Tellwyrn accepted their essays at the start of class, and graded them right in front of the students…for a given value of “grading.” She stood at the lectern, calmly reading over each of the eight two-page papers and setting them aside in turn, while the freshmen sat staring at her in trepidation. It wasn’t a very long wait; the Professor didn’t spend more than a few seconds on each page. Somehow, though, nobody seemed to doubt that she had read them all in full.
Finally she sighed, stacked the papers neatly, and stepped out from behind the podium. “Well, as you doubtless managed to figure out, this has been a little ‘getting to know you’ exercise. You’ll be glad to hear that you are reaching a point in the semester after which there won’t be many more of those, if any. The idea here is chiefly to give me an understanding of what I have to work with; I’m not somebody who teaches by the book, nor is anyone who understands how people learn. The weaknesses you perceive in those around you reveal a great deal about your own, which will tell me what I’m going to have to work on with each of you. So, mission accomplished.”
She began to stroll calmly up and down the rows of desks, speaking as she did so. “Miss Avelea, you are a judgmental jerk.”
“Worse, you’re not aware of it. Mr. Caine, you’re also a judgmental jerk. You do realize this, and in overcompensating you reduce yourself to spinelessness. Miss Falconer, you have lofty ideals and neither the guts nor the backbone to do anything with them. Miss Awarrion, you’ve a head full to bursting with academic knowledge and little notion how such things actually play out in the real world. That’s a forgivable failing; it’s what you’re here to learn, after all. On the same note…” She came to a stop between the desks occupied by the two fae. “Juniper, Fross… I really can’t tell whether the issue is that you two don’t understand mortal society or that you just don’t understand, period. We’ll work on that, as best we can. Mr. Arquin. You are an extremely clever young man.”
“Aw, thanks, teach,” he said smugly.
“You are nearly a tenth as clever as you think you are. The gap there will be what kills you. Try not to let that happen on my campus. Miss Punaji…” She heaved a sigh. “…grow up.”
They stared at her in furious silence as she slowly picked her way back down to the podium and took her place behind it. “Well,” she said at last, staring up at them over her spectacles, “you did the assignment, so I guess I’ll have to pass you. Everybody gets a D.”
The outcry from all sides was so heated that the only individual words audible were curses, and that only because Ruda yelled the loudest. Shaeine alone kept silent, though she raised an eyebrow sardonically at the professor.
Tellwyrn endured this gracefully for about ten seconds, then raised a hand and snapped her fingers. A thunderclap blasted through the room, accompanied by a rush of air that tipped empty desks backward and rocked all the students into silence, sending Fross careening against the back wall.
“As you go through life,” Tellwyrn intoned, “you’ll find that doing what you’re told by authority figures is a path to mediocrity. Opposing authority figures in a knee-jerk fashion leads to a swift and brutal end. It is necessary to find a middle ground—and finding that means understanding the forces that move both individuals and groups, and how you can manipulate those forces to your advantage. Ironically, this is an art that hinges heavily on the elucidation of your own principles, the philosophical framework of your life that you must uphold to protect your identity as a coherent being. This is the entire purpose of this class. The ultimate point of this task was to show me how far along you already are. I can’t say I’m impressed.
“Each year,” she went on, beginning to pace again, “I start off my freshmen with an assignment along these lines, if not this one exactly. Something needlessly, extravagantly cruel, calculated to attack each person where they are weakest and drive wedges between them. In case you were wondering, the correct solution to this problem would have been for you to confer outside of class, then show up here this morning with no essays done and tell me where to stick my damned homework.” She smiled grimly at them. “Don’t beat yourselves up too hard. Out of forty-eight freshman classes which have started at this University, only six did the right thing, and of those two did it in such a wrong-headed way that they fared little better than yourselves. For future reference, outside of Rafe’s classes, attempting to lynch your professor gets you a B minus at best, if I’m feeling benign enough to grant points for style and strategy.”
“How much of what happens in this class is gonna be sadistic mind games?” Gabriel demanded.
“How many times, Arquin, must I tell you to raise your hand before speaking?”
“A day may come when I give a flying fuck what you think,” he shot back, “but it’s not this day.”
“Aw, look who found his balls. Better late than never.” She grinned diabolically. “To answer your question, which is a valid one, your performance today gains you a bit of leeway going forward; I will not be party to the kicking of helpless kittens. Though I guarantee this is not the last time you will think so, the purpose of these exercises isn’t to break your spirits. However, I will not have you leaving my University having memorized a bunch of names and dates out of a book. Understanding is what I teach, and what I expect you to gain. To that end, there will be a great deal of what Mr. Arquin describes as ‘mind games.’ I will test you nearly constantly, in one way or another. You will acquire and demonstrate a capacity to think quickly, fluidly and beyond conventional patterns, or you will keep retaking my class until you do. Is that what anyone wants?”
She tilted her head inquisitively, looking around at them, but no one offered a comment.
“Rightyo, then!” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “The scope of history is nigh-limitless, but for our purposes we’re going to focus on comparatively recent events. The Tiraan Empire itself is an excellent, ongoing case study in everything a civilization can do right and/or horribly wrong, so we will begin our investigations with the Empire’s founding, a little more than one thousand years ago, and proceed forward from there. Those of you who have an interest in other, more specific historical studies will doubtless find electives that suit your needs later in your academic career.
