“I think he’s mellowing with age.”
“I don’t think that man is capable of mellowing, Ruda,” Toby disagreed. “I think we’re just getting used to him. Which…could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.”
“What’s bad about getting used to things?” asked Teal.
He shrugged, pushing his teacup back and forth on the table. “I don’t know…just something about this place. In hindsight I can see the point of a lot of what Tellwyrn’s subjected us to, but on the other hand, I sometimes get the feeling the University is training us to cope with a certain kind of ridiculousness that just doesn’t occur anywhere else.”
Ruda laughed and added another splash of brandy to her “tea.” She’d been doing that after every sip and not refilling it from the pot; by this point she basically had a teacup full of brandy.
The cafeteria was open to students at all hours except during the night. There weren’t meals to be had except at mealtimes, but they could almost always find hot tea and cold pastries. It had long been a popular place for groups to study, between the plentiful table space and free food, though the library was enjoying a resurgence in popularity since Weaver had been replaced by the somewhat awkward but vastly more pleasant Crystal.
The newly-minted sophomores had stopped in to relax and swap stories of their various summers after their first class. Rafe, as per his pattern, hadn’t kept them long, using a tenth of the allotted class time to do little but say hello, strike a few poses and give an extremely brief description of the focus of this year’s alchemical studies.
“The unexpected and extreme can occur anywhere,” Sheaine said. “Perhaps we are better served by—”
She was interrupted by an enormous antlered hare, which bounded onto the table and snatched the half-eaten muffin from Gabriel’s plate. Gabe yelped in surprised, jerking backward so hard he nearly tipped his chair over.
“Jack, no!” Juniper exclaimed, lunging across the table to seize the animal, which kicked in her grasp. Teal grabbed the teapot, barely averting a disaster. “I’m so sorry, he’s not really used to indoors, yet. We’re working on his manners.” The dryad settled her pet back in her lap, soothingly stroking his fur. Only the antlers were visible over the edge of the table.
“Well, this is as good a time as any to ask,” Gabriel said, grimacing and pushing away the smashed remains of his muffin. “June, what is with the rabbit?”
“Actually he’s a jackalope!” Fross chimed. “Closely related to rabbits, as you can see, but a distinct species. They’re fey, rather magical; an actual rabbit’s neck wouldn’t support the weight of those horns very well.”
“They’re antlers, not horns, and it’s a druid thing,” Juniper explained. “Animal companions are a tradition of druidic practice.”
“They’re called ‘pets,’ and they’re a tradition everywhere,” Ruda observed.
“Well, yes, but I mean it’s a specific druidic practice. Several traditions of shamanism and witchcraft make use of animal familiars. It’s a way of…well, it’s kind of technical…”
“It involves imbuing an animal with a part of one’s essence!” Fross said brightly. “Thus creating a second point of observation which is capable of instigating the wave-function collapse which is at the heart of all magical action.”
“Wave…what?” Teal asked, mystified.
“That’s arcane theory, though,” said Gabriel. “Does it really apply to druidic or any fae arts?”
“Arcane physics is so called because it’s most easily investigated by use of arcane magic,” Fross explained. “The principles themselves apply to basically all magic equally. That’s why magical creatures are popular familiars. Actually, some witches use pixies, if they can! Pixies are hard to get, though, you usually have to go to the Pixie Queen’s grove to find any, and she’s not big on visitors.”
“That’s an interesting choice, Juno,” Trissiny said. “Aren’t jackalopes sort of…infamously ornery?”
“Well, he’s not a true familiar,” Juniper said somewhat defensively. “I’m not at that point, not nearly. Really, I’m just starting out. The Elders had me take care of an animal for somewhat more mundane reasons. It’s all about forming a bond with—”
She broke off, having to grab and subdue Jack again as he launched himself at Teal’s plate.
“Taking on a more challenging prospect can be a way to learn more swiftly,” Shaeine observed. Juniper was too busy wrangling the jackalope to respond; he didn’t seem as interested in settling down in her lap again this time.
“Hey, check this out,” Ruda said, craning her neck to peer past Toby at the glass front wall of the cafeteria. “It’s the freshmen!”
“There are an awful lot of them,” Teal remarked, turning to look.
“Twenty-two!” said Fross. “The student roster is posted in the library.”
“Twenty-two isn’t a large class at most schools,” Toby pointed out. “Though…compared to nine, I guess it is.”
“Why are they all boys?” Trissiny asked, her brows lowering.
“Oh, here we go,” Ruda muttered, rolling her eyes.
