Kyria’s knees quaked as she into the centre of the council chamber. She tried to project an air of confidence, though she could find nothing inside from which to draw this feeling. She drew a deep breath. With her whole future at stake, she could hardly afford to let her emotions take over now.
Her twentieth birthday would come tomorrow, and with it she would leave the academy that had been her home for as long as she could remember. She would either leave in triumph, as the apprentice of one of the master magicians, or else in disgrace to find work with whatever skills she had garnered from her time here. She knew that she shouldn’t consider it a disgrace; plenty of students and virtually all women never went on to apprenticeships, but she had held this vision of her future so dearly for so long that anything else felt like defeat.
After failing to attract the attention of any of the masters who ad visited over the last year, this appeal to the council was a student’s last resort. If the council members deemed her talent and volition acceptable, a master would be assigned. Otherwise. . . she didn’t want to think of that alternative.
Summoning all of her courage, she stepped into the centre of the circular chamber. Standing in the small pool of light that illuminated the middle of the room, it was difficult to make out the shadowy figures of the council members seated around the perimeter. She had been here once before, but her previous experience in this position did nothing to belay the ominous feeling creeping in her stomach. Legend had it that this room was once used to interrogate dark wizards before the great war. Although many of the enchantments from that time had been removed, she still felt a deep sense of foreboding in the room.
To give herself something on which to focus, she peered intently at each of the council members as the grand recorder read out the details of her appeal. Only two of the surrounding faces were familiar. The first seated just to the right of the door through which she had entered, was Fitzwiliam Kirkpatrick, the kindly and jovial old wizard who had instructed her in astronomy for the five years of her advanced studies. She had struggled greatly over those years, but had found Master Kirkpatrick, or simply Fitz as he allowed the students to address him, a ready source of help in not only his own subject but in many other areas as well. He smiled at her warmly as he had often done when she had visited him after lessons with her many questions. She returned the gesture with a nervous half-smirk before turning to take in the rest of the assembled. After passing ten unfamiliar faces, she suppressed a shudder when she came to the twelfth.
Master Cyrus. Of course. She knew he was on the council, but had tied not to dwell on the fact. She had met him only once before- though it was a memorable encounter. In the previous year Master Wells, who taught meditation, had been called away on some sort of mission for a few days, and Cyrus had volunteered to fill in for the teacher during his absence. Given his obvious dislike of teaching, Kyria imagined that his volunteerism hadn’t been entirely voluntary.
His expertise in the subject was unchallenged, though it was l also well known that he lacked the patience and gentle touch of Master Wells. As a council member, he lived in the academy, but avoided interacting with students as much as possible, choosing instead the isolation of his own chambers. Few students had ever seen him, and those who had refused to speak of the experience which only added to the air of mystery that surrounded the master.
Therefore, it was with rapt silence that the class greeted their new teacher. Even in the bright light of the classroom, his figure was intimidating. Dressed in the traditional black robes that the other teachers had long ago abandoned for more modern colours, he towered over the class with his arms crossed like a great, unmoving obsidian statue- his angular face, pointed beard, and piercing stare doing nothing to detract from the chiseled image.
Master Cyrus lectured to begin the lesson. His voice was quiet and unhurried, but nonetheless reached every corner of the classroom and held the attention of the class as he began the lesson. She had hung onto his every word, astonished at the departure he was taking from their usual studies. Master Wells usually began each lesson describing an object of focus or an intention to keep to mind as the meditated. Strengthening their focus on such things, he had instructed, would purify their power while casting.
Master Cyrus took an entirely different approach, insisting instead that only by clearing their minds of conscious thought could they perceive the natural order of the surrounding world, understand the flow of the ether and fit their castings around the natural patterns.
It was a drastic paradigm shift, but one that Kyria found made perfect sense as she nodded along with the lecture. She took diligent notes, though noticed a subtle change come over the rest of the class that as the lecture went on. The soft noise of fidgeting grew to a dull roar, and Marcus, seated next to her, had taken to doodling in the margins of his book. Momentarily puzzled, she shrugged it off. Perhaps the lesson was too basic for the rest of the class to pay much attention, but to her it was as if a new door had been opened to infinite possibilities. She didn’t mind admitting she may be a bit slower than her classmates- she was here to learn.
After nearly half an hour, Master Cyrus clapped his hands sharply and told them to put away their books and prepare to practice.
