First: Slaves, School
Previous: Classes

“Maybe they have a career-path explanation eventually,” Jefshan offered helpfully — or at least sympathetically. “What’s our next class?”

“Forcefields,” Desmond consulted his schedule. “Oh, good. I liked doing those.”

He looked up to find the rest of his – friends wasn’t the right word? Classmates? Dorm-mates? House. The rest of his house/year-mates staring at him. “What?”

“What do you mean, you liked…” Kayay headshook angrily. “No wonder you were the last one up the stairs. Are you a ringer?”

“Am I a what?” A wringer? That was a new one.

“A wringer, a plant. Are you really a fourth-year student or something? Are you here to spy on us and make sure we don’t find out something we’re not supposed to?”

“I think that’s Hellina and Meshron. No, no.” Desmond was very confused. “No, the forcefield, that’s what we – the collar and I – used in that first test, when they attack you. So when I thought I was going to slip down the stairs, it just made sense.”

“…Wow.” Kayay gave another head-shake. “Do you know how snotty you sound?”

“No?” Desmond blinked down at his dorm-mate. “No, I just… like forcefields.”

::It may be no use trying with that one,:: his collar put in. ::You beat her, and that is what matters to her. Everything else is going to take time.::

“So,” Desmond tried instead, “We get classes in magic right from the beginning?”

“Well, that makes sense,” Cataleb muttered, “they want to use us as soon as possible.”

“But…” Jefshan was frowning. “There’s definitely things they’re not telling us, or not telling us right. If they take all the people who can use magic, there wouldn’t be just 28 – twenty-seven! – every year. It can’t be that regular, not even red hair is that constant in a family line. And then it wouldn’t explain how so many of us are poor.”

“Unless,” Talia offered archly, “the old mages ended up really poor, so their families ended up poor, too? I mean, if they’d fallen out of favor…”

Jefshan shook her head. “Something doesn’t quite add up. We’ll figure it out, though. We have a lot more classes to get though.”

“Starting,” Kayay pointed out, “with forcefields. Which Desmond loves.”

Desmond finally glared at the shorter student – and Kayay was shorter than him, if only by a finger-width. “Yes. Which I love. I’ve never done anything to you, you know.”

“You had to be last,“ Kayay sneered.

“I didn’t even know there was a race! A reverse race! My collar just wanted to go up, and up.” Desmond found himself frustrated. “You know, the collar wanting to go further than I did – that’s what stopped us? We could only work together until our ambition wasn’t balanced.”

“Oh, good. Just what I wanted to know. Your collar kept you from getting even further up. Then what would you have done?”

“You know,” Jefshan interrupted slowly, “I don’t see the problem. Someone had to be first, someone had to be last. Desmond just did what we were all told to do – climb. Every single one of us climbed as far as we could – or wanted to, or our collars would allow. That’s not the point. We’re all in classes together now, right? So what does it matter?”

It was a very nice little speech, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on Kayay as Jefshan presumably desired. Kayay glared at all of them, then turned on a heel and stomped off.

“I wonder where she’s going,” Talia mused. “That’s not the way to class.”

“Let her go,” Desmond advised, although he knew it was a self-serving recommendation. “We’ll find out if we get in trouble for skipping this way, at least.”

::Not until exam time,:: his collar advised him dryly, ::but considering that the exams are generally very practical in nature…::

“Someone she doesn’t hate make sure she practices the homework,” Desmond translated out loud. From the look on a couple other faces around him, he hadn’t been the only one to get that advice.

The rest of their group made it into Forcefields, which was a class they had only with the other blue students. At the front of the room stood a tall and imposing person dressed all in black, black hair up in a tight chignon, black collar seeming to suck in the light, black jacket cut trim to a feminine form.

“Hello.” The person bowed deeply to them; Desmond found himself not the only student bowing back. “There are to be nine of you; did one somehow not survive History of Magic? That is generally a safe class, all things considered.”


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Worldbuilding June Day 2: Geography

2. Geography
Desmond’s World
Oops, I already covered a bunch of this in the first post.

The City Desmond lives in (100 words to anyone who names it something that fits with the names that I like and another 100 to someone to name the nation) straddles the river leading to the ocean.

