“Almost exactly a year ago,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly, folding her hands on her desk, “a gaggle of your predecessors instigated a brawl that ranged from the campus to the great northern desert to the stratosphere itself, and I made the mistake of telling them that was one of the worst things a freshman class had done in their first week. Clearly the fates took that as a challenge, because…here you are.”
“W-what’s a stratosphere?” Iris asked tremulously.
Tellwyrn’s expression sharpened. “A dark, cold place filled with deadly radiation and not enough air,where I am thinking very seriously about sending the lot of you.”
“Really, Professor,” Ravana said reasonably, “with the greatest respect, aren’t you overstating this somewhat? A simple campus prank—”
“YOU TRIED TO FEED YOUR ROOMATE TO AN ENTLING!” Tellwyrn roared, slapping her hands down on the desk.
“But we didn’t!” Iris protested. “It was just—an entling wouldn’t eat a person, you have to know that! We were just scaring her a bit!”
“Honestly,” Ravana added, “I think it’s worth considering that a few minutes of discomfort and manhandling are an equitable recompense for the way she’s been treating us.”
“And she’s not our roommate,” Maureen said sullenly.
“That stuff was just perfume with citrus oil!” Iris babbled. “How were we supposed to know it would actually attract kitsune? I mean, what are even the chances of that?”
“A pertinent question,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “You of all people, Miss Domingue, should know that fae are not so easily ensnared. Kitsune, for your edification, are attracted to people playing tricks, and strongly impelled to join the fun. Even aside from my rules, Ekoi Kaisa is fortunately enough of a teacher at heart to shove a dose of empathy down your throat rather than begin dismantling your whole reality as most of her cousins would. That doesn’t mean you should try to play any further games with her. You will lose.”
Tellwyrn drew in a long breath through her nose and let it out through her teeth; the rest of the office’s occupants, arranged in front of her desk, hunched slightly, with the exception of Szith, who stood calmly at attention. Ravana was sitting primly in one of the two provided chairs; Addiwyn hunched in the other, sipping occasionally from a steaming cup of herbal tea that Tellwyrn claimed had calming properties. She was somewhat physically isolated, the rest of the girls from her dorm being clustered around Ravana. If anything, that probably helped restore her equanimity.
“All right,” the Professor said finally. “Miss Madouri, you’re an evil little hobgoblin on your best day. You two have ‘lackey’ written all over you.”
“Excuse me?” Maureen exclaimed, offended. Iris dropped her gaze.
“Believe me, we will be working on all of that during your stay at this University. What somewhat surprises me is your involvement in this, Miss An’sadarr. From you, at least, I expected a great deal more circumspection.”
“Being present and observant seemed to me a wiser course than allowing this to unfold behind my back, as it were,” Szith said calmly.
“Really,” Tellwyrn retorted, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “And the thought of informing someone in authority that your roommates were planning to abduct and interrogate Addiwyn never crossed your mind?”
“I do not begrudge anyone the prerogative to defend or avenge themselves,” Szith said flatly, “even when I choose not to do so on my own behalf. And with all respect, Professor, nothing I have observed in the wake of Addiwyn’s actions has suggested that the administration is able or willing to address this. In Tar’naris, her campaign would have ended, immediately and decisively, after its opening act.”
Tellwyrn drummed her fingers once on the desk, her expression sardonic. “We don’t put people in spider boxes here.”
“Indeed,” Szith said pointedly.
“I wish to state for the record,” Ravana said, “that this was my idea and occurred at my instigation. The others acted at my encouragement.”
“We can make our own decisions, y’know,” Maureen muttered.
“No part of that was news to me, Miss Madouri,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.
“Very well, then,” Ravana replied, smiling. “I will accept whatever disciplinary action you deem appropriate, Professor.”
Addiwyn lifted the cup and took a sip of tea, watching Ravana from the corner of her eye.
“Appropriate,” Tellwyrn mused, her stare fixed on Ravana. “Well, there’s the matter of theft of Addiwyn’s belongings, the destruction of campus property—that tree is probably salvageable, Domingue, but it’s never going to be the same—unauthorized use of a powerful summon, vandalism…and oh, yes, lots and lots of assault.”
“That all sounds correct,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Let’s be on with it, then.”
Professor Tellwyrn stared expressionlessly at her over the rims of her glasses for a long moment before replying.
“You are extremely poised, Miss Madouri.”
“Why, thank you, Professor.”
“One would almost take your attitude for a lack of concern.”
“Well,” Ravana said modestly, “it does not do to become unduly agitated. I do, after all, seek to be an example to others.”
“I wonder if you’ve ever considered that there are situations in which poise is inappropriate.”
