"Gwen, come in."
A smiling member of the student-staff opened the oaken doors to Lady Grey's office at the Master's Lodge.
Inside, Gwen was surprised to find the Victorian room curtains billowing, flooding the solemn office with stark, wintery light.
"Head Mistress Loftus." Gwen bowed as soon as she entered. An arcane Quadro stood with Maxine, as for their identity, she could hazard a guess that they were her tutors. "Milords, Sirs and Madams…"
There were two men and two women, and they instantly refocused their attention to catch Gwen in the crossfire of their imperious gazes.
"Your instructors," the Lady affirmed Gwen's suspicions before turning to the austere group with a nod. "Magisters. Please introduce yourselves to our principal contributor in bringing England's Dwarves back into the fold. I am sure you are as eager to begin your moulding of our Void Mage as she is eager to learn your spells, so please— help yourselves."
The first to tribute was a middle-aged gruff with a self-suffering demeanour. The man's hair, what was left of it, was slicked back and parted in the three-quarter style popular with military men.
"Nils Kott." The Mage's speech carried a Germanic inflexion. "Abjuration, Warding and Enchantment specialist. I will be instructing you on the creation, maintenance and disruption of Spells and Mandalas."
"Sir." Gwen delivered a heart-warming smile.
Her instructor appeared unmoved.
"… Major Kott comes to us from Ludwig-Maximilians Universität. He is on loan in exchange for one of our own. Gwen, say hi to one of the top Abjurers of München," the Lady kindly bridged the awkward gap. "I asked for the Major because he has extensive combat experience. It wouldn't hurt to ask him about the Luftwaffe's much-lauded Undead Purges carried out in Romania. Major Kott led the spearhead operation."
"Sir!" Gwen saluted.
The Major dipped his chin.
Without pause, her next tutor, an enthused individual, younger than Kott, presented his very English self. Fair of skin and dark-haired, the sorcerer sported the atypical pale irises of a Mineral Mage.
"Magus Song, it's a pleasure to meet you. My name is Maxwell Brown, of the King's Browns, from Lynn. Though I do hold the title of Viscount, I sincerely hope that you and I could be on first name terms."
Gwen and the instructor shook hands. True to his disclosure, the Viscount's fingers were warm and clammy.
"I shall be your instructor in Adaptive Spellcraft theory. My speciality is meta-magic, and I currently teach Spell Theory over at Emmanuel's. With your Omni-talent and my knowledge, I hope there will be deeper profundities with which we can plumb. Once our new Meister— That is, Magister Wen from Fudan arrives, she will be joining us in expanding the hitherto untapped potentials of Void Magic. I will also be advising your cousin, Miss Kuznetsova, on her thesis."
"Petra will be lucky to have you, sir. What manner of a caster are you, Magister Brown?"
"Myself?" Brown's grin grew broad. "I would fancy myself an Omni-Mage like yourself, Miss Song, although I was originally a Transmuter. My curiosity during my youth led me astray, I am afraid. I am no good in combat, though I hope with the aid of Magister Kott here, our endeavour may yet persevere."
"It's my pleasure to be under your care, Sir."
"The same! The same." The manic researcher withdrew with a face full of undisguised anticipation.
"Kareena Patil," the next instructor presented herself. This one had immediately attracted Gwen's attention. She was the only other Indian subcontinent magic caster Gwen had seen outside of Taj, and Gwen had met more than her fair share of Mages by now. With her creme latte complexion, the woman's age appeared repressed, revealed only by the subtle crow's feet around the edge of her olive eyes. "I'll be taking your Transmutation to the seventh tier, assuming your potential is genuine."
If Magister Brown had given a fiery introduction, then Magister Patil's was a cold one.
"Dame Patil has been kind enough to divert from her duties at Lucy Cavendish," Lady Loftus intervened before the atmosphere grew colder. "There is scant a more accomplished sorceress in Cambridge when it comes to Spellshaping."
