Rose snapped her notebook shut, and was up out of her seat before most of the other students had even begun gathering their things. She paused for just a second, nervous about darting to the podium alone without her friends. But Merzhin seemed approachable, somehow.
She stepped up to him, clutching her notebook in front of her with both hands.
“Ah!” he said, smiling at her. “Ms…Rose, was it? I’m glad to see you made it through the storm in good spirits, Ms. Rose.”
Rose smiled and bobbed her head. “Could I have the shiny thing?” she asked, not wasting any more time on pleasantries.
Merzhin looked a little nonplussed. Rose pointed at the crumpled ball still sitting on the podium. “That. Could I have it?” After a moment, she realized she was being rude. “Please?”
Merzhin glanced down at the ball and then back at her, smiling politely. “Er, of course. The foil. If you’d like–”
She took a light step forward and snatched it up off the podium, secreting it away in her cloak. Foil. It was called foil.
That was the most important thing taken care of. Well, the second-most important thing. “What’s the secret of Nim?” she asked quickly. Merzhin paused with his mouth open, clearly about to have said something. Was this what it felt like to be Alexandria? Maybe she should slow down, let him get a word in edgewise.
“Rose!” Alexandria’s voice called from behind her, as though summoned. “Don’t be rude. Master Breton, I’m so sorry. She’s a little excitable.”
Rose looked back to see that the others had already made their way to the bottom of the amphitheater, except for Robin who was still sitting in his seat, nose in the book he’d brought. The other students were filing out, throwing the occasional look back over their shoulders.
“I’m not being rude,” Rose said. She realized her fingers had found their way to her wood, when she wasn’t paying attention. Was she being rude? She released it and found her rock instead, just in case. “Merzh–Master Breton told me in the catacombs that he’d teach me the secret of Nim if I came to his classes.”
Alexandria’s face twisted into a pained smile. Borodin stood behind her, his face looming clearly above her own head, lips pressed tight as he held in a laugh. He gave Rose a surreptitious thumbs up.
“I don’t expect he meant that he would provide you private lessons on your first day,” Dexter’s voice cut in. His face looked indulgent, though, rather than irritated.
Merzhin cleared his throat, and Rose turned back to him as the others fell silent. Huh. Why did that never work for her?
“I appreciate the enthusiasm, Ms. Rose. Truth be told, it’s rather refreshing. But I’m afraid you need more of a theoretical grounding.”
Rose started to ask what he meant, but Merzhin held up a hand and kept talking. “I will teach you, never worry about that. Never. But it will take time. May I see your notebook?”
Rose instinctively clutched the notebook to her chest. But no, that was stupid. With an effort of will, she flipped it open to a blank page, so that he couldn’t accidentally ruin anything, and handed it over along with her length of charcoal.
Merzhin looked it over, curious. “Craftsmanship on the surface is improving, again. Interesting.” He held the charcoal awkwardly, as if he wasn’t used to writing with it, and scribbled a few lines.
“You’ll need to attend my wife’s lecture on sets, at least the first class. I believe she’s starting her unit up tomorrow. Let’s see, you’ll also need binary arithmetic and operations. We cover parity later in this course, but you’ll need more than that. I have a small pamphlet I lent out to another student that you may wish to share, I’ll give you her address. Hm. What else. Oh! You should also attend my wife’s course on inductive arguments. I’m not sure when she means to schedule it, you’ll have to ask her about that. We cover a small amount of induction in this course, but you’ll need the real thing.”
Merzhin handed her back the notebook, and Rose took it, careful not to let her fingers brush his. Three new things to learn. She looked at the address he’d written down: “307 Tumblefold Ring, Room B1”. Bizarre. She raised her head to ask him what all the words meant, but Alexandria had pushed forward to the front of their group. “Thank you, Master Breton. But you asked all of us to stay?”
“I did, I did, yes. I was supposed to give you your orientation, after you reached our little sanctuary, but it was late at night and some of your party were quite indisposed. So now will have to do.”
