“I am just so fucking bored,” Ruda moaned.
“Yes,” Juniper said patiently, not looking up from her book. “You have mentioned that an average of eight times an hour for the last week.”
Ruda had been sprawled on the sofa in Clarke Tower’s front parlor, her boots on the table and her head dangling off the back of the couch. Now she straightened herself up enough to peer quizzically at the dryad.
“You’ve been counting? And computing averages? That is both fuckin’ creepy and proof that you’re as bored as me.”
“What?” At that, Juniper finally lifted her gaze, blinking in confusion. “No, I… That was supposed to be hyperbole. I thought I was getting the hang of humor. Did I do it wrong?”
Ruda stared at her for a moment, then chuckled, shaking her head. “Hah, y’know, actually you did it just fine.”
“Seriously, though. Bored.”
“How is it possible you can’t find anything to do?” Juniper asked, now uncharacteristically annoyed. “There’s lots of stuff. Read. Go start a fight. Have sex with someone. I manage just fine.”
“That, Juno my dear, is because you’ll fuck anything that moves.”
“That just isn’t true,” the dryad said haughtily. “Only sentient beings whom I don’t actively dislike. I have standards.”
“See, the problem with your suggested activities is they involve other people. Everyone is fucking gone.”
“Everyone is not gone! There’s at least a couple dozen people left on campus, and the town…”
“Let me rephrase that. Everyone worth a damn is gone. Present company excepted. Seriously, doll, I’m sorry if I’m annoying you but I’m hanging around you like a fuckin’ gull over a barrel of chum because you’re the last goddamn person on this mountain I actually like.”
“Aww!” Juniper beamed at her over the book. “I like you too!”
Ruda pulled a bottle of whiskey out of her coat, yanked out the stopper and took a long drink. “But with all due respect, I can’t fight or fuck you. All we can do is talk.”
“You could do either of those things,” Juniper pointed out. “You just really, really wouldn’t like them.”
“…yeah, I’m not quite that bored.”
“Y’know, everybody else went home for the vacation to see their families and whatnot. Or other people’s families.”
“Yeah, what the fuck is up with that? What’s Fross gonna do at the fucking Avenist convent in Viridill?”
Juniper shrugged. “Study human society, she said. My point is, you could have gone too.”
“Juno, by the time I got to Puna Dara it’d be too late to turn around and get back in time for the semester to start. We don’t even have a Rail line.”
“Yes, I know,” Juniper said patiently. “I meant, you could’ve gone visiting with someone else.”
“Yeah?” Ruda said sardonically. “Who?”
The dryad opened her mouth, then closed it, frowned, and cut her eyes to the side, visibly thinking. “Um… I bet Teal has lots of space?”
Ruda blew out a huge sigh. “Yeah, and she’d let me come, too. Teal’s fancy-ass house of gold has got to be the only place I’d be more bored than with Toby’s monks. I’d be a diplomatic crisis waiting for an excuse in Tar’naris, and really, what the fuck am I gonna do hanging around in Tiraas with Gabe?”
“You could do exactly that,” Juniper pointed out. “Gabe is very attracted to you.”
Ruda made a face. “Ew. He’s a nice kid, when he’s not talking, but… Ew.”
“Yeah, not your type, I know.” She shrugged, lowering her eyes to the page again. “I’m not sure he’d go for it anyway. He’s learning to view women as more than just potential mates, and he really respects you a lot.”
“Huh,” Ruda said, staring at the wall. “He does? How ’bout that.” She took another drink.
“Everyone does. You set the grading curve last semester, after all.”
“Feh.” She waved the wine bottle airily. “Grades. Bunch of pencil-pushing bullshit.”
“Yeah. I guess they need to measure our progress somehow, though. Maybe…or something. I’m still not absolutely convinced of the benefit of measuring stuff. Why can’t people just let the world be what it is?”
“Cos sometimes the world fucking blows, and only a sissy just lies down and takes it.”
Juniper raised her eyes again, frowning. “I…am not sure whether I disagree with you or just don’t understand your idioms.”
