Chapter Nine: Lessons
Sixth Tier Theory met every Inen, Saanen, and Fenen, shortly after lunchtime. The summer solstice was an Inen and the start of the term, and all of the students Rhysel passed in the hall of classrooms on her way looked some combination of flustered and excited. Rhysel had planned to arrive five degrees early to get an idea from Aar Kithen what to expect and make up for her inadequate timekeeping abilities. She might also get him to read aloud components of the syllabus so she'd be able to correlate the translated writing with his lecture in its original Leraal, although the exact details of the material were largely irrelevant.
Aar Kithen was already there, although no students had arrived. He smiled politely at Rhysel when she walked in. "Good afternoon, Aaral Camlenn," he said. "You can sit at any of the student desks you like; depending on whether you are more interested in my teaching style or the way the students conduct themselves you might find any location suitable."
Rhysel pulled out one of the low stools under the low desks intended for the students, positioned halfway along the left wall of the room. The desks were round-cornered hexagons, and arranged in diagonal aisles so no one would sit directly behind anyone else, but one could maneuver from the margin of the classroom to the desk of their choice. "Some of each," she said. "What to expect from them, and how I'll work with you. As long as none of the children are here yet, can I ask - why did you volunteer to be the first infused? Keo did tell you it was dangerous, right?"
"I am aware that there is a risk, of course," agreed Aar Kithen. "I do not generally take such things lightly. But neither could I honestly claim to be afraid of the procedure. One of my brothers is a witch... " At Rhysel's look of puzzlement, he clarified, "He makes various magical liquids, mostly with medicinal properties although he creates others as well, called 'potions'. And I have been long accustomed to testing his potions. The infusion will just be another questionable substance that I will drink and, more likely than not, survive. Survive augmented, presumably."
"I don't think it will hurt you," Rhysel said immediately. "I don't, or I wouldn't want to go ahead with the test. The scroll claims a dozen successful infusions, and no side effects except for falling asleep for a good eight divs - er, half a day. And it's been accurate in every other particular, and I don't want you to drink anything until I have the entire ritual completely mastered, and the theory checks out."
"I understand," said Aar Kithen. "I would not expect you to put me in harm's way."
Rhysel smiled gratefully. "A lot of people where I come from... are uneasy about kamai," she said. "I think I'd have a hard time finding a volunteer on Barashi. So... I appreciate it."
"You are entirely welcome," Aar Kithen said, and then the door opened.
Korulen came in, at the center of a pack of girls - mostly humans and elves, and a halfling. "Hi, Rhysel!" said the thudia, picking a desk in the middle of the room; the other girls fanned out to her right. "Mom said you would be auditing this one. Hi, Aar Kithen."
The girls, Korulen included, resumed what seemed to be an animated exchange of gossip about someone named Lil and one of her six boyfriends. Rhysel listened with half an ear. Aar Kithen, meanwhile, busied himself by going up and down the aisles to place a syllabus on each. An elf friend of Korulen's, blond like her but with shorter hair, took hers directly and started reading it, but the others ignored the packets laid on their desks.
Rhysel imitated the short-haired elf, and scanned her syllabus. Sixth Tier Theory, Inen/Saanen/Fenen, seventh-and-naught to eighth-and-ten. Instructor: Aar Kithen, read the header. There followed a list of the units of the class, from "Familiars" to "Tah Roie rhythms and other reservoir phenomena", and their assigned dates and which test date corresponded to which material. Once Aar Kithen had distributed the syllabi, he started again with a stack of packets entitled Familiar Theory by someone associated with "Daasen University".
More students trickled in, in groups and pairs and by themselves, and scattered around the room to take seats and read their papers. A few of them checked the time, and Rhysel wondered if there was some non-spell-based means of doing that which worked indoors; as it was, she read the numbers that floated in front of the casters and saw that it was one degree till classtime (or thirty slices, if she translated back to familiar units, but she was getting increasingly accustomed to the fives-based system on Elcenia). Aar Kithen appeared to be making a point of ignoring the students, except when one boy shoved his friend and the teacher's grey eyes flicked up. He made no other move, but the boys stopped arguing.
Aar Kithen himself didn't cast the time spell at all, but at what seemed like a precisely punctual moment, he got up from his desk again. The kids fell silent - one in the middle of casting a spell, which caused a small puff of black soot to hit him in the face. Aar Kithen produced a rag from a drawer in his desk and tossed it to the student, who wiped the soot off sheepishly. "It is inadvisable to interrupt spellcasting, without considerably stronger reasons to be silent, or motionless," Aar Kithen said mildly. "Is there anything else from previous tiers of theory classes we ought to review before beginning with the packet each of you ought to have found on your desks, regarding familiars?"
No one spoke up, and Aar Kithen chose a student seemingly at random to read aloud the first paragraph of the reading on familiars. Rhysel followed along as best she could, although contrasting grammars meant she occasionally found herself skipping around in the sentence or puzzling over which unfamiliar word meant which inadequate translation while the girl had gone on to the next sentence.
"The beginning and end of what most people know about familiars," read the student haltingly, "could fit on a single page. That they are non-sapient animals, that they live and die with their wizard regardless of native lifespan, that they appear when called, and that they are desirable for their unusual docility and cleverness when interacting with their wizard in addition to the increased channeling capacity they offer. Few laypeople know why familiars have these traits, or what else there is to know about them. This paper is an introduction to the properties of familiars, aimed at students of tiers 5 or 6 in a wizarding university program." The student blinked. "Aar Kithen, we aren't in a university program, we're in an academy."
"The paper should be sufficiently accessible. Do, of course, ask questions if any of it should seem too opaque - but the goal of Binaaralav is to turn out graduated wizards after tier ten, and so our curriculum cannot diverge too much from those employed by universities. Are there questions about this first paragraph?" he asked, addressing the entire class.
"Yeah," said one of Korulen's friends, a human girl with shoulder-length dark hair. Rhysel had heard Korulen addressing this one as "Lutan", but thought it unlikely that Aar Kithen would call her that.
"Aaralan Mehaas," acknowledged Aar Kithen.
"It says familiars come when called," she said, "but everything comes when called unless it's got specific anti-calling wards on it. Or if you used a diagram spell and it won't fit in your diagram, or something. Why is that worth mentioning?"
"Excellent question," Aar Kithen said, and the student smiled. "Familiars do not require calling spells to come to their wizards. Instead, the process of tying a familiar involves dedicating a non-verbal, whole-body gesture that may be enacted to summon the familiar to a specific location on one's person. For this reason among others, it is strongly advisable to choose a creature light enough that you can readily support its weight. A demonstration," he concluded, and then he crossed his ankles, tilted his head at a peculiar angle, and held out one fist so his forearm was parallel to the floor. There appeared, standing on his arm, a resplendently blue-and-silver bird.
The bird had a crest like a cockatoo, trailing tailfeathers like a bird of paradise, and a songbird's small conical beak, all on a downy body diamond-patterned in shades of cobalt and sky and ticked with whorls and speckles of shining grey. Aar Kithen stroked it under the neck with one knuckle, and the bird trilled a high note. "It is recommended that one choose a posture that is easy to remember and adopt, without being something you would tend to fall into by mistake."
The class was highly impressed, more so than Rhysel - she thought the bird was pretty, but the students were bowled over, exclaiming over Aar Kithen's familiar's rarity and magical properties. "What's his name?" someone wanted to know, and "where did you get a stratus-chaser?" and "can I pet him?"
Aar Kithen answered the questions in sequence: "His name is Semel. I got him from a zoo that was closing near the town where I went to university. If you wish to stay after class, you may pet him." The wizard shooed Semel from his arm to the desk, where the bird huddled down and tucked his head under his wing. "Normally, I allow Semel to fly where he likes; stratus-chasers are not particularly vulnerable creatures. I can retrieve him whenever I choose, as you saw, without requiring a spell."
The rest of the class went much the same way, a different student reading each paragraph of the paper and then Aar Kithen taking questions, although he didn't demonstrate any more fantastic bird-producing magic. Most of it went well over Rhysel's head after the first few paragraphs in, talking about phenomena named after people or schools and obviously referring to things the children had been studying for years: "Desinni reservoir impressions" and "gesture tags" and "Voyan numbers" and the difference between "tying" and "keying". When the end of the period approached, he assigned them to read the rest of the packet, write down all of their questions, and make at least a paragraph's worth of attempt to answer each one before looking it up elsewhere.
