Monday, 26 December 2016

Of exams and otters

"David Suture."  The name was called by a thin man with a long neck and a reedy voice.  He was wearing a dark suit and white shirt with no tie, possibly because it would have emphasized the length of his neck even more.  He stood in the doorway of the Practicum holding the door open with his arm and looked out into the hallway where three students were standing.  David put a book back into his bag, took a deep breath, and stepped forward.
"Come along," said the thin man.  "Lady Arabella is unforgiving when it comes to timekeeping."
All three students reacted with dismay: until this moment they had known that Lady Arabella was a possibility for an examiner but not that she was actually here today.  David let his breath out, and then took another deep one, trying to control the shakes.  His nerves were never good at exam time, and this had just made everything ten times worse.
"Come on," said the thin man.  He extended his hand, which stretched out unnaturally far until it grasped David's arm, and pulled him to the doorway.  "When you get inside place your bag on the table to your left.  You may take out your wand and any foci that you want to have available to you during the test.  Books, notes and prepared items must remain in your bag, and there will be a watch on it and you to ensure you are not cheating.  And remember your manners."
The Practicum was a medium-sized room that was almost oval: at one end it squared off and doors led out to storage areas and a preparation room.  Usually the room would have twenty desks laid out in it and a long demonstration bench at the front, but for the exams the desks had all been moved into the storage rooms and the long bench pushed back against the wall.  Lady Arabella was sitting on a laboratory stool in front of the bench with an otter curled up on her lap.  Its nose twitched as David came in, and it opened bright blue eyes and watched him.  He set his bag down on a small table and hesitated for a moment.  Then he left the bag behind, his hand checking that his wand was in his jacket pocket, and walked out into the cleared space in the Practicum.  As he walked he noticed that the floor was covered with a fine white sand and that the walls were shimmering faintly, as though there were a heat haze in front of them.  He guessed that they were wards around the room in case anything went wrong in the exam; it made perfect sense that the school wouldn't want to risk a nervous student setting it all on fire or summoning Ilkelb-ilkbir ta'qamar.  He stopped in the middle of the room, turned to face Lady Arabella, and bowed.
Lady Arabella was old but still beautiful: she had the timeless looks of a film-actress and eyes that were so deep men were said to have drowned their souls in them.  Her skin was like the finest vellum, pale and soft, with a radiance like sunlight trapped in diamonds.  One hand rested on the otter's back, her fingers lightly stroking it, and the other was resting on the bench.  Just behind her was a sheet of paper and David wondered if it was the exam questions or just for her to make notes on regarding his performance.
"Suture," she said, her words curt and precise.  "Your father is an Alchemist, isn't he?"
"Yes ma'am," said David, a little startled by the familiarity of the conversation.
"I visited him yesterday. I asked him what his expectations were of you."
"I... believe they're high, ma'am."
"Do you."  It wasn't a question, just a dismissal.  David felt his face flush and he sought for the right and polite words for a reply, but before anything came into his mind Lady Arabella had picked the sheet of paper up off the bench and was staring at him with a directness that made him start shaking again.
"Start with a demonstration of the five elements, please," she said.
The first four questions were little more than canonical exercises, things David had practiced almost every day since entering the school, and as he ran through familiar motions and extended his will in ways that were nearly engrained in him he found himself losing his nervousness.  His mind relaxed a little and his muscles stopped tensing everytime Lady Arabella spoke and he found a central point, a sense of timelessness than in athletes would be called 'flow'.
"Thank-you," said Lady Arabella as he released his will and a pretty illusion of flowers broke apart into a whirl of colours and evaporated.  "The basic technique is acceptable.  For the first demonstration of power, please demonstrate how the Laws of Contagion and Symmetry may be combined."
He stared, his mind struggling to understand what was being asked for.  Instead of telling him what to do, she'd left the task undefined, asking only that he put together two of the Laws of Magic and demonstrate that he'd used them.  He considered the Law of Symmetry, wondering how on earth it could be combined with the Law of Contagion, and felt his stomach turn.  He felt just a little dizzy.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Suture?"  He was sure that she was glaring at him now, angry that he wasn't reacting.
"No," he said reflexively.  He tried to make himself believe it.  "No."
"Then proceed," she said.  Her hand caressed the otter, and a mad idea crossed his mind.
"Might I have a hair from your pet, please?" he said.  His feet were taking steps towards her without him willing them to.  She raised an eyebrow, but turned her hand over.  There were two silvery-grey hairs adhering to her fingers.
"It would seem so," she said.  There was a sensation of a strong will around him and he stopped.  One of the hairs from her hand lifted up and drifted over to him as though carried by an invisible servant, and he held his own hand out to accept it.  It drifted down and settled in his palm.
He concentrated, applying his will to the hair and then invoking the law of Contagion.  The hair, being from an otter, remembered what it was to be an otter, and in a bright coruscation an otter made from starlight formed.  Instinctively he reached out his other hand: an otter was too big to hold in just one.  As the shape firmed up he reached again, shaping his will like a potter shapes clay on a wheel, holding the Law of Contagion firmly in place and now reaching for the Law of Symmetry.
As within, so without, he said.  Language wasn't important for magic, only intent.  The otter made of starlight turned its head and looked at him, and with an instant of shock he recognised its eyes as his own: he had intended to create an exact duplicate of Lady Arabella's otter, but instead the Law of Symmetry had taken the nearest living creature for its model and he had created a simulacrum of himself in an otter.
The starlight otter leaped gracefully from his hands to the floor, and the real otter sat up on Lady Arabella's lap, eyes bright and nose twitching, considering the newcomer.
"You are the only student today to pass that test, Mr. Suture," said Lady Arabella.  Her otter cocked its head, and then decided to jump down from her lap and go and greet the starlight otter.  "And you have made a most interesting choice."
"Thank-you," said David.  As Lady Arabella's otter touched noses with his own there was a wrenching sensation as though a much greater will was imposed and he struggled to hold his spell together.  For a few moments he succeeded, and then something unravelled too fast for him to catch and the otter disappeared in a scintillating helix that writhed its way to the ceiling.
"You will need to know yourself better, Mr. Suture," said Lady Arabella, but for the first time since he'd entered the room she was smiling.

No comments: