We followed Instruktanto Miratova into her office. The design was the same as Instruktanto Cooper’s – same stone walls, wooden desk, and blue light panel disguised as a window. But where Cooper’s office was fairly sparse, Miratova’s was overflowing. Books and papers covered so much of her desk that I could barely see the giant perspex sheet (presumably an enchanted tablet) she’d bolted to the top of the whole thing. In the filing cabinet behind her, one drawer couldn’t be closed; it was too stuffed with paper. Someone had sloppily painted what I assumed to be chalkboard paint across one wall; it was covered in a huge chalk table, with names down the left side and little abbreviations or tick marks in some of the boxes. Other boxes were blank.
Against the wall opposite the desk sat a collapsible cot. It looked rickety compared to the heavy wooden beds in the dorms. A small chest sat at the foot of the bed, and next to it, a little nightstand with an electric kettle on it.
As in, an actual electric kettle; the kind you can pick up at K-mart, that plugs into a wall socket. I stared.
Misinterpreting my look, Miratova said, “I’m monitoring an experiment for the next day and I refuse to traipse all the way from my bed on the other side of campus every three hours.” She sat behind her desk and watched us expectantly.
We sat down, too.
“Can you help us control our curses?” Kylie asked.
“Quite probably?” I asked.
“Every curse is different, and I have extremely limited information on either of yours. Therefore, I can make no guarantees. But I am very good at what I do. I have helped plenty of students before, and in the event that I cannot help you, I will endeavour to connect you with somebody who can. Of course, a lot of this depends on what, exactly, you want me to teach your to do.” She fixed her eyes on Kylie. “What are you here to learn?”
“I want the Evil Eye not to hurt anyone,” she said instantly.
Instruktanto Miratova took a long, thoughtful sip from her mug. “A reasonable goal, but very vague. You don’t want it to hurt people – what do you want it to do? Do you intend to continue to prophesy?”
She nodded. “It’s been helpful. I just don’t want to be tricked again.”
“It lied to us. It built up a false sense of security and then gave a false prophecy made specifically to get people killed.”
Miratova’s eyebrows rose. “You think your curse was deliberately, intelligently malicious?”
Kylie hugged herself and looked away. “It’s the only explanation.”
Miratova didn’t respond to this. She just sipped from her mug, and thought for a moment.
Eventually, she said, “You want to understand the mechanics and motivations of your curse, and have more control over the timing and clarity of the prophecies, so that you can use them constructively with minimal risk attached to acting on them?”
“I… guess so, yeah.”
Instruktanto Miratova nodded. She looked to me. “And what do you want?”
“I want this curse not to hurt anyone. Yeah, yeah; you said that’s vague, but for me, it really is that simple. I just want to be able to go home and live my life and not worry about this curse throwing some kid off a roof.”
“And do you want to be able to throw some kid off a roof?”
There was no way my face didn’t look guilty as hell in that moment, but Miratova had looked down at her mug and didn’t seem to notice. I endeavoured to look unphased by the time she looked up again.
“I mean,” she continued, “do you want to be able to control and use your curse, or do you want it to do nothing? Those are very different things.”
Nothing. That was the obvious answer, the one I would’ve given last week. But I thought back to my conversation with Kylie in the valley. Coming here to shut the curse down was damage control; turning an absolute disaster into a somewhat less terrible situation. I’d still be the cursed kid who lost control and hurt someone. My family would still be those awful people who kept an important secret and endangered everyone’s children. But as a mage, with a spell I could control…
“A force evocation could do a lot of good, in the right career,” Miratova added. “Rather than simply not hurt people, you could help them.”
I nodded. I imagined a firefighter clearing a path through flames with a flick of one hand. A construction worker performing high, dangerous jobs at a distance, from the safety of the ground.
Myself, on that roof, telling Matt to just die and pushing all of my will into the command.
I shook my head. “I could hurt them, too,” I said. “Even if the curse is under my control, I could make the wrong decision. It’s too dangerous.”
“You could just as easily hurt someone with a fist or a foot, or a kitchen knife. Should I cut your arms and legs off, too?”
“That’s different. Everyone – well, most people – have access to those. But the world is full of people who don’t have magic. It’s not safe.”
“I disagree, but my job is to help you, not to convince you.” Instruktanto Miratova set her empty mug down. I tried not to stare at her bright blue hand as she laced her fingers. “The next question is whether you would prefer me to instruct you separately or together. Working together would be a lot more efficient, as I would not have to repeat myself as much, and as such I can devote more time to training you rather than having to split my time between you. But there is a chance that this training will get complicated, and some people are more comfortable working one-on-one. It is up to you.”
Kylie and I looked at each other.
“What would you prefer?” I asked.
She shrugged. “What would you prefer?”
Instruktanto Miratova rolled her eyes.
I ventured, “Well, you have more experience with actually using your curse than I do. You probably know some useful stuff. You can do what you want for your lessons, but when I’m learning, I’d really like you to be there.”
Kylie looked relieved. “I want to learn together, too.”
“Good,” Instruktanto Miratova said. “And you both understand that you will be disappointed by the results of this training?”
“You,” Instruktanto Miratova said, looking to Kylie, “want to understand how to use your prophecy to help people avoid danger. You want to understand it, control it, and make better decisions based on the prophecies. But everybody misinterprets and misjudges. If you use your curse to make life-or-death decisions, you will make mistakes, and people will die. You could be a master prophet and this will still be true. I can try to teach you better understanding, but given how rarely most prophecy spells cast, and the confounding influence of reality, you will have no measure for success. You will never be good enough. Your understanding will never be complete enough. There is no end goal, no finish line, and the decisions you make, given the sorts of things your prophecy likes to focus on, will occasionally get people killed.” She looked to me. “You’ve asked me to help you keep your curse quiet and unused. I’ve seen witches like you before, so I know you’ve already tried everything you could to get rid of it; the fact that you’re here means that you can’t. You’re going to spend the rest of your life keeping it under control, and again, there will be no finish line, no point of competence at which you can say ‘I’m safe’, and no metric for success beyond ‘it hasn’t broken out yet’. You’re going to spend your whole life wary of that curse, worrying that one day your control won’t be enough, that you’ll fail. These are best case scenarios, of course.”