“The Class of 1183 has seventeen men and five women,” said Fross, “which is a seventy-seven percent gender imbalance, which is the same as the seventy-seven percent gender imbalance in our class skewing the opposite way. Actually those are rounded percentages and ours is just slightly greater, but you get the idea.”
“I didn’t know you could do that kind of math in your head,” said Teal. “Bravo!”
“It’s an important skill if you’re going to study arcane magic,” said Gabriel. “Which is why I really ought to work on that…”
“And I do it in my mind, not my head,” Fross clarified.
“Hey, wanna go say hi to the newbies?” suggested Ruda. “Look, they’re trooping toward the greenhouse. Already had Tellwyrn’s claws in them and are about to meet Rafe. Makes you feel sorry for the little darlings.”
“You mean, like how Natchua said hi to us between our first two classes?” Toby said, smiling faintly.
“Well, no,” Ruda replied. “Because we aren’t creepy and pathetic.”
Gabriel cleared his throat pointedly.
“I stand corrected,” she said, grinning. “Most of us aren’t creepy and pathetic.”
“Thank you,” he said with deep dignity. “I hate to fuss, but a fella likes to be acknowledged.”
“It’s a good idea, though,” said Trissiny, standing up. “Shall we?”
“Yeah, sure,” Gabriel replied, glancing down at his desecrated muffin. “I guess we’re pretty much done here.”
“It’s almost time to head to Yornhaldt’s class anyway,” Toby added, also rising. “C’mon, we can meet the freshmen on the way.”
“Well, a few of them,” said Ruda. “They mostly went past while you lot were jabbering.”
Indeed, most of the students had gone past by the time they emerged onto the lawn. The freshmen walked alone or in small groups, forming a staggered line; some turned to look at the emerging sophomores, a few slowing down to stare as they recognized Trissiny’s armor and put the rest together. Only the last cluster actually stopped, though. For whatever reason, the girls were walking along at the end, with only a couple of their male classmates.
“Mornin’, little lambs!” Ruda said cheerily. “How’re you settling in?”
“Well, thank you,” said the drow woman politely, then turned fully to Shaeine and bowed. Shaeine nodded deeply in reply.
“Teal, how lovely to see you again,” said a diminutive girl with waist-length blond hair, smiling brightly.
“Likewise, your Grace,” Teal said in a carefully neutral tone.
“Pshaw, let’s not fuss about that,” the girl replied, waving a hand airily. “We are all equals here, as Professor Tellwyrn has just emphasized at some length. Call me Ravana.”
“If you say so,” Teal replied evenly. Shaeine eased closer to her, moving her hand so that the backs of her knuckles brushed Teal’s.
“Can I ask a question?” said the gnomish woman timidly, raising a hand and peering up at Ruda. “Are you really a princess?”
“Only on my parents’ side,” Ruda said lightly. “C’mon, girl, project from the diaphragm! Are you actually raising your hand? Trust me, outside of Tellwyrn’s class, that’s not gonna do you any good.”
“Ruda, be nice,” Trissiny said reprovingly.
“I am being nice! It’s all about confidence, Boots. C’mon, let me hear you roar!”
The gnome’s eyes widened, and she began sidling behind a tall, dark-skinned girl in a white dress, who was gawking at Gabriel.
“Hmph.” The speaker, whose derisive snort seized everyone’s attention, was a plains elf incongruously dressed in a conservative, old-fashioned human style. “We are going to be late. Come along,” she ordered, grabbing one of the boys—also an elf—by the arm and dragging him off toward the greenhouse. He glanced back at them, smiling timidly and offering a small wave.
“Well, damn,” Ruda said, raising her eyebrows. “Who pissed in her oatmeal?”
“Oh, she’s just like that,” said the girl in white. “Are… You’re Gabriel Arquin, aren’t you? The new paladin!”
“Um…for whatever that’s worth, yes, that’s me,” he said, smiling somewhat awkwardly and settling a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“That’s amazing!” she gushed, eyes shining. “I mean… You’re amazing! To be a demonblood and get to… Augh, I’ve wanted to meet you ever since I heard and when I got accepted here I just, oh I can’t even think!”
“Oh, gods, don’t do that,” Ruda groaned. “He gets a big head over the slightest little thing.”
“And this is my fan club,” said Gabe, turning to Ruda and raising an eyebrow. “Not to worry, if my head starts needing the air let out, I can always count on you to fucking stab me!”
“And he carries a grudge like you wouldn’t believe,” Ruda added, winking. “Anyway, you don’t need me to stab you anymore, Arquin, since you seem determined to carry that thing around.”