“Clear your mind,” he had commanded the class in general, but with a sharp glare at Kyria. “It is a simple instruction, and something you all should have mastered well before now.”
Kyria struggled to comply. True, it was a simple command, and not something she had found particularly difficult since her first year of study. However, it was one thing to relax under the guidance of Master Wells, but another thing entirely to let go of her conscious mind with Cyrus breathing down her neck. She took a deep breath and tried to let go of the stream of thought she had been creating desperately trying to comply with the instruction, hoping to catch a glimpse of the flow in the ether Master Cyrus had spoken of. She released her tension with the out breath, but bristled again almost immediately at the sound of his footsteps behind her, drawing her mind away from wherever it had been.
She continued to struggle. In the few moments of calm between Master Cyrus’s barked reminders and instructions, she could almost empty her mind. Each time he spoke, his jarring, accusatory voice stirred up her thoughts into a frenzy that took several minutes to reel in and fed Kyria’s irritation until she let out a small huff of frustration.
“Concentration, Kyria!” he had snapped. “I can feel your thoughts from here, and if you have any hope of learning from today’s lesson you will need to exercise a great deal more control.”
“How do you expect anyone to empty their mind with your shouting every few minutes?” she had snapped back, instantly regretting the outburst as his gaze intensified.
“Discipline,” he had replied in a voice both harsh and quiet, “and I can see this is something that you sorely lack. Remove yourself from this class. Return when the lesson is over, and we’ll see if we can do something about that.”
She had fumed in the corridor as the lesson drew to a close. How could she be expected to learn if she wasn’t allowed to finish the class? After her classmates filed out past her at the end of the lesson, she took a deep breath and returned to the classroom.
Master Cyrus was still there, standing at the middle of the room and, judging by his posture, clearly still angry with her. Without a word, he pinched two fingers of his right hand together near his forehead. As he drew the hand down to his waist, a thin, white rod appeared along the line he had traced.
Kyria gulped. She had heard of such things before, had read about them in the handbook when she had first started at the academy, but had assumed it was a remnant from days long past- a passage that whoever wrote such handbooks had simply forgotten to delete. Nevertheless, she had read the passage over and over. It stood out from the rest of the handbook which detailed the course of study, locations of classrooms, and detailed, almost ritualised, protocols for every situation in which a student might find them self. The section on discipline was written in the same, straight-forward manner, but held a horrid fascination for her. A fascination so powerful that even in her fer, she could recall the passage she had read so many times word for word:
“For novice students or minor offences, a simple spanking with the master’s hand will be administered when deemed necessary. Such corrections are meant to be informal, and no record is required to be kept.
“A cane may be employed for advanced students and serious offences (see table 314). The number of strokes to be administered shall not exceed the student’s year for a first offence. However, this number may be increased to address resistance on the part of the student at any point in the disciplinary process, not to exceed three times the original count in any one session. Punishments in excess of this count must be administered in multiple sessions under direction of the disciplinary council.
“For any punishment, the student’s location, position and level of undress is determined at the discretion of the administering master. The student will accept the punishment with grace and respect, as any behaviour indicating otherwise may result in an increase in severity of the punishment.
“After completion of the punishment, the student will sign the punishment log to acknowledge the lesson and properly thank the teacher as is customary at the end of a lesson (see section 17a). After any formal punishment, the student is considered to be on probation for the next twenty-one days. A student’s probationary status will be taken into account and may increase the severity of future punishments.”
These simple words had captured Kyria’s attention, and although she quickly gathered that these practices were no longer commonly used, she had spent countless hours secretly imagining herself caught in the act of the many “serious offenses” listed in table 314. The manual recommended a range of punishments depending on the student’s age, and Kyria had envisioned herself in each possible scenario, sometimes meekly accepting her due while other times escalating her punishment to a very severe one indeed.
Of course, it was one thing to read and fantasize about such things. It was quite another to stare down a teacher armed with a newly conjured cane and the intent to use it.
Kyria had met Master Cyrus’s gaze evenly. She knew what was about to transpire and knew better than to think it would resemble anything like her fantasies, but she also knew she was not about to let him intimidate her.
Nearly a year later, standing in the council chamber, she returned his glare in the same way. She had been cowed by him once, though the stakes were simply too high now to let such thoughts distract her. She was here to secure an apprenticeship, and she was not about to let one experience- no matter how painful- stand in her way.
To be continued