It was unusual for Teal to be rushing across the campus alone at this hour, but she’d been forced to detour from the cafeteria back to Clarke Tower to retrieve her book before Ekoi’s class. More than anything else, she was frustrated with herself for having left it behind. Sure, she wasn’t the most organized person, but since she and Shaeine had been sharing a room, incidents like these had diminished dramatically. In addition to her numerous other very pleasing qualities, Shaeine not only reminded Teal to keep track of these things, but set an example the bard felt she had to live up to. The priestess’s reminders had been increasingly unnecessary.
In fact, today she had mentioned that Professor Ekoi had specified their spellbooks would be needed in class, which they weren’t always. And Teal had carefully made sure it was in her satchel. Or so she’d thought. She distinctly remembered putting it there. And yet, after lunch, it had been absent; she’d found it right on her nightstand where it had been left the previous night.
She’d worry about losing her mind later; for now she had to get to class. Professor Ekoi was of a similar mindset as Tellwyrn with regard to classroom discipline. People who showed up tardy tended by become the object of…demonstrations.
Teal rounded the corner of a terrace and slowed to a stop, staring.
Where the familiar path of the campus should have been, she was now looking at an overgrown trail through an ancient, ruined castle, abandoned long enough to have been overtaken by a forest. Slowly, she turned to look behind her as well. Nope, no University there, either. She was…somewhere else.
Vadrieny jangled within her in alarm, and Teal sent her calming thoughts. Tellwyrn’s protections on the University were serious business; it would take something like a god to just snatch her up from them.
The hellgate was obviously opened by a University initiate, Vadrieny retorted. And a good many gods might take exception to us. They aren’t all as forward-thinking as Vidius.
“Hm,” Teal said, frowning and fingering her Talisman of Absolution. She turned in a slow circle, looking around again. “I have a good feeling about this.”
What do you mean?
“I don’t know,” she admitted, focusing on the oddly serene sensation to share it with Vadrieny. “Just…good. It seems like I should be more alarmed about something this apparently alarming, but it just isn’t there.”
The demon replied with a wordless rush of sensations: caution, trust, acknowledgment. She was far from certain about this situation but was willing to follow Teal’s lead.
Teal set off down the path at a somewhat slower pace, peering around. It meandered through what had been some kind of avenue, with collapsing walls of old gray stone on either side. There were birds singing, but no other sounds.
“You know,” she said aloud, “Professor Tellwyrn isn’t going to be happy about this. And I do have a class to get to.”
There was no answer. She shrugged, physically, feeling a mirrored emotion from Vadrieny, and continued on.
The trail wandered through fallen gates into a huge courtyard. The half of it to Teal’s right had collapsed into a ravine which had apparently opened beneath the structures; the left wall was swallowed up by climbing vines, with trees pushing through in several places. Directly ahead was a half-fallen dome of considerable size, with broken towers and battlements rising behind it. The swaying tops of trees poked out through what remained of its roof.
Teal paused, took in the scene, and then set off for the central building.
The doors, naturally, were long gone. Whatever had been inside was as well; the only features on the mossy floor were fallen chunks of masonry from the ceiling and walls. Beams of sunlight penetrated the cool dimness, brightening up the otherwise greenish light filtered through swaying branches. Actually, it was a beautiful space, and peaceful to behold.
And there was a man in the center.
He was pacing in a slow circle, studying the walls with his hands clasped pensively behind him, below the lute case slung over his shoulder. His suit was over a century out of fashion, and surmounted by an absurd-looking floppy hat with a long ostrich plume trailing from it.
“I changed the scenery for you,” he said as Teal stepped cautiously forward. “Actually, all of this is underwater now; makes it hard to really appreciate. The theme is the same, though. One example of ruined grandeur is much like another, in all the important ways.” He turned to her at last, revealing a nondescript face wearing a sad little smile, and spread his arms. “Welcome to the hallowed halls of the Heroes’ Guild.”
“I think,” Teal said carefully, “I’m pretty much attending the new Heroes’ Guild, or the next best thing. And you’re making me late for class.”
The man grinned at her. “Really, would you rather go back to your scheduled courses? Because you need only ask. But if you’re interested in having a new experience…here you are.”
“Here I am,” she agreed, approaching closer. “And…you are…?”
