It quickly became apparent which of them were accustomed to hiking, and which were not. Very rapidly the sun climbed, the air heated, and the more indoorsy of the students began to struggle with the erratic pace Professor Rafe set as he darted back and forth, picking plants and usually shouting gleefully about them. Juniper, likewise, would sometimes rush away to investigate something growing, but little that they found made much of an impression on the other students. The Golden Sea was a featureless plain stretching in all directions, with not so much as a shrub to break the shimmering monotony. The variety of grasses to be found was limited and of interest only to their resident herbalist and dryad. For the most part, the rest of the freshman class were preoccupied with the heat and their aching legs.
Just about when the sun had risen high enough to banish the colors of dawn and turn the sky crystal blue, they came to a sudden halt when Gabriel let out a yelp.
“The mountain!” he shouted, facing back the way they’d come. “It’s gone!”
“Nonsense, it’s right where we left it,” Professor Rafe said easily. “We’re gone.”
“Wh—I know we’re gone, but we’ve barely been walking an hour! That mountain is freaking huge, we should still be able to see it from here.”
“Oh, you worry too much,” Rafe said, grinning easily. “Like you said, it’s huge. I’m sure we’ll find it again when we need it. For now: further up and farther in!”
“Are you nuts?!” Ruda shouted. “The Golden Sea shifts around and changes, everyone knows that. We’ve been shunted off to fuck knows where! How the hell are we gonna get back?”
“I’m sure something’ll turn up,” their professor said breezily, turning back around and strolling off. “Come on, that’s why it’s called an adventure! Get into the spirit, Punaji. Now keep a lookout for any interesting geographical features, kids. We’ll wanna stop pretty soon to rest our legs and have some breakfast. Sitting down in standing tallgrass is kind of a pain, much less making a fire.”
“I knew it!” Ruda pointed at him, turning to glare around at the others. “I fucking called it. The moron’s led us out here to die.”
“Then we shall die as heroes!” Rafe bellowed, already ten yards distant. “ONWARD TO GLORY!”
“Shut the fuck up, you asshole!”
“If I may?” Shaeine raised her voice only slightly, but it was sufficiently out of her normal character that both Ruda and Gabe stopped and turned to look at her. “Do you recall Professor Tellwyrn saying in our first class that there is a geas upon the University that prevents outsiders from knowing its true name?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“There is more to it than that. Initiates of the Unseen University can always find it from the Golden Sea. The general rule of navigating the Sea is that going uphill leads one farther in, while going downhill leads toward the edges.
“Wait, there’s a hill?” Gabriel looked around, then lifted one of his feet and checked under it, as if expecting to find a squashed hill beneath his boot.
“The incline is slight, but it’s noticeable,” said Trissiny. “Look to the east or west.”
“Moving laterally is…effectively random,” Shaeine went on, “in terms of where the Sea will put you. For most people, exiting the region may mean departing at any point at it circumference, but we will always come back to Last Rock.”
“Oh. Okay.” Ruda let out a breath slowly. “That…would’ve been nice to know a little earlier.”
“Yup!” said Rafe cheerily, coming back to join them. “And since our resident pixie is clearly an ice elemental and not an exposition fairy—”
“Excuse me, but those are a myth,” Fross interjected.
“—you can assume that Shaeine came by her knowledge the old-fashioned way, by braving the wrath of Grumpypants McPonytail to access the library. Which you could also have done, had you been arsed to do the slightest of prep work before swaggering off into one of the world’s most dangerous wildernesses. This is what we in the biz call a ‘teaching moment.’” Grinning, he pointed a finger at Ruda and pantomimed squeezing a clicker with his thumb. “Zzzzzap! You’re dead.”
“Up yours, twinkletoes.”
“Wait, who’s Grumpypants McPonytail?” Fross asked.
“The librarian,” said Gabriel.
“I…wait, what? The librarian’s name is Weaver. I’m positive it is, I pay close attention to him. He said he was gonna put me in a bottle and use me as a lamp if I got frost on the books.”
