“Why is it always cherry trees?” Tellwyrn complained, pacing into the inner courtyard. “Sure, they’re pretty. Useful, even. But with all the endless variety in the world—”
“On the subject of variety and preferences,” Kaisa said lightly from the branches of the enormous sakura tree growing from the center of the courtyard, “here you are, Arachne, visiting someone else’s home and about to ask for favors if I am not very much mistaken, and you introduce yourself with shrill complaints. Surely the Twilight Forest didn’t tax your entire supply of patience?”
It was a truly massive specimen of its kind, towering much larger than they naturally grew, and heavily laden with pink blossoms, offset beautifully by the heavy snow now dusting its boughs. Neither the blossoms nor the snow were in season; whichever kitsune happened to have finagled the upper hand at the moment must have found this arrangement pleasing. Kaisa herself sat on the largest, lowest branch, which was still three times Tellwyrn’s height from the ground, lounging against the trunk and plucking idly at the koto braced against her knee.
Tellwyrn stopped two yards from the base of the tree, planting her fists on her hips and staring disapprovingly up at the kitsune; Kaisa just gave her an aloof smile.
“All right, have you had your fun?” the elf demanded. “We have a contract, you know. I’m amazed you were willing to let it go at less than the full two semesters agreed upon.”
“I have invoked an early termination clause in said contract,” Kaisa replied with playful hauteur. “Due to hostile conditions on the campus and a distinct lack of respect for my personal dignity.”
“I can’t imagine it will surprise you to learn that Admestus cracked,” Tellwyrn said severely. “Immediately. Like a glass ninepin. You, yourself, deliberately arranged a lack of respect for your personal dignity in order to do this nonsense.”
“Oh?” The kitsune straightened up, blinking twice, then reached behind herself and produced a scroll of parchment apparently from nowhere. She held this up to her face as though she were painfully nearsighted, and began humming softly to herself, eyes darting rapidly back and forth across the text. Down below, Tellwyrn rolled her eyes and began tapping her foot. It took Kaisa little more than half a minute to finish perusing the scroll, at which point she held it up, pointing to it with her free hand. “You know, Arachne, I can’t find anywhere in the contract a stipulation ruling that out.”
“Why are you doing this?” Tellwyrn asked, in a suddenly quieter tone. “You are not a quitter, and you’re not this easily bored, despite the way you like to carry on. I need you, Kaisa. It’s why I asked you to come teach in the first place.”
“I’m sure Alaric has things well in hand,” Kaisa demurred. “He’s a rather unimaginative fellow, but then, good teachers sometimes are—we can’t all be as charmingly eccentric as you and I, or the young ones wouldn’t learn anything but how to make spectacles of themselves. And he is very even-tempered, not to mention so polite! A man of numerous virtues; you’re lucky to have him.”
“That’s neither here nor there, and you are avoiding the question,” the elf accused.
“Why, Arachne.” Kaisa grinned, a little too broadly, showing off her extremely sharp incisors. “Had I a suspicious nature, I could almost interpret your phrasing as a suggestion that you asked me to teach at your school for some reason other than my skill as an educator.”
“And you’re still doing it,” Tellwyrn shot back. “I know this game and I’m bored with it, Kaisa. You’re not offended, and I’m not going to bite. You know very well how much I value your intelligence, and you also know that your presence on the campus was a deterrent to more nonsense like that hellgate. Do you know what’s happening in Last Rock now?”
“Well, I would surmise you are suffering some manner of disruption caused by a very powerful and somewhat unfocused warlock, running amok in the shadows,” Kaisa said lightly. “I’m a bit behind on the news from your continent, though. I have so much to catch up on here at home, I’ve been very busy.”
“You knew this would happen?!”
“Oh, Arachne, compose yourself,” the kitsune chided gently. “As you just said, obviously I was aware of the situation. You told me about Elilial’s little trick—it’s no stretch to deduce, from there, what would happen if I removed myself from the campus. Especially now that we know dear little Embras and his Wreath have taken a shine to some of the students.”
