Chapter 003

The Bitter Truth

If someone had asked Zorian at the end of the first week what classes he thought he would have the most trouble with, he would have answered Spell Formulas and Advanced Mathematics. Combat magic maybe. Two weeks later, he could safely say the answer was 'Warding'.

Warding, the art of protecting things with magic, was a surprisingly complex field. You had to take into account what the thing you're trying to protect is made of, what its dimensions and geometry were, how the ward is going to react with the already existing magic… or you could just slap a general-purpose warding invocation on your target and hope for the best. But the professor would fail you for that answer, so that wasn't an option in the classroom.

But these complexities aside, the class should have been a breeze, or at least not this confusing – Zorian was a patient, methodical person when it came to magecraft, and had slogged through worse offenders than warding with decent results. The problem was that their teacher, a stern woman with hair cut so short she might as well have gone all the way and shaved her head completely, didn't know how to teach. At all. Oh, she clearly knew the subject matter very well, but she simply didn't know how to translate that knowledge into a proper lecture. She was leaving a lot of things out of her lectures, apparently not realizing that just because they were obvious to her, they were not obvious to her students. The textbook she assigned for the class wasn't much better, and read more like a manual for a professional warder than a student's textbook.

Question 6: You are tasked with building a research outpost on a first degree mana well in the Sarokian Highlands. The building is meant to support a staff of 4 at any particular time, and the prospectors have expressed concerns over heavy presence of winter wolf packs and an infestation of borer wasps in the surrounding area. You have a budget of 25.000 pieces and are assumed to be a certified second circle warder.

Assuming only mana extracted from mana well is available for powering the wards, which combination of wards do you feel would be the best choice for the outpost? Explain your reasoning.

Draw basic floor-plans of the planned outpost and explain how the planned room placement and shape of the building itself affect ward effectiveness.

Do you think the issue of the borer wasp infestation is best resolved by using a vermin repellant ward or by careful choice of building materials? Explain your reasoning.

Assume that you are commissioned to build not one but five outposts. The budget remains the same. How does this change your answer? Do you believe it is better to make the wards identical for all five outposts or do you feel some amount of difference between them is in order? Explain the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

Zorian rubbed his eyes in frustration. How was he supposed to answer a question like this? He didn't take the architecture elective, and wasn't aware that you had to take it to do well in your warding class. Not to mention that the question assumed they knew what the market rates were for buying the necessary materials, or that they knew where the Sarokian Highlands were. Zorian was quite good at geography, and he had no idea, though considering the presence of monsters like winter wolves, he suspected they were somewhere in the northern forest.

At the very least he knew how to answer the third part of the question. The correct answer was definitely wards. Even if the outpost was made inedible to borer wasp larvae, it would still make a prime place to build a nest. Considering how territorial those insects were, you didn't want them living anywhere near you. Theoretically, the 'careful choice of materials' options would free up mana that would otherwise be spent on maintaining vermin repellant wards, but those wards required very little mana flow to stay active. Especially if they were keyed specifically to borer wasps.

His thoughts were interrupted by a girlish giggle coming from the back of the classroom. Zorian didn't even have to turn around to know what was happening – Zach was entertaining the students around him again. He wished the teacher would penalize the guy for the disruption he was causing, especially in the middle of an exam, but Zach was a bit of a darling to the stern woman because he was the only student acing her exams. No doubt the guy had already finished his test with 100% accuracy. Which, by the way, made no sense whatsoever – during their first two years, Zach was a below-average student more distinguished because of his charm than magical talent. Kind of like a nicer version of Fortov, actually. This year, though, he was acing everything. Everything. He had a wealth of knowledge and a work ethic he hadn't had at the end of their second year, far in excess of what could be gained through the normal passage of time.

How does one get so much better in the span of a single summer?

15 minutes later he threw his pencil down on the table, calling it quits. He only filled in eight out of ten questions, and he wasn't sure how correct these eight were, but it would have to do. He would have to set aside a couple of days for warding self-study, because the lectures were making less and less sense with every passing day. The only other student that stayed in the classroom as long as he did was Akoja, and she handed in her paper only a few seconds after he did and followed him outside. Of course, they stayed in the classroom so long for very different reasons. He stayed so he could scrape in a few stray points. She stayed because she was a perfectionist who wanted to triple check everything to make sure she didn't forget anything.