“Prob’ly a little of both.” Ruda stood abruptly. “Okay, that’s it. Let’s go get in trouble.”
“Uh.” Juniper blinked up at her. “I…don’t think that is a good idea.”
“I’m not talking general mayhem, that would be pointless. I wanna break into Tellwyrn’s office!”
Juniper stared. “I really don’t think that’s… No, I’m positive that is a very bad idea.”
“Oh, pfft.” Ruda brandished the bottle, grinning. “What’s she gonna do? Your mother can end the world and my papa would raze this town to the ground if the turned us into toads or something.”
“Ruda, it’s Professor Tellwyrn. I’m a little scared that I apparently have to explain why this is a bad idea!”
“Look, she has one of the Vernis Vaults in that office. I saw it when I was in there last. It’s just sittin’ against the wall with books stacked on it like a goddamn end table.”
“One of the what?”
Ruda perched on the arm of the couch. “They’re artifacts made thousands of years ago by Verniselle. The goddess of money? She only made five, and they’re all supposed to be lost. Whatever you put in there, you can take out an infinite amount of as long as you’re alive!”
Juniper blinked slowly. “And… You want to steal it?”
“What? Don’t be crazy, Tellwyrn’s the owner. We’d have to kill her to take it, and I wouldn’t wanna do that even if it was remotely fucking possible. I actually really like her class. No, I just wanna see what she’s got in there!” She grinned broadly. “What is so important to the great and notorious Arachne Tellwyrn that she arms herself with an unlimited supply of it. Aren’t you curious?”
“Ruda, I’m curious about a lot of things, but I’m still hung up on the part where you want to break into the office of the great and notorious Arachne Tellwyrn. I’ve found that as a general rule, everyone’s happier when she’s not mad.”
“Well, everyone but her.”
“…will a time ever come when I understand most of what you say?”
“Don’t feel bad, dollbaby, it’s not just you.” Ruda straightened up, her boots thunking back to the floor. “I’m going, and you need to come with.”
“Excuse me? I need to? I need to follow campus rules!”
“Juno, there are rules, and then there are rules.”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense. There are just rules!”
“Look at it this way,” Ruda said, grinning. “There are rules made by people, and then there’s the laws of nature, right? The one that’s arbitrary and has to be enforced, and the other that just exists. Yes?”
Juniper tilted her head, frowning. “I…yes. What about it?”
“Well, within human society, there’s that same dichotomy. There are things you’re supposed to do, and then there are things you just have to.”
The dryad groaned and let the book fall to her lap, bending forward to cradle her head in her hands. “I’m never gonna figure everything out!”
“Aw.” Ruda plunked down on the arm of her chair and draped her arm around Juniper’s shoulders. “Hon, the great secret is nobody’s got it all figured out. They just decide you’re an adult, basically, when you get good enough at faking it that you can cope. You’re doin’ fine, trust me.”
“Really. And right now, one of those unwritten rules is we need to go break into Tellwyrn’s office.”
“…I’m sorry, but that still doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“It’s not about the office, specifically,” Ruda said. “It’s about living. College students are expected—hell, we’re supposed to act out. To just go out and do shit. Find out where the boundaries are!”
“We know where the boundaries are! There’s a student handbook!”
“Juno, trust me, you don’t know the boundaries until you’re pressed up against one. The handbook is more like a guideline, really. You wanna know the extent of Tellwyrn’s patience? You fucking push it!”
Juniper stared up at her. “You really are bored, aren’t you?”
She sighed. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Of course it’s not a good idea. That’s why we’re doing it!”
“Ugh, if we just go do it, will you stop trying to explain it? I’m getting a headache.”
Ruda rapped sharply on the door to Professor Tellwyrn’s office, then stepped back, folding her hands primly behind her.
“I don’t think she’s in there,” Juniper whispered.
“I figured she wasn’t,” Ruda replied. “She usually eats lunch in the faculty lounge with the other professors. Well, then!” Kneeling, she inspected the door handle with its large keyhole below. “Looks like a standard tumbler lock… Old one, too. You’d think she’d upgrade her security. Let’s see, I’ve got picks somewhere…”
Juniper reached past her and turned the knob. The door opened smoothly.
