Arguing with my advisor over my class schedule was a familiar ritual. We’d done it six times before, like clockwork, once for every quarter of my freshman and sophomore years, and without it, my junior fall at Welton would not have been ready to start.
But usually the argument went the other direction.
Rodriguez had leaned forward to study the list on his screen, but as he read, he sagged backward until he was slumped in his chair. “This . . . is not what I expected from you, Kim.”
I shifted self-consciously in my own seat. “Sorry—I know I should have sent it to you earlier. But I kept waffling, and didn’t make up my mind until pretty late.”
That fell short of describing the situation. My roommate Liesel and I had ended our summer vacation by visiting her parents in Dusseldorf, and only got onto campus yesterday, with classes starting this morning. Instead of the normal pre-quarter meeting with my advisor, I was basically presenting him with a fait accompli: the courses I had already signed up for, which I’d have to file requests to change. And this time, it wasn’t at all the usual spread.
Rodriguez ran a thumb over one eyebrow and sighed. “Well, at least you’re not trying to take six courses this time. Unless there’s another you want to add, and need me to sign off on it?” I shook my head, but it didn’t blunt his wariness. “That’s two changes from the routine, then. What brought this on?”
I shrugged, hoping it looked casual. “I have to get to my distribution requirements eventually, don’t I?”
“An excellent point,” Rodriguez said, in an amiable tone I didn’t trust in the slightest. “One I believe I’ve made several times now. And every time, you’ve waved it off, saying you’ll get to them eventually.”
“That’s not fair,” I objected. “I did my language and pre-Manifestation history courses freshman fall. And my telepathy requirements that winter and spring. Last year—”
Rodriguez stopped me with a raised hand. “Yes, yes. But there are three branches to the psychic sciences, Kim, and you’ve been avoiding two of them like the plague. I expected a list full of whatever divination courses you haven’t already taken, with maybe one mundane class as leavening.” His mouth was set in an ironic line. “To be honest, I was practicing my speech about how you don’t want to leave your CM and PK distribution until your senior year, and how the time will slip by before you even know it’s gone.”
“Well, there you go,” I said cheerfully. “I listened to your advice before you even gave it.”
He should have looked happier. But Rodriguez was in the telepathic sciences, too, and by the frown on his face, he could read me well enough to tell there was something more to my decision than simple common sense.
Possibly I had just been a little too gung-ho about it. “Ceremonial magic and pyrokinesis, in the same semester,” he said, glancing at the list once more. “And you haven’t exactly chosen lightweight options for either one. Are you sure you want to tackle both at once?”
Yes, and at the same time, not at all. But I’d gone over all of this in Dusseldorf, with Liesel as my sounding board, weighing the pros and cons—a lot of cons. Not enough to scare me off, though. I grinned at Rodriguez, doing my best to make sure none of my doubt leaked past my shields. “I tear off band-aids in one go, too.”
His resigned sigh was familiar, and welcome. It meant he was about to approve my course choices. I wondered sometimes whether advisors at MIT or wherever suffered through the same debates with their students. Probably; I couldn’t imagine that science nerds were much different from psychic ones. And Welton, being the best psychic sciences university in North America, attracted a lot of high-grade nerds.
Of which I was one. “I’ve still got Historical Tarot,” I pointed out. “So you know I haven’t been replaced by a golem or something.”
“Or something,” Rodriguez said, leaning forward once more. “Well, you haven’t died from lack of sleep yet; I suppose you’re not likely to start now. Though if you’d tried for six courses again, this argument would be a good deal longer.” He tapped briefly on his keyboard, then nodded. “All right, Kim. You’re all set. Just do me a favor and remember that you can drop a course if you need to. You’re not exactly hurting for the credits, and you still have two years to go.”
“Sure,” I said, and meant it. I would remember. That just wasn’t the same as being willing to do it.
My grin faded, though, as I stepped out of Linwood Hall. Campus myth held that Welton had a weather-control office in charge of arranging sunshine for graduation, prefrosh weekend, and the start of fall quarter, but if so, the staff was out sick this year. The sky had clouded over while I was inside talking to Rodriguez, leaving it a flat plate of grey, and the breeze was cool enough to pass for chilly on what should have been a hot summer day.
I’d come out the back entrance of Linwood, and the gardens there were deserted. Everybody must be in class, or at lunch. Which sounded like a good idea, and never mind how much unpacking I still had to do. Brushing my hair from my eyes, I set off through the gardens.
Ten steps in, I felt like I’d slipped into a different world. The hedge blocked much of the wind, leaving the air hushed and still, and the grey sky felt too low, like a ceiling masquerading as open air. The flowerbeds were in full August bloom, tall lupines fencing off bushes exploding with roses, and their colors almost glowed in the flat light, as if someone had dialed up the saturation.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and not from cold. Welton’s campus was a familiar place, and these gardens were one of my favorite parts, but today they felt alien and strange. I tried to tell myself it was just the jet lag talking, but didn’t quite believe it.
The answer, I thought, was to get out of the gardens. Back to the wind, back to people and noise and the rest of the world. And food, I needed food. The central fountain splashed quietly on the far side of the inner hedge, the only sound other than the crunch of my feet in the gravel. I quickened my steps as I rounded the tall bushes—
And almost ran into Julian.
About the Author: Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood, and together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. The first book of her Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her other works include the Doppelganger duology, the urban fantasy Wilders series, the Onyx Court historical fantasies, the Varekai novellas, and over seventy short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.