“Oh, let’s not do this,” Vesk said, idly waving a hand. “You know who I am. I hate having to make introductions—there’s just no way to do it that isn’t trite and hackneyed after centuries of repetition in story and song.”
“I guess so,” Teal said, coming to a stop a few yards distant. “I have to say, this is…a surprise.”
“Very diplomatic,” the god said with a grin. “So hesitant, though. You have good instincts, Teal, but you’ve done very little to hone them. Tell me…why did you ever stop seeking me out?”
She frowned, hitching up her book bag self-consciously, and tapped the Talisman pinned to her lapel. “I think you know exactly why.”
“That’s a little disappointing, you know,” he replied. “You really thought I would begrudge you a possessing demon? You’ve read the stories, Teal; you managed to hear recitations of a good few of them. There have been no shortage of half-demon bards.”
“Well,” she said defensively, “it’s a different situation. The priests at the Cathedral were quite insistent with me about this.”
“Priests,” the god snorted. “Well, I can’t say they don’t have their uses, but this new crop attached to the so-called Universal Church are even more hidebound and less divinely inspired than most. Still, you’re not without a point, and I’m not about to pile derision on you over this. As a traumatized teenager in the grip of authority figures… One can hardly blame you for absorbing some bad ideas.”
“Bad ideas?” she repeated warily.
“I think you had a warning about this recently from the Avenist Bishop,” he said. “About politics, power, and those who chase them. It was excellent advice, and by the way applies to that woman more than most, which you should keep in mind if you meet her again. But no, Teal, you may take this as my official contradiction: there is nothing about you, or Vadrieny, that is inherently incompatible with the path of the bard.” He shifted to face her directly, his expression solemn. “But if that is truly the path you wish to pursue, you’re not doing very well.”
Teal gaped at him, barely able to stammer, half-occupied with quelling Vadrieny’s rising outrage. “I—I—”
“Here.” Vesk stepped over to a waist-high slab of fallen stone; it rested at a very slight angle, making a serviceable bench. He seated himself and patted the shelf next to him. “Have a seat, kid. Let’s talk.”
She hesitantly obeyed, perching gingerly on the edge of the slab and setting her book bag down by her feet. For a moment, there was a strained silence; she couldn’t think of a thing to say. Oddly, Vesk’s presence was not overwhelming or intimidating as it seemed a deity’s should have been. She simply felt awkward in the presence of an authority figure delivering a rebuke.
“I think the core of your problem,” he said at last, “or at least the beginning of it, is that you just haven’t known many bards. Most who are drawn to the path will have sought them out by your age. They either attach themselves to a bard as an apprentice or make their way to one of my temples. You haven’t had many good examples to follow.” He tilted his head, regarding her thoughtfully. “But you’ve read a lot of the old adventures, and that’s not nothing. Have you noticed the tendency of bards to be, shall we say…dramatic and very specific characters?”
“They certainly are prone to having large personalities,” Teal said. “I’m, um, not sure what you mean by specific.”
“Well, you’ve noticed the personalities, at least. Tell me, Teal, what do you make of that?”
She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Honestly? I never really questioned that. Maybe because it’s such a common theme among the adventuring bards in the stories. It just always seemed right. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Considering what a bard is, what they do… Personality is part of the equipment, alongside an instrument and a weapon.”
“Not bad,” he said with a grin, “and not wrong. But you’re missing a key observation. What I mean by specific personalities, Teal, is archetypal personalities. Think of the bards you’ve read about. They tend to fit one of the classic roles that occurs in stories. The wise old man, the spoiled princess, the dashing scoundrel. Of the two you’ve met since attending the University, we find the helpful merchant with a surprisingly important side-quest and the incorrigible asshole with a hidden heart of gold.”
“Ass… Hidden…” Her eyebrows rose further. “Surely you’re not talking about Weaver?”
The god winked. “Well, it wouldn’t be hidden if just everybody got a look at it, now would it? But back on point, Teal, there is a reason for this. It’s something not generally discussed outside invested members of the faith, but I’m going to spill the beans because this is an important lesson that you’re missing, and that the lack of which is going to lead you into trouble.” His expression grew more serious. “Most bards very deliberately and specifically craft their personal image, with the same care they put into crafting a personal instrument. Or, as you mention, a weapon, though not all have that particular skill, or need it. Image is another matter. The bard’s personality is made in the general form of something that anyone who has heard the stories will recognize. Or, in many cases, even someone who’s never heard a story in their life, though it’s blessedly rare to find such a deprived soul. Those stories are deeply held in the recesses of the mind, of all minds. They are primal archetypes, and wearing them like a suit of armor encourages everyone the bard meets to fit them into a role in the great drama of life.”