“Spoilsport,” Ruda muttered, standing up and sweeping inside.
Juniper hovered in the doorway, glancing down the hall nervously. “If you didn’t think she was in there, why’d you knock?”
“Because if she was in there, it’d be awfully embarrassing if we just barged in, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh. So, uh…what were you going to say if she was here?”
Ruda grinned at her. “I was gonna ask if we could see the Vernis Vault.”
Juniper’s head whipped around and her expression collapsed into a scowl. “Wait, what? That was an option? Then why are we doing this?!”
“Oh, come on, this way’s more fun! Look, there it is, with that…fucking thing sitting on top of it. What is that?”
“I don’t know,” Juniper huffed, folding her arms. She still lurked in the doorway, as if afraid she’d lose her deniability if she fully entered the office.
Ruda approached the piece of furniture to which she had pointed. The alleged Vernis Vault was about chest-high on her, perched on little irregular clumps of volcanic rock that just barely qualified as legs. The wood was ancient and stained almost black, scarred and pitted so deeply that the engraved sigil of Verniselle on its front was barely discernible.
Atop it sat what appeared to be an abstract sculpture of crystal and bronze. A metal framework enclosed a row of faintly glowing power crystals, attached by wires to a circular metal plate on which sat a thin black ceramic disk. Attached to its rear was an upright frame containing what appeared to be a gong.
“Huh,” Ruda said, bending forward to peer at the object. “It looks like a… Hell, I don’t know. I wanna say a musical instrument.”
“Why are you fussing about that thing?” Juniper demanded. “I thought you wanted to see what was in the—” She broke off, peering wide-eyed down the corridor outside. “Someone’s coming.”
“What?” Ruda straightened up. “Who?”
“It’s Tellwyrn! And…someone else, I don’t know!”
Ruda lunged forward, grabbed her by the arm, pushed the door shut and dragged the flustered dryad over to Tellwyrn’s closet. Shoving Juniper in ahead, she pressed herself in after and pulled the door shut.
It was very cramped and very dark. The door didn’t fit well; there was a sizeable crack between it and its frame, enough to admit a little light and provide a very narrow view of the room outside. After a momentary shuffling, Ruda ended up sitting on the floor with her face pressed against it, Juniper standing over her, so they could both see out.
“Don’t move,” Ruda whispered. “Try not to breathe.”
“I don’t have to—”
The exterior door opened and Tellwyrn herself bustled in, chattering away. “Here we are! Please make yourself comfortable, pull up a chair. It must have been a grueling trip. I know what, let’s have some relaxing music! Have you seen one of these? Newest thing out of Calderaas.”
She stepped into view of the crack—barely—and began fussing with the peculiar apparatus sitting atop the Vernis Vault. In moments, the room was filled with music. It was oddly small for being clearly the sound of an orchestra, and had a raspy undertone that probably resulted from the mechanism playing it.
“Impressive,” said a woman’s voice, deadpan. She was a deep alto, not yet visible from the closet.
“I know it’s a little tawdry, showing off my new toys, but this is quickly becoming a favorite,” Tellwyrn said cheerily. “They’re starting to put all the great symphonies on these disks. I’m just waiting for them to begin recording operas; I so rarely get to Tiraas to buy a ticket these days. Please, sit! Tea? I have the most exquisite jasmine blend from Sifan…”
She puttered around, collecting cups and a teapot and explaining how the arcane hot plate worked, and Ruda frowned into the crack. This cheerful, almost domestic Tellwyrn was deeply incongruous. She was acting almost like Janis.
Then, finally, the Professor’s guest entered her very limited field of view, seating herself in the chair in front of Tellwyrn’s desk, and drove all questions about the Professor’s behavior out of Ruda’s mind. The woman was a drow, regal and stately in aspect even when sitting down. She was taller than Shaeine, and somewhat more strongly built, though her attire had clearly come from the same aesthetic. Her robes were of a similar cut to those Shaeine wore, and likewise of the same deep, dark shade of primary color that was nearly black, though where Shaeine wore her House colors of green and red, this woman was in blue.