“To begin with, though this fact is as vigorously hushed up by the modern Empire as can be without actually qualifying as suppression, the city-state of Tiraas was a republic for a relatively long time before the rise of Dazian Estarian, the general who would go on to proclaim himself the first Emperor. Though we will not downplay the contributions of exceptional people or peoples to the Empire’s rise, Tiraas is also an excellent example of the quite accidental factors that affect the course of history and politics—which is history when it’s still too fresh to chew. Over the long run, geography always has its way. The city itself is one of the most naturally defensible locations on the continent, and its position makes it an important hub of various trade routes…”
Ruda caught up to Trissiny as they were leaving Helion Hall.
“So, she said with an elaborately casual air, “I’ve been thinking.”
Trissiny forcibly bit back a snotty comment that sprang to the forefront of her mind. Malicious sass was not becoming conduct for a paladin. Even if directed at a…pirate. She looked at Ruda, showing acknowledgment, but held her silence and waited for the other girl to continue.
She gave Trissiny a smile that, to her credit, only looked about half forced. “Yeah, I’m maybe not so inclined to take Tellwyrn seriously…and less every time she talks…but like I said, I was thinking, and I have to admit she wasn’t completely wrong. I was outta line; I shouldn’t have taken a swing at you. I was being needlessly hostile and pretty much showing off.”
“We all make mistakes,” Trissiny said after the silence had stretched out enough that she was reasonably sure Ruda was done talking. She’d grown used to silence between them; they had managed not to communicate or acknowledge one another since the incident yesterday, which made for tense living conditions. Still, she wasn’t sure that was worse than actually talking with her roommate. “I accept your apology.”
Ruda blinked, then frowned. “Did someone use the word ‘apologize’ and I missed it?”
“Well, what was the point of this, if not that?”
For a moment, she thought they were about to have another go; Ruda drew in a deep breath, swelling like an angry toad. She let it back out, though, without incident. “…all right, fair enough. I’m apologizing.”
“Yeah, good. Great.” She eyed Trissiny up and down quickly. “Cos the scowl and the moving combat stance really scream forgiveness.”
Trissiny set her teeth, choosing her words carefully. “Forgiveness is just that. As far as I’m concerned there need be no recrimination between us for anything in the past. However, I would be foolish to simply forget that a person is prone to being needlessly hostile and showing off with a deadly weapon.”
“That’s good advice,” Gabriel said brightly from behind them. Most of their class was still walking in a group, though Fross and Juniper had fallen far behind, talking between themselves. “What does that say about somebody who decides to murder a person based on what kind of blood they’ve got?”
“Oh, hey, this sounds like a great thing for you not to get in the middle of,” Teal said quickly, taking Gabe by the arm and all but dragging him away. Toby followed them, glancing back once.
“Look, I am trying, here,” Ruda practically growled. “It’s not like diplomacy is a big part of the Punaji upbringing. Meet me halfway, maybe?”
“I am,” Trissiny said woodenly. “You apologized, I forgave you. We’re moving on.”
“All right, so that’s step one,” she replied, managing another somewhat unforced grin. “Then I can teach you what pirates do know about diplomacy. How’s about we grab a drink, my treat? I hear good things about the pub in town.”
“I don’t drink,” Trissiny said coldly.
Ruda sighed heavily and shortened her stride, allowing herself to fall behind.
“Of course you fucking don’t.”
It was, altogether, a beautiful day. The brisk wind which was nearly constant at the University’s altitude was mostly cut by its walls, but a pleasantly cool breeze persisted, which nicely offset the unseasonably warm weather. For early fall, it was pleasantly cool; the winters around the Golden Sea were mild at their worst, but if this pattern held it might be a downright warm season. For now, though, it was perfect. Professor Yornhaldt had set out early from his lodgings, planning to take time to walk slowly over the less direct route to work, and had been quite enjoying the walk toward his classroom until someone exploded out of the azaleas immediately in front of him.
Professor Rafe fell silent halfway through his customary introduction, but his mouth did not stop moving. Yornhaldt lowered the stubby finger he’d pointed at the half-elf, permitting himself the luxury of a faintly smug smile as Rafe, frowning in confusion, kept apparently talking, but producing no sound. He caught on quickly, scowling at Yornhaldt, then plucked a vial out of a belt pouch and drank down its contents.
“That’s cheating,” he said accusingly.
“You’d be amazed how much time and attention on this campus goes toward shutting you up. Perhaps you wouldn’t, though. Or have you always carried vials of anti-magic potion everywhere you go?”
“Hah! I carry vials of everything everywhere I go!” Grinning, Rafe planted his fists on his hips and thrust his hips forward. It would have been less awkward if his groin were further from the dwarven professor’s eye level. “Belt of infinite holding, baby! Of course, I got it to hold the infinity beneath my belt, if you know what I mean, which I think you do. The extra storage is a nice perk, though.”