“Grumpypants is his nickname,” Rafe said solemnly, “a hard-earned moniker that gives due credence to his vast contributions to the field of being grumpy.”
“Oh.” Fross buzzed around in a circle a couple of times. “Should…should I call him that?”
“Yes!” chorused Rafe, Gabe and Ruda, wearing identical grins.
“No,” Trissiny said firmly, dividing a hard look among the three. “Don’t make fun of her. How would you like it if someone set you up for that kind of rude awakening?”
“Oh, pish tosh,” Rafe said cheerily. “How do you think Arachne welcomed me to the staff?”
“I am so confused,” said Fross.
Toby cleared his throat loudly. “Since we seem to have stopped anyway, how does breakfast sound to anyone else?”
“Remember what I was saying just now about camping in the tallgrass?” Rafe said condescendingly. “We can do that if you really want, but honestly, it’s a recipe for getting really itchy even before the bugs start climbing up your clothes.”
“Bugs?” Gabriel squawked, jumping to the side and looking down under his feet again.
“I remember, thanks,” Toby said patiently, then pointed off to the group’s right. “How’s that?”
Visible above the shoulder-high grass about thirty yards away was a flat-topped outcropping of stone. Its surface was irregular and slightly angled, but looked large enough to hold them all comfortably, and more besides. It had definitely not been there a moment ago.
“Ha-hah!” Rafe crowed. “Brilliant! Good eye, Mr. Caine, your quick thinking has saved us all a raging case of ass grass! ONWARD TO BREAKFAST!” He charged off toward the rocks, flailing with both arms to push tallgrass out of his way.
“I still say we’re gonna—”
“Oh, give it a rest, Ruda,” Trissiny said sharply, and stalked off after Rafe.
The pirate lifted her head to scratch at her head, peering quizzically after her roommate. “What’s with her?”
“Dunno,” said Gabe, following the paladin. “Don’t care. Imma go sit down.”
The lowest end of the flat rock was about chest-high, and had a convenient pile of tumbled stones on one side that enabled them to scramble up without difficulty. Rafe commented, as he set up a fire, that this boulder was probably a piece of the same mountain on which the University sat, hurled into the Golden Sea millennia ago by the explosion that had half-sunk the plateau. His pupils were mostly disinterested—only Gabriel was paying him any attention, and that was not to anything Rafe was saying, but to the fire he’d set up by liberally coating a handful of tallgrass stalks in oil from a vial he’d taken from his belt. They burned as hot and steadily as a stack of wood.
Rafe sang off-key in elvish as he fried bacon and eggs. He and his cook fire were set up on the tallest part of the rock, and also the only completely flat one. The eight students sat in small clumps along the long, downward-sloping surface, positioned mostly facing west to keep the sun out of their eyes. Even without being blinded, there was no escaping the heat. None of them wanted to be anywhere near the fire.
“Aren’t you hot under all that?” Teal asked, sitting down beside Shaeine, who as usual when outdoors, kept her hood well up. “I thought Professor Rafe gave you sun oil for your skin.”
“He did. I don’t like to complain,” the drow demurred. “The heat I can suffer; without the shade of my hood, I’m afraid my eyesight is rather poor in this level of illumination. At home, I’d thought being out in the sun would be like walking in the agricultural caverns, with their sun crystals. I’m afraid they do not do justice to the real thing.”
Teal nodded, a smile tugging at her lips. “So…aren’t you hot under all that?”
Shaeine shifted slightly. “…extremely, yes.”
“Oh!” The bard sat bolt upright, then clapped a hand to her face. “Oh, damn it, I’m sorry… I meant to do this before we set up, but I overslept and then it just went right out of my head. Hang on.” Pulling over her backpack, she pried one of its smaller compartments open and withdrew an oblong leather case. “Here. I got this for you in town. It was gonna be a surprise…just, ahem, a more timely one. Sorry about that.”
Shaeine took the little case carefully and flicked it open with her thumbs. Inside nestled a pair of rectangular eyeglasses, made of smoky black glass.
