Pt. II, Ch. 13: “You aren’t the only politically sensitive student at Queen Sara”
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Sun, Sept 6th, a little after 10am
Our apartment

It was my first morning to sleep in since coming to a new world, and I’d taken advantage of it.  I was stepping out of my room and was going to see if there was any leftover breakfast, when I heard voices downstairs.  I stuck my head downstairs and saw that it was Dormer and the mage from the foreign ministry, Ms. Yali, both talking to Joel.  He, in turn, had a lot of small pieces of paper, small amulets, and glowing balls over his clothes.  The first thing I thought to say was, “You look like a Christmas tree!”

“They’re putting magical wards on me,” said Joel.

“Wards?  Like protection from something?” I asked.

“Yes, they’re protective,” said Yali. “They’ll help against attack spells, scrying, and other things.  We’re also using a basic physical ward to toughen up his skin, although that one will be much better when he learns to keep it up himself.”

“We’re starting lessons today,” said Joel. “She said earlier you were welcome to join us.”

“Do I have time to change and eat some breakfast?”

Finishing the wards was going to take a while, and I was happy to kill some time after getting ready for the day.  When they were done, Yali took some books out of her bag– a shiny new textbook entitled Teaching Magic, an Introduction for Elementary Educators and two smaller and well-worn copies of On the Foundations of Magical Theory.

“You’ll have to excuse this,” she said to Joel, “but we’ll be starting at a level most people learn when they’re much younger, so the best thing for exercises is the teacher’s manual.  I hope we’ll have you past that and working from Kelder’s soon.”

We took the next couple of hours going through exercises, starting with ones that were like what we’d done to test for magical sensitivity.  The basic idea was that we had to get used to sensing magic in our environment as well as the energy within ourselves. 

“It is very important,” she said, “to be aware of both, and of other sources at hand like a power stone.  Other kinds of energy can be used to power magic, and your own body’s own health and energy is one of the more dangerous. If you try to use more power than you have and tap into your body itself, you can injure yourself or even die.”

While we were practicing, Dormer had apparently found food; we ate lunch while working, and by the middle of the afternoon Yali was convinced we could continue practicing on our own.  Before she left for the day, she figured it was time to teach us one little bit of magic.

“The first thing most people learn is to produce a dim light; it doesn’t use much magic, and it’s useful for kids who are afraid of the dark, and back in the day it was much more efficient than candles.  At your stage, you won’t want to keep it going for a long time, but with practice and a strong pool of energy you can keep it going indefinitely.”

To learn it, the easiest way was to fix an image from the book in our minds, and to gesture – it didn’t matter how, just something to indicate where the light was to appear.  Joel tried it, and after staring at the book for a while and making a grabbing gesture, a glowing ball – bright golden orange like the sun just starting to set, and about as bright as a Christmas tree light– appeared on his hand.   It clung to it, but he was able to set it down on the table.

It seemed like it should be hot, but it was cool to the touch, and it had the barest weight and solidity. Yali told Joel to concentrate on it, and to will it away; when it didn’t, she told him to add a horizontal motion of his hand.  The light disappeared. “With enough practice,” said Yali, “you can recall the images without seeing them.”

It was my turn… I focused on the image and tried to make gesture like Joel did.  Nothing happened; I’ve never had an easy time remembering pictures, and it just wouldn’t settle in my mind.  After a minute, and finding the silence weird, I started letting my eyes trace the lines inside the image.  Around the edge, there was lettering.  At first it seemed like nonsense, but after looking longer, it seemed like it might be the Old Imperial alphabet in a very highly stylized form.  I’d seen the modern printed form while studying for the exam and in our advanced history text, and with a guide couple probably have transliterated something.  I certainly didn’t expect to remember it, but the memory just clicked.  The lines traced between 7 letters… in English it would have been more.  It looked like it should say “bris-et-ay,” and as I sounded it out a light appeared.

Much less impressive than Joel’s ball of sunlight, mine was a cold flickering white, shaped like a candle flame and about as bright.   When I tried to set it down, it went out.

“Did you just read that?” she asked.

I nodded, and asked, “did I do something wrong?”

“No,” she said, “and if you’ve never trained on reading these it’s very unusual. You seemed to be straining to find the image at first, too.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Maybe nothing, we’ll see.” She shrugged. “It may help you learn faster – Joel, you’ll want to start learning the lettering eventually, and if Mark is already getting it the two of you can practice together.