Most of the students stayed after class to pet Semel, who sang, and willingly sat on Korulen's studious elf friend's shoulder to preen her hair. The girl (who Aar Kithen had called "Aaralan Bantar" and whose friends called her "Kaarilel") seemed like she was tempted to ask if she could keep the creature, but restrained herself.
Rhysel stayed, too - when the students had trickled out the door, and she made her way up to the front of the room, she did run a hand over the stratus-chaser's back where it sat on the desk, but it wasn't her primary interest. "Was that a typical class?" she inquired.
"A typical first class without a practical component. Subsequent ones will have them doing less reading in class; ideally they do most of that on their own time. But I find it useful to start off with to get an idea of how comfortable each one is with this level of material. They're encouraged to make appointments with tutors if they struggle, but they don't always take advantage without specific prompting." He watched Rhysel pet Semel. "If you want, you can take him home with you; I can call him at any time, so there is no reason not to let you borrow him."
"Truly?" Rhysel asked. "Now that you mention it, I'd rather like to sculpt him... he's a beautiful animal."
Aar Kithen smiled at her. "He responds to a selection of verbal commands well enough that he accepts them from people other than myself. Among them is... Show off," he instructed Semel. The stratus-chaser got up from his crouch, tipped his beak towards the ceiling, and spread his wings - they were longer and narrower than Rhysel might have guessed from how plump the animal was with them folded, and tip to tip the span was almost four feet long. "However, please don't remove any of his feathers, and if he sheds them unassisted, I'd appreciate their return - we didn't get to the part of the reading explaining the uses of familiar parts, but they are several."
Rhysel picked up Semel carefully; he folded his wings and pecked at a wrinkle in her sleeve. "I'll keep an eye out," she promised. "Thank you very much."
"It's no trouble," Aar Kithen assured her, smiling. "If you'll excuse me, I have an appointment this evening, and need to make copies of the handouts for my other class before departing." He inclined his head politely to Rhysel, and teleported away.
Rhysel, still holding Semel, went out into the hall and took the lift to the exit, and flew home. Semel obligingly perched on her wrist the entire way.
The following morning, Rhysel arrived five degrees early to the Information-Based Spells Practicum, which met not in a normal classroom but in a room attached to the library. Chairs were arranged in a circle with no associated desks; Aar Kithen had a rotating stool in the center of the circle, but was up putting copies of the syllabus and another paper on each chair. Rhysel sat in one of the still-empty seats, and he handed her copies with a smile. "Good morning, Aaral Camlenn."
"Morning. I'm never going to convince you to call me Rhysel, am I?" she asked, smiling back and then looking down at the papers. The syllabus was much like the theory one in format, although the units included things like "Ordering of text", "Working with multiple languages", and "Modes of information display". The other paper appeared to be a list of spells. Each item on the list had a spell's name, like "Eker Relevance Sort" or "Standard U.Daasen Disambiguation 4", and then a number and a magic word, plus a few remarks about what "intentional components" were called for.
"It is not strictly impossible, but it is unlikely," Aar Kithen replied. "I'm afraid you may find this class even less interesting than the other. The students will spend much of it running around the library, using the spells we cover to locate and process selected information. It is, at least, probably more interesting to an outsider than the half-term course on teleportation, where they would cast the same spell repeatedly and do nothing but appear and disappear in various locations. That is the only other practicum I'm teaching this term."
"So you're teaching three classes?" she asked.
"Four," he said. "I also have another section of Sixth Tier Theory. Aaral Pyga suggested that you be placed in the same one as Aaralan Inular."
Rhysel took a moment to translate these formalities into "Keo" and "Korulen", then nodded. The door opened, and students started to collect in the room. Rhysel wound up sitting between a sandy-haired elf boy, and a dark tan halfling who decided to introduce himself instead of ignoring her like the other children were doing.