“They’re enchanted,” Teal said a little nervously. “Should protect your eyes from the glare, even though they won’t cover your whole face, obviously. It seems to work for Natchua. I thought the rimless ones were more your style, though… Oh, and the rubber coatings for the earpieces are detachable, so I got the ones in dark red and green. Awarrion colors, right?”
Gingerly, Shaeine unfolded the glasses and slipped them into the depths of her hood. After a moment’s adjusting, she lowered the cowl of her robe, revealing her face; her hair glowed under the full sunlight. The dark glasses made her look oddly rakish, in contrast to her serene demeanor.
“Thank you, Teal,” she said softly. “This was extremely thoughtful.”
Teal grinned delightedly. “You like ’em?”
“I do. Very much.” She smiled in return, an expression that was just a perceptible hair warmer than her usual polite smile. After a moment, Teal, cleared her throat and glanced away, biting her lower lip.
“Well, it’ll at least help out here. Honestly, I don’t know how you’ve been managing in Ezzaniel’s class.”
“With my eyes narrowed to slits, actually. It is less than optimal, but allows me to preserve some vision, at least. And I am accustomed to using other senses to compensate.”
“Wait, wait, hold up,” said Ruda from a few feet away, craning her neck to look around Teal at the drow. “Are you telling me that on our first class, you fought me to a draw with your eyes closed?!”
“Not closed,” Shaeine clarified. “Narrowed.”
The pirate groaned and collapsed backward onto the rock. “My humiliation is complete. I should give Papa back the sword and become a fisherwoman.”
“Or,” Shaeine said gently, “apply yourself in Professor Ezzaniel’s class and return home a better warrior than you left.”
“No, no.” Ruda placed her hat over her face and waved a hand dismissively. “It’s all over. I’ll just lie here and wait for decomposition. Clearly, I do not even deserve a proper burial at sea.”
“Now, help me out here, ’cause I can’t always tell,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Is this ironic self-pity, or do you actually need your diaper changed?”
“Arquin, if my legs weren’t so fucking sore, one of ’em would be halfway up your ass right now.”
“Whoah, girl, let’s save that for the third date,” he said, grinning, then barreled on before she could reply. “I like your vest, by the way. I don’t think I’ve seen you in that before. Is it armor?”
Under her long coat, Ruda wore a tight midriff-baring vest of sturdy leather, embroidered sparingly with blue thread to offset it obviously utilitarian design. “Yeah,” she said without looking out from under her hat. “It’s armored.”
“Well, I should point out that it leaves your tummy exposed. Y’know, the part that has all your vital organs?”
“Just because you can point something out doesn’t mean you should, Gabe,” Toby remarked.
“Well, what can I say,” Ruda shrugged. “I’m a creature of style. I’ll be the swankiest disemboweled corpse in the group.”
“Oh, don’t listen to her,” Juniper said cheerfully, “she’s just funning you again. That’s for support.”
“June,” Ruda said, a note of warning in her voice.
Gabriel blinked and cocked his head. “Support?”
“Yeah!” the dryad bubbled on. “We’re gonna be doing a lot of physical activity on this trip, probably, and Ruda’s pretty busty. Breasts actually get really uncomfortable if you just let ’em bounce around. Like, even painful, for the bigger ones. They’re just glandular tissue and a coating of fat, with a lot of nerve endings, so they need some artificial structure to avoid getting hurt.”
“Really,” Gabriel said, grinning broadly. Across from him, Toby sighed.
“Juniper,” Ruda said more firmly, sitting up and adjusting her hat.
“Yup!” Juniper went on blithely. “Well, not mine, of course, but I don’t really have the same kind of nervous system you guys do. Also my internal structure is more…well, that’s kinda off the topic. She’s probably fine with a good brassiere most of the time, but when we’re gonna be out—”
“Juniper,” Ruda said sharply, finally getting the dryad’s attention.
“Remember when you asked me to warn you when you were talking about things that aren’t for polite company?”
