I’m in Calculus 1 this year, thanks to Professor Nomen putting in a good word for me. Because it’s an advanced class, it’s in the cadet wing, so I have to hustle to get over there. The cadet wing is joined to the potentials wing by a common area, so I cross that and head into the Portuguese hall. It doesn’t have that Englishy look here. Instead the walls have ornate masonry in a style that emphasizes ropes and knots. Nautical themes everywhere, most of which are simply mystifying to me; Oklahoma isn’t known for its ocean views.
Because I stopped to stare at an archway, I arrive at the classroom later than I like and end up in a seat halfway back.
It’s not a large class, only about fifteen from what I see. Most everyone here is either a P3 or a cadet, but I’m not alone; the drow is in this class, too. Not a surprise, since we had Trigonometry together last year. When he comes in, he drifts to the back row and settles into a seat behind me where I can’t see him.
Math has always been an easy subject for me. It helps that Mom teaches math, but I never needed much tutoring from her. Math is logical. It makes sense. So I’m looking forward to getting this class under my belt. Chemistry? Not so much.
You would think that at a magic school, we’d learn magic, right?
Not exactly. Potentials won’t be taught serious magic until the instructors and professors decide we’ve reached some plateau of awesomeness that signifies our worthiness. Not that they don’t think we can do magic. Most of us have native skills like my ability to set things on fire, and we meet regularly with advisors to help train those native skills. That apparently happens after age eighteen, by the way, which smacks of legal concerns. It’s just that they don’t think we’re ready to learn the big stuff until we have Advanced Biology, Geopolitics, and Statistics under our belts.
The bad part? About half of us won’t make it that far. Two of the P1 class from last year didn’t return—one because of his grades and one because he was a jerk—leaving only nineteen of us to become P2s. Getting from P2 to P3 is even harder, I hear, so this will be another year of keeping my head down and working to keep up with the smart kids.
Just as I think that, Professor Nomen strides into the classroom, and everyone stops talking to stare at him. Okay, it’s rude, but it’s hard to help it when Nomen walks into a room.
Nomen’s an elf. The real thing.
First things first, though. Nomen doesn’t have pointy ears.
I’m nosy, so I asked Professor Nomen myself. He says that elves find that particular human misconception inexplicable. No one’s really sure where the idea that elves had pointy ears came from. Me, I blame Peter Jackson.
Anyhow, with that exception, he definitely fits the bill. He’s tall with white hair and white skin and predictably dresses in black. The elf squad have to get these ideas from somewhere, right? Today, Nomen is wearing a black lace-trimmed shirt along with surprisingly tame black pants and high-heeled boots that make him even taller. His hair is as long as the drow’s but falls in loose curls over one shoulder. With his long nails painted black and tasteful pale makeup, he gives off a serious femme goth vibe.
Supposedly, it’s a cultural thing; elves like their fancy clothes. That doesn’t matter to me. Nomen’s a fantastic math teacher and adviser, and that’s what’s important to me.
“Now,” he begins, “open your books and turn to Chapter One.”
I’m only too happy to do that.
After an interesting class where we discussed the normal starting day stuff—syllabus, grading, the textbook, and of course, our first homework assignment—I waited until everyone cleared out before going up to talk to Nomen.
“Ah, Quirk,” he says with a dry smile, “how was your summer?” He has packed his case and gestures for me to exit the door in front of him.
So I tell him about working at a grocery store as we walk down the hallway, up the steps, and along another hall toward his own office. It’s surprisingly small, with only his desk and a chair for a student. The desk is set in front of a large window that looks down over the courtyard formed by the angles of the Portuguese hall. There are no bookshelves, which I’ve always found odd, but… whenever he seems to need a book, he tugs it out of a coat pocket or from one of his more voluminous robes. I wonder if he’s got an expanding library tucked into a pocket. Maybe he can just wish books into existence.
Anyway, he gestures for me to sit, and makes his way around his desk, pausing to peer down through the windows. Then he faces me and settles down, long fingers steepled in front of him. “So… do you have anything you want to talk to me about?”
