Amy Iceworker looked out the large window beyond the desk. The weather outside was brilliant, a large sun hanging regally in the clear blue skies. The water from the central fountain, Magic to the Wielder, sparkled as it flew through the air.
The sight was the same one she saw every day. The Sun Charm worked into the Kirian Academy of Magic's protections insured that every day was a beautiful day. No rain ever fell on the grounds of the Academy, no wind ever disturbed its plants, no storm ever hindered its students.
Not so outside the Academy, of course. It was only thanks to magic that the plants and grass of the Academy's central plaza didn't die from the lack of rain or water. Amy sighed; the beautiful vista failed to lift her spirits. With a small frown she turned back to her work. Sticking her tongue between her teeth, she started copying the runes that had been laid out for her.
Ansuz, Ehwaz, Teiwaz, Wunjṓ... Then ten-year-old blonde stopped copying. She'd been with Liane, her Proctor, for a couple of months now. It had been hard at the beginning, Liane kept long hours and a full schedule, but the young girl had adapted quickly.
She was grateful to the older girl. Liane was a gentle and patient Proctor, always willing and able to take the time to teach or instruct her whenever she had a question. Unfortunately, she was also a harsh taskmistress, and frequently set tasks for her young Assistant to do, tasks designed to complement the teachings of either the Academy or of Liane herself.
Hence the current task of copying runes. It had been a task set to her by Liane. Amy didn't know what purpose it served apart from getting her to copy the runic sequences. She didn't know the meaning of most of them yet, didn't know what this was supposed to accomplish.
Shaking her head, she focused back on her task. Berkanan, Ehwaz, Mannaz.
She put her pen down again, and wondered what her parents were doing. It was getting closer to the Sharing Feast on the 25th of December, after all. A feast of family, friends, sharing meals and warmth. The girl swallowed. She wouldn't get to see her family for seven or eight years, depending on whether she went for a mastery or not.
She wouldn't see her parents, her family, or even her old friends, for seven or eight years. She'd known this forever, of course. All Nobles knew they had to go to the Academy and train their magic. All of them knew of the Rules of Equality that forbade them from learning magic before going to the Academy, of losing their family name while in it, of losing all influence and status while being educated.
And all of them knew they wouldn't see their families for those seven or eight years. It was the Academy's way of both ensuring equality and graduating Nobles capable of standing on their own. Of course some Nobles would fail along the way, but the way the Academy had been structured would all but ensure that even the first dropouts would be capable of standing on their own legs.
Amy toyed with her pen. It was one thing to know this, and another entirely to actually live through it. She missed her parents. She missed her home. She missed her friends. She swallowed again. She had a good Proctor, and was receiving the best education available in Kiria, and yet she still wanted to go home.
Was there something wrong with her? She wasn't supposed to feel this way, wasn't she? She sniffed when her nose suddenly felt full. Closing her eyes, she drew a deep breath and refocused on the task Liane had set her. Ingwaz, Isaz,...
Finally, Amy finished copying the four lines constituting the runic paragraph that Liane had laid out for her. Feeling a bit jealous at the beautiful flowing script used by her Proctor, the young Assistant turned to her next assignment. Liane would be back from the library soon, and she wanted her tasks finished before then.
When Liane returned, Amy felt rather bad that she'd failed what she had set out to do – her tasks were not yet complete. It didn't seem to matter to Liane, who merely sat down at her own desk, opened a huge book written in narrow-script, and started reading. Amy turned back to her work rather than study her Proctor reading a book.
When she finally finished, all it took was her pen being put down to cause Liane to look up in her direction. Amy continued to be surprised at how much her Proctor noticed, even when studying a book.
"Finished, Amy?" she asked. Her tone was neutral, as it always was. No matter what happened, Liane was always calm to her, never yelled at her, and seemed to possess nigh-infinite patience when teaching or explaining.
"Yes, Liane," the younger girl answered her Proctor, reminding herself to use Liane's name rather than her title. They were in their private rooms, they could relax the strict rules of Decorum that governed the outside the world.