"No need, Maxxie, to hide the girl's inexperience. I have seen your transcripts and your essays from Fudan, Miss Song. So much raw power without the understanding of the metaphysics that empower the phenomenon is a dangerous thing. Rarely have I felt such agony watching a sorceress trounce her way through an IICU." Kareena Patil remained aloof despite Lady Grey's kind intervention. "If you find my judgement too harsh, then prove me wrong in the months to come."
"I won't disappoint, milady." Gwen bowed again.
"I would hope not." Patil shrugged. "It's not my CCs been burnt."
"I am last then," spoke Gwen's final instructor, a woman in her forties with the bearing of someone from a period film. "My name is Keridwen Le Guevel, for the duration of your stay in Peterhouse and until my dismissal— I shall be your Illusionist, as well as your instructor of etiquette, speech, and decorum."
Gwen looked up at the Lady, who masked a smirk behind her flawless complexion.
"Raw power," Keridwen stated abruptly. "Must come with dignity. I have heard of your peerless duelling exploits and have extensively studied your actions during the IIUC, Miss Song. Sufficient to say, if you wish to one day marry into the most august of Europe's families, you will need to perform considerably fairer than your prevailing circumstances have prescribed. My mission is to ensure that you look well, present well, and keep well so that your prospects remain undiminished."
At the word "marry", Gwen's brow broke out in dismay. It was well, very well— that Elvia was not present to give her opinion on that matter. Thus far, other than the very confused Walkens of Brighton, she had not told anyone of that particular inclination.
"Yes, ma'am." She relented for now. With Evee's present condition, her buyer's remorse was as acute as ever. She loved her healer as a Dwarf loved Mithril, but now there was a Dragon-sized chasm between the pair.
"Great! And finally, you have one more instructor— me." Lady Grey stepped out from behind her desk. "From now until you are capable of enrolling and keeping up with Cambridge's classes— I shall be your chief tutor. I will inspect your progress fortnightly, and we shall have guidance sessions per fortnight so that you may ask me questions discrete from your instructors."
"No discretion is needed!" Magister Brown appeared shocked. "Gwen, I will give you my all."
"What's a Magister without a secret or two?" The Lady hand-waved the Viscount's concern. "Now, fair instructors, you may leave us. Gwen and I shall commence our first session. Peterhouse thanks you for your morning."
Her instructors shuffled out.
Servants shuffled in, laid down tea, then were gone again.
Gwen sat in front of her patroness, shy as a lamb in her black and white pleated dress.
"An august lot," Lady Loftus began.
"I am in your debt, milady."
Lady Loftus motioned for tea, and to Gwen's amazement, the tea set obliged.
"Think nothing of it. The most important thing about learning Spellcraft isn't having access to the best spell instructors, spellbooks or tutors. Rather, one is required to know the right questions to ask. To that end, let's begin with the fundamentals so you won't embarrass yourself later. Amuse me, War Mage, what Frontier nonsense have they taught you about the Imperial Spellcraft System?"
"The IMS began as an internationally ratified methodology for practising arcanistry first pioneered by Jean-Philipe de Périgord at Saint-Cloud," Gwen's recall was as expert as the vagueness of her historical understanding. "Later, Meister Wolfgang Maximilian of Berlin expanded the system during the unification. The Mageocracy was a late fosterer that vastly expanded Spellcraft during the hey-days of Pax Britannica, peaking just before the Great War. The controversy is that we appropriated the system from the central powers despite refusing to participate in its inception."
"Now that's an amusing bit of history." Lady Grey drew in the scent from her Earl Grey, a tea named after one of her ancestors. "The accuracy is wanting, I fear. Tell me, child, as a guest of the Red Keep, what have the Dwarves told you? I know the Deepdowners mention this fact at every turn."
"Hanmoul said Humans stole the structure for the IMS from the Seven Ancestors."
"They're not wrong." Lady Grey's lips curled with amusement. "Though theft is such a strong word. One may as well steal the concept of colour! Magic, sorcery, arcanistry— SPELLCRAFT— Gwen, is the observance of that which governs the hidden laws of nature— the rules that bind together this fabric we call the Prime Material Plane. Anyone sufficiently observant enough, or possessed of an earnest desire for discovery like Magister Brown, is going to uncover its rules sooner or later. So no, I would not venture to say who stole from who. The foundation was volunteered, at any rate—"
"That's right. Now there's something you don't read in your Frontier manuals. Gwen, you've been studying Spellcraft, in a manner, but you've never tapped into its source. Take my Earl Grey, for example, you've drunk it all your life— but have you seen Wildland Keemun? Have you ever touched the flesh of the bergamot that gives this tea its unique scent? Did you know a change in the rainfall changes the flavour? Or drying out the soil fortifies the scent?"
