As much as I wanted to figure out what was going on with my dorm, I had a maths class. I posted my letter, rushed in and grabbed a seat next to the only person in the classroom I recognised (Clara) seconds before Instruktanto Cooper strode in.
“So,” he said, not bothering with introductions, “none of you have studied algebra, correct?” He cast a glance over the sea of blank faces and nodded. “Then that is a reasonable place to start. Take out your tablets, please. You should all have received a short worksheet I’d like you to fill out.”
I opened the worksheet and frowned at the first question. Clara and I checked each others’ tablets to make sure we’d received the same one – we had. Behind us, people were starting to murmur, asking each other if there was some error or if it was some kind of joke.
“Work quietly, please,” Instruktanto Cooper said.
Clara met my eye and shrugged. She got to work. So did I.
2 + 2 = □
□ – 1 = 9
2 x □ = 12
It didn’t require a great deal of thought.
“So,” I murmured to Clara too quietly for the instruktanto to hear, “you’re from a mage family, right?”
“Is that how you normally open conversations?” she asked.
“What, like you weren’t about to ask ‘you’re a witch, right’?”
“Actually, I was going to ask if you knew whether anyone had figured out how to get the internet on these things. I’m dying without youtube.”
I stifled a laugh, and bent my head over my work at a sharp glance from Instruktanto Cooper. I put all of my mental power to work figuring out what three times four was until he looked away again.
“Hey, you know Max pretty well, right?”
“Um, no, not really. I mean, we’ve met sometimes, but…”
“But don’t you guys do the whole family politics thing?”
“Max is from a big family.” Clara fell silent as Instruktanto Cooper walked by, then continued once he was out of earshot. “Besides, nobody expected us to be at school at the same time.”
“Because you’re too young?”
“Yeah. And because Max’s cousins – ”
“When you are finished with that sheet,” Instruktanto Cooper announced, “there is a second one that you should all have just received. Please continue with that.”
“Why do you want to know about Max?” Clara asked. “Looking for juicy secrets on your roommate?” She said it with a joking wink, but I reminded myself that Clara was one of the Magistae’s friends, and smart enough to be admitted to the Haven at twelve. If her first thought was that I was looking for ammo to use against Max, then she was the sort of person I had to be very careful around, lest I be giving her ammo.
“I wanted to know more about you, actually,” I whispered, finishing off the last couple of ridiculously easy maths questions. “I don’t really get how Refujeyo works, but wouldn’t it be super hard to get in really young?”
Clara put her eyes to her work. Was that a blush? Bingo. After everything Instruktanto Miratova had said about spells being dangerous I’d figured that getting in a couple of years too young would be nearly impossible, meaning that for Clara to be here it must have been incredibly important to her. Of course she’d take pride in it.
“It wasn’t that hard, really,” she lied. “I just had to put the effort in and prove myself.”
I opened the second worksheet and suppressed the urge to roll my eyes at the questions.
2 + 3 = a
9 – x = 6
2 x y = 8
Same sort of questions, different format. I breezed through them while Clara asked, “What about you?”
“Oh, you know me. I thought about putting in all that hard work and figured, hey, why not just get cursed and waltz right in, no effort required?”
It was Clara’s turn to stifle a giggle. Instruktanto Cooper shot us a longer look. We shut up.
People were starting to finish the second sheet. I hurried to catch up, and was almost done when Instruktanto Cooper said, “Did anybody have any difficulty with either of those sheets?”
We shook our head.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You now know algebra.”
“I’m sorry?” asked someone from the back of the room.
“Algebra is the practice of doing math with unknowns. We use symbols, in the case of this sheet we used letters, to represent those unknowns. People will make this out to be very complicated, but it isn’t. As I’m sure you noticed with the first sheet, you’ve been doing this exact thing since early primary school; we’re just using symbols now.”
“Why?” someone asked.