"Zorian, wait!"

Zorian slowed down and allowed Akoja to catch up to him. The girl could be insufferable sometimes, but she was a good person overall and he didn't want to snap at her just because the test didn't go the way he wanted.

"How do you think you did back there?" she asked.

"Yeah, me too."

Zorian rolled his eyes. His and her definition of 'badly' differed greatly.

"Neolu finished in only half an hour," said Akoja after a brief silence. "I bet she'll get a perfect score again."

"Ako…" Zorian sighed.

"I know everyone thinks I'm jealous but that's not normal!" said Akoja in a hushed but agitated voice. "I'm pretty smart and I study all the time and I'm still having problems with the curriculum. And we've both been in the same class as Neolu for the past two years and she was never this good. And… and now she's beating me in every single class!"

"Kind of like Zach," said Zorian.

"Exactly like Zach!" she agreed. "They even hang out together, two of them and one other girl I don't know, behaving like… like they're in their own private little world."

"Or like they're a couple," said Zorian, before frowning. "Triple? What's the word for a romantic relationship between 3 people?"

Akoja scoffed. "Whatever. The point is the three of them do nothing but waste time together and antagonize the teachers and get perfect scores anyway. They even refused the chance to get transferred to 1st tier groups, can you believe that!?"

"You're too worked up over this," Zorian warned.

"Aren't you a little bit curious how they do it?" asked Akoja.

"Of course I am," scoffed Zorian. "It's hard not to be. But what can I do about it? Besides, Zach has never done anything to me. I don't want to cause problems for him just because he has suddenly discovered his inner prodigy."

Zorian felt Benisek join them suddenly, simply popping up from behind a corner so he could walk beside them. Sometimes Zorian wondered if the chubby boy could smell gossip.

"I know what you mean," Benisek said. "I always thought Zach was no good at anything. You know, like me?"

"Hah. Well there's no way he got this good at everything over one summer break," Zorian said. "I guess he was pulling the wool over our eyes all this time."

"Man, that's so stupid," said Benisek. "If I were that good I'd make sure everyone knew it."

"I don't think he was faking lack of skill for two years straight," Akoja huffed. "He would have slipped at least occasionally."

"Well, what's left then?" Zorian asked. He refrained from listing some of the more obscure ways such a rapid growth could be accomplished with magic, because most of them were criminal and he was sure the academy checked Zach to make sure he wasn't a shapeshifting imposter or possessed by the ghost of a long-dead mage.

"Only if he's an oracle," Benisek said. "Boole gave him an oral exam last Tuesday when you went home early, and he was rattling off answers like he swallowed the textbook."

The conversation died down as all three filed into the alchemy classroom, which was really more of a big alchemy workshop than a typical classroom. There were about 20 tables, each one full of various containers and other equipment. All ingredients for the day's lesson were already set out in front of them, though some would require additional preparation before they could be used in whatever process they were learning about that day – he was pretty sure they weren't going to be putting live cave crickets into the boiling solution, for instance.

Alchemy, like warding, was a complicated art, but their alchemy teacher knew her stuff and knew how to teach, so Zorian wasn't having any issues with the class. Technically they had to work in groups of 2 or 3 students because there were not enough tables and equipment, but Zorian always paired up with Benisek which translated to working alone in practice. The only problem was getting Benisek to shut up and stop distracting him during class.

"Hey Zorian," Benisek whispered to him not so quietly. "I never noticed it until now, but our teacher is kind of hot!"

Zorian gritted his teeth. The blasted idiot couldn't keep his voice down if his life was on the line. There was no way she didn't hear that.

"Benisek," he whispered back to his partner. "I need good grades in alchemy to get my dream job when I graduate. If you screw this up for me I will never speak to you again."

Benisek grumbled mutinously before returning to his ogling. Zorian refocused on grinding the borer wasp husks into a fine powder needed for the particular type of glue they were supposed to be making.

Admittedly, Azlyn Marivoski did look surprisingly good for a 50-year-old woman. Some kind of cosmetic treatment probably – she was their alchemy teacher, after all. Maybe even a true youth potion, though those were really rare and usually imperfect in some way.