It’s definitely got high ground (High Street), mostly to the north of the river, and lower ground, which sometimes floods, to the south of the river. The river directly to the south is all parkland, designated so 100 years ago when a leader ordered the slums torn down so that the houses on the north side did not have to look at them.

This, of course, just moved the slums a bit more inland, but there’s a nice wall of trees now, and the houses bordering that parkland are high-rent for the area.

The City office and school are on the north side of the river. Desmond grew up on the south side.

Portal Bound
There is already a map for Portal Bound, here.

The main city of needing-a-name is settled into an oxbow in the river of also-needs-a-name. Inspired by the Mississippi, the river has moved several notable times over the centuries since the first buildings were hewn from the forest all around.

(The capital we’re discussing is just on and around about where the left end of the upper wild-rice roads are on the above-linked map.)

The river runs through a flattish forest area, making its way towards the sea. Much of the land in the area is still forested, with small townships growing up among the trees.

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Worldbuilding June Day 1

1. Introduction
Desmond’s World
The world Desmond lives in is on the cusp of industrialization, a word in which most people don’t believe magic exists. Poverty, class struggle, hunger, and crowding are, however, all too real.

The nation Desmond lives in is isolated on all four sides: on three sides by nearly-impassible mountains, and on the fourth by an ocean which is inhospitable and almost entirely non-traversable. It’s a small nation, seven days’ travel by horse long from pass to pass and three days’ travel by horse wide at the widest.

While magic is not believed to exist, it underlies everything, just as the tight isolation, the high price of any trade goods, and the stratified class society do.

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First: Slaves, School
Previous: Collar Food

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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Collar Food

First: Slaves, School
Previous: Cataleb

“No, but really.” Talia followed Des into the lunchroom while Doria flanked him on the other side. “That’s a good question, Des. Where do the collars get their energy from? Is it from us? Oh…” Talia winced and her eyes went a little crossed for a moment. “My collar’s talking to me again…”

::We can take energy from the person who is wearing us, but it is considered a bit uncouth and, also, it causes problems for both us and the person in the long run,:: Desmond’s collar informed him. ::Talia’s collar may be going on about the uncouthness. Some care more about that than others. In the Old Times, when collars were only a punishment…:

“Oooh.” Des swallowed. “But – oh, there’s so many questions.”

::Save most of them for later, when the one who would abuse their collar isn’t around.::

“But where do you get food from?”

::You’ll see. I assure you, I will not let you starve me. Nor will that one’s collar let them do the same. We’re programmed with some control::

“That…. that’s a bit creepy.” Desmond put both his hands to his collar and gave it a little tug, feeling chilly.

::I know. And I apologize, but it is true. The collar is a collar – as I said, these things, the collars, were a punishment at one point.::

“Things?” he whispered, but Jefshan glanced at him anyway.

::Things. There is a collar, and there is me. I am not the collar, I am merely in the collar. Do you follow?::

“Not… really… like I am not my body but am in it, in Yetheran philosophy?”

::That is… close.::

“Are you talking philosophy with your collar?” Jefshan smirked down at Desmond.

“Yeah, a little. We were talking about it getting energy and stuff. And the end result is – I’ll see, I guess. Like everything else here.” He was a little short, he knew, but he was beginning to get frustrated with that attitude. “So I guess we’ll see. But let’s get food into us first, hunh? Like Talia said, they might have us running laps of insane stairways again.”

“What did your collar say, Talia?” Jefshan looked like there was some sort of fishing expedition going on mentally, but Des couldn’t quite see what it was supposed to be yet.

“Mine gave me a lecture on inappropriate things to say, and uncouth things to suggest, with a helping along the side of ‘be a good Collared Person, because you don’t want to be a Bad Collared Person.” Talia gave Cataleb a disgusted look.

“But what’s a Good Collared Person and what’s a Bad Collared Person?” wondered Doria. “I mean, what are the rules? Don’t eat with your elbows on the table, pick up after yourself…”

“Smile when smiled at but don’t smile too long at anyone who doesn’t seem to want to smile back,” offered Talia.