“I don’t wish to take up any more of your time than absolutely necessary,” the woman said curtly, interrupting Tellwyrn mid-comment. “If you will kindly direct me to my daughter, I will collect her and depart.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Tellwyrn said calmly, seating herself behind the desk and pouring tea. The scent of it filled the room pleasantly, even in the closet. “Forgive me, Nassra, I may be a little behind the times. With a campus full of students, one loses track of the details of all their lives. Last I heard, Natchua didn’t intend to return to Tar’naris until her education here was complete.”
“That changed when she chose to humiliate her House and make a mockery of herself,” Nassra said flatly. Her face and tone were expressionless, but where Shaeine always seemed serene, this woman was icy. “I am supremely uninterested in what she intends or wants. Natchua is to return home, where she will no longer be a warped reflection of our society before Tiraan eyes, and face appropriate discipline for her actions.”
Tellwyrn shrugged and sipped her tea. “Natchua is legally an adult by Tiraan standards, is not in any legal trouble and is a student in good standing at this University. It seems that what she wants is a factor. I realize the relationships between mothers and daughters is enshrined in both custom and law in Tar’naris, but in the Empire, I’m afraid you don’t actually have the prerogative to take her anywhere.”
“This is absurd. She is my daughter. I demand that you hand her over to me!”
Slowly, very carefully, Tellwyrn set down her teacup. Her tone, when she spoke, was neutral. “Would you perhaps like to rephrase that?”
The drow leaned back slightly; her face betrayed nothing, but she spoke more carefully. “Forgive me. This matter has seemed to bring out the worst in everyone involved.”
“Of course, perfectly understandable,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly, picking up her cup again and taking a sip. “Now, I would suggest that if you’re determined to bring Natchua home, you could try to persuade her to go. However, when I raised the matter with her earlier she indicated that she didn’t want to speak with you. Perhaps you could approach her via correspondence? In any case, I regret that you made the trip for nothing. Please, try the tea.”
“You have no right to stand between me and my child,” Nassra said, tension breaking through her reserve.
“Probably true,” Tellwyrn conceded. “Personally, I don’t think in terms of rights. In my experience, that results in people acting all entitled and smug. Responsibilities, now, those I can get behind. My responsibility in this matter is to my student, and her education.”
“I did not come all this way to be thwarted by a pompous desk-dweller,” Nassra snapped. “If you insist on blocking me in this matter, I will not hesitate to go over your head.”
“And let me tell you how that will go,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “First, you’d have to convince Matriarch Ezrakhai that expending political capital to bring home your ill-behaved brat is a worthwhile use of House Dalmiss’s resources. I don’t know enough about your internal politics even to guess how that would go. Assuming she goes for it, she would then have to convince Matriarch Ashaele that pushing this with the Tiraan diplomatic corps is a worthwhile use of Tar’naris’s resources, and frankly, I don’t see that happening.”
“You do not—”
“Of course,” Tellwyrn barreled on, “Ezrakhai could go over Ashaele’s head; I understand it wouldn’t be the first time. If she can get Queen Arkasia to sign off on it, Ashaele will obey, and petition the Empire to have Natchua returned. At that point, you would find yourself completely stymied and locked in an eternal runaround. Not out of any malice, mind; the Empire simply can’t politically afford to acknowledge that they can’t make me do anything on my campus. If you’re extremely lucky, some bureaucrat in the Foreign Ministry will take you aside and quietly explain all this, but far more likely you would never hear anything further except that your request was being processed. Of course, by the time all this played out, Natchua’s remaining two and a half years at the University would likely be over and the whole thing moot.”
By the end of this recitation, Nassra was gripping the arms of her chair, her fingers tensed into veritable claws.
“My House,” Nassra said frostily, “is not paying her tuition any further. You should be aware of this and make any relevant decisions before the next academic semester starts.”
“It seems Natchua anticipated that,” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “Turns out she qualifies for a number of academic scholarships. Despite being a thoroughly annoying individual, she is a very good student. Who knew? Anyhow, you needn’t worry about her welfare; everything is being covered.”