"I don't see why you like this class so much," grumbled Benisek. "I'm not even sure I'd call it magical. You don't need mana for it. It's all searching for herbs this, cutting the roots the right way that… it's like cooking. Hell, we're making glue, of all things. You should leave that to girls."

"Benisek…"

"It's true!" he protested. "Even our teacher is a girl. A hot girl, but still. I read somewhere that alchemy traces its roots back to witches' covens, with their potions and what not. Even now the best alchemical families are descended from witches. I bet you didn't know that, huh?"

As a matter of fact, he did know that. He was, after all, tutored in alchemy by an honest-to-gods traditional witch before he went to the academy. She was so traditional, in fact, that she scoffed at the name 'alchemy' and referred to her skill strictly as 'potion making'.

But that wasn't the sort of stuff you wanted people to know, for a wide variety of reasons.

"If you don't shut up right now I won't let you partner with me anymore," Zorian told him seriously.

"Hey!" protested Benisek. "Who's going to help me with that stuff, then? I'm not good at this!"

"I don't know," said Zorian innocently. "Maybe you should find some girl to help you."

Fortunately, the teacher was currently too busy fawning over Zach's newest masterpiece to pay attention to Zorian's table – somehow the boy managed to make some kind of enhancement potion out of the provided ingredients, and that was apparently very impressive. Azlyn didn't appear to mind that Zach completely ignored the assignment to make magical glue and did his own thing.

Zorian shook his head and tried to concentrate on his own work. He wondered whether he would have gotten the same reaction if he did something like that, or if he would be accused of showing off. The few times Zorian tried to wow the teachers he was simply told to work on his basics and not to get cocky, because arrogance kills. Was it because Zach was the heir of Noble House Noveda? Or something else?

It was in moments like these that he understood exactly how Akoja felt about all this.

- break -

"And that concludes today's lesson," said Ilsa. "Before you leave, however, I have an announcement to make. As some of you know, the Academy traditionally organizes a dance on the eve of the summer festival. This year is no exception. The dance will take place in the entrance hall next Saturday. For those of you who are unaware, attendance is mandatory this year."

Zorian groaned, slamming his forehead into the table in front of him, causing the rest of the class to snicker. Ilsa pointedly ignored his reaction.

"For those of you who don't know how to dance, dance lessons will be held every day at eight in the evening in room six. Those of you who do know how to dance still have to come to at least one of these lessons to prove so – I will not have you embarrass me on the night of the dance. Dismissed. Miss Stroze, mister Kazinski, stay after class please."

"Oh great," Zorian mumbled. He probably should have restrained himself from reacting so strongly to the pronouncement. Truthfully, he intended to skip the dance, regardless of how mandatory it was. Did Ilsa realize that? No, he could detect no disapproval in posture, and he was pretty sure she'd be rather annoyed if she sensed his plans.

"Now then…" Ilsa began when he and Akoja were the only students left. "I assume you both know how to dance?"

"Sure," said Zorian.

"Umm…" Akoja fidgeted. "I'm not very good at it."

"No matter," Ilsa said. "We'll iron out any gaps you may have easily enough. The reason I told you to stay behind is that I want you to help me with the dance lessons."

Zorian considered refusing outright – it wasn't something he wanted to spend his time on – but he figured this could be a favor that would make Ilsa forgive him a transgression or two. Like, say, not showing up to the mandatory dance? Before he could express his tentative agreement, however, Akoja decided in his place.

"How can we help?" she said, clearly pleased they were chosen for this 'honor'. Zorian raised an eyebrow at the way she presumed to speak for him, but let it slide for the moment.

"We only have five days to teach everyone how to dance," Ilsa said. "That's why we're going to use magic to help."

"Animation spells," Zorian guessed.

"Yes," Ilsa said, then quickly moved to explain for Akoja's benefit. "There is a spell that will guide a person's limbs and body through whatever dance it is designed for. It's not really suitable as a substitute for dancing skill, but if you practice dancing while you're under its effects, you will learn a lot faster than you would otherwise."

"How does that work?" Akoja asked curiously.