“I cannot say I have,” Ravana replied, arching an eyebrow. “In fact, by the very nature of—”
With a sharp little pop of displaced air, she vanished.
“Uh,” Iris said, wide-eyed. “What’d you…”
Tellwyrn imperiously held up a hand, palm out. A moment later she folded the thumb inward, followed in the next moment by her index finger. They all watched in total silence as she counted down, one finger at a time. Three, two, one…
The pop of Ravana’s reappearance was inaudible beneath her screaming. She flailed frantically with all four limbs, dress disheveled and with her wispy blonde hair forming a crazed tangle around her. Her antics nearly pitched her out of the chair; Iris and Maureen both grabbed her, preventing a spill. With their hands gripping her arms, Ravana finally stilled, gasping for breath and gaping, wide-eyed, at Tellwyrn.
“What did you do?!” Iris exclaimed. “Where did you send her?”
“Up,” said Professor Tellwyrn in perfect calm. “Two miles, straight up.”
“Bloody hell,” Maureen whispered.
“While I applaud your willingness to take responsibility, Miss Madouri,” Tellwyrn went on in the same even tone, “I am troubled by your attitude. You seem to regard your violations of both my rules and your roommate’s person as…moves in some sort of game, divorced of any real meaning or consequence. As if you were simply entitled to do whatever you felt necessary to her. There’s more to living in a society than accepting consequences, Ravana. These things matter. Other people matter. The solipsistic arrogance you exhibit is, unfortunately, a common enough result of the kind of upbringing you had, but that does not make it acceptable. You live in a world of Emperors, gods and dragons, and the very fact of your high social rank means you will come into contact with such beings. If you cannot bend your neck in their presence, you’ll lose it. It is appropriate to show a little humility before individuals who can bounce you through the sky like a rubber ball, especially when you are in the wrong. Perhaps, if you really do have a conscience under all that privilege, that will be a first step toward showing some of the same regard to those you consider your lessers.”
“I think I see,” Szith murmured. “You don’t need spider boxes.”
Tellwyrn turned a gimlet stare on the drow. “You are on thin ice, missy.”
Szith bowed to her.
Ravana was only beginning to get her breathing and expression under control, one hand pressed to her thin chest. Iris still had an arm around her shoulders, and she hadn’t made any effort to straighten out her hair. Windblown and wild-eyed, she was a far cry from the picture of calm she usually presented.
“Well, anyway,” Tellwyrn said, suddenly brisk, “last spring one of the graduating seniors’ final projects was interrupted by the hellgate crisis. It was actually rather ingenious, using principles and techniques of necromancy in a fae magic context to accelerate growth of lifeforms. Quite impressive, really; if the experiment hadn’t been wrecked and had succeeded, it could have provided a framework for arcane magic users to perform a number of feats currently only attainable by fae users. Unfortunately, things being as they are, all that resulted was a whole bank of secured spell labs three levels under Mercedes Hall filled with wildly growing plant monsters.”
She folded her hands neatly on top of the desk and smiled at them. “I’ve cleaned out the dangerous things, of course—did that first. What’s left is basically harmless. It grows very rapidly and tends to move around more than your average run of greenery, but none of it presents a danger. I could, of course, have finished the job, but it occurred to me that four chambers full of slime molds, mushrooms and hanging moss that will try to crawl over you even as you attempt to clean them up would be a fantastic thing to have around next time I find myself with some students who desperately need duties to fill their free time. And now, fortuitously, here you are!”
Iris gulped audibly.
“After classes tomorrow,” Tellwyrn said in a grimmer tone, “you four will report to Stew, who will escort you to Sublevel Three and provide your equipment. You may not use magic. Your punishment duty is over when those labs are spotless. Enjoy. For now, ladies, you may go. Except you,” she added, leveling a finger at Addiwyn. “I want a few words with you, young lady.”
The others filed out with no further commentary, though Iris continued to whimper under her breath. Ravana finally began trying to smooth down her tousled hair with shaking hands. She was the last out, and paused in the doorway to stare at Tellwyrn for a moment. The Professor gave her a sunny smile.
She shut the door very gently behind her.
Tellwyrn drew in a long breath and let out a deep sigh, slumping back in her chair for a moment. The faint tingle of a silencing spell passed over them both as it filled the room, sealing it against outside listeners. Straightening up, she removed her glasses and set them on the desk, then spoke more gently. “You okay, Wynn?”
Addiwyn took a deeper sip of her tea then leaned forward to set the cup down on Tellwyrn’s desk. “Well, Arachne, you wanted to find out what would happen if we pushed them. And now we damn well know, don’t we?”