Gwen shook her head.
"And so it goes with Spellcraft. In time, as you grow into a finer sorceress than you are now, you will inevitably meet our benefactors who centuries ago sowed the seeds, I suppose, to see what will grow. Mind you, I am speaking only of the IMS. Long before the Hvítálfar gifted their unique, esoteric understanding, magic was studied in enclosed Enclaves and hidden Cabals, consisting of Wizard Circles, Witch Covens and Warlock Conspiracies. And of course, we mustn't forget the Vatican— though that's another sarcophagus altogether."
"Indeed. It is what the High-born call themselves."
"Ma'am." Gwen could barely contain the excitement in her voice. "Are you saying Elves taught us sorcery?"
"No," Lady Grey bid Gwen curb her enthusiasm. "And nor is it 'Elves'. Our allies are a fringe group of forward-thinking radicals, and what they engendered was the beginnings of something no Demihuman could conceive, the 'rise' of Humanity. Can you imagine, Gwen, that though there are now billions of humans dwelling upon the Prime Material Plane, we were once the runt of Terra's litter? The most impoverished of the sapient races?"
"Is Spellcraft Elven?" Gwen did her best to digest the Lady's words, but her focus remained steadfast locked onto Elven matters.
"I see Henry's education has heavily favoured pragmatism," Lady Grey patiently commented. "Practice without context, how flavourless that must be, dear."
"I didn't mind it." Gwen stopped to retrieve a sweet biscuit.
"Just as well then. I doubt your other tutors would be as inclined as I am. They're used to older, more knowledgable pupils. Anyhow, to continue, let us begin with antiquity. No, Spellcraft isn't Elven. Humans always possessed their own magic. From the ancient rule of the First Dynasty to the Israelites' uprising against Ramses II, rare individuals in history have appeared with "Talent". Have you not heard of the Greek heroes of antiquity? Hercules? Hector, Perseus, the wily Illusionist Odysseus? The indomitable Transmuter Achilles? Doesn't it make your blood boil, child, to think that despite our not so distant history, explosions of raw Human talent had germinated empires stretching far beyond our means? Ancient magic, Faith magic, and... Necromancy... evolved entirely on its own, surprising even the Hvítálfar."
"The Elves…" Gwen reiterated.
"Yes, yes." Lady Grey smiled. "As for Elven intervention, there exists no lack of circumstantial evidence. That said, the Hvítálfar's schemes are beyond human history, if simply because the original contractees, their children, and their scions, had less life in them than the lowest Träälvor. Where the Hvítálfars have interfered in history, we have only ruins to tell the tale. For instance, Sumeria's rise to power hinted heavily at the involvement of the Fair Folk."
"Sumeria... Gilgamesh? I thought that part of the world consists of nought but Elementals and Black Zones?"
"Indeed." Lady Loftus took a sip to wet her lips. "Present-day academics believe the Mesopotamian intervention by the Hvítálfar may have to do with the growing potency of the Eleventh Dynasty and the rise of the Canaanites, who by now had developed a potent form of Faith-craft. Do you know of Enkidu?"
"Right. Gilgamesh's constant companion, was a being 'created by the Gods' to interfere with the urban King Gilgamesh's conquest. From what we know of the noble Elementals residing in the Babylonian basin, Enkidu was likely a simulacrum of sorts— a Flesh Golem created by the Archon of the Elementals, Ishtar, keeper of the Sacred Plains. According to the surviving manuscripts, the Golem was peerless in combat and all but resistant to magic. If so, how could a fledgeling King defeat such a being created from the raw magic of creation?"