Nomen is my faculty adviser. Not only does he have some say in what classes I take, he also works with me on my gift—controlling fire. It’s a bit unusual for him to do so, since most of his student group are force-users. Most elementals—Fire, Earth, Water, and Air—are placed with Professor Simonsson. I think I’m the only Fire witch Nomen has.
I have to admit, he always seems underwhelmed by my work. My magic, not my math.
And… being really honest here, I’m not that impressive. My control is iffy, and my talent is one that can be replaced by a match or a lighter. So I don’t blame him for doubting me.
Do I have anything I want to talk about? He asks me this all the time, like he’s waiting for me to confess a big secret. I keep wondering if one day I’ll come up with an interesting answer. Not so far. “No, sir.”
His long nails click together. “Hmmm. May I assume you practiced your control skills this summer?”
He knows I’m a good student, which is why he can assume. “Yes, sir.”
“Then, let’s begin with a small flame, moderate heat.”
I’ve already set down my book bag, so I settle my butt more firmly on the chair, cup my hands together, and concentrate, eyes closing. I feel the fire in the air all around me, tiny degrees of heat coalescing together at my mental urging. I drag them all closer and closer with gentle touches, not wanting to blow any astray, and enough heat gathers to spark into a flame.
I open my eyes and there, in the hollow of my cupped hands, flickers a small flame. It’s far enough from my skin that it doesn’t burn me.
And that’s it. That’s my magic.
It is not impressive, but it’s mine.
We go through the practice session, and I demonstrate what I’ve practiced over the summer. I can make it flare brighter. I can toss it a few feet. I can make it disappear. I can even, when I try super hard, put out small fires. If they’re already guttering.
I think that Nomen knows who my family is. And that’s why he’s always a little disappointed in my work. Places like this have records, so I’m sure he wants me to be a fantastic magic user like Daniel.
And I’m not. I don’t think I ever will be.
Chemistry 1 is one of my greater worries this semester. My mom claims that calculus is an art, but chemistry is an exact science. Exact is not my strong point. Fortunately, this class is only the P2s, so we’ll all struggle together.
Instructor Emden is nearly as tall as Nomen but without the high heels, and she wears her krinkly gray hair shorn very short. Her eyes are sharp as a hawk’s. She acts all no-nonsense, but she’s kind enough to put me and Isla in the same work group. Unfortunately, we share our lab table with Brown and the drow, who just gives me the eyebrow again. Isla rolls her eyes and starts taking notes.
Brown is taking notes on his computer, which seems like a good idea. I type faster than I write, too, but… I’m worried that chemistry will be like calculus—too many symbols that aren’t on the keyboard. I drag a fresh notebook out of my bag instead and start taking notes about proper procedures for the chemistry lab.
“There is to be no use of magic in this room,” Emden says firmly, walking out from behind her big lab table. “Until you understand the nature of chemical reactions, we’re not going to risk your catalyzing anything. Staff gets upset when we blow things up. Anyone tries that, they’ll find themselves in front of a tribunal.”
And then being kicked out. We all know that without it being said. Our teachers last year hammered that into our brains.
“Chemistry is different from your other P-level courses because we have additional safety rules that don’t apply to your history class. Your choice of garments, for example.” Emden happens to be standing next to Bianca Segreti now, whose flowy top also bares her shoulders and quite a bit of her chest. “If a beaker of a caustic substance were to be dropped, the resulting spray might come into contact with all-too-fragile human flesh. Therefore, get used to it now. No sandals, no bare arms or legs.”
I write it down. Hopefully Segreti got the message. I sneak a peak, and she’s scowling but writing. Maybe she’ll live through the semester after all.
Isla and I share a room on the third floor of the P-wing. The wide stone stairwell comes up at the center of our floor, with the girls’ rooms on the left and the guys’ on the right. The middle is taken up by the showers and bathrooms, as well as a larger room for our Resident Assistant, Jane Abbot.