Tellwyrn sighed again. “I’ll grant you, that was a little more heavy than I was expecting out of that group. Honestly, I figured Ravana would just try to match you in mean-girl charades…”
“Let’s establish one thing up front,” Addiwyn said sharply. “Not to downplay the responsibility those girls have for tonight’s actions, but they didn’t create this situation. You did.”
“I think that’s a little strong,” Tellwyrn said irritably. “Look, if you’re having second thoughts about this job…”
“Oh, I’m not planning to quit,” Addiwyn said with a small grin. “However, I am adding conditions to my continued employment here. If you want me to do this, then from now on, you will quit micro-managing me. Just tell me what you want me to learn or do about whom and I will design and act on the method. That’s my specialty, after all. But this, Arachne, the crap you’ve been having me do all week… It’s ridiculous. A prank campaign like that makes no sense. Someone in the position you put me in might play jokes in a lighter spirit, or someone in a position of power might have done things as deliberately hurtful. But for me, the outsider, to be so psychotically, unrelentingly vicious? Nobody does that!”
“That’s not even remotely true,” Tellwyrn said, scowling. “In fifty years I’ve watched a lot of teenage girls—”
“Yes, yes, and you’ve watched them from on high, apparently not paying close attention to the social dynamics in place. And honestly, Arachne, in three thousand years have you ever needed to be closely attentive to social dynamics? You know how to be polite to the few people more powerful than yourself, you avoid the few people as powerful as you, and everyone else you just push around. That’s my point! You don’t know how these things work! Yes, girls can be cruel to each other, but that is goal-directed behavior that follows certain predictable patterns.” She leaned forward, staring hard at the Professor. “You just about blew it this time, lady. That was the specific thing that set Ravana on the warpath; the situation was wrong and made no sense, and she was willing to pull out all the stops to figure out just who I really was and what I was up to. You’re not paying me enough to stand up to torture, just so you know. She came quite close to blowing this whole thing open.”
“You know,” Tellwyrn said peevishly, “if you really want to quit, I can find a replacement. I only keep one agent among the student body at a time, and it doesn’t even have to be an elf. It’s handy to have a person with some experience and wisdom who can pass for eighteen, but there are other ways around that.”
Addiwyn actually laughed at her. “Oh, listen to yourself. Let’s skip past some of this posturing: you’re going to accept my terms, let me do my job and in the future you will damn well listen when I tell you something you’ve planned is a terrible idea, and not insist on it. And you’re not going to do this because you’re in any way impressed by ultimatums, but because you know you hired the right person for this, and you’re wasting your own gold if you don’t let me work.”
Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Oh, is that what’s going to happen. And is there anything else, Wynn?”
“Yes, in fact,” Addiwyn said flatly. “If it comes close enough to another situation like tonight that I have to make the call, you will bring Ravana in on it and swear her to secrecy. Quite frankly I think she’ll be glad to play along, and pleased as punch to be involved. But more to the point, that girl has resources that extend across the planet, and I did not sign up to have my friends and family leaned on by House Madouri thugs.”
Tellwyrn shook her head, scowling off to the side. “All right, all right. Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that I accept your statements, here… How badly is this blown? Can you still salvage the situation?”
“Not easily,” Addiwyn said frankly. “The situation is good and screwed up. As far as those girls know, they’re rooming with a crazy woman who’d as soon set their hair on fire while they sleep as look at them. Iris, in particular, is about as mad as anyone’s ever been at me, and she’s got ample reason. That was a nasty thing you had me do to her, Arachne. It’s going to take me the rest of the semester, at minimum, to normalize relations. I can maybe be on friendly terms with them by the end of the academic year. The tricky part is going to be moving gradually enough to be believable. Any sudden swings in behavior on my part will only set Ravana off again.”
The Professor sighed. “You do know the reason I had to do this, right?”
“Yeah,” Addiwyn said, regarding her seriously. “And no, none of the other three produced any surprises. Ravana Madouri, however, is a case potentially as bad as you feared. Arachne… Look, quite apart from the absurd nature of this prank war, I don’t think it was a good idea to begin with. That girl has already been tested hard. Pushing at her isn’t the way to find out what she’s capable of—or at the very least, not pushing from within the student body. She doesn’t need to be sharpening her claws on any classmates. I know very well you have assets from outside that you can bring to bear.”
“Hell, that’s more or less the entire point of most field exercises.”
Addiwyn nodded. “Right. In fact, I think I can leverage those to undo some of the damage we’ve already done here. Those excursions are full of bonding opportunities. If the freshman Golden Sea trip is anything like the one I remember from when I was actually a student, there should be plenty of chances to both mend some of those bridges and find out more about Ravana’s capabilities.”
“You are actually a student,” Tellwyrn noted with a faint smile. “The education is still valuable; nobody ever has too much learning. And I note you’ve signed up for a completely different degree program this time.”