"The spell moves you around like a puppet on a string until you learn how to move along with it, if only to make the feeling of something jerking you around go away," said Zorian. "Eventually you no longer need the spell to dance correctly."

"I see you have personal experience with this method," Ilsa said with a smile.

Zorian resisted the urge to scowl. Getting put under that spell by Daimen was one of his childhood traumas. It wasn't amusing at all.

"I sincerely hope you intend to give students a choice to refuse," Zorian said.

"Of course," Ilsa agreed. "Though, those who refuse this method will have to attend at least three sessions instead of one, so I expect most will choose this option instead of the traditional one. In any case, I want you two to help me cast the spell on people during the lessons. I expect I'll have to dispel and recast the spell often, and I could use some help."

"And why did you choose us, specifically?" Zorian asked.

"You both have decent control over your magic and you seem responsible enough to be taught such a spell. Animation spells targeting people are restricted material, after all, and not something normally available to students."

Huh. So how did Daimen get a hold of it then? In his second year, no less?

Well, whatever. At least knowing how to cast the spell will make it easier to counter it in the future.

"Anything else?" Ilsa asked. "Very well, then. Come to my office after the last class and I'll set up some dummies for you to practice on before moving on to people. Poorly controlled, the spell is intensely uncomfortable. We don't want to give anyone traumas."

Zorian narrowed his eyes. He didn't. Not even Daimen would… oh, who is he kidding? Of course he would have. Practicing such a spell on your own little brother was right up Daimen's alley.

"Miss Stroze, you can leave – I have something else to discuss with mister Kazinski."

Ilsa began to speak the moment Akoja was gone, catching Zorian somewhat by surprise. He shook his head to clear his thoughts, trying to ignore his annoyance with Daimen in favor of paying attention to what Ilsa was saying.

"So Zorian," she said with a faint smile. "How are you getting along with your mentor?"

"He's having me work on my basic three," Zorian told her flatly. "We're still on the levitation exercise."

Yes, even after 4 weeks, Xvim was still making him levitate a pencil over and over again. Start over. Start over. Start over. The only thing Zorian learned in those sessions was how to dodge marbles that Xvim kept throwing at him. The jerk seemed to have an endless supply of those things.

"Yes, Professor Xvim likes his students to have a firm grasp of the basics before moving on to advanced topics," Ilsa agreed.

That or he hates his students. Zorian personally thought his theory was a lot more plausible.

"Well, I just wanted to tell you that you might be able to change mentors soon," Ilsa said. "One of my students will be dropping out after the summer festival, and I'll have a vacancy to fill. Unless something comes up, you're almost certain to be the one I pick. That is, if you're actually interested in a transfer."

"Of course I'm interested!" Zorian half-shouted, much to Ilsa's amusement. He frowned for a moment. "Unless you also plan to throw marbles at me? Is that some kind of standard training method?"

"No," Ilsa chuckled. "Xvim is special that way. Well, I just wanted to see how you feel about this before doing anything. Have a nice day."

It was only after he was out of the classroom that he realized this development greatly complicated his plan to skip out on the dance. He couldn't afford to annoy his (potential) new mentor too much, else he'd be stuck with Xvim for the rest of his education.

Well played, professor. Well played.

- break -

"Why can't we just cast that spell ourselves once the dancing starts?"

Zorian let out a long-suffering sigh. "You can't make an animation spell do something you don't know how to do yourself. You don't know how to dance, hence you cannot animate anyone to dance either. Also, how are you going to break the spell once the dance ends if you can't move your arms where you want them to be? This really isn't the sort of spell you should be casting on yourself."

Really, there were so many problems with that idea that Zorian struggled to put them all into words. Are these people thinking about the questions they're asking at all?

"So how many dances do we have to learn?"

"Ten," said Zorian, bracing himself for the cries of outrage.

Sure enough, a rumble of complaints erupted after that statement. Thankfully, Ilsa took over the lesson at this point, instructing everyone to pair up and scatter throughout the spacious room to give everyone enough space. Zorian could already feel a headache coming and cursed himself from letting Ilsa talk him into this. Even though room six was fairly spacious, there were a lot of people and the invisible pressure they gave off was particularly strong today.

"You alright?" Benisek asked, putting his hand on Zorian's shoulder.