“Uh, yes?” The pirate stared at her evenly. Juniper gazed back, nonplussed. “…what about it?”
“I think she means you’re doing that now,” Fross piped up.
“What? I… Wait, really?” Juniper frowned. “You don’t talk about breasts in public?”
“Not as a rule, no.”
“But that’s just crazy,” she protested. “Boys love breasts. Even the gay ones. Girls, too. Everyone, just about! It’s pretty much a universal positive. Everybody can gather together and bond over breasts. Nobody doesn’t like them!”
“She speaks wisdom!” Gabriel proclaimed, his grin having reached almost Rafe-like proportions. “This is a profound revelation of truth and society would be better for everyone if the whole world accepted Juniper’s understanding.”
“See, he gets it!” The dryad nodded enthusiastically. “Gabe definitely loves breasts.”
“It’s true,” he agreed.
“And he could really benefit from an open discussion of the subject, too. I mean, I like being roughed up a bit…well, heck, I like just about everything…but I’m concerned for the first human girl he sleeps with, if he’s not a bit more gentle.”
Gabriel’s smile slipped. “Uh, wait a second, Juno…”
“I mean, really, you don’t seem to grasp that that’s one scenario where you want to suck on something without trying to suck it off, y’know?”
Ruda fell back to the stone, howling with laughter.
“Wait, stop!” Gabriel waved his arms frantically. “I changed my mind! I’m with Ruda, now. Inappropriate! Subject closed!”
Juniper blinked her eyes twice, glanced back and forth between him and Ruda, then sighed, her shoulders slumping. “Aw, man… I can’t say anything right, can I?”
“Aw, c’mere, you,” Ruda said cheerfully, getting up and going to sit down beside the dryad. She threw an arm over Juniper’s shoulders. “You’re an adorable little numbnut, y’know that? Don’t ever change.”
“Thanks, I’ll…try not to? Oh, but I don’t actually have nuts. I’m not technically a tree, you know.”
“Also, nothing on me is numb.”
Ruda grinned diabolically at Gabriel. “So I hear.”
“Students! Companions! Fellow adventurers!” Rafe waved a spatula at them from the top of the rock. “BEHOLD! I give you the glory that is EGGS AND BACON! And also beans.”
“We have to what?” Gabriel exclaimed.
“Hunt!” Professor Rafe cried exultantly, stomping ahead of them through the tallgrass. It was late midmorning and several of the students were as worn out and hungry as they’d ever been at the end of a long day. Rafe had finally settled down and set a more reasonable pace, after he ran out of things to show them. It hadn’t taken long; there was a starkly finite number of grass species to be found, and after the flat rock on which they’d paused for breakfast, the Golden Sea had stubbornly refused to yield any more interesting geographical features.
“None of us knows anything about hunting!”
“At least one of you does,” Rafe said cheerfully, glancing back over his shoulder. “And really, Gabe, you might wanna let someone else get the next round of whining. I admire your enthusiasm, but we’re all here to learn! Well, you’re all here to learn. So maybe you set up camp and, say, Fross can whinge and gripe about everything.”
“Um, is he serious?” Fross asked nervously, fluttering along just above the tallgrass. “Is this humor? I don’t really have anything to gripe about.”
“Why the hell didn’t you bring enough food?!” Gabriel bulled on.
“Because, princess, the whole point of this outing is for you lot to try your hand at keeping your butts alive in the howling wilderness! What, you want I should bring along a Butler, set up a pavilion each evening? Have your meals catered? Maybe with an orchestra and dancers, yes?” Gabriel fell to cursing under his breath; Rafe laughed at him and went on. “The eggs you just ate were all I brought. We’ve got beans, jerkey, hardtack and tea. That is it, boys and girls. From this point on, you wanna eat, you best damn well find something to eat!”
“We could stay stocked up on protein by grazing as we go,” Juniper said brightly. “There’s lots of bugs in this grass.”
During the general outpouring of groans at this suggestion, and Juniper’s confused response, Toby shortened his pace slightly, falling back to walk beside Trissiny, who’d appointed herself rear guard.