Gwen's brain bloated from the flood of information. Elementals, deserts, ancient history, Faith Magic, Spellcraft— But then again, wasn't that the nature of history? The chronicle of Humanity was by nature an interwoven web of causation, tottering from one tragedy to the next, with kingdoms rising and falling like sandcastles at high tide.
"From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the poets speak of a companion of the King— a 'temple maiden' called Shamhat. She left his side, alone, mind you, to tame the Golem with her demi-divine body. In the desert, she made love to the creature for seven days and seven nights, until the Enkidu's angst abated."
"… how lewd."
"Poetic epics, much like our popular vid-cast, frequently whets its audience with high appeals to low appetites." The Lady laughed, pointing to Gwen's exposed ankles. "Have you seen your IIUC broadcasts? I am afraid not even the highest institutions of learning is above titillating the audience for ratings."
Gwen hid her cringe with another biscuit.
"Anyway," the Lady continued. "Enkidu has no gender. It's a golem. It has no genitals. Elementals do not reproduce as we do. It is neither male nor female. How does one make love to that?"
"… the Epic's composers must have had an incredible imagination."
"Haha… indeed. Of course, now we have confirmation that Shamhat was a Ljósálfar, an acolyte overseeing the Sumerian Sects. Our Hvítálfar herders wanted to see if our tenacious selves, capable of populating the harshest of habitats, could be a war potential against Ishtar."
"We were the Elves' spell fodder?" Gwen stated incredulously. "But…"
"And therein lies the Hvítálfars' dilemma. Humans, up to a certain point, whether now or in history, are easily steered, at least at first. Unlike the other races, say the Dwarves, with their ageless tradecraft, or the Green-skins, with their versatile mutability, or the Mermen, unparalleled in their propagation, what Humans excel in— is chaos."
"Raw, unmitigated, chaos— which we shall call innovation, invention and experimentation." The Lady's face grew flushed. "That's the beauty of our race, Gwen. Humanity can neither be contained or controlled. We proliferate regardless of the circumstances. With the meagrest aid, the slightest of hints, the most fragile seed of knowledge, we can bring about great booming Towers that defy distance to suck the marrow from Terra herself! Our benefactors may have withheld the true knowledge empowering magic— but Humankind overcame! The Dwarves sold us their Runecraft for food and materials, so we mimicked their Mandalas! The Mermen's attacks revealed the abundance of resource in the ocean, so now we harvest their kin, year on year!"
The Lady paused for effect.
"It is undeniable that modern magic and its foundations were never ours. Yet, it is without a doubt that we Humans are the legitimate successors of Spellcraft as it now exists. Human magic lacks nuance, as the Hvítálfar would say, and stability, so say the Dwarves— but it's ours. Only in our hands, does it flourish, do you see?"
"I do." Gwen felt as though passing through a threshold. "To surmise, the methodology of magic is akin to language, right? Incantations are the words moulding the mana, invocations its grammar, its resultant metaphors and synecdoches are the spells we shape. IMS— is arcane linguistics, for Humans. And like English, it is constantly evolving. Though its origins are myriad and rooted all over the world— from culture to culture, race to race, its semantics remain coherent enough to communicate every idea, from the simplest order to the most empathic Ode. What the Elves had begun, and we Humans propagated, is now a common and accessible linguistic system for all Humanity to tap into sorcery, heedless of racial and cultural backgrounds!"
Lady Loftus carefully lowered her tea. "Brilliantly surmised. Very concise. No wonder Henry saw something special in you. You're not just beauty and brawn, my dear! What a dangerously brainy little kitty you are."
"Why isn't this common knowledge?" Gwen asked. "I feel embarrassed to be so delayed. Not even Master was forthcoming, and he taught me Dimension Door out of his very own Spellbook."
"Oh, there's much you will need to un-learn. Since you mentioned Spellbooks, let's move onto that. The Grimoire, as you know, is a fundamental aspect of the Tower System your Master set up. The spells contained therein are accessible by anyone with the CCs and the talent, a pillar of the Mageocracy's centralised infrastructure. Had you stayed on the Frontier, you would have spent your whole life collating CCs to purchase the spells crafted by your betters. But now— furnished with proper access to the source of Spellcraft, you may compose your own. A spell, when deconstructed, is merely an arcane syntax, as you have interpreted."