Abbot is the best RA in the world, so I was thrilled when I found out we would have her again this year. She’s got that All-American girl-next-door wholesome look, but what’s important is that she’s relentlessly fair and stern, yet nice enough that we don’t hate her. Plus, she’s only a C3, so we might even have her next year. Then again, she may end up leaving a year before graduation because she’s being scouted by various law enforcement agencies. She’s telekinetic, and that means she can rip a gun out of a suspect’s hands or toss them bodily into a wall. As far as keeping order on our hall goes, she’s already a pro.
Tuesday, after dinner, I wave at her as I go past her open door and head back to my room, where Isla’s already studying. Like the rest of the potential’s wing, the dorm rooms have the Generic English University look: stone walls, wooden floors, and dark green velvet drapes. We have heavy wooden beds, desks, and wardrobes. Unfortunately, no other country can be accessed from inside those wardrobes. We’ve tried.
The drawback of the old stone walls is that posters won’t stick to them. There are a few hooks that have been there for decades, apparently, but they’re all oddly placed, never where we want one, so our walls are bare. The room’s windows have fancy pointed arches at the top and look out over the cloister. This time of year, the vegetation down there’s bright green. Birds flitter past. The sky is cloudy—it always is—but I like our little pseudo-English world.
Isla has dozens of journals stacked on her desk, along with another stack of textbooks and new notebooks. She’s an excellent student, the kind that teachers adore. That’s why I’m so glad I’m paired with her in Chemistry. And since she knows I’m going to follow her lead there, she’s okay with it, too.
We usually keep our door open until we go to sleep, so I’m not too surprised when Aoidh Brown shows up, math textbook in his hands. He still hasn’t fixed his hair, so maybe he’s going for a two-toned style. Because he’s not a jerk, he knocks at the door and waits for Isla and me to wave him in.
He comes to my desk, spares a glance for my calculus book, then shakes his head. “I wanted to ask whether you’d be willing to tutor me again this year.”
I offered to tutor last year, and my trig teacher assigned me to one of the 3 geometry students—Brown. That meant he was behind most of his class last year. This year most of the P2s are in Trig, but Brown is in Algebra 2 with the bulk of the new P1s. Fortunately, I love Algebra, which will make this easier than last year. (Geometry is not my thing.) “No problem.”
“I don’t want to fall behind,” Brown says, and licks his lips. “Can we get together tomorrow?”
Isla taps her rings on her desk. She’s either vexed or wants to get our attention. Or maybe both. “You can come to the greenhouse, if you want,” she says.
Brown actually prefers studying in the greenhouse since it keeps him out of the sight of the other P2s. He doesn’t like to admit that he’s behind, and the greenhouse is out of the way. Most of the P2s study in the P-wing library or hang out in our commons. “After history?” he asks.
Then, having spent too much time with the non-elf-squad, he slips out and disappears from my night, so Isla and I continue checking our notes on the place of chemistry in society and its uses in magic.
Friday comes too slow every week. We do get weekends off but are expected to stay at Umbrum Hall. Most of the P2s are fine with that. It gives us a couple of days to relax and catch up on classwork.
The trick to living here is loading up on stuff before you come. Most of us have computers, but they don’t connect to anything, not even each other. We can’t even e-mail. So that means whatever we want, we have to bring in at the beginning of term: movies, books, music, and video games. I know some of the P2s are serious gamers, but I’m not. I don’t want to accidentally burn any of their computers if I lose my temper.
Isla has a plan for our Saturday, though; we’re going to hike through the school’s water system. Apparently, that was what I’d committed myself to the day I arrived. It doesn’t sound fun to me, but Isla’s so excited about it that I agree.
What I don’t expect is what happens while I’m off grabbing a glass of water. I come back to find Isla at the worktable talking to Brown. She’s wearing mud-caked boots and has stuffed her work gloves into her jeans’ back pocket. Her t-shirt today says, Always Down for Tacos—a sentiment I share. “You should come with us,” she’s telling Brown. “You’ll like it, and we might need your help.”
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t dislike Brown. But this is our plan, not his, and she forgot to ask whether I wanted one of the elf-squad coming along.