At that, Tellwyrn bared her own teeth. “I’ve always assumed your actions were toward some greater purpose, Kaisa, but after this it had better be a good one. My students—our students—are in immediate danger! What could possibly be so important that you’d play with the whole school this way?”
“Why, Arachne, I’m simply doing what I always do,” Kaisa said with a mysterious little smile. “Teaching.”
“Who the hell do you think you’re teaching, holed away in a castle in the middle of your forest?”
Still smiling, Kaisa shrugged, and indicated the empty courtyard with a languid wave of her arm. “Do you see anyone else here?”
For a moment, Tellwyrn was actually speechless.
“You—that—I didn’t hire you to teach me!”
“Really?” Kaisa made a show of examining the parchment again, then shrugged. “Hum, it doesn’t say anything about that either. Really, Arachne, do you ever read any of the things you sign? Oh, stop swelling up like that. My sisters aren’t all as fond of you as Emi, by far—lose your temper here and something’s likely to happen to you that I can’t forfend.”
Tellwyrn very deliberately drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, her posture relaxing slightly.
“Kaisa,” she finally said in a smaller voice. “Please. The kids… I can’t protect them from this, I’ve tried. I need your help.”
Kaisa sighed softly, shook her head, and then nimbly slid off the other side of the branch. Rather than appearing below it in the fall into which she had just launched herself, she vanished behind it—then stepped out from behind the trunk at ground level a second later. Both the koto and the scroll were no longer in evidence.
“So,” she said, pacing forward, “secret arch-warlocks among the student body. At least one ambitious and unwise enough to open a hellgate over the campus—and really, Arachne, if I have one criticism of your recruitment practices it’s how many of those children I could see doing such a fool thing. However many there are, and I strongly doubt it is more than two, three at the absolute most, they have at least managed to remain concealed. Even I did not spot them. You are faced, in short, with subtlety and indirection. And how did you respond?” She spread her arms, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “By summoning to your campus a being for whom any warlock is nothing but prey. Brute force, Arachne. Literally the greatest possible brute force that could be employed in this scenario.”
“Kaisa, if you will stop this and return to the campus, I promise you I will sit there and let you lecture me about whatever you like. I’ll give you an hour a day.”
“What was your endgame, Arachne?” The kitsune began pacing in a slow circle around her; Tellwyrn gritted her teeth, not bothering to turn and keep Kaisa in her field of view. “Had you managed to keep the warlocks suppressed, eventually they would have graduated. They would then be unleashed upon the world, with no one to stop them.”
“Two hours. That’s my final offer.”
“Despite what people say about you, I have never found you to be so…irresponsible. I have been waiting to see your plan unfold, Arachne. I left when I finally realized that…it had. That you were not building up to anything. Keeping me there, keeping them down, was the whole plan. That really is so very disappointing.”
“Oh, come off it,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Protecting my students had to be my first and highest priority. And after they graduated? Then they would no longer be under my protection, nor in a position to be a danger to my kids, and let me tell you, Kaisa, more dangerous things than untrained, over-powered warlocks have risen on this world and been unceremoniously slapped down. There’s always the Pantheon, there are still paladins… And more, now. The Empire is not to be trifled with, the dragons have banded together under one banner. Much as I’m starting to loathe him, Justinian has turned his Church into a force able to contend with such monstrosities. Hell, once they were safely away from the other kids, I’d have landed on them the moment they revealed themselves. This is still personal, to me.”
“And so, that was it?” Kaisa paused behind her, leaning forward to poke her nose over Tellwyrn’s shoulder. “Turn your problem into someone else’s problem—everyone else’s problem? Disregard the incalculable damage that would be caused to countless uninvolved parties before it was resolved? I had thought so much better of you, Arachne.”
