“Oh yes,” Khalik said emphatically. “The games are run by The Watchers, but they are sponsored by the city. A number of the events have different prizes: usually fine items for one to display—laurels of platinum, dragon-bone flutes, clasps of gold—while some of the competitions provide the winners with actual magical items, which are donated by the finest shops and crafters in Generasi. At least, that’s how it was in my brother’s day.”
“Donated?” Alex asked. “That doesn't sound like a good way to…you know, make coin.”
“Aaaah, you underestimate the games. These merchants and crafters do not donate out of any desire to be charitable. No, their minds work to expand their purses.” The prince tapped the side of his head. “You worked at a bakery in your hometown, did the baker not bring some of his confectionery to your festivals?”
Alex burst out laughing. “First of all, bold of you to think we were fancy enough for ‘confectionery’. Second, I’m pretty sure the only thing that McHarris would ever donate to anyone was his hand…in someone’s coin purse.”
“Truly? Perhaps it is different in Thameland, then.” Khalik looked around at the lush gardens around them. They were passing through a small grove of trees that were heavy with ripe fruit. The fact that the fruit looked like giant eyeballs made them pretty unnerving. "In Tekezash, whenever there is an event; a party, a wedding or tournament that my family attends: tailors, chefs, and other trades folk behave like they would gut each other for a chance to supply the event with their wares. Even if they must provide their goods without charge. Think of it this way, suppose I sample a glass of wine at a party. I enjoy it, and openly compliment it. What do you think happens?”
“Well, uh, I’m not sure…but if people are trying to get in the good graces of the prince, then they’re going to pay attention to whatever you do?”
“Exactly.” Khalik winced. “It is one of the reasons why it is so good to be anonymous here. Back home, if I try a sweet at a festival one day, I wake up the next to find the vendor of that sweet up to their necks in orders from courtiers, and pounds of the sweet delivered to me with their compliments. For months everyone around me would be eating it in hopes that it would start a conversation.”
“Ugh, that sounds kinda creepy. Well, maybe it’s different for you, but that’d get really creepy for me really fast.”
“It amused my brother, but it made me uncomfortable.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Alex said, glancing behind him.
Claygon was walking just behind them, taking up basically the entire path. The golem’s ‘helmeted’ head nearly scraped the lower branches of the canopy. Najyah was perched on Claygon’s shoulder, and had nodded off sometime during the trip.
‘You’d better not poop on my golem,’ Alex thought. ‘Or it’s eagle stew.’
His mind stopped on the thought: ‘his golem’.
If the expedition to Thameland was successful, there’d likely be a lot of wizards making their own Claygons: their own golems made from dungeon core remains. On the one hand that excited him, but on the other, it’d be…strange seeing his once unique golem all over the place.
In a way, it was kind of like what Khalik had said: waking up one day to see that everyone was doing the same as you.
“Oooh,” he said. “So if a champion or winner of a game wins…I dunno, a super awesome magical sword let’s say, then people will pay attention to the sword and who crafted it.”
“Now you get it. Other prizes are donated by the city too: like coin purses. Apparently, one year the prize for the flying joust was a purse of a thousand gold, and a suit of armour worth fifteen hundred gold pieces.”
“W-what!?” Alex gaped. “That’s-holy shit!”
“The games are very well-funded,” Khalik chuckled. “You know why kings, lords and realms throw these tournaments? To show off. High prizes just scream about how wealthy you are. ‘I can afford to offer a prized warhorse as the top prize for a race! It took years of breeding, time and training to raise him, but I can afford to just give him away! You see?”
“That’s crazy.” Alex shook his head. “But…others’ showing off might be to our gain. I’ll ask Theresa: she’s close enough to The Watchers. Maybe she’ll know what events they’ll be having.”
“Indeed, ah look, we have arrived!”
The prince, The Fool and the golem stepped into a clearing with a stone area about the size of a large classroom. There weren’t any walls, and a number of chairs and tables had been set up—or likely walked there by themselves—and students were already getting themselves set up. Some of them wore straw hats or had cast a spell of tinted shade over themselves. Alex looked through the trees at the glass ceiling high above.
The sun would likely be brutal as the day went on: he should’ve brought his hat.
They chose seats at the front of the class, but Alex had Claygon stand at the back out of the way. In front of them rose one of the slabs of obsidian that served as a writing board for the professors, and directly in front of it were several plants: some green, some blue…
“Is…that…” Alex squinted. “Is that plant on fire?”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” said a husky student from the next desk. "It’s fireweed: it ignites the air within close proximity to it with its mana, but other than that, it’s harmless.”
That was the sort of definition of ‘harmless’ that someone would apply to a crocodile being raised by a seemingly half-mad goblin wizard in order to sic it on his opponents.
So not exactly harmless…at all.
Alex wondered how Kybas was doing. He hadn’t seen the little goblin-wizard since the practical exam for alchemy.
“And is that one also harmless?” Khalik pointed to a plant at the end of the line. It was a massive greenish-black monstrosity with several stalks with each one ending in long, snouted sets of green and yellow striped jaws. There were no lips, so its endless fangs were visible and unnerving.
Near it was a suspiciously empty cage with its door open.
“Ya, if you stay away from it,’’ the student said dryly.
“Mhmmmm.” Khalik looked around. “And is that the reason our professor is missing? I see his bag, but I do not see him.”
“I’m alright!” a voice called.
Alex and Khalik startled and turned.
Surrounding the open classroom were several patches of vegetation rising from raised garden beds framed in stone. One was a particularly thick patch of rye, through which Alex could see a slight form moving about.
“Vampire pumpkin got out of its cage and into the rye! Just need to catch i-aha! Got you, you orange little pig!”