“Excuse yourself when your body makes noises you didn’t intend,” Jefshan puts in, “help those who need help and don’t ask for help you don’t need…”

“Do everything you can,” Desmond said slowly, thinking of his father, “and find yourself a way to be productive…”

“Oh, come on,” Cataleb scoffed, “they put collars on us. Do you really think we’re going to have trouble finding ways to be productive? You know what they do with collared people. They put them to work. Labor sort of work, not counting coins. And that magic in us? They use that, too, as hard and as long as they can. There’s nothing about being productive in being good, because that’s all just letting yourself be a harnessed horse.”

“Oh, be real.” Talia sent a pointed eye-roll at Cataleb. “Do you really, honestly think that they’re going to educate us for years just to work us to death?”

“What do you think the collars are for then? Decoration?”

Meshron and Helinna reached their group about that time. Meshron grabbed Cataleb’s arm and Helinna grabbed Talia’s. “No more of this,” Meshron hissed. “You’re making a scene, and we might be impulsive but we’re not stupid, do you hear me?”

Everyone in their little group of new students stared at the two older students.

“We’re serious.” Helinna’s voice was just as much of a quiet hiss as Meshron’s. “No scenes. Not on your first day of classes. No talking about being put in labor camps, or any of that sort of nonsense. If you get the Brutes worked up, it’s going to be a mess, do you understand?”

“I… understand,” Talia answered slowly.

“It’s all nonsense anyway,” Cataleb muttered. “I can shut up about it being nonsense for a while, fine.”

“Good. Now.” Meshron’s arm moved to an affectionate position around Cataleb’s shoulders. “Let’s go get breakfast, all of us, like a good Impulsive House, why don’t we?”

“As you say,” Talia muttered. It was a bit awkward, heading off to the lunch line, all of them sharing glances.

Des hadn’t thought they were making that much of a scene – if he were being honest, he thought Meshron and Helinna had made more of a scene than Cataleb and Talia – but for some reason, they’d crossed into don’t-ask territory again.

He wondered what would happen when they crossed into don’t-ask territory around an adult, a teacher or one of the testers, instead of around one of the older students. He had a feeling, with the group they had, he would find out soon. Kayey or Wesley or Talia – or Cataleb – would probably find that limit before the day was over.


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Character Descriptions: Desmond

Working on in-text character descriptions. Here’s Desmond, from Desmond’s Climb, from Talia’s POV.

Talia watched Desmond slide into pajamas . She’d already gotten into her own, and this last-one-up-the-stairs student intrigued her.

Desmond was a couple fingers taller than Talia, stocky in the shoulders and hips, with the sort of legs that told her they did a lot of walking and the sort of shoulders that told her they did not a whole lot of lifting. Not a manual laborer, then. Their hair was sandy blonde, a little longer than current style dictated for people leaning male but a little too short for the current ideal for people leaning female. So growing it out or hadn’t been able to afford a haircut.

Their eyes were not the same blue as the cravat or the house-blue pajamas, that would have been too much, but they were a nice blue-gray that made Talia wary. Like the sea.

She ducked back in her bunk before Desmond noticed her watching and wondered exactly how much of that her collar had overheard.

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First: Slaves, School
Previous: Space and Time

They didn’t get to meet the ninth member of their dorm until the next morning.

That first night, they spent a little time talking, getting to know Doria, Poiy, and Lufet and sharing more stories of the stairs, but they were all exhausted and they had an unknown but presumably early bell to answer to coming probably far too soon.

Des’ last thoughts as he drifted off for the night were that the bed was surprisingly comfortable, the pajamas ridiculous, and the ceiling far too close.

The bell came early, but not as awfully early as he’d expected – there was already a splash of light through the window. In the winter, that would make the bell unpleasantly early, but right not Des could see enough to climb out of bed without kicking either Talia or Doria.