Merzhin fumbled through his robes again, eventually producing a small packet of papers, which he handed to Alexandria. “I have to run shortly, so I’ll just give you the basics. I had my scribe write up all the details for you.” Alexandria began to leaf through the papers, a polite smile on her face.
“You will be provided room and board at the Tawny Portus, for four years or until you enter the tower. A small stipend has been set aside for necessary supplies. If your wants exceed your provisions, some students find themselves employment here in town.”
Merzhin’s raven cawed in his ear, again, and he reached up to scritch it under the chin. Rose thought to herself that the sight was actually quite strange. The raven could talk. She’d seen it. So why was it always squawking to him instead?
Merzhin continued, oblivious to her waning interest. “Every quarter, students apply to enter the tower as a group. There are five masters, here, and your group needs approval from a majority to enter. There’s a list of our public schedules in that packet you’re holding. I’d recommend catching up with them to see what they’ll need from you. Not that you need concern yourself with that for now, of course. Just focus on your educations!”
Merzhin smiled broadly. Rose’s interest was piqued, now. There were only four more masters? He’d mentioned his wife already. “Who are the other masters?” she asked.
Alexandria raised her eyes from the packet and shot her a look, as though annoyed at failing to properly monopolize the conversation. “It’s all in your packet,” Merzhin said. He glanced across the agora at the shadow cast by the tower. “I’m afraid I really must be going, though. Any other questions?”
Rose and Alexandria both opened their mouths, but Dexter’s voice cut through their their opening syllables from the back, louder than seemed proper. “The edicts,” he said, curtly. “They’re suspended here, aren’t they? In the shadow of the tower?”
Merzhin pursed his lips. “What was your name again, young man?” Rose shuffled her feet uncomfortably, looking down at the ground.
“Dexter.” He didn’t sound chagrined at all.
“No last name? Well, Mr. Dexter. We certainly don’t have any Luddites up here to enforce the edicts. But they exist for good reason, every single one. I would view them as very strong recommendations, at the least. You should consult with those more knowledgeable than yourself before doing anything rash. And absolutely nothing to do with explosions, fires more difficult to extinguish than ordinary, or anything contagious or aerosolized will be tolerated.”
“Of course,” Dexter replied. Rose was almost certain that if she raised her eyes she’d see a smirk. Why was he antagonizing their nice teacher? And what the hell did “aerosolized” mean?
“Thank you, Master Breton,” Alexandria cut in before Dexter could say anything else. “We’ll all be careful.”
“I’m quite certain you will.” Merzhin sounded a little miffed. Rose scratched her toe against the the dark stone ground. He turned and swept away, leaving the six of them in silence.
Several people started speaking all at once.
“What the hell was that?” Alexandria asked.
“You absolute fool,” Borodin added.
“What does ‘aerosolized’ mean?” Rose asked.
“Can we go back now?” Robin chimed in. Rose hadn’t even realized he’d made his way down to join them.
Dexter said nothing, and Esper merely hmmmed to herself for a moment. “Old,” she said. “Very old. It must be.”
“What?” Alexandria asked.
“The word ‘aerosolized’. It comes from ‘aero’, an ancient predecessor of the word ‘air’, and ‘solution’.”
“It’s a solution related to air? Like to an air problem? Why is there a word for that?”
“A solution of something into air, I suspect. Not the solution to a problem, the other sort. You see, ‘solution’ itself means to see something loosened or separated. It was originally used in a metaphorical sense for the unraveling of a problem.”
Esper hmmed to herself again. “It’s not important.”
Alexandria sighed heavily.
“It’s the first day,” Borodin said, wheeling the conversation back around, “and you’ve already put us on bad footing with the masters.”
“With one master,” Dexter replied easily, “and more of a bad toe, I suspect. He’ll have forgotten by tomorrow.”