“Is this leading up to a better idea you have, or are you just—”
“Yes!” Kaisa actually swatted her on the back of the head, prompting Tellwyrn to growl and round on her, but the kitsune had already bounded backward. “Did I think you simply as stupid and selfish as your actions suggested, I would have just ignored your plea in the first place, Arachne. You are here—I have brought you here, because a lesson needs to be learned!”
“Ugh, fine.” Tellwyrn turned and stalked toward the courtyard gates. “If you’re not going to help, I guess you’re not. What a waste of my time… Gods only know what’s happening on—”
She broke off, but did not look at all surprised, when Kaisa rounded the corner directly in front of her, striding in through the gate.
“You have come all this way, though,” the kitsune said, raising an eyebrow, “and you only just made a point of how much you value my input, Arachne. You will really march out of here without learning what you’ve come to learn, just to assuage your ego?” She folded her hands in front of her, the posture almost demure, though her expression was simply sad. “If you truly have come to so value your pride above your intellect, then I suppose you ought to go after all. It would seem there is nothing left that I—that anyone can teach you.”
Tellwyrn pursed her lips in a bitter expression. Saying nothing, she folded her arms, and raised one eyebrow expectantly.
“I am bothering with this at all,” Kaisa said softly, “because I know you already grasp the lesson—you simply haven’t applied it to yourself. You went well out of your way, in fact, to persuade none other than Naiya of this very same fact, which quite frankly is such an achievement I am almost annoyed. I doubt even I could get her to pay attention at this point, much less listen to sense. Truly, your stubbornness is a mighty force.”
“That’s your big point?” Tellwyrn said disdainfully. “That the world is changing? Please, Kaisa. Everyone—”
“Wrong!” Kaisa pointed accusingly at her. “Wrong, and you know it! The world is changing in such a way that those who once ignored it no longer can.” She took a step forward, her tail twitching, green eyes boring into Tellwyrn’s own. “Those who once bulled their way through it no longer can.”
“If you have a problem with my methods—”
“Truthfully I find your methods rather endearing, but that is not the point. You engaged me as a teacher, Arachne. Well, this is a lesson you need to learn. You can’t do this any longer.”
“What, specifically, is it you think I cannot do?”
“Everything!” Kaisa spread her arms wide. “All of this—your entire shtick. There has never been anything wrong with your mind. Nor even with your capacity for subtlety. It wasn’t easy, but I have learned the story of what you and Elilial did in Scyllithar. The whole story, Arachne.” She shook her head. “Which tells me everything I need to know about the scheming and maneuvering you must have performed to get to that point. And is that, perhaps, why you are like this? I can scarcely imagine what it must have been like—”
“Kaisa,” Tellwyrn whispered, “I will put up with much from you that I would not from anyone else. But not this. You will not pull that thread.”
“Tough,” the kitsune said bluntly. “Whether your travails among the Scyllithenes motivate your current obstinacy or not is irrelevant, except to you—and honestly, woman, I wish you would take Izara up on her multiple offers. If there has ever been anybody in urgent need of therapy, it’s you. But with regard to the point at hand, I know you are intelligent enough to be indirect, to be strategic; you just won’t, and you need to get over it. The world is not like it was under the Elder Gods, not yet…but in the shape things are taking, I see a future not unlike that one on the distant horizon. You aren’t a matchless power anymore.” She hesitated, then continued in a bare whisper. “Nor am I. Nor is anyone. The dragons, as you mentioned, have realized it, and adapted. You yourself managed to bully Naiya into adapting, and her consciousness now so diffuse it’s amazing you got her to even hold a conversation. You, though? You see the state of the world, you recognize this need, and yet…here you are. You problem is that you still think the rules don’t apply to you, just because they mostly haven’t until now. I’m afraid that much has changed.”
“What,” Tellwyrn demanded in a strained voice, “does this have to do with a renegade warlock hexing my students?”