He dressed quietly, listening to the grumbles and rumbles of his dorm-mates without really hearing anything. The buttons on his shirt seemed to give him trouble, but he managed on the third try without anyone else seeming to notice his issues.

He left his tie messy, as many other members seemed to, and slicked back his hair in the bathroom. He looked – he spent a minute he should’ve been spending on getting to breakfast looking at himself – he looked like someone different, in the clean and fitted clothes, the white and beige and blue. He looked rich – except the collar.

::I beg your pardon. I look rich, too.::

Desmond touched the collar with two fingers. “Rich people don’t wear collars,” he muttered. “People who wear collars aren’t rich.”

::That is an interesting belief; however, it has little to nothing to do with reality. Now. Breakfast.::

“I’m going, I’m going. Why are you in such a hurry?”

::Because there will be magic today, and if you have not eaten, you can not perform magic properly. Go. Go.::

“Going, going.” He managed to catch up with the tail end of his dorm-mates halfway to the dining hall – Doria, Talia, Jefshan, and the younger “new” student.

“This is Cataleb,” Jefshan introduced the short, childlike ninth Blue. “Cataleb did the stairs yesterday and then, as soon as a bed was provided, fell down on it.”

Cataleb nodded solemnly. “It was a lot of stairs.” The voice, too, was childlike. “And I wasn’t hungry for nothin’ after all of the stairs, so I just… slept.”

“I can’t say I blame you.” Desmond wanted to ask how old this newest member of their group was, but it would be rude to imply Cataleb wasn’t capable of being there. “My collar’s been yelling at me to get to breakfast. I’m surprised yours didn’t yell at you to get to dinner.”

Cataleb held up one of the collar-suppressors with a wicked grin before dropping it back in a pocket of their kilt. “Lifted this one. Comes in mighty handy when the thing is too talky.”

“That’s…” Des trailed off. He remembered what his collar had said about how it felt, and he didn’t know what he should say.

“…Amazing,” Jefshan filled in. “How did you get it?”

“I’m pretty good with my fingers. And now my collar’s all quiet and not bothering me at all. Nifty, isn’t it?”

“Your collar didn’t complain?” Des offered cautiously.

“Well, yeah, a bit, but I’ve still got the thing. ‘Sides, it’s not like it’s a person. Just a talkative piece of metal. So, what’d I miss in dinner?”

“Food.” Talia looked almost as unhappy as Des felt. “And some talk about where we were and what we were doing.”

“Gonna dig ditches magically and all that, right? Glare at people and make them tell the truth in court, that sort of thing? Go off on boats and pray they don’t get lost like they always do?” Cataleb’s head-shake made golden curls go every which way. “Forget that. I’m out of here as soon as I find a door, collar or no.”

“Do you really think that’s a possibility?” Des was curious, more than interested for himself. “And – really, why? Good food, good sleeping arrangements, education – what do you have to go back to that’s better than that?”

“Not having a thing talking in my head all the time, for one. You tell me that’s what you like? Someone always talking?”

“I’m the middle child of three,” Des answered without thinking. “Someone’s always talking either way. And I like – well, everything here so far, almost.”

“Including that death trap? Those stairs? Seriously, a body could’ve died on those stairs and who would’ve known except their screamin’ collar? No thank you. This place wants to kill me and I want to keep my skin on my body, thank you – shut up! Shut up or I’ll shut you up!” Cataleb fell quiet, glaring off into the air.

Des shared a look with Jefshan, who seemed to have become the unofficial dorm parent for their group. Jefshan’s shoulders twitched in a shrug that Cataleb could either miss or pretend to miss: Don’t ask me.

Des sighed. “What do you think breakfast will be like?” he asked Doria, just to be talking about something else.

“No idea!” Doria looked far too cheerful about the lack of knowledge. “But I bet it’s going to be food. Probably edible food, maybe even tasty.” A tug at the waistband of the uniform kilt showed that Doria’s, too, had been fitted. “I hope our collars are good at letting skirts out the way mine made it all go in, ‘cause I’m going to need a new kilt in a week otherwise.”