“Because we can work with much more complicated equations this way,” Instruktanto Cooper explained. He retrieved a wand from his desk – an honest-to-goodness magic wand – and used it to write in the air. It left glowing green numbers in its wake. “For example, we can write an equation with two unknowns in it,” he said, writing x + y = 7. “Or use the same unknown twice,” he added, writing x + (6/x) = 5. “We can use it to easily label physical things we want to measure.” He drew a long line labelled q, and two shorter lines on top of it that added up to its length, labelled r and s. Next to this, he wrote r + s = q. “We can also, although it will be a little while before we get into this, graph information and use algebraic formulae to predict where points will be on that graph.” He drew a quick line graph of a straight diagonal line, labelled the axes x and y, and wrote x = y.
“Make no mistake – nothing you have done in school thus far is really mathematics. It is learning the skills that you will need to be able to perform mathematics. Algebra is where math really begins. Everything up until now has been like learning the alphabet so that later on, you can do English. It’s been practicing chords on the guitar, doing scales on the piano. This is where it gets interesting. This is where we learn to make music.”
We left the classroom a little dumbfounded. I’d spent the latter half of the lesson trying to get a good look at Instruktanto Cooper’s wand, which so far as I could tell, just looked like a stick. I’d never actually seen a mage use a wand before, and had kind of assumed they were a myth, or just for theatrics – but then, I’d never actually seen magic until a week ago, except for little career fair displays and so on. And hadn’t Instruktanto Miratova gestured with her staff when she’d made the ice bridge to save Kylie and me?
I loitered outside the classroom while everyone left, debating on whether I should go back in and try to get a better look. Instruktanto Cooper nearly walked right into me.
“Kayden! Did you forget something?”
I considered pretending, but decided to go with the truth. “I’ve never seen anyone use a magic wand before,” I confessed. “How does it work?”
Instruktanto Cooper laughed. “Of course, I keep forgetting. Here.” He handed it to me. Carefully, in case it fired a spell and shot off my fingers or something, I inspected it. It did indeed look just like a stick – a very straight, polished stick, but still a stick. There were little grooves where the fingers rested, but other than that, there wasn’t much to mark it as unusual.
“It’s a device to take the strain of a spell and help to focus its effect,” he explained. “I’m not sure I can really explain it to you; magical theory isn’t my field. You’ll go over all of this with Alania in general theory.”
“Do all the mages have one?”
“No. They’re not common. They’re sort of old-fashioned, and most people don’t like having to keep track of a bit of wood just to do their magic. But they have certain advantages that other methods of control don’t. How have your first couple of days of school been?”
“Fine,” I lied. “Hey, um… why did you sue the school on my behalf?”
“Because you were wronged, and that should be acknolwedged. If you don’t want to press the case, just don’t – ”
“No, it’s fine. I just… aren’t you kind of suing yourself?”
“Technically, you are suing me, along with quite a lot of the other staff. I’m guessing the school made you an offer? No; don’t answer that. I’m not supposed to ask.”
“Won’t you get in trouble?”
“Ha! What’re they gonna do, fire me?” He shook his head. “Don’t worry about me, Kayden. Concentrate on learning control.”
“I haven’t been taught any control yet.”
“It’s been less than two days. Patience.”
“So I should concentrate on learning control, and be patient to start learning control at the same time?” I asked, grinning.
“Sure. Why not? Makes as much sense as anything else in the world. Or you could just concentrate on learning maths instead. The harder you work on that, the better a teacher I look.” He took his wand back. “If you have any questions or problems with anything…”
“Are you from one of these big mage families I keep hearing about?” I asked.
“Ah. Let me guess – Acanthos problems?”
“I think so? I don’t really understand much of what’s going on, to be honest.”
“That pretty much describes my experience with politics, too. My advice is to stay out of it. The family kids aren’t necessarily bad sorts, no more than anyone else is likely to be, but they know what games they’re going to have to play their whole lives and they tend to set the groundwork as soon as they can.”
“Yeah, see, I have no idea what that means.”
“It means that if you get too close to those kids, you’re going to end up as somebody’s pawn in some game, so make sure that if you don’t win, it’s the game player who pays the price and not you. Or just steer clear entirely. That’s probably a lot safer for someone in your position.”
“I’m not really sure that’s an option at this point.”
“Not an option? Of course it’s an option. Just politely refuse to get involved and go make other friends.”
I recalled Max’s angry glare as he accused me of making his life into a joke. We hadn’t known each other all that long, but…
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s really not.”