“If you insist on depriving me of legitimate avenues to my daughter, there are other—”
In that instant, Professor Nice Guy left the room.
Tellwyrn lunged across the desk, sending teacups splashing to the floor, and gathered a handful of Nassra’s collar, dragging the astonished drow forward. “Now you hear this,” the Professor snarled. “I don’t care who you think you are, you do not come onto my campus and threaten harm to one of my students. I have destroyed people more completely than you can imagine just for offering to cause that kind of trouble. But you? No, Nassra, it won’t be the death of you. If you actually are overweening enough to send someone to try to ‘retrieve’ Natchua from this University before her time here is up, I will first reduce whatever agent you employ to a greasy smear of ashes and regret, and then I will come after you in Tar’naris. I will walk right into your House, put you over my knee, hike up your robes and spank. Your. Butt.”
All Narisian reserve lost, Nassra gawped at the furious Professor from inches away. “Y-you—”
“I what? Wouldn’t? Can’t?” Tellwyrn grinned psychotically; it was a far more disturbing expression than her previous snarl. “I did it to a Hand of Avei, right in front of her army. The Sisters have never forgiven me for that, but what they haven’t managed to do is avenge her, much less prevent me from doing it in the first place. You think your House can protect you?” Tellwyrn tugged her closer, till their noses were actually touching. “Laurel Aselstyne spent the rest of her career as a punchline. Care to guess what your political prospects are after you bring that down on yourself?”
Tellwyrn held her gaze for a long, drawn-out moment in which there was only the sound of the tinny symphony playing from the music contraption. Then, abruptly, she released Nassra and slid back across her desk, settling into her chair, and folded her hands.
“Or,” she said, again as calm and pleasant as though nothing had happened, “you can acknowledge that some things are simply beyond your power to influence, and we can relate to one another like civilized people. Despite certain…irregularities…with her behavior, Natchua has given you much to be proud of. She’s intelligent and driven, and seems to make friends easily. All in all, she has done much better here than I first anticipated when Ezrakhai shoehorned her into the exchange program. Perhaps you’d be wise to let her develop a bit more on her own before writing her off as a bad job.”
“I don’t need your advice on raising my daughter,” Nassra said, still visibly shaken.
“Oh?” Tellwyrn’s tone was soft, now. “I haven’t pried into her home life, but the fact remains that for someone from a duty-oriented, matriarchal culture to try to divorce herself so completely from her mother’s influence… Well, that’s suggestive, isn’t it?”
“How dare—” Nassra broke off suddenly, clamping her lips shut.
“Oh, please,” Tellwyrn said silkily, “please finish that sentence. I can always do with a good chuckle.”
Nassra glared daggers at her for a moment, then abruptly stood, turned, and stalked away, out of Ruda’s narrow field of view.
“You have not heard the last of this,” she declared from out of sight.
“By all means, drop by anytime,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “We’re always open!”
The door opened, then slammed shut.
Professor Tellwyrn sighed heavily, leaning back in her chair. With a flick of her finger, the music shut off; she then extended her right hand to the side, making a grasping motion and lifting it upward, and spilled jasmine tea rose from her desk and the carpet, forming an amorphous ball in midair, which she carefully guided back into the teapot. Finally, she took off her glasses and set them on the desk, rubbing at the bridge of her nose.
“In the interests of world peace,” she said aloud, “I’m willing to be persuaded that you two are snooping in my office for unrelated reasons, and not trying to ignite the diplomatic incident you very nearly just did.”
Ruda caught her breath, then let it out fatalistically. She stood up, bumping Juniper’s chin with the top of her head, and pushed the door open, trying not to look sheepish. Sheepish was not a good look for a Punaji.
Tellwyrn eyed them sidelong. “Needless to say, you are not, under any circumstance, ever, to repeat anything you just heard. Anywhere, or to anyone.”
“Repeat what?” Ruda said innocently. “I couldn’t make anything out over the music. That’s a nifty gadget, by the way.”