"Very well, let me see," Liane said, holding out one hand so Amy could hand over the sheets with the tasks. As always, she felt self-conscious about her lack of writing skills when she handed over her copy.
Liane's eyes flowed down the lines with ease. Putting one of the sheets on her desk, the Proctor motioned for Amy to join her. "You have made a mistake in copying this sequence, Amy. Can you see where it is?"
Amy felt bad about her mistake, and tried to copy her error. The longer it took her, the more frantic she looked. "Calm down, Amy. Take a deep breath. Take your time. Find your error." Liane's voice ws soft and smooth, a reassuring presence. Amy drew the breath, then nodded as if giving herself courage, and resumed her error-finding.
It took five more minutes, and she finally had to admit defeat. "I'm sorry, Proctor," she whispered.
Liane's finger pointed to the third line. "Your Ehwaz is missing a line," she instructed, and looked at her upset-looking Assistant. "Precision is important when using magic, Amy. Watch." Following her Proctor's finger, Amy watched as the older girl touched the example. A spark of magic sprung from her finger to the runic words, making the entire paragraph vanish from sight.
Immediately, a small ball of red light appeared, hovering above the desk at about two arm length's worth of height. "This is the result I am looking for," Liane said, removing her finger. The paragraph, now devoid of magic, sprung back into visibility at the same time as the red ball winking out. "This is what happens with yours."
She touched Amy's poorly-penned copy. The paragraph vanished, and a flash of red light exploded in mid-air, causing both Proctor and Assistant to turn their heads at the intensity of the burst. "Without the correct Ehwaz, your light failed to stabilize. It flashed, bursting in and out of existence immediately."
Amy just nodded, feeling bad about making the mistake, and even worse about not being able to catch it when given a chance. "I'm sorry, Proctor."
"Never apologize for failing, Amy," Liane said, gently. "It's why we practice, and it's why I give you these assignments. It'll help your penmanship, it'll help you know the runes inside and out, and it will make sure that you know to be precise with your tasks." Liane's lips quirked into a small smile. "And I am now fairly sure that you'll never deform your Ehwaz ever again."
Amy felt a little better, and managed a smile. Liane frowned slightly, got up, and sat down on her bed. She patted the empty space next to her. Amy sat down, next to her Proctor, looking everywhere but at the older girl. "What is wrong, Amy? Tonight's lapse was rather out of character. You've been meticulous and precise with your copying until now. Tonight's mistake seemed... out of character. Is something the matter?"
Amy swallowed. She couldn't explain to her Proctor that she was missing her family, and had been distracted rather than focused. Liane had been good to her so far, gentle and patient. She didn't want that to change, couldn't risk explaining that she was missing her family and was homesick. "I don't know, Proctor," the younger girl finally answered.
She could see from Liane's face that her Proctor knew she wasn't telling the truth. Finally, Liane nodded. "Very well, Assistant. Maybe you simply need a break. Come, let us return to the library and pick out some fiction for you to amuse yourself with. Perhaps a distraction is in order."
Amy stopped herself from saying that distractions were what got her into trouble in the first place. Nodding silently, she got up and followed her Proctor out of the room, keeping behind Liane's right shoulder as they navigated the Academy's hallways down to the massive library.
Amy watched closely as Liane danced. It was the closest comparison the young Assistant could make, watching her Proctor dodge and weave the attacks launched at her by the Lord Milor Lightningcrafter. The Warlock was Liane's sole close friend, and they came together at least three times each week to hold mock duels.
Milor's attacks were powerful and precise, launched silently and with minimal gestures. Liane's attacks were more powerful, yet slower due to her broken magic's requirement for spoken words. Yet, despite the uneven odds, Liane held her own. The Assistant almost winced when a bolt of lightning was flung from Milor's sword, a bolt of lightning that missed when Liane twirled out of the way, charging her own strike as she did so.
Amy's thoughts wandered, thinking how different duels and battles were from what was described in most literature. Fictional battles were always impressive, drawn-out affairs, two opponents throwing world-wrecking magic at each other over the course of multiple minutes.