Addiwyn waved a hand, dismissing that. “Are you at least listening to me, Arachne?”
“Yes, yes. Listening and pondering. You do make some worthwhile points.”
“I’m glad to hear that, at least.”
“However,” the Professor continued, leaning forward, “I don’t know whether I can really afford to let Miss Madouri ramble around the way I do the other kids. Most of them come relatively unformed, at that age. I do have some experience with those who have backgrounds full of trauma or training, things that make them more set in their ways…”
“I don’t think either of those is the issue here,” Addiwyn said, frowning thoughtfully. “Sure, the girl’s had her share of pain, but… I think she is simply a prodigy. A ruthless, political prodigy. And the more you pick at her, the more chances you create for her to figure out something is up.”
“I spoke the simple truth to her, you know. I’ve got to get through to that girl somehow. As she is, she’s a nightmare waiting to happen for her subjects.”
Addiwyn nodded. “It’s not that I disagree with your assessment or your motives, Arachne.”
“Merely my methods?” Tellwyrn said wryly.
“Exactly. Look… You remember Percy Doulain, right? The one raised by those two Silver Legionnaires?”
“Of course,” Tellwyrn said with a reminiscent smile. “Oddly sweet boy, for such a hammerhead.”
“Well, that’s the thing—he came from a military background, and understood what basic training was. How it’s designed to completely break people down and rebuild them as soldiers. He spotted what you were doing immediately, and clued the rest of our class in.”
“Is that so,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “You know, I thought you kids were unusually well-behaved.”
“Yeah, well… You need to keep in mind how this all looks to someone who’s been here a week. All Ravana and the girls know is that they’re rooming with a maniacal asshole and your first homework assignment was a cruel mind game. Not to mention they’ve got that freaking kitsune to deal with instead of Professor Yornhaldt’s moderating influence. They’ve had no opportunity to see the purpose yet. Arachne, you’ve got alumni from all over the world who would drop everything and come running if you put out a call for help. Hell, I bet most of your seniors would do the same. But it takes time to get to that point, and at this point in time, these kids can’t tell what you’re doing. They just see you being a ravening bitch from atop a pedestal of unfathomable power. If you continue to lean on Ravana, all she’ll know is that she’s being singled out—because you’d better believe she’ll spot it. And what does a sitting Duchess who organized her own coup do when she is targeted by an enemy?”
“Hmm,” Tellwryn mused, stroking her chin. “That’s… Well, it’s a compelling theory.”
“If you want my opinion,” Addiwyn said more quietly, “being hounded and pushed is absolutely the last thing that girl needs. What she needs is encouragement, friends, and to internalize the understanding that people can be more than tools or enemies. If you’re going to single her out, show the kid some damn kindness.”
Tellwyrn sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Of all the fluffy-headed Izarite folderol…”
“Spoken like someone who doesn’t have a counter-argument,” Addiwyn said with amusement.
The Professor grunted irritably. “All right, no need to be snippy. I will think about these things. For now!” She straightened up again, leaning her arms on the desk. “All right, Wynn, I accept your modified terms, with the proviso that I expect you to try not to have to invoke the second clause. Let us try, if at all possible, not to involve Ravana in any plans that may concern her or the others.”
“I certainly have no argument with that,” Addiwyn said firmly.
“Anything else come to mind?”
She shrugged. “That’s a good crop of girls. I would suggest steering Iris toward some of the upperclassmen. From what I know of them, the sophomore girls could be a good influence, and she’s nursing quite the crush on Gabriel Arquin…”
Tellwyrn groaned. “Ugh, you just gave me a week of nightmares.”
“Yes, well.” Addiwyn grinned at her. “The fact remains, Iris is another who needs some kindness and positive influences; we need to not let Ravana shape her into a follower on a leash. As for the others, Maureen’s got depths I’ve not glimpsed yet, and Szith is quite level-headed. I think those two will be a good influence on both of the others. And I wish you would consider involving the other faculty in this scheme of yours. I’ve already caused Afritia a bunch of trouble she doesn’t deserve, and she is not someone I enjoy having mad at me.”
“I’ll consider that.”
“If the answer’s ‘no,’ just say so,” Addiwyn said, scowling.
“If it were, I would,” Tellwyrn replied pointedly. “I’m leaning strongly toward a probable ‘no,’ but I will consider it. Anything else?”
Addiwyn picked up the cooled tea and took a sip, leaning back in her chair. “Just out of curiosity, who was your agent on campus when I was studying here before?”
Tellwyrn smiled sweetly. “You know, I can’t seem to recall.”
“All right, fine,” Addiwyn replied, rolling her eyes. “Just one other request, then.”
She grimaced, glancing at the door. “Can I maybe sleep here tonight?”