It turned out Hellina and Meshron had a secondary purpose in shadowing the new students through breakfast – it was their job to guide all of the first-year blues to their first class.
That turned out to be a lecture room big enough for all twenty-seven students (with three seats left over, Des noted), fronted by a tall person with a very long white beard dressed much more like the students than most of the adults they’d seen.
The person wore long pleated pants that touched the floor in brilliant blue, a jacket in a lighter blue, and a shirt underneath in crisp white. The collar was gold and seemed to sparkle and shimmer.
“I am Professor Hapdegh, and I am here to teach you the basic theory of collar magic and its history. You may call me Professor Hap if it is easier, and I generally answer to he and him pronouns, although I’m not all that concerned one way or the other. Now, I don’t think I’ll remember all your names, but I’m going to try. Let’s start in one corner and work our way around, shall we?”
They went around the circle, giving names and, in some cases but not all, pronouns. That was how Desmond learned that Talia was she, Doria did not name pronouns, and Wesley was he, although none of those was very surprising. Jefshan choosing to go by she was a little surprising, but not horribly so; Des had seen taller women.and quite a few women in pants, lately.
The rest of the circle held few surprises until they got back to Professor Hapdegh, who began telling them about magic. Magic, the reason they were all here; magic, the thing that, until just two days ago, Desmond had thought something relegated to the annals of history.
“Magic,” Professor Hapdegh began, “as you – as most people – think of it, has long been relegated to the annals of history. It is not magic that we do here, the way a magus or a wizard would; it is not the world-shaking power that we can hold or anything nearly that great or exicting. No, here, we wield something small and something very, very controlled.
“There are things that you need to know, and one of them is why you were chosen. Much of this will be covered in later classes, so I will say now only this: not everyone can work with magic.”
He waited for everyone to either process that or scoff it away as an of course, and then continued. “You might say the mages all died. Indeed, you will probably find yourself saying that quite a bit over the next few weeks, and I will tell you this: that is truth. You are not, nor will you ever be, mages.
“What you are, on the other hand, are magic-users whose power is focused, filtered, and controlled by your compatriots, your collars. You are not mages. You are never alone in your own heads; You will never find yourself blowing up city blocks, because if you have those thoughts, the collar you are wearing will shut down your access to magic.
“If this sounds particularly harsh, I will remind you that the rest of the nation still believes that mages are all dead for a very good reason – the mages did an unforgivable level of damage to us, to our nation, to our people – even to the world around us – in their heyday. You are not mages, because mages would be killed on sight, or hunted until they were forced to go into hiding.”
Desmond swallowed. He could see Talia fiddling with the loose blue cravat that looped over her steel-grey collar.
But Cataleb asked, rather loudly, “then what are we? we’re not mages, but we have power, we can’t do damage, but we can do magic?”
“We are slaves,” Professor Hapdegh answered calmly. “We are people who would have the power one way or another, so we are controlled. The flip side to that is – we are very well compensated and, as long as we cooperate within limits, we can lead comfortable lives.”
“I don’t like that ‘cooperate,’” Cataleb complained. “We do what we’re told like good little minions?”
“The trick, Cataleb, is to become strong enough and wise enough within your chosen area of expertise – that will come later – that you are given a very good position which you can enjoy. And the first part of that is to chose an area of expertise that you enjoy. But that will come later. Now, moving on. We are collared because that way the nation can use our magic without risking us destroying it. It is a trade-off, I will admit, but I have not found it a bad one.”
“How did you end up a teacher, Professor?” Jefshan asked. “Was that your chosen area of expertise?”
Professor Hapdegh coughed. “in a way, in a way. I went into research – we did, my collar and I. Learning about old magics and then about new ways of using them.”
“So… you were learning about magic and now you teach about it?” Jefshan raised her eyebrows. “What if one of us wants to do that?”
“Then do very well at this class, for starters.” The professor’s smile was wide and a bit teasing.
“Now, as I was saying,” he continued, before anyone could interrupt again, “there was a time when mages controlled almost everything, because of their ability to wield magic in vast swooping attacks. Nobody questioned them – not and survived.
“But there were benefits. The mages could tame the demon waters. They could make the dangerous passes passable. They could help with industry and with agriculture, and they did, on their good days.
“The problem was that they had many bad days as well…”
Desmond left class with his mind swimming and found himself flanked by Talia and Jefshan. “So. I want to be a magic historian,” Jefshan declared, to nobody’s surprise.
“I,” Talia mused, “want to ride on the ships and ‘tame the demon waters’. I want to kill the demon waters, but I’ll settle for taming them a little bit.”
“I…” Desmond shook his head. “I don’t know yet. I wanted to be an accountant,” he muttered. “This is not a good path to being an accountant.”
“No,” Jefshan agreed, “but you could be a school administrator. Or you could teach math, if we learn math here. Or… well, maybe even this school needs accountants.”
“Maybe it does.” Desmond was pretty sure it didn’t.
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