“Also,” she said to Joel, “be careful with solar-attuned spells.  The size of Mark’s light was more like what I’d have expected, and while this was harmless, with other spells it could be dangerous or draw more power than you intended.”

Yali gave us a couple of chapters in the teacher’s book to go through and said to try any of the exercises in those that we felt comfortable with.  She also recommended that since I could read the ancient Imperial script, that I help Joel learn that from the appendix in Kelder’s.

As she packed up, Joel asked her, “Is there a reason we started today?”

She looked over at Dormer, who said, “A student has gone missing.  We thought it would be important to get you wards, and once she was going to be here anyway, it was convenient for Ms. Yali to start your lessons.”

“What does a student going missing have to do with me?” asked Joel.

“You aren’t the only politically sensitive student at Queen Sara,” said Dormer. “I hope this doesn’t have anything to do with you, but it pays to be cautious.”

On that note, Yali left, and Joel decided it was time to study, so I figured I’d do the same.  When I was going through my bag, I ran into the handouts for the upcoming festival.

I owed Hull a write-up of my first week’s experience – the state department folks had offered to pay me for them, with the amount somewhat up in the air – and one of the things about the festival stood out to me as possibly of interest to him.  It was called the Festival of Nations, and in addition to being a fundraising opportunity for the regular clubs, classrooms and the student council, in keeping with the theme students were encouraged to create booths corresponding to their varied cultural or national heritage.  Visiting international students were especially encouraged and coming from a whole parallel universe Joel and I really could not have been more international than that.

Hull had said he was here to increase trade with the US, and part of that was looking for help spreading American culture and values.  This seemed like a perfect opportunity; I figured rather than just dropping a couple of pages in the mail, I’d also give him a call.  It was Sunday, so I figured I’d just get his answering machine.  Instead, a woman picked up.  “United States trade mission, may I help you?” she asked.

“Hi,” I said. After a moment, “my name’s Mark Berg.  Can I leave a message for Richard Hull?”

“Go ahead.”

“Thanks!  Let him that there’s an opportunity at my school to put up a festival booth for the US, and that it could be a good way to represent the US. I’ll send the flyer over with my notes on the past week.”

“I’ve got that down, Mr. Berg, and will pass that on to him.”

I thanked her, hung up, and figured I’d better start actually studying, although the back of my mind was still a little occupied by how one would represent America at a festival booth.  It was almost dinner time when the phone rang.  Since I was still sitting next to it, I picked up.  “Hi, this is Mark.”

I wasn’t that familiar with the voice on the other end of the line, but I did recognize Hull.  “Hi Mark, I hope I’m not calling at a bad time. I think you’ve got a good eye for an opportunity there. Do you mind if I send someone over for your notes and the flyer tonight?”

“Uh, actually,” I said, “I haven’t had a chance to write up the notes. You’re welcome to the flyer, though or I can get you both tomorrow.”

He chuckled.  “It’s probably better in the future to write things up as you go, but that would be fine.  Or if you’ve got a few minutes now and don’t mind me recording you, we can just take your report over the phone for this week.”

“If you don’t mind, let’s do that. Sorry about it,” I said.

“It’s no trouble.”

From there, I walked him through the past week of school; he asked a lot of detailed questions and was especially curious about Joel’s interaction with the girl he rescued and the local guys who were bothering her.  Joel was around, and I ended up putting him onto the phone briefly to answer more about that part.  When they were done, we got around to talking about today and the festival.

“Thanks, Mark.  I don’t know if we’ll always need this much detail, but this is helpful.  I agree that we should do something for the festival. I’ll work on some ideas from here and in the meanwhile, please do start whatever formalities the school needs.”

“Do you still want to send someone for the flyer?” I asked.

“There’s no rush, I think you’ve told me what we need. If you can send me a copy later, that would still be good.  For anything like that, if you want to photocopy it at school, we can reimburse you.”

“OK, thanks!” I said.  It occurred to me I hadn’t even made it to the library to see if they had a photocopier or how much it cost.

Our call had wrapped up, Dormer had already set his housekeeper to work on dinner, and I didn’t feel like studying more.  Before heading up to my room to play some video games, I stepped outside to check the dish of food I’d left out.  I hadn’t seen the cat since Thursday evening, but the dish kept being emptied so either it was still around or something else was eating it.

Sure enough, it was empty.  I put a new dish of cat food down, and the leftover ham that was getting a little dry for my taste.  As I was closing the door behind me, I heard a happy meow and I could have sworn I heard, “Thanks for the food!”