"Hi," he said, sticking out his hand; Rhysel barely paused before remembering to shake it, although she tried to be gentle with the halfling's little hand. "I'm Ngen Irening. Who're you?"
"Rhysel Camlenn," she replied. "I'm auditing to get accustomed to what classes are like here."
"Why?" asked Ngen. "I don't think new teachers usually do that. What kind of accent is that?"
"I'm a new teacher from another world," she said. "I won't be teaching until next term at the earliest, and it's a new kind of magic."
"Whoa," said Ngen. "What kind? Binaaralav's never had a witchcraft department - Esmaar usually does that by apprenticeship, it's Anaistan countries that send witches to school..."
"It's an offworld magic called kamai," she explained. She conjured a globe of handfire, and then - to differentiate herself from a mage or a light - a sphere of water that she floated above her opposite palm. Then she dismissed them both and folded her hands in her lap. "There are five kinds of kamai, and we're hoping to offer instruction in all of them, but right now I only know elemental. It's a little like being all kinds of mage."
"That's awesome! Are you taking anybody who signs up? I think I could stand to be in school a little longer if -"
"Aaran Irening," said Aar Kithen, and the halfling fell silent, sheepish.
Aar Kithen, thus equipped with his class's attention, announced that each of them was to spend the first ten degrees of class making sure that they could each cast all of the spells on their handouts, and that they could use their syllabi if nothing else - he had more copies if theirs were alphabetized beyond usefulness - but that the library was also open to them and he or any librarian would be able to undo the sorts of mishaps they might wreak on the books with the spells available. "After ten degrees," he said, "or sooner if you find yourself able to cast each spell immediately, return here and I will give you individual assignments for things to find within the library. You are forbidden the card catalog, but of course you can attempt to find the contents of your assignments without the use of the listed spells should you desire. It would simply be unlikely to result in success within the class period."
The students mostly scattered, and through the window in the classroom Rhysel could watch them weaving through the stacks and gesturing and barking spells. Some stayed put to play with their syllabi instead; Aar Kithen cautioned that they would be well advised to leave alone the lists of spells themselves.
Rhysel couldn't cast any of the spells herself, so she decided to follow Ngen. He was pawing through a book on religion, his sheet of spells perched precariously on a stepladder she'd seen him climb to reach the shelf. "That spell told me this book," he said, talking either to Rhysel or to himself. Then he looked at his spell list again. "One of these ought to tell me which page, but..."
"Books don't have indices here?" Rhysel asked.
Ngen blinked. "Right. Index. I'm an idiot." He flipped to the front of the book. "Thanks, but I'm glad this isn't the part we're marked on. I'm not sure if that was allowed, you giving me a hint."
"Sorry," said Rhysel. She glanced at the books, and then went back to the circle of chairs and sat back down.
"How do you know everyone's name?" she asked Aar Kithen, who didn't appear to have anything to occupy himself with while the students tested out the spells. "Have you had all these students before?"
"No. I have had some of them - for instance, I taught Aaralan Inular in fourth tier theory - but for the most part, I'm merely grateful that I receive lists of names accompanied by photographs. Better to memorize them ahead of time rather than wasting everyone's class time asking to be reminded of various surnames."
"Why do you call everyone by Aaral or whatever and then their surname?" Rhysel asked.
"Not everyone," he said. "Only people I am not related to."
"So if a relative of yours enrolled?"
"If, for instance, my small cousin Ansil Kithen were to enroll, I would call her Aaralan Kithen in class," Aar Kithen said, "because to call her by her first name would draw undue attention to the family relationship while 'Kithen' is an extremely common name, but when I visit my family's home of course I call her Ansil."
"I was under the impression that extended families usually lived together," Rhysel said. "Do you not live with yours, or did you marry into a different family, or...?"
"I am not married," he said. "I live alone. I would be entirely welcome in my family's house, but they are sufficiently crowded that I would find it necessary to share a room with my youngest brother. This is not an uncommon arrangement, but I found it a disagreeable one, and moved out of the house not long after graduating university."
"Is this the brother who's a witch?"