Gwen understood what her matron was saying. Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man Magic Missile, and he'll roast squirrels for life. Pre-written spells were rote learning. True Spellcraft was academia.
"Another question?" The Lady was enjoying herself.
"I do." Gwen had been fermenting one since last year. "I have a question regarding Affinity. Is it possible for a Mage's Affinity to exceed 10?"
The Lady cocked her head ever so slightly. "Worried about Miss Lindholm?"
Gwen's eyes grew wide and innocent. How did her patron discover Elvia's talent so quickly? What did the Lady know?
"I take the Familiar ritual was successful?"
"… Yes, ma'am."
"I see." Maxine Loftus grew contemplative. "I suspected that at some junction, I will have to raise the topic of Miss Lindholm with you, though if you are acquiescent, I am more than happy to discuss the dilemma now."
Lady Loftus carefully stirred the sugar. The tea set added the milk, though she did not take up the fragrant beverage. "First, let us address the matter of Miss Lindholm's undeserved Affinity. It is NOT fourteen. Magister Rendrey and Walken are right in suggesting that the script is in error. Miss Lindholm's original talent is admirable but common. Even with her Alraune, she remained merely impressive. Unlike you, her ascension would not be for another decade or two, or five, not until the Alraune matures— whereupon she shall make a passable Combat Cleric."
"Is Kiki not... suited for Evee?"
"Why would it be? Let me be honest— the Alraune is wasted on her. I know a dozen students, Prime Mages like your Master Henry, who're still waiting to discover their life-long companions."
"Oh…" Gwen felt her heart prickle.
"Of course, the nature of Spirits and their acquisition is less predictable than the English weather. No amount of longing will gift them with Miss Lindholm's fortune."
Fortune? Gwen felt guilt lick her insides. If Sufina hadn't gotten to Evee, Yue and Whetu in time, she would have shipped three desiccated carcasses back to Australia.
"An excess of fortune, however, is a terrible thing," the Lady stated ominously. "I understand you have transactions with members of the Ordo Draconis, dear. What I don't understand is why you would offer up your dearest friend to be a 'Vessel'."
"A… 'Vessel'?" Gwen felt cold sweat soaking her dress. "What do you mean, ma'am?"
"A Vessel, an Essence holder, a—" Lady Loftus appeared to study her face to see if she was lying. When Gwen's guileless orbs spoke of complete earnestness, her House Mistress grew incredulous. "Oh, dear… You didn't know?"
"I…" Gwen bit her lower lip. "I've sort of just blundered and blasted my way through obstacles thus far."
"Goodness gracious. I take back what I said earlier." Lady Loftus raised a hypercritical brow. "You understand YOURSELF to be a Vessel of the Mythic that resides in Ayers Rock, do you not? Your brother-in-craft was as forthright as he could, but as you know, Henry was a deeply private individual."
"Ma'am, do you know about Almudj?"
"Should I know about Almudj?"
Gwen grew silent.
"Gwen." The Lady's tone grew serious. "I am your custodian and patron. Peterhouse has thus invested so far, two Senior Magisters and a Meisterhood, not to mention countless favours. For your instruction, I may be giving up much more. In return, it is your responsibility, your very purpose, to live up to mine— and Henry's— expectations. You must make up for what Sobel destroyed."
"And what is that?" Her tone grew low and agitated.
"Do you recall what you told Henry?"
"A deterrent," Gwen recalled her grandstanding.
"Correct. Peace through the threat of absolute destruction— mutual if it must be. Wars are coming, kitten. We will need your talents in the days to come to prevent another Sydney."
"You can't be serious." Gwen gulped. They were tottering from crisis to crisis, and she could hardly catch her breath. "With who?"
"With whoever wishes to threaten our cities. The Mermen, the Undead in Eastern Europe and North Korea, the savage Demi-humans of the steppes, the Elementals East of the Fire Sea; Spectre's shadow. We have been at peace, in a manner of speaking, for three decades, Gwen. Do you know how bloated the Empire has grown? How overtaxed the Communists have become? How ravenously the Americans plundered the New World? Humanity is a simmering vessel, and without the means to vent…"
The magic kettle whistled.