“Don’t be glib.” Borodin’s voice had dropped in tone, low and rumbly. “I don’t know why you insist on antagonizing everyone in your path, but it stops now. You make all of us look bad when you act the petulant child.”
Rose squeezed the river stone in her hand. Dexter lifted his chin, staring up at Borodin’s ruddy face with a sneer. “You have no power over me, Borodin Kastchoff. And I owe you nothing.”
“I’m going back to the inn,” Dexter interruped. Or at least Rose thought that was what he said. Borodin didn’t stop talking, and it was hard to hear them over each other. Dexter turned and stalked away, which made his intentions clear, at least.
On his way past Rose, he paused. “Would you mind if I borrow a scrap of that foil? I’ll show you something interesting with it, later.”
Rose blinked. That seemed like a non-sequitor. “Er,” she said, quickly trying to figure out how much of it there was. Thankfully there was plenty to play with. “Sure?”
She reached into her cloak and uncrumpled the ball a little. She tore it in half, like she’d seen it tear in Merzhin’s hands, and it was like tearing paper. Wondrous. She handed over the larger half. Dexter nodded at her, not smiling, and stalked off.
Borodin stood with his arms crossed, fuming at the other boy’s back.
“You know,” Alexandria said gently, leafing through the papers again as Dexter made his way out of earshot. “It says that we don’t need to enter the tower with the same group that passed through the catacombs. Some people can’t cut it, or decide to live a normal life here in the town. Some groups merge. We could kick him out.”
Rose’s stomach dropped, and she swiveled her head to Alexandria. She opened her mouth to object, but couldn’t figure out what to say. Why did the thought bother her, exactly?
“I should probably mention,” Robin said quietly, “I’m not sure I wish to continue into the tower. I realize it probably doesn’t matter much to any of you, but I thought I should say it, before you make any plans involving me.”
“What?” Rose asked, genuinely confused. “Why not?”
Robin shrugged. “You probably wouldn’t understand. Can we go back now? It’s chilly, and I want to finish my book somewhere more comfortable.”
The early morning sun had hidden itself in damp clouds during their lesson, and the party’s mood was dreary as they walked back to the inn. Everyone was uncharacteristically silent, nursing their own thoughts.
Once her companions were quiet, Rose felt her own mind began to unfold, filling the silence with thoughts. She had three problems vying for her attention, all of them important.
The first was the puzzle Merzhin had left them with. She had a week to work on it, but she absolutely had to figure it out before then. And more to the point, now that she knew the puzzle existed, it was impossible to ignore. Like a bee buzzing around her head. (Or, more aptly, like a bee burrowing stinger-first into her skull.)
The second was all the administrative details she needed to square away. She needed to find the address Merzhin had given her and borrow that book. After that, or maybe before, she needed to track down the other four masters. She was supposed to take classes from some of them, but even aside from that, she needed to know what they wanted from her. She only needed to convince three of them to let her enter the tower, but the sooner she started on that the better.
The third was the town itself. It gave her a heady feeling, just walking through it. The cobblestone streets, the strange buildings and strange people, the stores and shops and industry. What did the general store sell, at the foot of the tower? Did she have enough money? Could she make more? She was good with her hands, but what sort of industry would you even need, in a world of magic?
So far the only people she’d met were a master, a doctor, the proprietor of an inn, and a serving girl. Maybe she could be a serving girl? Her mouth twisted at the thought. No, she wasn’t cut out for that. But if there were no other options…
She was getting ahead of herself. She hadn’t even visited the store yet. There was just so much to do. How was she going to find time for it all?
She hadn’t let go of her riverstone since they’d left the amphitheater. That was odd. She rubbed it a little, reflecting. In point of fact, there was a fourth problem tugging on her attention. A strange sort of problem, not the kind she was used to.
Dexter. And Robin, she supposed. The future of their little group. She was nervous about losing the only people she knew in this place. More nervous than seemed appropriate, actually.