“I’m getting better with it,” he said defensively, running a hand over the black sword’s hilt, almost as if he were petting it. “Anyhow, it seems like an appropriate thing to carry, me being a paladin now, and all.”
“You were given a divine weapon,” Trissiny pointed out.
“Yes, but it fits in my pocket,” he said, grinning. “The ancient elven sword is so much more impressive.”
“It’ll be real impressive when you hack your foot off,” said Ruda. “I dunno, Arquin, something about you with a sword will just never look right.”
“Hey,” he protested, “do I give you crap about the special lady in your life?”
“…I can’t even start to deal with all the shit that’s wrong in that sentence.”
The remaining male member of the freshman party stepped forward and bowed directly to Trissiny. “General Avelea, may I say it is an honor to be in your presence, and one I have eagerly anticipated since long before my arrival.”
“Oh,” she said, nonplussed, “that’s kind of you.”
“Forgive me,” the young man replied with a smile. “I should have introduced myself to begin with. I am Sekandar Aldarasi, prince of Calderaas.”
He was dressed casually, in a simple open-collared shirt with pressed slacks. The lack of regalia did not detract from his claim, however; the boy was every bit as good-looking as a prince from a fairy tale would be, and carried himself with the confidence of a man who knew it.
“Wait, prince?” said Fross. “I’m confused. Calderaas is an Imperial province, right? How do they have royalty?”
“Calderaas is one of the original provinces,” said Ravana. “The then-Sultanate of Calderaas formed the alliance with the city-states of the Tira Valley that became the Tiraan Empire. Several of those first provinces still have royal titles, though the rank of king, sultana or whatever is applicable is functionally the same as that of an appointed provincial governor.”
“As the Lady Madouri knows quite well,” said Sekandar, nodding to her with a smile which she returned. He turned back to Trissiny, bowing again. “If it is permissible, General, I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you further.”
“Of…course,” she said uncertainly.
“For now,” said Ravana, “I think we should all be moving along. It’ll make a poor impression on our professors if we are late on the first day.”
“I shall count the hours till we are together again, my lady!” Gabriel proclaimed grandly, bowing deeply to her and ignoring Ruda’s snort.
“Aren’t you a charming one,” Ravana said with a coquettish flutter of her lashes. “Come along, girls.” The girl in white looked to be on the verge of some kind of outburst, but swallowed heavily and followed meekly along after the much shorter blonde.
The sophomores watched their younger counterparts retreat into the greenhouse in bemused silence.
“Gabe,” Teal said tersely, “not to meddle in your love life, but… Not that one.”
“That’s right,” he said, turning to her. “She implied you know her?”
“I…” She stared after Ravana, expression unreadable. “…am aware of her.”
“So, this is a departure,” Toby commented, peering around at Professor Yornhaldt’s classroom as they wandered into their seats.
“I like it,” said Teal. “Doesn’t seem like his style, though…”
“I’m not sure he did it,” said Juniper, frowning and stroking Jack, who rested in her arms. “There’s a lot of magic at work here. Fae magic. Professor Yornhaldt is an arcanist.”
Most of the room’s accoutrements were the same, but it had gained a great deal of greenery over the summer. The back corners of the room contained artfully arranged clusters of potted ferns, which spilled out in a riot of leafy fronds. Other plants were placed strategically under the windows and along the walls, and in a huge, squat container on the dais itself was a small cherry tree, bursting with lovely pink blossoms, for all that it was completely the wrong season.
“So,” Ruda said, turning in her seat to leer at Trissiny. “That boy was crushing on you hard, General Shiny Boots.”
“What?” Trissiny demanded, her cheeks coloring slightly. “What boy? You mean Prince Sekandar? Nonsense.”
“Oh, come on,” she snorted. “’Such an honor to be in your presence, general.’ He was way into you.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Trissiny snapped. “He was just showing respect to a Hand of Avei. I simply happened to be that Hand.”
“There were three paladins standing right there,” Teal pointed out with a smile. “One of whom is a lot more interesting, for being new and unprecedented in several ways. Not to mention foreign royalty, a demigoddess…”
“Hm, Gabriel the Unprecedented,” Gabe mused. “I like the way that rings. I should have business cards printed up.”
“Calderaas has been heavily Avenist for over a thousand years,” Trissiny said testily. “The old Sultanate was a matriarchy and a lot of its traditions are still alive. Naturally an Aldarasi prince would be more interested in a paladin of Avei.”