"… We have strayed." The Lady sighed. "Back to the matter at hand. You are a Vessel, by definition if nothing else. Miss Lindholm is a Vessel. Each Vessel wishes for certain boons when they take on their agreement with their respective Mythics. You wished for life— I assume, to offset the Void ravaging your body; and Miss Lindholm wished for unparalleled proficiency in her profession of choice."
"So, the Affinity isn't because of Sen-sen—" Gwen almost bit her tongue. "That's the Ginseng… from the Mythic's sanctuary."
"The Ginseng is the conduit," Lady Loftus clarified. "The more profound the conduit, the more conducive the contract. I wonder, what was your conduit?"
"Is no more improved than she would have been otherwise. Assuming the girl began with an Affinity of 4, I would place her Affinity at 8— a tragedy, considering what two Plant Mages could have achieved with the same opportunity. Think, Gwen; the Mageocracy has missed a chance to produce two facsimiles of Henry. Why didn't you listen to Ollie? Or Mattias? They're right, you know. One wonders why you take your senior's advice for nought. Had you made the right choice, two Great Houses would defend her to the last heir, while she could have remained simple and sheltered."
Gwen said nothing. Her mind was too numb to respond.
"Now, thanks to your generosity." Lady Loftus' criticism was without mercy. "Miss Lindholm will have to make up to us. A Mythic's Vessel makes the rarest of Mages, you of all people should know. Why else are you special? How many Void Mages may use Void Magic with impunity? Who can do what you can do, at your age? You've put Miss Lindholm in a precarious position, Gwen."
"What will happen to Elvia?"
"Once her talents are verified." Lady Loftus was once again studying her face. "Your friend will be transferred into the Order of the Bath, where she shall work toward becoming a Knight Companion."
The colour in Gwen's cheeks rose several degrees. "No way. A Knight's Companion…"
"... Is a title and a Rank, denoting membership in the Order of the Bath. There exist only twenty-four official posts otherwise." Lady Loftus sighed wistfully. "Good grief. The dangers of ignorance."
"Sorry." Gwen was still reeling from the idea that she and Elvia were "Vessels". Why hadn't anyone told her before? Then again, who in her orbit had been an expert on Draconic vassals? Ayxin of course— but the Dragon Princess owed her nothing. If anything, their mutual admiration for Jun made them natural competitors. "Ma'am, is this common knowledge?"
"Nothing involving Dragons can be common. In this regard, we have only hearsay. A better instructor than I... might know more."
Gwen tried to regulate her breathing.
"Which brings us to an unpleasant topic of conversation." Lady Loftus drew a Glyph in the air. The windows slowly swung inward, leaving the room utterly silent but for the crackling of the inscribed yew logs. "Gwen, can you clarify what your intentions are with Miss Lindholm?"
"Protect her with everything I've got, Knight or no Knight," Gwen stated.
"… I mean as a companion."
"Oh… OOH." Gwen's lips made an "o".
"Always check for crows on your outings…" Lady Grey pointed outside the window, were a pair of crows, ubiquitous in London, sat opposite the French windows. "Or use your Portable Habitat. Why in God's name would you do that sort of thing in plain view, when there's still light? At least wait for nightfall."
"Ah…" Gwen choked on embarrassment. She doubted her conversation with Elvia would have gone nearly as well if they had discussed it in the privacy of the Habitat's bedroom.
"It was just as well they were my Crows, and not Ravenport's."
"Oh thank God…" The unceasing revelations had made her quite breathless. "That said, milady, am I to understand you've been spying on me?"
"Firstly." Lady Loftus raised a finger. "It is not my business to question how you spend your time, or with whom you find your fun. What I loath is your lack of discretion."
"Understood." Gwen lowered her eyes. "I shall be cautious next time."
"Secondly." Lady Loftus raised a second finger. "Being a Vessel completely complicates one's political capital."
Gwen grew silent. She empathised with her patron's position— but what about Evee? Had she inadvertantly fucked her friend sideways?