Liane and Milor broke off with his sword at her neck. Exchanging words, they stepped back, and engaged in another round.
In reality, duels were short, lasting maybe thirty seconds at the most. World-wrecking magic took a long time to charge, time that was could not be afforded in a duel. Shorter, less-powerful spells were the staple of direct combat. Milor slipped on ice conjured by Liane, and he admitted his defeat. Amy's Proctor helped the Warlock to his feet, and they squared off for the next round.
Even short spells, unpowered by words and with minimal gestures, were extremely good at killing things. A single hit was often enough to disable or kill a person. As most duels were to the death, a single spell slipped through an opponent's guard was enough to follow up with a killing strike.
Few, if any, Noble-to-Noble battles lasted more than thirty seconds, the only exception being very talkative opponents. Psychological warfare was permitted, and undermining an opponent's confidence through words was an acceptable dueling tactic.
Her thoughts slipped further away from the mock battle being held in front of her, and Amy reflected on the Sharing Feast once more. Tomorrow, all through the country, Nobles would open their homes and families would come together. It was a time for togetherness and family, a time of sharing and feasting. She did not know where the practice had come from, nor why it was specifically the 25th of December that had been chosen for it, but she had always looked forward to it.
It was the one day of the year where everyone would be together, were she would be able to see family that lives scattered all over the island. She loved the festive food, and the sharing of gifts.
Amy swallowed when she realized that, for the next seven or eight years, she wouldn't be able to participate in her family's Sharing Feast. Yes, it was normal. No, it didn't make it any easier.
Amy blinked, suddenly staring up at the face of her Proctor. The Lord Milor was no longer present, and she realized that she hadn't seen him leave. "You seem even more distracted than usual," Liane noted, a faint frown on her forehead. "What is wrong?"
Amy tried not to looked embarrassed. She more than likely failed. "Nothing is wrong, Proctor."
"Then pray tell, Assistant, what has you so distracted? You have been making errors that you haven't made in months, and today I find you daydreaming during my mock battle with My Lord Milor. Usually, you find those highly informative." Liane's tone carefully hid her annoyance, yet Amy could still detect the undercurrent of displeasure.
"This humble Assistant apologizes profoundly, proctor," Amy whispered, feeling ashamed of herself.
Liane remained quiet, staring down at the younger girl. "I can not assist if you do not say anything, Assistant," her Proctor finally said. Amy remained silent, not knowing what to say, except knowing for a fact that she didn't want to tell what was really on her mind. It was unbecoming an Assistant, and a Noble, to miss one's parents in such a fashion.
The silence between them dragged on, Liane studying the younger girl while Amy did her best to remain stoic. After several uncomfortable minutes, she was fidgeting quite badly.
Finally, the Proctor nodded. "Come, Assistant. We have some other business to take care of." The young Assistant bopped her head and followed Liane.
Back in their rooms, Liane pointed to the girl's dresser. "Please change into clean robes, Assistant. We will not be staying in tonight."
Amy nodded, and fetched a clean set of clothes. Her Proctor probably wanted to take her somewhere for the Sharing Feast celebration. She joined Liane in the bathroom of their quarters, and watched with more than a little envy how easily Liane showered, dressed, and applied make-up.
Showering and dressing was easy, but Amy hated make-up. She simply didn't see the need for it, and resented the time it took to apply. Liane was resolute, however, and the girl soon found herself seated in a chair in front of the make-up table, remaining still so Liane's skilled fingers could finish their work on her.
When the Proctor was finished, Amy had to admit once more that Liane had done a wonderful job on her. She liked feeling pretty, but Amy wished it didn't take so long.
Standing the younger girl up, Liane looked her up and down. A spell straightened out the robes that had already gotten wrinkles in them. Amy did not comment, but knew Liane was probably wondering how she could have wrinkled brand new robes in such a short amount of time. The Assistant assumed it was just a gift she had, and left it at that.