I keep my distance, though, wondering whether this is Isla making a move on Segreti’s favorite. She’s never said much about the boys in our year, but having Brown come to the greenhouse to study last year had been Isla’s idea, hadn’t it?
“Sounds interesting,” he says, running fingers through his floppy white hair. Still not properly bleached out yet, I notice. “What time?” he asks.
Isla’s head tilts. “We can grab early breakfast and leave about eight?”
So much for sleeping in. I hold in a sigh and march out there. Brown is putting his book and notebook into a ratty backpack that is, indeed, the same one he used last year. He politely thanks me—again, he’s not a jerk—and heads away to attend his last session of the week with Instructor Van Druten. Meditations, where one learns to control whatever talent one has… even if one doesn’t know what that talent is.
Yes, Brown is one of those rare potentials who has no clue what his talent is. He’s not from a known magic family. He was actually picked out by a spotter, likely a teacher at his high school, who noted something they perceived as magically ability in him. They simply couldn’t identify what that ability was. That’s got to be annoying for him.
Once he’s gone, I set my water on the table and spread my hands wide. “Why did you ask him to come along?”
“It’s an experiment,” Isla says.
“In how to piss off Segreti?” I sit down, drop my head in my hands, and groan.
The instructors here don’t allow students to bully each other. A large part of advancing to the next year is being cooperative, but… Bianca Segreti is pretty good at tossing out the snide little quip without getting caught. I don’t want her sinking her Italian Renaissance teeth into Isla.
Instead of answering, Isla asks, “Can I show you my research?”
There’s something sly about this question, and I realize I’m going to have a ton of numbers thrown at me. “Sure.”
She fetches one of her journals—the cistern level one. She’s obsessed with these water level readings. “I just took a reading,” she says, “and I’ll take another one in about an hour.”
“Okay.” What else can I say?
She opens the journal and starts folding out a page… that keeps folding out into several taped-together pages of neatly drawn chart. I’m good with graphs, so I read the axes. This chart tracks the water level in the cisterns by date.
“Do you see a pattern?” she asks.
Some days are higher and some lower, with a couple of spikes each week. Two each week, at least to start. I point at that part of the chart and make a guess. “Is this a tidal thing?”
She laughs. “No. No tide here. See how there are two spikes per week at first. Then there’s a week with only one, and then there are four per week after that, Tuesday through Friday. Until summer. Then no spikes. Not until Wednesday and today.”
She’s been moving a ring-laden finger along the dates as she explains that. I’m missing the significance, though. “I don’t get it.”
“At first I did think it was cyclical,” she says. “Like a tide. But the up days coincided with the days that we had Botany class in here. See that? Tuesday and Thursday, every week.”
I’d known Isla was taking all these readings but had never asked why. I’d thought it was just a plant-growing thing or something that affected her magic. Nothing to do with the Botany Class. “So, I get that there are none in the summer, but what’s this week with one spike? And why are there more spikes after that?”
“There was only one difference that day,” she says, pointing to the mysterious Thursday with no spike. “That… was the day Brown had a cold and stayed in his room. He was the only person absent.”
My brain churns over that for a second. I consider asking whether she’s accounted for the comings and goings of all the other students, but of course she has. She’s a good scientist, patient and meticulous. That’s why I’m glad she’s my lab partner. I lick my lips as something clicks into place. “Where it starts spiking four times a week… that’s when you suggested I bring Brown here to study instead of the library.”
“Yes,” she says with a grin. “Nothing all summer, but now that he’s back, the water levels are spiking again.”
I go for the obvious question. “You think he’s controlling the water levels?”
She shook her head. “I keep an eye on him when he’s here. If he’s doing it, it’s not conscious.”
Most of us use our talents unconsciously at first. That’s how you end up burning a DM’s notes without even thinking about it. “So… taking him with us tomorrow is another experiment?”
“My evil plan.” Isla twists the end of an imaginary mustache. “Too good a chance to pass up.”
I only hope that Brown doesn’t guess that he’s the experiment.
Go on to Chapter 4