“Why?” Teal asked softly when he paused.
Vesk let out a soft sigh, turning to gaze abstractly at the far wall of the ruined chamber. “Because, Teal, by taking charge of their own story, their own characterization, they can avoid becoming the hero of whatever piece they happen to be in. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to be the hero—in fact, almost everyone thinks they are, and that their own little story is the world. The difference is that bards, specifically, are the ones who know how stories work. They’re the ones who understand that no one…” He turned again to gaze solemnly at her. “No one suffers like a hero.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” she said, frowning. “Or maybe… Maybe I understand and it’s not making sense. Not to contradict you, but the world just doesn’t run on story logic.”
“Well, not this one, no,” he mused, leaning backward to gaze thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “There are younger universes where the rules of… Well, that’s neither here nor there.” Vesk straightened up, turning back to her again. “We can talk on and on about souls and cognitive functions, but in the end, what makes people different from lesser animals is narrative. There are plenty of sapient creatures in the rosters of livestock and vermin. Elephants and orcas, rats and crows… But they don’t build things, redefine their environments, re-shape the world around them to suit their own imaginations. Only people do that, and what makes the difference is story.
“Narrative, archetypes…no, these aren’t physical things. In the absence of people, they not only mean nothing, they don’t even exist. They are not expressions of the nature of the world, but rather of the architecture of the minds of that specific class of beings who re-shape reality, and that makes them part of the world.” He grinned with barely restrained enthusiasm. “Subjective physics, the imposition of made-up patterns on the concrete universe. Story, Teal, is the original magic. It’s the primal force of change, of originality, of creation. And you cannot escape from it. Every thought you have, every interaction you have with other beings, is guided by that common understanding of narrative. That’s why a bard must learn and deeply understand that language, know all the classic plots, the old archetypes, the stock characters. Regardless of what the world actually, physically is, everyone is living in a world of story. And you had better believe that story shapes your life, just as it does the lives of everyone around you. To be a bard is to be one who has the knowledge, the power, and the responsibility to actively guide that re-shaping, rather than bumbling along as the hapless protagonist in your own rambling, poorly-constructed fairy tale.”
“Wow,” she breathed, staring at him wide-eyes. “I mean…wow. How come nobody writes this stuff down?”
“Oh, people have,” he said, shrugging. “It’s a little…well. Every god and all their followers could tell you in exact detail how their particular obsession is what truly shapes the world. The fact that you find this revelation profound says a lot about your own mindset; lots of people stumble across the idea in one place or another and brush it off as grandstanding bardic nonsense. It is what it is, though, Teal. And with that in mind, let’s talk about you.”
“I suddenly feel very nervous,” she confessed.
“Good,” he said seriously. “You’re the daughter of privilege, who nevertheless grew up tasting social ostracism for something you couldn’t help. You tamed an attacking archdemon with the power of love—and honestly, I wouldn’t even write that story, it’s so improbably sappy—went on to attend what you acknowledge is a school for heroes, won the heart of an exotic noblewoman.” He shook his head sadly. “Teal, you’ve got protagonist written all over you. By this point, you’re inescapably the hero of the piece. And for all the traumas you’ve survived, you have not yet come to the point where everything completely falls apart around you. That fact should make you very nervous.”
“I think I need to sit down,” she said tremulously.
“You are sitting down,” he pointed out.
“Not hard enough.”
Vesk grinned, and patted her on the shoulder. “If I had one piece of advice for you, young bard, it’s to get on top of this pronto. Occasionally, a bard comes along who is the hero of the story, but unlike most heroes they know it and do it deliberately. And someone with a bard’s knowledge of story has to be a little bit crazy to want that. Far from crazy, you’re remarkably level-headed considering all that’s been piled on your plate.”
“Maybe I should just run with it,” she murmured, kicking her feet against the stone. “Is that…arrogant?”