“Unless,” Talia pointed out, “they keep us running up and down stairs – really?” Talia’s nose wrinkled. “Magic uses energy. Some of it’s from the collar, but some is from us. Maybe as much as running up and down stairs all day. No getting fat from us.”

“Where do the collars get energy? Mine said something about that the other – that was yesterday.” Yesterday seemed a long time ago.

“They can starve?” Cataleb perked up.

Desmond shot a disgusted look at the newest member of their dorm and moved into the lunch room.

::I don’t like that one:: his collar murmured in his ear. Desmond was pretty sure it went without saying that he felt the same.


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Space and Time

First: Slaves, School
Previous: Questions

By the time dinner wrapped up, Desmond was feeling exhausted, and everyone else around the table looked as tired as he felt.

At the front of the dining hall, a tall person in heavy blue robes stood up. “Your attention please.” Their robe, like the others Des had seen, left their necks and shoulders bare to show off the collar to the full extent. “Tomorrow begins your classes, so I would heartily encourage all of you to aim for sleep when you get back to your dormitories, and not merely for laying down. The morning bells will ring to tell you when you must be awake, when you must be in the dining hall, and when your first class will begin.

“That said, welcome to the Academy. I hope that all of you who have made it this far will continue to thrive, and that you will, in due time, do the Academy very proud in your future placements. Study hard, all of you. You will need every bit of your knowledge as you progress forward in life.”

“That doesn’t sound ominous at all,” muttered Talia. Kayay hissed in admonition, but nobody – least of all Talia – paid it any heed.

“I am, for those of you who have not yet met me, Professor Candiar. I have done as many of you will do – I served twenty years under the collar in public service, and then I returned here, to continue to serve by teaching new students. Obviously, as you can all presumably count, that will not be the case for all of you. But many of you will find positions which you may enjoy for many more than twenty years.”

“That is a matter for later times for you new students. For those in your last year here, you already know what you need to be considering. So I will send you all off to your dormitories. Sleep well, don’t let your compatriots keep you up all night, and do not be late to classes tomorrow.”

Professor Candiar bowed to them all, and gestured with both hands in a broad herding gesture. “Dismissed.”

Desmond stayed close with Jefshan, Talia, and Wesley, thus by connection also close to Kayay, as they headed out of the room in big crowds. It turned out there were six exits from the dining hall; Jefshan picked one apparently at random, following a group of combined red- and blue-clothed people.

One of the older blue-clothed people – wearing a kilt two hand-spans shorter than the one Des had been issued, and with some sort of under-skirt peeking out in the same cyan blue – grabbed Des’ arm. “New blood, right?”

“Ah. Yes. Yes, that’s us. New blood.”

“I’m Helinna. Fifth year. You’re heading the wrong way. You want to go up that stairway.” They pointed through a narrow door to a narrower-looking staircase.

“I didn’t take any stairs to get to the dining hall, though,” Des protested.

“That doesn’t really matter around her. Look, here, I’ll go with you.” Helinna pushed the door the rest of the way open. “You can relax. I’m not saying there’s not going to be hazing – that would be silly, and a lie, and my collar doesn’t really like it when I lie – but it’s not going to be intra-house. It will all be from the Grunts and the Brains.”

Grunts and Brains. Des nodded cautiously. “So watch out for upperclassmen,” he translated, “but only if they are wearing red or green ties.”

“Exactly. Come on, you lot, all of you. They’re not kidding about being on time to classes and you’re really going to want breakfast before you get there. Come on, come on.” Helinna herded their little group up the narrow staircase and closed the door behind them. Des, at the front, climbed slowly until he could see the door ahead of him.

::Interesting.:: He got the impression his collar was being thoughtful. ::They are bending space. I think they were bending space before, but I couldn’t sense it. Here, the bend is obvious.::

“Hunh.” Jefshan grunted at about the same moment. “This place is weird.”

“Your collar noticed, too?” Jefshan seemed to be the most in tune with the “compatriot” they were all wearing.

“Noticed what?” Talia, on the other hand, did not.