“Is that what he is doing?” Kaisa shook her head. “You know what, Arachne. It’s a problem you, personally, cannot solve by blasting someone to atoms, or even threatening to. And so you sought to solve it by employing someone who could. That is not a solution. More importantly, it reinforces a pattern that you can no longer afford.”
“Kaisa,” Tellwyrn shouted, “this thing is un-trackable! It’s invisible, undetectable, and un-counterable. I can no more out-scheme this bastard than I can just shoot him!”
“Wrong!” Kaisa barked right back. “Wrong, ignorant, lazy. Unworthy of you! You are better than this, and it’s past time you started acting like it! If you don’t have the resources to do this, you can find more.”
“That is literally what I did!”
“You sought more force! A kitsune to counter a warlock—tactical janken when what you need is strategy, politics, subtlety.”
“I brought someone in capable of being subtle—”
Kaisa actually lunged forward, seized Tellwyrn by the shoulders, and began shaking her. “You did this so you would not have to! And I won’t have it, Arachne. This is the last chance! If you do not make your peace with the world, you will be just as helpless against the next disaster—and the disasters of the new world will be more like this than like the hellgate. Agents striking from the shadows, exercising leverage rather than force. You will be beaten, perhaps destroyed, and thanks to the responsibility you have taken to your University, your existence is no longer your own plaything to throw away when you are tired of it. Learn, Arachne. Adapt, plan, compromise. Even Avei advocates indirect strategy above confrontation in battle. Avei.” She gave her a final, hard shake for good measure. “What is your excuse?”
“I don’t know what the hell you want!” Tellwyrn snarled. “You’re not listening—no amount of scheming is going to accomplish anything here! The force you represent is the only thing that works!”
“Ah, but you are wrong,” Kaisa said, suddenly quiet again, still holding her by the shoulders. “And you know it all too well. A warlock haunts your campus—he does not haunt the streets of Tiraas. Nor Kiyosan, nor Rodvenheim, nor even Puna Dara. There are simply too many strands in the web, now—except in Last Rock. If one has the means to avoid the great Tellwyrn’s wrath, the University is the one place in this world uniquely vulnerable, because it lacks the connections that bind together the rest of civilization.”
“Those connections have too steep a price,” Tellwyrn snapped, stepping back from her.
“They have a price,” Kaisa agreed. “So does your current course. Is it steeper than watching your students being hexed while you dither helplessly?”
“Damn it, I’ve already reached out to the Empire for help, and that’s done nothing more than add to my problems!”
“Because,” Kaisa said implacably, “your University is uniquely vulnerable. To them, as much as to your current enemy. Whoever operates in this world must do so with great care, because everything they set in motion will ripple farther and faster than it ever has. Without subtlety, without strategy and restraint, a person or even a nation can easily be shaken to pieces by the vibrations she herself causes. But you? You have stubbornly kept yourself and your University separate. You’ve relied on your legend, your power and the threat of your anger to dissuade encroachers. And so, Arachne, you stand alone.”
“My students have to be free from the politics of the world, or everything we’re doing is pointless!”
Kaisa shook her head sadly. “Arachne… How free do you think you are?”
The snow drifted down around them. Thick flakes had by now formed a heavy dusting in their hair; one of Kaisa’s ears twitched as a cluster of them danced into its sensitive inner surface.
“It’s time to join the world,” Kaisa said quietly, while Tellwyrn just stared at her. She stepped forward again, reaching out to place one hand on the elf’s shoulder. “Our age has passed, Arachne. No one stands above it all any longer. Very few have that power, and soon none will; already it has come to pass that those who have the power do not have the luxury of exercising it as we once did. This is my last lesson—to you, to our students, to me… And to my sisters. They will not hear it; I can only pray you will, and that some of what I love can be saved from the future I fear.”
She sighed heavily, letting her ears droop and her tail lower to brush against the snow building on the ground.
“The time for play is over, my old friend. It’s time for us all to grow up. Hopefully…it is not too late.”