“Of course it is, but never let that stop you. Grandiosity is a bard’s bread, butter, and replacement fiddle strings. Just be aware of what you’re getting into if you truly want to embrace that route. First of all, you’ll find yourself competing with your entire social circle. I mean, really, you’ve got three paladins, two of whom are half-bloods with mysterious origins. A rogue princess standing on the cusp of historical upheaval. The tortured demigoddess trying to fuse wild nature with tame humanity, and of course, Fross. Great me in fancy breeches, that pixie’s got a hell of a tale to tell, and it’s only just begun. Your ladyfriend’s modest outlook is probably her best hope of escaping a truly brutal narrative slap-down.”
Teal swallowed hard, unable to find words. Vadrieny was a knot of attentive tension, not venturing any argument now, but unhappy with what she was hearing.
“A hero,” Vesk continued more softly, “may or may not stop to help another hero in need, depending on the situation, but they will reliably drop what they’re doing to rain destruction on anyone who threatens their plucky comic relief. If you’re going to surround yourself with powerful, important people, the smartest thing you can possibly do is to very carefully and deliberately subordinate yourself to them. Don’t mistake that for weakness; what marks a skilled bard is the ability to remain in control of a situation in which they wield no actual power.”
“I don’t want to rain destruction on anyone,” she said in a small voice. “Ever.”
Vesk nodded. “Well, that’s another thing, Teal. I will never criticize you for being a pacifist; you’ll find more of those in the histories of Veskers than Omnists and Izarites combined.”
“I think that’s a slight exaggeration,” she said with the ghost of a smile.
“Not in the least,” he said solemnly. “The fact that nearly all Omnists and Izarites are pacifists is beside the point: hardly any of them make it into the histories. It takes a bard to pull that off, and quite a few have. No, Teal, what I have to criticize you for is being one of the worst pacifists I’ve ever seen.”
“Excuse me?” she exclaimed. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Think about it. How’s it usually gone for you, this last year and a half, when you keep finding yourself in conflict? Do you use your wits and guile to manipulate your enemies and your situation so that you avoid fights? Or do you continually let yourself get backed into corners and have to unleash your invincible, unstoppable counterpart to crack heads like some Stalweiss barbarian out of an offensively cliché penny dreadful?”
He lifted his eyebrows, gazing at her expectantly, and after a moment Teal had to drop her eyes in shame. “I… I just… I tried.”
“I know, Teal. And it isn’t that you aren’t trying hard enough, never think that. It’s just that you’re not trying the right things. In a way, having Vadrieny to fall back upon is one of the worst things someone with your convictions could have. Most people are forced to adapt themselves more aggressively; you have a luxury of nigh-invincibility that deprives you of that motivation.”
“It’s just that… You’re talking about manipulating people. Everyone. Enemies…friends. Family. Everyone. I don’t think I can live that way.”
“Okay,” he said with a shrug. “Then drop the pacifist thing and roll with that.”
“The world’s violent, Teal. So are an awful lot of the people in it. You want to get through it without fighting? Then you’ll have to use guile. Lots and lots of guile, at every opportunity. That’s simply all there is to that. When you talk about living in peace, what you mean is imposing your will upon a world that very much doesn’t want to live that way. It’s the sword or the savvy. Pick one; you cannot exist without making that choice, and the choices you make by failing to make them on purpose always wind up being the wrong ones. Up to this point you’ve defaulted to the sword without truly understanding or taking responsibility for your own story. That’s a very weak position to be in, Teal. And to be perfectly frank, you’re better than this.”
She hunched her shoulders, staring down at her feet, and concentrated on holding back tears that suddenly wanted to come. Vadrieny extended a mental hug over her.
The thing is, love…he isn’t wrong.
“I know,” she whispered.
The god draped an arm around her and gave her a gentle, affectionate little jostle. “This is my edict: you, and your partner, are welcome in my temples and among my people. I know you don’t have the luxury of traveling around while under Arachne’s care, but there are opportunities even where you are to start shaping your own story, and your own character. Your friends are a great source of insight that you haven’t taken advantage of. Trissiny started it off by teaching you to fight without inflicting harm, but remember how she had to practically bully you into trying? She’s the only one of your little circle who’d be willing and motivated to do so. Gabriel and especially Toby have a lot of lessons they can teach you about coping in a hostile world without exercising force. Frankly none of you kids appreciate the amount of restraint Juniper exercises every day of her life. And, of course, you have a brilliant and vitally important tutor in the arts of guile in Ravana Madouri.”