“They’re bending space.” Kayay hurried to catch up with them at the top of the stairs. “It won’t say who ‘they’ are, I don’t think it’s the collar…”

“It’s the school, I think,” Des offered. “That’s fascinating. I wonder where this all is in real life…”

Helinna turned to stare at them. “You are very observant for blues. Normally, they end up in the Brains.”

“Well,” Des offered, “we have a choice, right? So it’s not like everyone who ends up in Blue is going to be the MOST impulsive, just the ones that think that sounds like the best fit for them.”

“You know, I never thought about it that way. Well, here we go.” Helinna opened the door with a flourish. “Sleep tight, kiddos.”

They were in the hallway with their dorm. Des decided not to think too hard on that. “Where’s…?”

“Each room down here is a year, for the first four years. After that, the ones that survive, they go three to a room, and those are down there,” Helinna gestured vaguely. “There’s a lounge down there too. You’ll probably spend a lot of time down there, once you get settled. But not tonight. Tonight, the nine of you ought to get to know each other a little better. So go on. Gather together. Just remember you’ve got classes in the morning, and trust me, you don’t want to miss those.”

“That sounds … well, I guess that sounds like school.” Talia followed Helinna’s urging gesture and headed into their dormitory.

He ended up sharing a bunk with Talia and someone he hadn’t been sitting with – a slender, fey-looking person with the deepest blue tie he’d seen. “Doria,” they introduced themself, when Des offered a hand. “Poiy, Lufet, and I ended up on the far side of a whole bunch of upper-class blues. I saw you guys, but by that point, we were stuck with the older ones, and they wanted to tell us all about their exploits.”

“That sounds like fun, actually,” Des admitted. “We spent the whole time guessing what was going on, for the most part. And comparing experiences. Does, ah, is your collar chatty?”

“Mine whispers. Not a lot, but when it gets going, it’s kind of informative. But half the time it acts like it’s telling me big secrets. Yours?” Doria’s voice, too, had dropped down to a whisper.

“Mine talks a lot. Jefshan’s,” Des gestured, “talks a lot, too, but not everyone’s does. Talia’s doesn’t seem to.”

Talia leaned up from her bunk to look at them. “Wait. You said you and… two others. So…” Talia counted out names on fingers. “Des here, me, Wesley, Jeshan, Kayay, that’s five. You, your two, that’s eight…”

“Over here,” called Wesley in a loud whisper. “And already asleep. Man. I didn’t know they took people that young.”


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Desmond’s Climb – Questions

First: Slaves, School
Previous: Theories

The food was good. Desmond tried to focus on that. It was filling, it was tasty. Somewhere, they had a good source of fresh vegetables and even meat. Of course, of course, Des remembered, there was magic. For all he knew, there was a magical potato farm next to the magical stairway.

The food was good, but everyone was very quiet. After a few minutes, Jefshan repeated, “there’s no going back. It’s like Wesley said. All those people — and none of them ever came back, did they?”

“No.” Talia’s head shake was slow and sad. “So what do you think happened to the twenty-eighth candidate? I mean, people don’t go back, right? As far as we can tell. And they’re not here, and…”

“Hey.” A chair scraped across the floor and a blue-clad person from the next table over pushed up close to them. “Hsst. That’s not the sort of question you want to ask here.”

Their cravat was the same color as Desmond’s, but it matched their eyes perfectly. Their hair was the fairest Des had ever seen on someone, and they had an intense, serious expression as they glared at Talia.

“Why not?” Talia frowned at this new intruder. “It’s simple math.”

“Look, ‘there were twenty-eight and now there’s twenty-seven,’ that part’s simple math. That’s the easy part.” They scooted their chair until they were sitting between Talia and Wesley. “I’m Meshron; this is my third year here. And I can tell you, don’t ask that, not yet.”

“‘Not yet?’” Wesly glared at him. “Then when?”

“Best bet is second year, if they don’t cover it in your history classes. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But if you get to third year and haven’t heard — then you come find me.” Meshron’s face twisted up. “Or… maybe not me. I may have to have an argument with my compatriot, sorry. Anyway — don’t ask now. Just, uh, learn a lot, and be glad you’re in the twenty-seven. And in Impulse! That’s the best place to be, you know, the honorable school of the first thing that comes to mind. Some of the best collared people — they’d be famous if they weren’t collared — come from Impulse.”