With little words, Amy followed Liane out of the rooms, wondering where they were going, and who was going to be there. Perhaps Liane was simply going to share a meal with Lord Milor. They shared one or two meals a month, so it wouldn't be out of the ordinary. Her thoughts flowing from one scenario to the next, the young Assistant dutifully kept her spot behind Liane's right shoulder.
She blinked, starting to recognize the area they were walking to. Confused, Amy looked around, trying to discern if they really were where she thought they were.
She wasn't mistaken.
Liane stopped, and Amy barely managed to catch herself from slamming into her Proctor. "Proctor?" Amy asked, confused about their reason for being here. Liane glanced down at the girl, and whispered something. Recognizing her Proctor doing magic, she kept quiet, letting the spell wash over her.
Amy held up a hand. It didn't look like her hand. She held out a strand of hair – it was no longer the usual blonde, now it was a deep, shining black.
"Proctor?" the girl asked, again.
"Follow my lead, Assistant. You will see," Liane stated, and Amy acknowledged the command readily. It was not often that Liane gave directions, but when she did, she expected them to be obeyed.
They walked down the street that Amy knew so well, her heart soaring in her chest. They stopped at the mansion she had hoped would be their final destination, and probably failed miserably at keeping the large smile from breaking through on her face. How had Liane known? How had she found out? The Rules of Equality forbade... oh.
Like cold water, Amy's realization crashed through her. Liane was breaking the rules. She was going against both the letter and the spirit of the Rules of Equality. How she'd found out, Amy would probably never know. She only knew that she'd do whatever it took to repay Liane for this.
The front door opened, and Amy twitched, almost jumping at the butler who opened. "Good evening," Liane spoke, handing her card to the man. "I am the Lady Liane, the MagicWarper. I am currently working on an Academy project, mapping magical fields within the city. Would it be permissible to the Lord and Lady of the mansion should I take readings?"
The butler accepted Liane's greeting card. "Please, come in, My Ladies," the man said, accepting their traveling cloaks, handing them to a second servant, and showing them to a small drawing room. "May I ask you to wait here so that I may inform My Lord and Lady about your request?"
Liane, all grace, sat down, and accepted the butler's request. Amy was shaking behind her glamour, and followed suit with a lot less grace and fluidity. "Please ring the bell should you require anything, My Ladies," the butler said before leaving the room and closing the door.
"Proctor?" Amy whispered as soon as they were alone.
"Follow my lead, Assistant," Liane said, and settled back. Amy kept twitching. A single glance from Liane forced her to calm down, remembering just how much Liane was breaking the rules for her.
The butler opened the door a few minutes later. "My Lord and Lady have accepted your request, My Ladies. Please follow me."
Liane dipped her head in acknowledgement, and followed the butler. She said nothing to Amy, simply expecting her Assistant to follow. The younger girl did not need to be told. Anxiety propelled her forward.
The butler showed them up to the second floor, and bowed them into a larger, more informal, sitting room. The Lord and Lady of the manor rose to greet their guests. After assuring the butler that both she and her Assistant were fine, they were left alone.
Liane touched Amy's shoulder, breaking the glamour with a single word. The Lord and Lady looked at Amy proper, just as the younger girl looked back at the man and woman who were her parents. "With your permission, My Lord, My Lady, I will begin my scan for the magical fields I have described," Liane said, maintain the charade. "Assistant, you have seen me do this countless times. I am sure you are quite tired. Please do not abuse the hospitality of our hosts."
Amy looked at her Proctor as if she were a goddess. She had no idea where Liane had found out who her parents were, or where they lived, but she'd be eternally grateful for this surprise.
It was well after dark, almost four hours later, that they left the mansion, Amy once more under glamour.
"Proctor?" the younger girl ventured when they were nearing the Academy.
"Assistant?" Liane returned easily.
"Thank you for tonight, Proctor."
There was a fleeting hint of a smile on Liane's lips. "I have no idea of what you speak, Assistant. We simply went into the city for a good meal, nothing special."
Amy kept quiet, accepting both her Proctor's outward words and the tiny little momentary emotion. She may not be able to talk about it, and there would be hell to pay if anyone ever found out, but she would never forget what Liane had done, and risked, for her tonight.