"I'm fine," Zorian said, waving his hand off. He didn't like to be touched much. "I just have a slight headache. Did you need help with something?"

"Nah, you just looked like you could use some company, standing all alone in your little corner," Benisek said. Zorian decided not to tell him that he was intentionally standing on the sidelines unless he was needed. Benisek wasn't the sort of person who understood the need for some breathing room. "Say, who is your date for the dance anyway?"

Zorian suppressed a groan. Of course Benisek would want to talk about that.

Relationships weren't something Zorian thought about often. The chances that one of his classmates would agree to date him were miniscule. For one, such a relationship would quickly be noticed by the rest of their classmates, and the resulting merciless teasing was something few relationships could survive for any appreciable length. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, all teenage girls liked older guys. Dating a guy that was two or three years her senior seemed to be a status symbol for a girl, and a majority of them loudly disparaged the male population their own age as crass and immature. When they were in their first year, all the girls wanted to date third years. Now that they were in their third year, all the girls wanted to date apprenticed graduates. Since there were plenty of guys willing to play along, the chances that some girl in his class would give him the time of day was negligible.

And the girls that weren't his classmates? To most of them he wasn't Zorian Kazinski, but 'that guy who is a brother of Daimen and Fortov Kazinski'. They had this image of what he ought to be like, and once it became obvious that the real him didn't match their expectations, they inevitably became upset.

Besides, all this romantic stuff... well.

"Well?" Benisek prodded.

"I'm not going," Zorian said.

"What do you mean 'I'm not going'?" Benisek said cautiously.

"Just what I said," Zorian said. "I'm skipping out on the whole dance thing. Turns out I had an alchemy-related accident and had to stay in my room for the evening."

It was perhaps a bit cliché, but whatever. Zorian had already found a particularly tricky potion that was supposed to make a person more outgoing and sociable – something that was entirely plausible for him to try to make – that would make a person very ill when done wrong but wouldn't actually kill him. If he does it right it will seem like an honest mistake instead of a way to weasel out of the dance.

"Oh come on!" protested Benisek, and Zorian had to pinch him to make him lower his voice. The last he needed was to have Ilsa overhear him. "It's the summer festival! A special summer festival, with the whole… parallel… thingy…"

"Planar alignment," Zorian offered.

"Whatever. The point is that you have to be there. Everyone who is anyone is coming!"

"I'm a nobody."

Benisek sighed. "No, Zorian, you're not. Look, Zorian, we're both merchant kids, right?"

"I don't like where this is going," Zorian warned.

Benisek ignored him. "I know you don't like to hear this but-"

"Don't. Just don't."

"-you have a duty to your family to put on a good face. Your behavior reflects on them, you know."

"There is nothing wrong with my behavior," snapped Zorian, aware that he was attracting stares of nearby people but not caring at the moment. "You're free to go to whatever you want, but leave me out of it. I'm a nobody. A third son of a minor merchant family from the middle of nowhere. People here don't give a fuck about me. They don't even know who I am. And I like it that way."

"Okay, okay!" protested Benisek, gesturing wildly. "Dude, you're making a scene…"

"Whatever," scoffed Zorian. "Leave me alone and go away."

The nerve! If there was anyone who should take a look at the impression he was leaving to people it should be Benisek! The irresponsible leech would have been dumped into a tier three group if it wasn't for Zorian's constant help, and this is how he repays him? Why was he even hanging out with that guy?

He scoffed, trying to calm down. Stupid summer festival and stupid dance. The funny thing is that unlike most people who hate these kinds of events, Zorian wasn't strictly bad at them. He knew how to dance, he knew how to eat without embarrassing himself, and he knew how to talk to people at these kinds of events. He had to know these things, because his parents used to drag him along with them when attending these kinds of events, and they made sure he knew how to behave himself properly once there.

But he hated it. He had no words to describe how much events such as these sickened him. Why should he be forced to attend something he hates when the academy had absolutely no right to demand it of him?

No, they had no right at all.

- break -

Hesitantly, Zorian knocked on the door to Ilsa's office, wondering why she called him here. There is no way…

"Come in."