"Thirdly, should Miss Elvia elevate herself— and she shall— that will mark her as an Exalted of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath, a bearer of its burnished sun crest. Her duty means she shall not have you or anyone as a carnal companion. Should she renounce celibacy, her position and the Relic she bears—"
"And what if Evee doesn't want to enter the Ordo?"
"So long as she is a citizen of the Mageocracy, a healer, and a Vessel, what has been squandered will not be squandered again."
"She can't refuse?" Gwen's tone grew menacing.
"Why the upset? It's not as though you can deny your future Magisterhood." Lady Loftus remained unfazed. "The Mageocracy will not risk either of you slipping from its grasp; your extinction would be a preferable alternative— that or Stasis."
"If I may be so ungrateful." Gwen fought back the death-chill in her chest. "May Elvia and I leave for the New World? I have received offers from them as well if you must know."
"Of course, and endure WORSE terms? With folk who don't harken after Henry, who don't care for your companions? What would Gunther think of such ungracious behaviour? Not to mention Miss Lindholm, with her ordinary talent, would not survive a year in the Protestants' Lutheran Seminary. They'll break her like a bare-back heathen on the wheel. If you wish to cut and run, Gwen, I would recommend China. Naturally, we would withdraw our Magisters, and Wen's Meisterhood will be rescinded. But I am sure the Godless Communists would welcome a Void Mage."
Now that the Lady's sweetness was spent, Gwen realised that Maxine Loftus was far from gentle and beyond terrifying.
The Lady's candidness, however, was refreshing.
"I understand." Gwen nodded. "My enquiry was… academic."
"And my advice merely hypotheticals." The Lady smiled. "Remember, whatever you wish for Miss Lindholm, think of your own future as the herald of our cause— consult someone… Richard perhaps, or Gunther, if you find us oldies wanting. Don't let either of your Affinities— or your patron, decide for you."
"I understand." Gwen took a deep breath. "… out of curiosity, Ma'am, just how much of my condition do you know?"
"How much do you wish to divulge?"
"I'd prefer none."
"Then leave it at that. Didn't Henry say that Magisters and secrets all go together like Dragons and Virgins? It comes with the title, dear."
"One last thing, if I may be so forward— society and nobility aside, what would the Tower, the Mageocracy even, perceive of my… indelicacy with Miss Lindholm?"
The matron of Peterhouse smirked. "It's not all doom and gloom, Gwen. Let me conjure a Greater Image for you. As you are now? You will lose a significant portion of your freedom. Later, if you graduate a Magister of the Middle Faction, most if not all will turn a blind eye, as your worth far outweighs the trouble of censure. And if and when you become a Tower Master, even the Grand Master of the Order of the Bath will grin and bear whatever you wish to do with their Companion. He may even see your affection as a leash, well worth a sullied Companion. Beyond that..."
Maxine Loftus took a deep breath.
"… there are two endgames. If you become a great bower for the Mageocracy as Henry was, then truly, there are very few shackles to your freedom other than those of your own making— family, Apprentices, favoured folk. If you become its vorpal sword— as Sobel was meant to be, then who would dare question anything you do?"
"I see." Gwen rested both trembling hands on her knees. "Thank you, Maxine. For being so sincere with me. In the same vein, may I know more about my Master? I know so very little about him."
"You may." Her patron willed away the tea tray. "But our present lesson is at an end. I have business elsewhere. Do remember that the IIUC's final results will be out in a fortnight, so plan your London outings accordingly. Heed well my advice, child. Speak to your 'friends'. If you feel depressed, go and see the sights in Cambridge. Also, ask Keridwen to change you into something more official. You are, after all, a Cambridge celebrity…"
The first medic-call of the year sounded across the courtyard of the research building. Though not a principal port of call in London, the teaching hospital does cater to patient overflows arriving from combat zones all over the Mageocracy and its territories.
Deep within the hospital's bowels, the Teleportation Circle linking it and the Shard flared Mithril and quicksilver, pulsing in tune to the siren's wail keening after the hospital's skeleton staff.
A physician in customary white, stained with congealed gore, appeared beside a gurney to greet the rush of nurses and doctors stationed since the evening. Promptly, the incoming physician drew a Glyph in the air.