Teal stiffened. “She…that one. You’re asking more than I think I can stomach.”
“Let’s call it what it is, Teal,” he said dryly. “Your antipathy toward her is projected guilt. You saw her exercise absolute cold-blooded cunning, and she saved you, your lover and your family in the process. That’s what you can’t stand.”
“I think that’s overstating it,” she said stiffly. “Duke Madouri did not appreciate what he was messing with.”
“Oh, to be sure, I don’t think anything he had prepared would have held Vadrieny down in the long run. But as Trissiny has told you—with characteristic asperity—you and your demon aren’t great at shielding others. You’d have lost someone you loved that night if Ravana hadn’t been such a cunning little snake.” Gently, he placed a fingertip under her chin and lifted her face. “And Teal, if you want to be a bard, it should always be you taking subtle control of that situation, not lashing out with your demon’s claws once it goes so far that you have no other options. Whatever Ravana’s character flaws—and yes, they are considerable—you are blaming her for your own issues, and that is wildly unfair to both of you.”
She swallowed and nodded, unable to form words.
“Educate yourself, bard,” he said, squeezing her shoulders once, then released her and stood. “If you’re willing to attach yourself to me as a devotee, you may consider that a divine command. I see absolutely vast potential in you, kiddo. I’m not going to watch you continuing to waste it. Work on this.”
“I…yes, sir,” she said, nodding, and brushed tears away from her eyes with her sleeve.
Vesk smiled kindly at her. “I’ll talk to you again, Teal, that’s a promise. And I look forward to watching your progress. Now, I’ve made you late enough for class—don’t worry, I’ll leave you with a note for Professor Ekoi.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s not—” Teal broke off, blinking and looking around.
She was standing outside the building in which her magic class was already in session, satchel slung over one shoulder. In her hand was a thin envelope of yellowish parchment, sealed with a golden lute symbol that glowed faintly even in the sunlight.
“Fairies and demons are both a simpler and more complicated matter than arcane constructs,” Professor Ekoi said, pacing slowly up and down the dais. “The underlying principles we previously discussed are the same: the composition of each determines the relationship of magical and physical properties, which varies widely by type of being. They can be understood as extremely complex standing enchantments, in that regard. The central difference is that while demons and fae are species which can be studied and cataloged via naturalistic principles, there are no naturally reproducing arcane entities. Such beings are created, without exception. A different method is therefore necessary to examine them—and it necessitates a firm grasp of the principles of arcane magic to apply, obviously.”
Everyone turned in their seats as the door on the upper wall of the classroom eased open and Teal peeked warily in. Shaeine allowed a rare expression of relief to flitter across her face.
“Miss Falconer,” Professor Ekoi said in a wry tone. “Welcome.”
“Hi,” Teal said, stepping in and pushing the door shut behind her. “Sorry I’m tardy, Professor. I, uh, have a note…”
She took a few steps forward, holding out the envelope, but Ekoi forestalled her with an upheld hand.
“That won’t be necessary, Falconer. I advise you to give that to Professor Tellwyrn as soon as possible, and do not open it. You may tell your new acquaintance, when next you see him, that I enjoy practical jokes as he well knows, but it is not appropriate to disrupt my class with such amusements.”
“Are you quite all right, Falconer?” the Professor asked more mildly. “It can be a disorienting experience. If you would like to visit Miss Sunrunner…”
“Ah, thanks, Professor, but I’d sort of rather just attend class as usual.”
“Very good, then,” Ekoi said, nodding. “Take your seat, if you please.”
“Wait, hang on,” Gabriel protested. “What happened?”
“I have no doubt that you will all be informed of these events, Mr. Arquin,” Professor Ekoi stated, her tail twitching in annoyance, “when you are no longer in my class. You’re not the one who was…delayed; it is very peculiar indeed that you seem to be the one most perturbed. If I may continue?”
Gabriel folded his hands neatly on his desk and gave her a saccharine smile as Teal slipped into her own seat.
Professor Ekoi resumed her slow pacing. “Now then, while arcane-derived entities are highly individual, with a sufficient grasp of the principles of arcane enchanting, it is possible to make educated deductions about their nature based on several standard rules. Not that these rules are without exceptions; they provide a starting point of examination, not freedom from the need to exercise deductive reasoning. To begin with…”