Zorian peeked inside and was promptly told to have a seat while Ilsa calmly sat behind her desk, drinking something out of a cup. Probably tea. She looked calm and serene but Zorian could detect an undercurrent of disapproval in her posture. Hmm…

"So, Zorian," Ilsa began. "You've been doing quite well in my class."

"Err, thank you, professor," said Zorian cautiously. "I try."

"Indeed, one could say you're one of the best students in your group. A student I intend to take under my wing after this whole festival rush dies down. An example to everyone, and just as much a representative of your class as miss Stroze."

"I don't-"

"So, excited about the dance this Saturday?" asked Ilsa, seemingly changing the topic.

"Yes I am," Zorian lied smoothly. "It sounds like lots of fun."

"That's good," Ilsa said happily. "Because I heard that you plan to boycott the event. It was rather upsetting, I must say. I was rather clear that attendance is mandatory, I believe."

Note to self: find something horrible to do to Benisek. A spell that causes the target's tongue to feel like it's on fire or something… or maybe piercing pain in the genital region…

"Just a bunch of nasty rumors, professor," Zorian said smoothly. "I would never dream of intentionally boycotting the dance. If I am unable to attend-"

"Zorian," Ilsa cut him off.

"Professor, why is it so important that I show up there, anyway?" asked Zorian, a bit of crankiness seeping into his voice. He knew it was a bad idea to blow up on a teacher, but damn this whole thing was pissing him off! "I have a medical condition, you know? Crowds give me headaches."

She snorted. "They give me headaches too, if it makes you feel any better. I can give you a potion for that. The fact is I'm one of the organizers of the dance, and if too many students are absent I'll end up with a black mark on my record. Especially if someone as prominent as yourself were to not show up."

"Me? Prominent!? I'm just an average student!" Zorian protested.

"Not nearly as average as you think," Ilsa said. "Just getting this far requires extraordinary intelligence and dedication – especially for a civilian-born student like yourself, who wasn't exposed to magic your entire life. People keep an eye out for people like you. Also, you're Daimen's younger brother, and we both know how famous he is."

Zorian's lips stretched into a thin line. Zorian was sure the last reason was what it all came down to in the end, and all the other arguments were just excuses and attempts to butter him up. Even with his brother on a whole different continent, Zorian still couldn't escape from his shadow.

"You don't like to be compared to him," she guessed.

"No," Zorian admitted in a clipped tone.

"Why is that?" she asked curiously.

Zorian considered side-stepping the question – his family was a sore subject for him – but uncharacteristically decided to go for honesty. He knew it wouldn't do much, but he felt like venting at the moment.

"Everything I do is always compared to Daimen and, to a slightly lesser extent, Fortov. It has been that way since I was a child, before Daimen ever became famous. My parents have never been shy about playing favorites, and since they were always interested chiefly in social achievements, I was always found wanting. My family has no use for a withdrawn bookworm, and made that abundantly clear over the years. Until recently, they ignored me completely, treating me more like I was my sister's babysitter than their son."

"But something happened recently that caused them to take notice of you?" Ilsa surmised.

"Fortov happened," Zorian growled out. "He bombed several exams, had to be bailed out by father's connections. He has shown himself to be generally unreliable, which is a problem, because he was supposed to be the spare heir for the family business, just in case Daimen dies on one of his escapades. So now I am suddenly taken out of the metaphorical closet so they can groom me for the role.''

"But you don't want to be the spare?" she guessed.

"I don't want to be involved in Kazinski family politics, period. I am not a part of that family anyway. Never was. At best, I was only ever a loosely aligned associate. I appreciate them feeding me and funding my education, and I'm willing to reimburse them for that when I get a job, but they have no right to ask something like that of me. I won't hear it. I have my own life and my own plans, none of which involve playing second fiddle to my older brother and wasting time on insipid social events where people suck up to each other non-stop."

He decided to stop there, because he was just making himself angrier. Plus, he suspected Ilsa didn't empathize with him much. Most people thought he was simply being overdramatic about his family. They weren't the ones who had to live with them.

When she realized he wasn't going to say anything more, Ilsa leaned back and took a deep breath. "I empathize with you, Zorian, but I'm afraid such comparisons are unavoidable. For what it's worth, I think you're shaping up to be a fine mage yourself. Not everyone can be a prodigy like Daimen."