"Aaral Camlenn, as we expect to work together extensively in the future, it is only appropriate that we know something about one another, but I prefer not to discuss much of my personal life in front of students," he said, looking significantly at the handful of children still in the room making the letters on their syllabi glow and dance and float off of the paper. None of them appeared to be paying any attention to the conversation, but of course they all had ears; Rhysel supposed it was only fair for Aar Kithen to prefer that certain conversations happen elsewhere. She fell silent, and Aar Kithen fidgeted for a moment before producing a spare syllabus and a graphite stick. He looked like he was writing something on the back of the square paper, but Rhysel couldn't see what.
The students started going to Aar Kithen for their assignments, and he handed each one a little card - Rhysel looked over a student's shoulder and read Find the techniques used to estimate the incidence of the following: shren eggs laid annually, given underreporting; national referendum participation rates, given fraud; average vampire lifespan, given unreliable memories of vampires.
"I didn't understand anything on that card," said Rhysel.
"I'm afraid I'm handing them out at random, and don't know which one you read," Aar Kithen said. "At any rate, it would be surprising if you were already conversant with the deliberately obscure topics I selected. It would be unproductive to ask students to use magic to learn information they already know."
Rhysel nodded. "What's a shren?" she asked.
"An unfortunate congenital defect that sometimes befalls the children of dragon couples," said Aar Kithen.
It didn't sound like he wanted to talk about shrens anymore, so Rhysel just nodded again and watched the students run around. "Would it be best if I was here for every class?" she asked.
"Not necessarily," he said. "Of course you are entitled to supervise them all, but if you have other demands on your time, you are also welcome to omit some class sessions from your schedule."
"I may skip the Sinen meeting of this one, then," she said. "I'm very close to making the last few steps of the infusion ritual work, and the sooner I manage that, the sooner you can learn enough kamai to help me figure out a lesson plan."
Rhysel sat through the rest of the practicum anyway, but left - waving to both Aar Kithen and Ngen - promptly when the instructor dismissed the class, rather than lingering with questions as some students did. She wanted to get home, and fix lunch, and do some more work on the earth step before she attended Kolaan's play.
Rhysel didn't manage to purify and empower earth without it adhering stubbornly to the sides of its crucible before it was time to go to the play, but she did think she was almost there, and would have considered skipping the show to perfect it if it weren't a play with songs. As it was, she put down her work precisely when the sun reached the point she'd decided was her signal. She flew out the side of her workroom, nearly forgetting to seal up the obedient stone wall behind her.
The theater was in a district full of them, organized in more familiar square blocks with gridded streets rather than the circles-around-yards that residential neighborhoods seemed to favor. Rhysel flew over the throng rather than wading through, and exchanged her ticket for admittance to the building without fuss. She had a seat in the front row of the balcony, and looked down at the heavy white curtain in front of the stage eagerly.
Some time later, when the theater was filled up (Rhysel was glad to see that she wasn't underdressed or overdressed for a night at the theater, judging by the other attendees), the curtain lifted, and the story began. Rhysel clutched at the program she'd found on her seat and listened.
The play opened with a song, and while Kolaan had claimed that theirs wasn't a polished, professional production, Rhysel was enraptured anyway. There were lyrics written in her program, which she skimmed quickly to help her make sense of the music. The opening number described the fictional country in which the story was set, its cruel king, and its lovely princess, both of whom paraded onto the stage from beyond the sides of the set when mentioned and took their places on thrones.
The eponymous man in red and gold didn't appear until after the opening song, when the sets moved of their own accord to show the Princess Habiris leaning over the railing of her balcony and delivering a monologue about how much she chafed under her father's supervision and feared that he planned to force her to marry an evil duke. As the set's moon rose, her monologue turned into another song, and in a few measures her voice was joined by a man's: the man in red and gold.
This masked character (Rhysel checked the program: he was listed as "the man in red and gold", appropriately for his costume, and had no actual name) was played by an elf, unlike the royal characters and the duke; he was, as Kolaan had promised, an excellent singer. Precisely on pitch, he sang with the princess, until she spontaneously noticed that he was there and dropped out of song to question his presence in the royal garden. He announced, still soaringly tuneful, that he was there to save her from her father's plot to marry her off to the unpleasant duke. However, he then went on to clarify that he was under a curse, and could answer no more than three questions a night, and for each one she asked he would require a strand of her hair. Apparently finding nothing suspicious about this at all, the princess gave her pet golden dove ("aurum-dove", said the program) a strand of hair from her head and bade it fly down to the man in red and gold. In a similar manner she asked two more questions - his name, and his origins - but in the first case he claimed to lack such a thing and in the latter case claimed to be from nowhere whatsoever. With the third strand of Princess Habiris's hair in his possession, he departed the garden.