“One presumes,” Shaeine observed, “that a prince of any extraction would be sufficiently poised not to snub the other members of a party to whom he was introduced. Unless, of course, he were emotionally overwhelmed by, for example, meeting the object of his distant affections…”
“Not you, too!” Trissiny exclaimed. The drow smiled at her, with only the faintest hint of mischief.
“Yeah, that boy wants you bad,” said Ruda, grinning insanely. “Juno, back me up here!”
“Oh, I don’t like to spread other people’s business around,” the dryad demurred, scratching behind Jack’s antlers. “I can’t help picking up on people’s desires and inclinations, but there’s no reason anyone else should be privy to that information. Everyone’s privacy is important.”
“Thank you, Juniper,” Trissiny said stiffly.
“No dryad business, then,” said Ruda. “Just girl talk, based on what you saw.”
“Oh, just that? Then yeah, he was totally into you.”
“Good morning, class.”
Several of them jumped, all whirling to stare at the dais. No one had seen her enter, but a woman now stood there, beneath the cherry blossoms, smiling mysteriously up at them. She was slender, with luxuriant black hair, almond-shaped eyes and vulpine features, and dressed in a sleek silk robe in dark green with a subtle pattern of white ferns around the hem and cuffs.
Most eye-catchingly, triangular ears, covered in reddish fur, poked up through her hair. A bushy tail extended from behind her, through some apparent opening in her robe, also dusky red and tipped in white. It twitched twice as they stared at her in shocked silence.
The doors of the classroom were infamously squeaky, and were easily within their frame of view. She had not come in that way.
“Let us begin by attending to the obvious, shall we?” said the fox-woman, still with that enigmatic smile. “Professor Yornhaldt is taking an unexpected sabbatical for this semester. I am assuming his duties in the classroom. I am Professor Ekoi, interim teacher of magical arts.” She bowed gracefully, her ears twitching. “And of course, I know each of you by description, and by reputation. You created quite the stir on this campus at the end of the spring term, did you not?
“It is my understanding that last year, you explored the basics of magic—what it is, and how it is used. In my class, you will be learning more specific, more practical things pertaining to that same basic school of thought. We will be examining each of the four common systems of magic, as well as the few which lie outside such classifications, with regard to their actual use. It should be your goal to learn to identify magical objects, creatures, spells and attacks, and understand how each should be dealt with. In short, you have absorbed sufficient theory that you can now begin learning facts. And, more importantly, strategies. You have a question, Mr. Arquin?”
“Yeah,” Gabriel said, lowering his hand. “Um, what exactly are you?”
Professor Ekoi gazed up at him placidly, in silence, until he shifted uncomfortably in his seat and opened his mouth to speak again.
Suddenly she flicked her wrist, and a folded hand fan slipped out of the wide sleeve of her robe, landing neatly in her grip. She swirled it open, covering her face below the eyes and revealing its pattern of calligraphy in a language that wasn’t familiar to them. Then, in a very disorienting spectacle, she twirled the fan in a full circle. It did not visibly grow, and yet it somehow concealed all of her body in passing—and she did not reappear when it moved on. The fan whirled in a complete arc and then vanished into its own center, like water swirling down a drain, leaving nothing behind.
The students gaped down at the empty dais.
“Um,” said Gabriel, “I didn’t mean to yipe!”
“There is endless variety in this world, Mr. Arquin,” Professor Ekoi murmured from right behind him, close enough that he could feel her breath. He could also feel the tips of her sharp nails, resting against his throat. Trissiny half-rose, gripping the hilt of her sword, but made no further movements as the professor continued. “People of every conceivable belief, origin and description. If you are privileged to lead a long life, and to explore the world in all its beauty, you shall come to know the grand diversity of its inhabitants—provided you possess the sense to absorb what you are shown. And you will find, Mr. Arquin, that none of these people enjoy being referred to as a what.”
He hissed softly as the tips of her claws—and those were clearly not just nails—pricked his skin. Five tiny points of blood welled up.
Before he could react physically, she was gone.
And then the professor stepped out from behind the cherry tree, down on the dais. “Except,” she said pleasantly, “for individuals in certain…specialty social clubs one tends to find in the major cities, which you are unlikely to enter or even discover without a specific invitation. For now, we should focus our attention upon the study of magic, children. Now, let us begin.”
Walter tromped through the tallgrass back toward the homestead, four hares strung on the rope thrown over his shoulder. It was early, not even noon yet, but he’d had the luckiest morning of hunting in a good long while, solid enough that he could justify taking the afternoon off. Ma would be happy enough with the meat he brought in to let him go without a fuss…probably. He had his bow in one hand, quiver hanging at his hip—he had a wand, of course, but that was for emergency use against any predators he happened to encounter. Lightning had a bad effect on game. All in all, he was in a great mood, whistling as he walked.