We looked at each other.
“So… you’re telling us that you can help our lives go back to how they were before coming here?”
“I suppose so, yes.”
“That’s why I came here in the first place,” I shrugged.
“As you wish. If you change your mind later, I can alter your training accordingly.”
“Normally you’re telling people magic is dangerous and they shouldn’t use it. What’s with the change of pace now?”
Instruktanto Miratova shook her head. “You misunderstand my position. Magic is dangerous, and if one has a spell, one should endeavour to understand it as thoroughly as possible. Refusing to use it at all is as dangerous as overuse; if you never practice, then when you do need to use it – ”
“When we met, you’d gone out of bounds and trapped yourself behind the Altar. You would have died. You honestly think somebody like that is not going to end up in a situation desperate enough to need to cast?”
I didn’t have an answer to that. Instruktanto Miratova continued.
“Those other children in your classes do not have a spell. They are fortunate enough to have a choice in this matter, and it is vital that they understand the risks involved before they agree to host one. Mages die. Not more often than commonfolk, necessarily, but of different things. Most of those children came here chasing dreams; they saw magic and wanted it, and worked to be part of a mysterious world with amazing powers without really understanding the downsides. Or they grew up related to a mage, saw the respect and power they had in the family and wanted to be their heir, or in some cases were selected to be their heir at birth and were simply raised knowing no other future. But you two, well, the choice was made for you. You are already in danger by lieu of having a curse. There is no point in curbing any unwarranted enthusiasm you might have, no least because you don’t seem to have any. But the children who came here of their own accord to chase magic have had little previous instruction on the dangers, and those coming from mage families have even less.”
“But wouldn’t mage families be really careful about explaining to their kids – ”
“One of those families sent me a twelve year old this year,” Instruktanto Miratova said with sudden venom. “Twelve! That is not the action of somebody prioritising the health and safety of their child!”
“We had our curses since we were much younger than twelve, and we survived,” I said.
“Yes, you did. Do you know how many cursed children don’t?”
There was an awkward silence, which Kylie broke. “That raises a good question. Kayden and I are fourteen. Like the other initiates.”
“So, what would have happened if we weren’t? If I was, say, nine when I got someone killed. If Kayden’s curse didn’t wake up ‘til he was an adult. Then what?”
“I’m not involved with recruitment, so I can’t give you answers on that.”
“Is that the same as saying you don’t know?” I asked. “Or you do know and won’t say?” Kylie had raised a good point, and suddenly I saw gaping holes of danger in my past and future that I hadn’t even considered. If I hadn’t been the right age for Skolala Refujeyo when it had happened… if I hadn’t been so easy to slot into their system… maybe the reason they had so few witch students wasn’t because witches were so rare, but because witches who happened to screw up at just the right age were rare. What happened to the others?
There were stories…
“It means,” Instruktanto Miratova said firmly, “that I can’t give you answers on that. Ask your surveyanto.”
“Okay, but if a little kid with a curse turns out to be dangerous – ”
“How does the initiation work?” Kylie cut in diplomatically.
“Oh, or an adult? You can’t exactly send an adult here to redo high school. Are they just on their own?”
Instruktanto Miratova ignored me. “What do you mean, how does it work?”
“After six months, the others go through some kind of initiation and get their spells, right? But you said that more than one spell is really dangerous. So do we not have to do it?”
“If you decide to stay on and train as a mage, you’ll have to go through the initiation, but the chances of you getting a spell are miniscule. The system won’t let you leave without a spell, but you – actually, it would be much easier to show you. Come on.”
She stood up, threw a voluminous violet robe on over her dressing gown, and pulled a hood over her head. Staff in hand, she certainly didn’t look as put-together as she usually did, but nor did she look ready for bed.
“It’s just a couple of corridors down,” she said.
We passed immediately into the green lit corridor. Kylie hesitated.
“You’re fine if you’re with me,” Instruktanto Miratova said, without slowing. “Nothing will hurt you here.”
It was hard not to think about the last time we’d followed her down a corridor like this. That had been… what, two weeks ago? Jesus. That had been so different; I’d been wet, and injured, and confused, with no idea what to expect. Now I was at least dry and whole. And confused.
At least the dragon on her shoulder was easier to make out, now that I knew the shape of it. I wondered if she could feel it sitting there. She’d explained that spells weren’t intelligent, per se, but they could have habits formed through use. Did that mean they had personalities? Did the dragon express moods, or preferences, learned from previous owners, or was it just an automaton I was giving too much credit? Kylie always spoke of her spell like it was manipulative and evil, aiming to hurt people in the long run, although it had saved me. What was mine like?
Violent and dangerous, I supposed, was the way I described it. The way I’d been taught to think about it. It had nearly killed a kid, after all; of course that would be the impression. But really, I’d nearly killed that kid; it had left me alone my whole life until I’d called it up. Maybe my spell was actually very cooperative and calm, just doing what I wanted.
I had no idea. Here I was, asking a mage to help me lock it down, help me make sure it was never used again, without pausing to understand what it was or how it worked. No wonder she thought I was making a bad decision. I’d tried to explain, but there was no way to get her to understand without explaining what had happened on the roof. I had no way to make it clear that it didn’t matter whether I could trust and control my spell.
Not when my own actions had made it clear that I couldn’t trust and control myself.