“Really?” Juniper frowned at her. “It wasn’t that loud, you should have been able to oh I know what this is.” She nodded sagely and winked. “Right. I didn’t hear anything either!”
“You’re coming along nicely,” Ruda said dryly.
“I’ve got a question, though,” Ruda went on. “I mean, I can tell the music and the smelly tea was a sensory distraction so Miss Elf Ears didn’t know we were there, but if you did…why not just kick us out?”
“You’re here to learn,” the Professor said cryptically. “It’s not hard to suss out how all this came to pass. Zaruda, I’m sure your intentions are good, but Juniper does not need your help to break out of her shell. Try that with your roommate; she could actually benefit from unclenching a bit. Juniper needs to adhere to the rules I’ve set down.”
“Oh, come on, she—”
“The rules,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “are the only reason you’re not part of the food chain.”
Ruda pulled back, glancing over a Juniper, and grinned nervously. “What? She wouldn’t…”
“Actually, everything’s part of the food chain,” Juniper said earnestly. “Well, everything alive, anyway. But there are rules about what I’m allowed to eat while I’m at the University.”
Ruda’s smile slipped away.
“What,” Tellwyrn asked wearily, “are you doing in here?”
“Ruda wanted to see what was in the Vernis Vault,” Juniper said.
“Ugh.” The Professor rolled her eyes. “What is it with you kids and that box? Fine, here.” She stood and stepped over to the Vault, pulling its door open. It swung outward silently. Within was a mostly empty space, containing nothing but a small bowl at its bottom, filled with brightly-colored little balls. Tellwyrn dipped her hand into this, bringing out three, and popped one into her mouth as she turned back to face them. “These were made by Svenheim’s best confectioner. He’s dead now, so this is the world’s only source. Here you go.” She tossed one to each of them.
“This…is candy?” Ruda asked, dumbfounded, staring at the little lump of sugar now in her hand.
“Really good candy.”
“I don’t… I can’t… But you could have anything. Infinite money. Weapons. Magical artifacts, basically unlimited power if you used that box right. And… You keep your candy stash in it.”
“Let it never be said I have my priorities mixed,” Tellwyrn said, rolling the confection around her tongue. “The truth, girls, is that all the great things you are taught to strive for can and will be taken from you at a moment’s notice. Beauty fades, health fails. Love, despite what the bards try to sell us, is a fragile and fickle thing, all too easily crushed by the weight of reality. Eventually, your very body and mind will turn on you, no matter how supposedly immortal your race. Nothing is eternal. It is our expectation that the things which are important to us will survive that leads us so often into grief. In the end, the truest forms of happiness are those which are openly, knowingly fleeting. They don’t disappoint when they are gone, because you knew up front that they soon would be. In short, never underestimate the profound significance of candy. It is, in some ways, the purest joy in the world.”
Ruda stared at her, completely at a loss; Juniper peered back and forth between them, then at the piece she was holding, clearly just as confused. Almost absently, Ruda lifted her hand and put the candy in her mouth.
Immediately she choked and spat it back into her palm. “Sour!”
“Yes,” Tellwyrn said smugly, “I can stretch a metaphor around the moon and back when I get going. Seriously, though, stay out of here unless you’re invited. My secrets guard themselves; this office is off-limits to students because there ensues an embarrassing mess of paperwork when students turn up killed in here. Now run along.”
They made it almost to the door before she spoke again. “Oh, and girls.” Tellwyrn had settled back into her chair, and now regarded them sardonically over her spectacles. “Report to Stew and tell him you need help staying occupied for the remainder of vacation. I’m sure he can find something to fill your time.”
“Yes, Professor,” Juniper said glumly. Ruda just sighed.
“Okay,” the pirate said once they were about halfway down the hall. “Not gonna lie… I think I’m a little bit gay for Professor Tellwyrn.”
“What?” Frowning, Juniper turned to stare at her. “No, you’re not.”
“It’s just a figure of—oh, nevermind. I could be persuaded, let’s leave it at that.”
“I’m pretty sure she can still hear us.”
“Well, good. I’d hate to think I was embarrassing myself for nothing.”