“And what were you doing in the bushes?” Yornhaldt asked, removing his glasses and polishing them on his sleeve as an excuse to avert his eyes.
“What else? Lying in wait for my prey! Nailed it, by the way.”
“I have class, Admestus.”
“Yes indeed, that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.” Rafe fell in beside him as Yornhaldt continued on his way. “I think everybody’s had a chance to size up this year’s froshes. What do you think?”
“In what sense?”
“Don’t do this to me, Alaric, you know I don’t have the attention span for word games. I’m asking for your overall opinion. Vague impressions. Detail not necessary.”
“Hm. You might be better off asking Arachne. She’s the one who likes the secret tests of character.”
“And I plan on doing just that, since they’ve probably finished the traditional first one by now, but I like to poll the more level heads before spinning the roulette wheel of Arachne’s moods.”
Yornhaldt couldn’t suppress a chuckle at that. “Well, I’d say they are a potentially volatile mix. The paladins and the demon-touched alone…well, lumping them all together seems to me an invitation for trouble. On the other hand, this class has an unusual number of diplomatically-inclined individuals who will go a long way toward keeping the peace. Tobias and the Lady Awarrion are actually trained mediators, and Miss Falconer and Juniper seem to have solid instincts in that direction.”
Rafe lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “You got all that from one class with them? Damn, son.”
“Well.” Once again, Yornhaldt allowed himself a trace of satisfaction. “I did the aura trick in that one class. They always enjoy that; it’s interesting to see which of them catch on that I might have an ulterior motive. I think only Shaeine did, this time.”
“What fascinates me,” Rafe said, stroking his chin in an ostentatious pantomime of deep thought, “is how you focus upon the relationships between them.”
“This year, more than most, I feel that will be the telling—”
A greenish blur whizzed past them, clapping Professor Rafe on the back of the head and sending him tumbling into the bushes, before resolving itself into the scowling figure of Professor Tellwyrn.
“The record will show,” she declared, “that I have been more than lenient with your various over-the-top eccentricities, Admestus. I won’t deny there’s an element of satisfaction in having to constantly fix whatever new nonsense you’ve inflicted on my campus. One hates to be bored. However, when you do things I have specifically told you not to do, such as opening your classes by boasting about the size of your manhood, I’m gonna smack some decorum into you no matter who’s watching.”
“Aww, yeah,” Rafe said, grinning, as he extricated himself from the poor azaleas. “I leave all the ladies with an element of satisfactyeeeeow!”
Tellwyrn clapped him on the side of the head again; this time he hurtled over the bushes, struck the wall beyond and tumbled to the ground behind them.
“Why did you specifically tell him not to…” Yornhaldt trailed off at the withering look Tellwyrn gave him and sighed. “Right. Never mind. You’re actually going to hurt him one of these days, you know. At least hit him in the torso; you could break his neck.”
“He’s a big boy,” she said dismissively, “as he won’t bloody stop reminding everyone. I want you both to get it into your heads that my patience for shenanigans this year is at an all-time low. Our student body is a cross-section of the most significant factions of the Empire and points beyond, and right now there is too much unrest abroad for us to afford any slip-ups. On top of everything else, Elilial is doing something beyond her usual level of simmering, and I don’t believe for a second that she’ll leave us out of it entirely.”
“Not after you’ve spent the last year snooping around her trail, no, she probably won’t,” Yornhaldt rumbled.
“I think it’s more an issue of the fact that we have her daughter enrolled here,” said Rafe, brushing crushed blossoms from his shirt. He shrugged at their stares. “Excuse me, last surviving daughter. I’ve gotta figure that’ll be kind of a big deal to her. Oh, don’t give me that look, Arachne, it’s not like it’s some big secret. Vadrieny is mentioned by name in some of the old texts.”
“Some of the old texts,” she repeated, glaring. “Those texts are the definition of a big secret. The Church has been known to lock people up for knowing that they exist, never mind having read them.”
“Really?” he said, putting on an innocent face. “You should probably do something about all the copies we’ve got in the library, then.”
“Those are in the restricted—no, never mind, I’m not getting baited into this. I see I’ll have to have a talk with Weaver about letting you read stuff.”
“Hah!” He planted his fists on his hips again, throwing back his head and laughing dramatically. “No one lets Professor Rafe do anything! Rafe is as Rafe does, baby!” She growled wordlessly at him and turned to go. “Oh, wait, hang on, Arachne, this is kinda related. We were just talking about the froshes. What do you think of ’em?”
“Think? They’re a little more obtuse than I would like, but there’s potential there. Of course, we don’t get any students without that potential.”
“Alaric thinks the most important thing to consider is how they interact with each other.”
He shrugged. “That’s never seemed like such a big deal before. I mean, beyond the obvious. I remember the year we had the vampire and those two clerics, but I can’t see this bunch wrecking the campus to get at each other’s throats.”
She regarded him silently for a moment, then lifted one corner of her mouth in what was not exactly a smile. “I suggest you hang onto your belt, then, Admestus, because we are about to have a very interesting year. You have no idea who those kids really are.” Tellwyrn turned and strolled away, pitching her voice just loud enough to be heard behind her. “Or, more importantly, who they’re going to be.”