Des had no idea of Meshron was joking or not. He looked at the older student, but their face gave away nothing. After a moment, he cleared his throat.

“So, sit on the burning question for a while and worry about… what, instead?”

“Well, classes start tomorrow, that’s a good one. There’s the rest of your dorm of people, there’s why our uniforms aren’t all the same blue, there’s where the food comes from – lots of questions. And none of those will get you in trouble.”

“So?” Talia asked. “Why are our uniforms all slightly different blues?”

Meshron’s grin was entirely unapologetic. “That, I’m afraid, would be telling.”

“Oh, come on, you won’t tell us anything?”

“Nothing at all.” Meshron scooted back to their original table, leaving their little group frowning and curious.

“So,” Des said slowly, “we’re blue because we chose Impulse, right? That was that choice. But what about that collar’s-choice turn? Does anyone know what that was?”

::No::, his collar murmured. ::And you won’t for a while. But you’re on the right track.::

Jefshan frowned. “We don’t… get to know, yet, I think. It’s being cryptic.”

“Mine, too.”

“Mine,” Kayeye said slowly, “says that I don’t have the knowledge yet to understand. What’s that even supposed to mean?”

::That you don’t have the knowledge yet,:: Desmond’s collar answered, sounding, for all that it was in his mind, quite bratty.

“Probably that there’s some context?” Jefshan guessed. “Or there’s something that we’re not supposed to know yet. But let’s see. They look like… three different shades? And then there’s some variation within the shade.”

“So I got mine handed to me, and it was this — set of colors already.” Desmond looked down at his cravat, trying not to go cross-eyed looking at it. “There’s a possibility it’s just the first one Grenor grabbed, and Meshron was just messing with us — which does seem likely, considering everything else said.”

“Just a smokescreen, then?” Talia frowned. “To cover up the question we’re not supposed to be asking yet? I suppose that’s possib—” a yawn cut off whatever was coming next. “Oh! My pardons. It’s been such a long day, and I don’t even know what time it is now.”

“It has.” Desmond stretched backwards slowly before returning to attacking his food. “Do you think the tests are over? All the stairs and the throwing magic at us and the decisions?”

“I think…” Jefshan considered. “I think they’ve sorted us out now. All the tests were to see where we started, right? Or something like that. So now we have our house and whatever else they determined, and — then classes, I guess. I wonder if we’re all going to be in the same classes. I wonder what they’re going to teach us.”

“It seems like a lot of work for just putting us back in school.” Talia frowned. “I mean, if it’s just going to be more history and literature, we could have stayed in our neighborhood classes and working.”

“It can’t be just that, though.” Desmond touched his collar lightly. “We have these. That means we’re — well, don’t you think it means we’re going to end up doing the things collared people do?”

“That’s a really broad range of things.” Wesley ran a few fingers over their collar. “It’s — how do you do classes for that for everyone?”

“Well, maybe we won’t be in the same classes?” Des offered. “Or maybe the first year is all about everything with the collars, and then they sort us out after that?”

“It can’t all hinge on the stairs, can it?” Talia was looking worried. “I mean, if we did a bad job on the stairs…”

“We don’t even know what a bad job would look like,” Jefshan soothed. “We just know that it means something. It could’ve been just to keep us busy for a while, get us here one at a time instead of all in a lump.”

“But the arrival times…” Des touched his collar again. “Did you get an arrival time? Nobody was in the lobby when I got here.”

“Eleven a.m,” Talia offered.

“Ten ten,” Wesley put in. They went around the circle; everyone had been given a different time, off by five minutes.

“So…” Wesley seemed to be thinking as he spoke. “Then does it matter who got in first or last?”

Des had already been thinking about that. “Well,” he offered, in an intent to placate, “they’re magical stairs. Who’s saying they didn’t bend time as well?”

Even as he said it, he had to admit it was a scary concept.


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