The set changed, and showed the king and his daughter in the throne room again, this time entertaining the suit from the horrible duke. Princess Habiris's distress went unremarked, and by the end of the scene - which included a song in which the duke explained how evil he was and the king explained how much he wanted the duke's money as a bride gift - the princess was betrothed.
The next scene showed the evil duke's household, where he went through a comically abusive song-and-dance routine of mistreating his servants and gloating over his engagement, until the man in red and gold strode in. The nameless visitor introduced himself as an ambassador from the nation of Matref, which he described in still further musical exposition: Matref was made out to be an astoundingly wondrous place, so wealthy and with so high a standard of living that it had become a way of life among its people to exchange absurdly lavish gifts on the most trivial of pretenses. And, said the supposed ambassador, the king of Matref wished to begin such an exchange with the duke, word of whose lucky betrothal had made its way overseas.
The duke was of course flattered, and wished to know what gifts the monarch of Matref had sent. The man in red and gold explained that the king had set aside some five hundred of the finest Matreflan camels for the duke, and was waiting for the duke to send back word (with the ambassador) that he had stables ready for them. Upon receipt of this news they would be sent along at once. The man in red and gold then asked if the duke had a gift of comparable value for the king of Matref.
Intrigued, the duke ordered a set of bejeweled, golden dishes (made of all natural materials) packed up and sent with the ambassador to Matref, but said it might be some time before a stable fit to hold five hundred fine Matreflan camels would be built. The man in red and gold said that this would be fine, and the king would be willing to hold the camels as long as necessary. He departed with the dishes, singing a refrain from the tune about Matref.
The man in red and gold returned to the princess's garden, and she had her three questions and three strands of hair ready: she wanted to know why he had no name; who had placed his curse; and how he planned to rescue her. The answers were, respectively, because of the selfsame curse; his father; and "through trickery and deceit, against everyone but you, Princess".
The following day, the man in red and gold returned to the duke's household, and announced that the king of Matref was immensely pleased with the gift of the gem-encrusted dishes. In addition to the camels, therefore, he had ordered that a thousand pounds of fine Matreflan spices and herbs be added to the gift, but wished to send them only when the duke had enchanted a chamber to be sufficiently dry and cool that the spices could be stored safely. When asked if he had such a chamber already, the duke replied that he did not, but he would begin construction and enchantment immediately. The man in red and gold then, again, prompted the duke to provide a gift for the king of Matref, and walked out with several bolts of precious silks.
At his visit to the princess that night, she arranged to be in the garden instead of up on her balcony, and asked three prepared questions again, and paid for them without using her pet as a delivery mechanism: why did the man in red and gold wear a mask? (Another part of the curse.) And why had his father cursed him? (Because his mother was of the Shadow People, which Rhysel gathered were a mythological race with supernatural powers, and his father feared that the man in red and gold would be a threat to him for this reason.) And: would he give her a kiss?
The man in red and gold's mask only covered his eyes and nose, not his lips, and he did bend down and kiss the princess's forehead before accepting the strands of her hair and fleeing the garden.
Whenever she heard the man in red and gold deliver dialogue, Rhysel was increasingly subject to a puzzled feeling of recognition. She'd already spotted Kolaan in the chorus, and knew that he didn't play the lead; she couldn't think who else she might know would be behind the mask. So she flipped through her program.
The man in red and gold convinced the duke that the king of Matref would send along bars of natural platinum, as soon as the duke had a treasury secure enough to hold them; the duke complained that he was already spending a great deal of money on the stables and the climate controlled spice room, but sent the man in red and gold home with several cages full of rare animals for the king.
Rhysel, meanwhile, found in the program: The Man in Red and Gold is played by Tekaal Kithen.