"Right," said Zorian, refusing to look at her.

She sighed, running her hand through her hair. "You make me feel like the villain here. Family issues aside, why are you so bothered by this? It's a party. I thought all teenagers liked parties. Are you concerned about finding a date? Just ask some first-years and they'll jump at the chance – they can't attend unless invited by an upperclassman, you know?"

Zorian released a sigh of his own. He wasn't looking for a way to find a date – he had no doubt that simply dropping his last name would net him some impressionable giggly first year for the evening – he was looking for a way out. Something that Ilsa wasn't willing to provide him with, it seemed.

"I'm not getting a date," Zorian told her, rising from his seat. "I may have to come to the dance, but I'm pretty sure that bringing a date is not mandatory. Have a nice day."

He was surprised that Ilsa didn't try to contradict him as he left. Maybe this whole dance thing won't be such a chore.

- break -

Zorian trudged through the corridors of his residence building wearily, not in any real hurry to get to his room. The teachers had refrained from giving them any substantial homework over the weekend, knowing that everyone would be too preoccupied with the summer festival to get any work done. Normally all that free time would be a godsend to Zorian, but just thinking about what he would have to endure tomorrow was enough to make Zorian lose the will to do anything fun or productive, so he fully intended to go to sleep the moment he arrived at his room.

As he entered his residence building he noted that someone was already in a celebratory mood, because the walls of the corridor he was passing through were full of colorful splotches in vivid yellow, green, and red.

"Zorian! Just the man I was looking for!"

Zorian jerked in shock at the loud voice behind him and whirled around to face the man who invaded his personal space. He scowled at the grinning idiot in front of him.

"Why are you here, Fortov?" he asked.

"What, I can't visit my little brother?" he protested. "You too good to hang out with big bro?"

"Cut the crap, Fortov. You never come to me when you just want to hang out with someone. What do you need help with, now?"

"That's totally not true," he huffed. "You're my favorite brother, you know?"

Zorian stared at him impassively for a few seconds. "Daimen isn't here so you'll settle for me, huh?"

"Daimen is an asshole," Fortov snapped. "Ever since he got famous he's always too busy to help out his younger brother. I swear, that guy only thinks about himself."

"The hypocrisy is thick with this one," Zorian mumbled.

"Sorry, I didn't catch that," Fortov said.

"Nothing, nothing," Zorian waved dismissively. "So what kind of trouble are you in now?"

"Um, I might have promised a friend I'll make her an anti-rash potion," Fortov said sheepishly.

"There is no such thing as an anti-rash potion," huffed Zorian. "There is, however, an anti-rash salve, which is applied directly to the affected skin instead of being imbibed like a potion is. This just shows what a total dunderhead you are when it comes to alchemy. What the hell were you thinking, promising your friend something like that?"

"I kind of pushed her into a purple creeper patch during our wilderness survival class," Fortov admitted. "Please, you have to help me! I'll find you a girlfriend if you do!"

"I don't want a girlfriend!" snapped Zorian irritably. Least of all the kind of girlfriend Fortov would set him up with. "Look, why are you bothering me about this? Just go to the apothecary and buy some."

"It's Friday evening. All stores are closed in preparation for the celebration tomorrow."

"Well that's too bad, because I can't help you," said Zorian. "First two years are all theory and lab safety, and I'm just starting my third year. We haven't done any serious alchemy in class so far."

So true and yet such a bald-faced lie. He hadn't done all that much alchemy in class but he had done quite a bit of private study in his free time. He could make an antidote for the purple creeper rash easily, but why should he spend his expensive alchemical ingredients?

"Oh man, come on. You can speak three different languages and you know all the silly shaping exercises they make us learn, but you can't even do something so basic? What the hell are you doing in your room all day long if not learning how to do stuff like that?"

"You're one to talk!" Zorian snapped. "You're a year older than me, you should be perfectly capable of doing this yourself."

"Eh, you know I never cared for alchemy. Too fiddly and boring for me," Fortov said with a dismissive wave. "Besides, I can't even make vegetable soup without ruining mom's kitchenware, do you really want me around alchemical equipment?"

Well, when he put it that way…

"I'm tired," Zorian said. "I'll make it tomorrow."