“You seem to be in your element,” he commented.
To her horror, she felt a flush climbing up her neck; she blurted out before it could take hold in her face: “Well, it’s not my first hike, by a long shot. I mean, we didn’t do a lot of walking for its own sake, but, yeah, Sisters in training do cover wilderness survival. It’s pretty important for those who plan on going into the Silver Legions. It’s not really my thing, per se. Not that I mind it.” Oh, goddess, Trissiny, shut up, she commanded herself silently. “I guess, yeah, I’m maybe a little less out of my element than the others. Well, some of the others. I don’t mean you! I mean, I don’t know what kind of training you have.” Shut! Up!
Toby, fortunately, laughed softly. He had a nice laugh; it made her feel included, not mocked. “The walking doesn’t bother me; Omnist monks keep pretty fit. The sun definitely doesn’t, of course.”
“Oh, right, yes. Omnu. Sun god, that makes sense.” What is going on?! she berated herself. When did I forget how to hold a conversation? This had been the first time they’d talked alone in weeks. She didn’t remember it being this awkward before. Of course, the last time had been before the…incident.
Toby nodded. “My complexion is too dark to burn, ordinarily, anyway, but it is nice not to have to worry about sunstroke. It’s the little things that make a paladin’s life bearable, eh?” He grinned at her sidelong; she couldn’t help smiling rather foolishly back.
“I know you have that aura of serenity you can use… I didn’t realize Omnu… Well, actually, now that I open my mouth I’m remembering I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t know what Omnist paladins get.”
“Don’t you have any special perks? Like, an aura of command or something?”
She had to laugh at that. “Do I seem like I have an aura of command?”
“Well, yes,” he said frankly. “I’m not the only one who’s noticed, either. Honestly, I suspect that’s why your roommate seems to butt heads with you; I don’t think she likes authority very much.”
Trissiny didn’t know what to say to that. The silence began to stretch, feeling heavier with each passing second; almost frantically, she grasped at the first thing that came to mind. “Well, it’s not a divine gift, but apparently I’m a General in the Imperial Army. I mean…automatically, by default, all Hands of Avei are. They didn’t tell me about that at the Abbey… Mother Narny probably didn’t want it to go to my head. I, uh, had a kind of awkward encounter with your roommates, the first time I ran across them. Apparently they can’t even talk to me unless I say ‘at ease’ first. It was a challenge to figure that out, with them doing nothing but standing at attention and answering only direct questions. Tellwyrn had to explain it to me.”
At that, he laughed again. She could listen to his laugh all day… “Yeah, they mentioned that. Rook’s got a case of hero worship going for you, I think.”
“Really? Isn’t he the one who looks rumpled even when he’s not?”
“Hah, that’s a pretty good description! Well, it’s like I said: aura of command. If it’s not a gift from Avei, it must just be you, then.” He smiled over at her, and she felt another blush rising. Trying to conceal it, she moved a hand over her ear as though tucking away an errant strand of hair. There was none, of course; her braid was firmly in place. “You manage to make an impression, whatever it is. People either want to fight you or respect you.”
So far, so good… If they could just avoid the bad subjects…
“Is that why you’ve been avoiding me for the last few weeks?” she heard herself ask quietly.
…why, brain? What did I ever do to you?
He lowered his eyes, silently watching the grass ahead as they walked. In front, Rafe and the other students carried on their banter; the voices washed over the two of them, finding no purchase.
“I wasn’t sure you’d want to hear from me,” he said finally. “After my best friend started a fight with you over nothing.”
Trissiny was so surprised she almost stopped walking; she did stumble slightly, hoping he didn’t make anything of it. Toby felt awkward? After being chewed out by Tellwyrn and then Avei, enduring jabs from Ruda and some sniping from Gabriel himself during their nightly dish-washing sessions, it had come to seem to her that everybody blamed her for what had happened. She didn’t quite know how to explain this to Toby, however.
“You mean, you don’t blame me for that?”
Well, that worked.