"Magus Joseph Carmichael, requesting triage handover to Nightingales!" the transferring doctor called out. "The patient is Magus William Fitzgerald, Code Orange, suffering from acute pulmonary obstruction due to quasi-magical diffusion of the alveolar. Currently, the patient has a situ Weiss-Hermann portable Ventilator implanted via trach. Pharmacology reports 5mg of Prilosec per alchemy cycle, catalysed by 1mg of Stirgenix. Potion injectors are infused with 12mg Ipratropium infused with 30-70 Wyvern serum."
The receiving practitioner caught the glowing Glyph.
"Magus Derek Hope, initiating handover." Hope took one scroll through the data slate and deflated. "Jesus... are you serious?"
"Yes. Acute trauma of the left lumbar, punctured lung, poison, and Arachnid Hex, tier 4-5."
"Repressed, for now."
"Christ, he's sixty-four? Multiple combat tours… old injuries— the Boer Conflict, the Ashantee War— That's two decades ago. How the hell is he still standing? Why was an old vet like that still serving in Ireland?"
"Don't ask me." Doctor Carmichael shook his head. "We're barely keeping the floor open over at Dublin at the moment. I hear the staging zone on the Isle's a bloodbath."
"Dare I ask why Magus Fitzgerald has arrived at our teaching hospital rather than Black's or Royal Alfred's or Cambridge?"
"I don't. Do you?"
The room grew uncomfortably silent.
The gurney's diagnostic magic beeped.
"Not at all." Hope swore internally. The patient, as far as he could tell, was a political case. For various reasons, the older generation of combat vets possessed bodies insensitive to magical healing. Some of them had wounds from Hexes that no longer existed, thanks to the Mageocracy's extreme prejudice during the Beast Tide. Others had scar tissues both inside and out, piling on top of damage decades in the making. Nonetheless, any hospital that allowed a "War Hero" to die received a black mark. To send such a patient to a teaching hospital to allow the younger physicians to test their mettle under the pretence of triage, was a way to preserve the reputation of the Great Hospitals.
"Who's rostered right now?" Magus Hope turned to his team of nurses. "In the Emergency, I mean."
"Doctor Lindholm and Witherspoon," the machine-nurse replied without hesitation. "Ser Witherspoon is a fine physician, and as for Doctor Lindholm, she's the one with the reputation, sir, she's why Lady Astor did the shakeup last year."
"Director Aston— do you mean the trouble maker who got herself a pledged Knight of St Michael by sucking eggs?"
"I should go." Doctor Carmichael returned to the circle. "I assume our patient will receive your utmost duty of care? He is, I should remind you, a holder of the Gallant Cross. There aren't too many Maguses with that sort of standing left in London. The home office will not be pleased."
The portal flared.
With Carmichael fled, Hope turned to his attendant. "What else do you know?"
"Not much. Doctor Lindholm has recused herself from Lady Astor after the Director returned to Cliveden. She is also a close associate of Lady Rothwell, though only the SRC President and not the family. Beyond that, I do not believe she has any sponsors. Oh, she also chums with one of the Frontier contestants from the IIUC, the Void Sorceress."
"You seem to know an awful lot, Marie."
"It's common knowledge in the ward, sir. After she stirred up all that trouble with Lady Astor and got Nancy and the girls removed from GOS, here at Nightingale, we've kept an eye on her."
On the gurney, the diagnostic displays began to issue the inevitable warning signs. As expected, the alchemical infusions were failing.
"Very well." Hope acknowledged the time for deliberation and discussion was over. "Put him with Miss Elvia. Send her an assistant as well. Tell her to do her best— and that she won't be held accountable even if the Magus succumbs to his natural condition."
"She won't?" The nurse appeared disappointed.
One glare from the Magus was enough to wilt his nurses' questioning eyes. The stupidity of these waifs was beyond comprehension. Were they afflicted with Enfeeble Minds from birth?
"Go now!" Hope barked, tapping his slate to confirm the transfer. "And don't forget to tell Miss Elvia we have the utmost confidence in her ability to apply her training."