"Are you crazy!? Tomorrow is too late!"

"Oh come on, it's not like she'll die of a goddamn rash!" said Zorian irritably.

"Please, Zorian, I know you don't care about these kind of things but she's crushing on this boy and-"

Zorian groaned and tuned him out. That's pretty much all he needed to know about this 'emergency'.

"-and if my friend's rash isn't fixed by then she won't be able to go and she'll never forgive me! Please, please, please-"

"Stop it."

"I said stop it! I'll do it, okay? I'll make the damn salve, but you owe me big time for this, you hear?"

"Yup!" he said cheerfully. "How much time do you need?"

"Meet me at the fountain in about three hours," Zorian sighed.

Zorian watched him as he ran away, probably so he wouldn't change his mind or make some concrete demands. He shook his head and went back to his room to retrieve the necessary alchemical reagents. The academy had an alchemical workshop students could use for their own projects, but you had to bring your own ingredients. Fortunately, he had everything he needed for this particular task.

The workshop was totally empty aside from him, but that wasn't very unusual. Most people were preparing for the dance tomorrow and were unlikely to do some last-minute alchemy practice. Unfazed by the eerie silence of the workshop, Zorian scattered the reagents across the table and set to work.

Ironically, the main ingredient of the anti-rash salve was the very plant that was the cause of this mess – the purple creeper, or more accurately its leaves. Zorian had already left them to dry in the sun, and now they only had to be ground to powder. This was generally the most annoying part of the procedure, as purple creeper leaves released a cloud of irritating dust into the air if they were simply crushed with a standard mortar and pestle set. The textbooks he read had all sorts of fancy ways to deal with this, usually involving expensive equipment, but Zorian had a much simpler solution: he wrapped the leaves in a slightly wet piece of cloth, then wrapped the whole thing in a piece of leather, and then hammered the resulting lump until he felt no resistance. The irritating dust would bond with the cloth and the leaf pieces wouldn't.

After mixing the leaf dust with 10 drops of honey and a spoon of oblia berry juice, he put the whole thing over a low fire, stirring the contents until they achieved uniform color and consistency. Then he removed the bowl from the fire and sat down while he waited for the stuff to cool.

"That was very impressive work," a rather feminine voice sounded behind him. "Nice improvisation with the creeper leaves. I'll have to remember that trick."

Zorian recognized the owner of the voice though, and Kael wasn't really female, despite some nasty rumors. He turned around to face the morlock boy, studying his bone white hair and intense blue eyes for a moment before returning his attention to cleaning the alchemical equipment he had used. No reason to get barred from using the workshop because he failed to clean up after himself.

He struggled to formulate a response while Kael was inspecting the salve with a practiced eye. The boy was rather mysterious, having only joined their group this year by transferring from gods know where, and not being very talkative. Plus, you know, he was a morlock. How long had the boy been watching him? Sadly, he had a tendency to lose track of his surroundings when he worked on something so he couldn't tell.

"It's nothing special," Zorian finally said. "Now your work… that's impressive. I get the notion that you're on a whole different level from the rest of us when it comes to alchemy. Even Zach can't beat you most of the time, and he seems to be acing everything these days."

The white-haired boy smiled mildly. "Zach doesn't have the passion for the subject. Alchemy requires a craftsman's touch and a lot of patience, and no matter how extensive his knowledge is, Zach just doesn't have the mentality for it. You do. If you had as much practice with alchemy as Zach apparently does, you'd surpass him for sure."

"Ah, so you think he has prior experience, too?" Zorian inquired.

"I do not know him as well as yourself and the rest of your peers, having only recently joined your group. Still, one does not get as proficient in this field as Zach apparently is in a matter of months. He works with the practiced ease of someone who has been doing alchemy for years."

"Like you," tried Zorian.

"Like me," Kael confirmed. "I hate to be rude, but are you finished here? I'd like to make something myself today."

Zorian apologized to the boy for the hold-up, which the morlock waved off as something of little importance, and bid him goodbye.

As he walked away, it occurred to Zorian that he should have probably made some kind of sleeping potion for himself while he was at it – he had to get plenty of rest tonight, because he certainly wouldn't get any tomorrow.