiled with much more humor at the flabbergasted expressions this produced. “Welcome home, kids. Class dismissed.”
With that, and leaving her stack of books on the desk, she turned and walked out.