As such, he wasn’t paying terribly close attention, lost in his thoughts, and didn’t spot the other person coming toward him until Smitty barked. The hound was staring, on point but not growling, meaning he didn’t sense a threat. That was generally good enough for Walter; he found dogs were the best judges of character.
Then the individual coming toward him through the tallgrass pushed aside a particularly dense clump, coming fully into view, and he froze, almost dropping his bow and hares.
She was a girl, looking to be about his age, maybe a few years older, and stunningly beautiful in a way he only saw in magazine illustrations and never before on an actual woman. Also, she had pale green hair and was stark naked. He’d have been hard pressed to say which of those traits commanded more of his attention.
“Hello!” the nude girl said brightly.
“Uh… H-hi,” Walter choked out, then swallowed, struggling valiantly to keep his eyes on her face, a battle he knew he was doomed to lose. Not that it wasn’t a gorgeous face, but she also had gorgeous breasts, and he’d never actually seen… He gulped again, trying desperately to maintain an even keel. “Um, can I…help you with something, miss?”
She tilted her head to one side as if thinking, and suddenly frowned. “Maybe. Did you kill my sister?”
That made even less sense to Walter than her appearance and manner, but luckily he had a ready and truthful answer to it. “No, ma’am, I didn’t.”
“Oh, okay, then,” she said, that dazzling smile returning. “Maybe you can give me directions! Am I still headed toward Last Rock? Is it close?”
Last Rock. It figured. Ma always said the only downside of living out here was the proximity to that place.
“You’re headin’ the right way,” he said, looking at her chest again in spite of himself. “It’s about thirty miles on. Careful not to stray too far north or you’ll be in the Golden Sea.”
“Oh, I know all about that,” she said dismissively, taking a step closer.
Smitty whined, and instantly Walter was on full alert. The hound pressed hard against his leg, clearly frightened. His teenage hormones were telling him one thing, but the dog told him something very different—and he knew quite well which was more trustworthy.
“Since you offered to help, though,” she said, licking her lips and smiling broadly, “I’m kinda hungry. Can I have a couple of your rabbits?”
“Oh,” he said, easing backward from her. “I, uh…” It had been a lucky morning, true, and he had ample time to go back out and hunt more… But this was a significant amount of good meat, not to mention what the pelts would sell for.
“Don’t worry, I’d make it worth your while,” the girl promised, stepping forward again, her smile widening. “Would you like to have sex?”
He very nearly exploded on the spot. Ma was forever going on about how boys his age had exactly one thing on their minds, and to be truthful, that thing was very much on his mind right now. Meeting a nude beauty in the tallgrass and receiving such an offer…this was a situation straight out of some of his more absurd fantasies.
But Smitty wasn’t the only one whose instincts were jangling, now. Walter had looked into the eyes of predators before.
“Tell ya what,” he said carefully. With the slow, even movements he knew wouldn’t startle or provoke a wild animal, he pulled the string of hares from his shoulder and held it out toward her. “You just help yourself, my treat. I’ve gotta get home.”
“Aw, you sure?” she said, pouting slightly even as she took the hares. Her warm brown eyes flicked up and down his body, making his pulse accelerate. “I wasn’t just offering a trade. I think it’d be swell to stop and make love. Don’t you?”
Walter had to gulp twice before he could speak again. That would be swell. But Ma, it seemed, wasn’t wrong about everything; the very, very bad feeling he had about this was more powerful than lust. Her knowing smirk widened, almost as if she could tell what he was thinking. Maisie Taathir down at the trading post sometimes gave him that impression, especially when she caught him sneaking a peek at her bum, but…not like this.
“I really have to go,” he repeated. Smitty whined again.
“Okay, then,” she said with a shrug that did extremely interesting things to her chest.
Walter tipped his hat to her, backed up a few steps, then half-turned to set off in a wide arc around her, keeping her in his peripheral view.
As he watched, she licked her lips again, then calmly ripped a leg off one of the hares and bit into it, fur and all. Bone crunched audibly and she made a soft sound of approval.
He didn’t walk backward, but kept going in the slightly wrong direction at an angle until a more comfortable distance had stretched out between them. Even then, Walter very carefully kept his pace measured as he and Smitty left the girl behind.
It was, as he knew very well, a bad idea to run from a predator.