A rustling came from the rye, and a dark haired man sprang up, triumphantly holding a big orange pumpkin that struggled in his grip. On his hands were heavily-padded, elbow length gloves.
“Thought you could hide from me? Feh, I’d make you into a pie, but you’d taste like six day old buns that vagabonds had pawed over.” He emerged from the rye, marched across the stones and shoved the pumpkin into the cage, then locked the door. He double checked the lock before turning away.
Even in Generasi, it made for a strange sight.
The slightly built man moved a nearby plant that had thin stalks with four leaves like some sort of clover. “And this is why you never leave Earth Key—or zemaljski ključ-” He shook the plant slightly to indicate it. “-as it’s called in its homeland in Savdrava, which is within the Irtyshenan Empire, for those who don’t know—near locks of any kind. Even its juice can open most locks when rubbed on them, and the fumes it gives off can sometimes pop a lock.”
He moved the plant away from the cage, placing it about fifteen feet away, toward the end of the row. The professor took his gloves off and rubbed his hands together with a sort of contagious nervous energy. “Welcome to MBO-1550: Magical Botany I, I’m Professor Salinger, but we’re all adults here: so, you can call me Holden.”
He gave a slight smile, and his lip trembled a bit. “First of all. To any of you who are taking this for an ‘easy credit’, I invite you to-” He pointed at the path out of the class. “-take the easy route out now. There’s a lot of memorizing in this course-”
He paused, double taking as a huge grin swept across Alex’s face. The Mark was built for this sort of thing.
“-ooookay, I guess someone likes reading. Well good, because there’s two textbooks for this class and a compressed semester is not a long time to get through them both.”
He looked around, noted nobody leaving, and nodded. “Good, the class is small enough: I’d call it cozy, but any smaller and we’d just be lonely. So.”
Professor Salinger turned to the plants behind him. “Magical Botany is the study of plants that contain mana of some kind, which gives them powers, uses, and abilities beyond regular flora. You aren’t going to find guides to gardening or raising dandelions here.”
He pointed to the jawed plant Khalik had pointed out earlier. “Aubrey’s Eclipse. If fed enough blood, it can grow to the size of an oak tree. Sentient blood makes it smarter. But, if you harvest its pods during an eclipse and simmer them for precisely forty-eight hours in sea water? It’ll clean out your blood of just about any contaminant known to wizardry. Poison? Gone. Hangover? Gone. Parasites? Gone.” He turned to the pumpkin, which seemed to be sulking in its cage. “The vampire pumpkin—a relative to the killer tomato—was considered nothing more than a pest: an old pumpkin left outside on a full moon in an area contaminated by recently spilled blood, that came to life to cause mischief on a farm. Now, we know that the seeds, if dried and ground, will act as a repellent against mosquitoes, black flies, and most other blood-drinkers. And this is without refining them through the discipline of alchemy. So, what am I getting at with all this?”
He looked around, and Khalik raised his hand.
“Yes, your name?”
“Khalik,” he said. “I think, Holden, that you are hinting that magical plants have value…but they are not easy. They are often dangerous. And I suppose each must be handled with care?”
“Exactly,” Professor Salinger pointed to Aubrey’s Eclipse. “If you were to go close to that specimen half-asleep, hungover or what-have-you, like you were simply picking flowers, then it will take your whole damn arm off in under a second, if it hasn’t been recently fed.”
He turned toward the board and wrote one single word.
“This is going to be the most important thing I’m ever going to teach you: Magical Botany requires three kinds of respect from you.” He pointed to the plants. “Respect for the plants-” He pointed to the textbook. “-respect for the material-'' He pointed to the students. “-and respect for yourself. That is the only way you’re going to do well here. Because remember what I said about memorization? You’ll need more than that. Slick alchemical procedures and calculations are only going to get you so far here. Magical plants are living beings, and some actually respond to the emotions they feel coming from you. For example, if you dislike a certain plant and think, ‘I hate this big dumb plant’ around a mandrake, its scream turns about three times nastier in your ears.”
He drew a diagram of three plants: a small one with what looked like a cotton ball at the top, then an arrow leading to one that was literally a tall stalk with an actual sheep growing from the top, and then another arrow leading to a large, ram-like creature with bushes growing from its back and thorns sprouting from curling horns.
“The vegetable lamb is a plant that will undergo metamorphosis if you show it proper affection and only if you do that. But if you do, it’ll produce twice as much wool as a regular sheep as long as the plant grows, which is quite a long time if you keep foliage around it for the sheep-top to graze on. When the plant dies, it makes one more change and the lamb transforms into its final form: a ram-like creature with bush-like, golden fleece and thorny horns and it then goes off into the wide world. Without affection, the lamb withers when the plant dies. I had only one student this past year who managed to get his to change. Fellow showed it as much love as he did his crocodile familiar and—trust me—that’s a lot of love.”
Could that have been Kybas? He’d have to ask the little fellow next time he saw him. Maybe get some tips.
It was too bad that affection wasn't a way to make golems evolve.
He glanced over his shoulder at Claygon.
An element of chaos was what made them change, so it was hard to predict what would make each one undergo a transformation.
‘Still, if affection won’t make you evolve, I’m going to show it to you anyway,’ Alex sent the cheery thought to Claygon.
Then he froze.
Something had definitely touched his mind.
…or did it?
It was brief and quick—like the brush of a feather in the dark—but something was definitely there. Was it The Mark? Or….
He looked at Claygon closely.
Alex started to wonder if those little moments of…Claygon responding to him were so imaginary. His golem’s core was made from dungeon core remains, a newly analyzed substance.
Who knew what the unique core would be capable of.
It was something to keep an eye on.
He stared at the golem, but Claygon remained still, as though the mental contact had never happened.