He looked up at her, startlement registering on his features. “What? No, of course not! I got the full report from Gabe himself; even he says it was his own stupid fault.” His eyes widened. “Oh, Triss, is that what you thought? I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel—that is, it didn’t occur to me you’d think…”
“It’s okay!” she said quickly. She actually was not sure whether it was, but he looked so upset. She hated to see him upset. “It’s, uh…actually kind of funny, I guess. We both thought the other was mad.”
This time, his laugh had a bitter undertone. “Some peacemaker I am. Well, I apologize anyway, Trissiny. I certainly didn’t want to add to your burdens. Especially after Gabriel did.”
“You’re not responsible for Gabriel.”
“I sort of am, though. I mean…no, technically, I’m not, but I feel that way. I’ve always kind of…looked out for him. Well, we did for each other. It really kills me that you guys don’t get along… He’s like a brother to me, and you’re one of the most admirable people I know.”
“People have to make their own mistakes,” she said vaguely. After not speaking with him for weeks, she did not want to talk about Gabriel Arquin. He really found her admirable?
“The thing is,” he went on quietly, “Gabe is… I think he’d be just about the best person I know if he would just think before acting, or opening his mouth. You really haven’t seen what’s he’s like, deep down. He works hard to do the right thing, and he’s a great guy to have your back. He’s just…well, a little reckless, I guess.”
“Being thoughtless isn’t a charming personality quirk on anyone,” she said stiffly. “For a half-demon, I’d say it qualifies as a real problem.” Did they really have to talk about this?
“You’re not wrong,” Toby said solemnly. “And I’m only just starting to realize that. He’s always been just Gabe to me. We grew up together, and…well, maybe I have a blind spot there. It never occurred to me before that he might actually hurt someone.”
Trissiny held her silence. She didn’t trust herself to say anything that wouldn’t offend him.
“GUYS!” Abruptly, Professor Rafe rushed over to them, scattering the other students in his abrupt change of course. His expression was even more maniacally gleeful than usual; Trissiny felt a sudden urge to kick him in the shin. “Guysguysguysguys! C’mere, come over here, you gotta see this!” So saying, he charged off to the left of the group.
“Onward to glory,” Toby muttered, and Trissiny shot him a grin.
Rafe left a trail of mashed tallgrass leading to a patch of leafy green stalks that towered over them. He skidded to a halt in before this, leaving the freshmen to meander in behind him. Flinging both arms wide, he actually hopped up and down twice in excitement. “BEHOLD! A wonder of the Golden Sea! A marvelous plant! A gift from the very gods themselves! CORN!”
For a moment, only the rustling of the breeze in the grass could be heard. A hawk cried in the distance.
“You rushed all the way over here to show us corn?” Gabriel said in disgust. He had moved more slowly than the others in responding to Rafe’s enthusiasm and now stood at the rear edge of the group.
“Hell yes I did!” Rafe crowed. “Corn is awesome.”
“Um,” said Teal, “this…this is cultivated. Look, it’s planted in neat rows. And the patch is almost square.”
“Isn’t it great?” their professor gushed. “Ooh, and it looks about ripe, too. Everybody grab an ear. You’ve never tasted corn till you’ve had it right off the stalk.”
“Or,” Ruda said loudly, “or, we all back the hell away and get outta here before whoever’s ballsy enough to farm in the Golden goddamn Sea comes back and finds us fucking around with their corn.”
“Uh, yeah,” Gabe said nervously. “About that…”
Everyone turned to look at him, and the group shied away as one.
An elf had appeared out of the tallgrass.
She wore simple buckskin shirt and trousers, bleached almost white and decorated with erratic, vertical streaks of brown and gold that blended seamlessly with the waving grasses. Similar markings were painted on her face, and dark strands were dyed through her honey-blonde hair. The camouflage was nearly perfect; even having stepped out of the grass into the cleared area around the cornfield, she seemed almost to fade into it.
The cleverness of her garb wasn’t what held their attention, however. In her right hand was a wand, the tip of which was pressed against Gabriel’s throat.