She glanced to her left, at Robin, who was actually walking with a book in front of his face. It seemed well-practiced; he didn’t stumble even once.
Why did he want to leave? Borodin and Dexter were at odds, that made sense on the surface, even if she didn’t understand the root of their animosity. But Robin seemed happy enough. How could he be so blase about entering the tower, after coming all this way?
She tried to think through the things she knew of him, but they turned a corner to see a hole in the middle of the street, perfectly round, and covered in a metal grate. What in the world? Who would just leave metal lying in the street over a hole?
As she stared at it, the grid-like shape reminded her of the puzzle from class. It was bigger than 8x8, would that change the answer? Maybe? She should probably start by thinking of a 2x2 grid – no, that made the problem trivial. 3x3? She could still just enumerate the cases. 4x4 was less obvious. Could she solve a 3x3 sub-grid and–
She tripped, too distracted to see that they were approaching a small lip in the street. For some reason the streets here were raised a couple inches at the sides. She stumbled, throwing her arms out to catch herself, but a hand caught her elbow and steadied her.
“Careful,” Alexandria said. The other girl flashed a quick smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
Rose mumbled something and straightened herself. Where was she? Oh yeah, could she solve a 3x3 sub-grid and–
“Are you alright?” Alexandria asked, taking her arm and steering her along with the group. “You seem distracted.”
Rose had to pause to understand what the other girl was asking. While she did so, all the delicate pieces of the problem she’d arranged in her mind began to slip, until they tumbled away and left her thoughts a jumbled mess.
She sighed heavily. She really needed to be alone to get any real thinking done.
Alexandria squeezed her arm. Her grip was surprisingly firm. Rose realized she’d never answered the blonde girl’s question.
“I’m fine,” she said, her voice low. “Just distracted.”
Alexandria nodded. “Anything I can help with?”
“Not…really…” Rose trailed off, scrunching up her brow. An idea pushed its way into her mind, strange and splendid.
“Actually,” she said excitedly, moving a little closer to Alexandria, “I think you can.”
She didn’t have time to do everything that needed doing. But who said she had to do it all herself?
“I need to talk to all the masters and figure out what they want,” Rose said. Obviously she’d have to do that part, it was too important to risk. “I need to solve the puzzle from class.” She’d have to do that one too, it was pointless to have someone tell her the answer. “I need to find this address Master Breton gave me and ask to borrow a book.” It would be rude to send someone to fetch a book that nobody else needed. This idea wasn’t panning out as well as she’d hoped. “And, well. Er.”
She found herself hestitating to say the last thing. That she wanted Dexter and Robin to stick around. It was embarassing, somehow, even though it was also the most natural thing in the world.
Alexandria cocked an eyebrow, smiling again. It seemed genuine this time. “You need to do all that, do you?” she asked, ignoring the fourth item Rose hadn’t voiced. “And what can I help with?”
Rose put a hand to her chin. “I’m not sure.”
“I was planning to talk to the masters myself,” Alexandria said. “Maybe I could do it for both of us, and report back?”
Absolutely not. Alexandria wouldn’t know what questions to ask. Rose sighed. At least it would be nice to have company.
“I want to come,” she said. “How many can we talk to today?”
Alexandria shrugged. “Let me check the papers.”
Rose put a hand over her eyes like a visor and looked up, trying to judge the sun’s height without looking directly at it. They had many hours of daylight, still, even this late in the year.
Her father had been fond of the saying that life was only too short if you were lazy. She smiled, a little sadly, and set her shoulders. There were only three things to do. (Four things.)
“Can we get started now?” she asked.
Alexandria flipped through the orientation packet as they walked, looking up frequently to keep from stumbling. The contrast with Robin’s practiced blind walk was stark. “Maybe in an hour.”
Rose nodded to herself. Not enough time to track down the book she needed, but plenty of time to think once they got back to the inn. She quickened her step, pulling to the front of the group. It was only when her arms started pumping that she realized she’d let go of her stone.