Season’s greetings from your author!
I’d planned on doing the spring 177 term in letters today, but after seeing how much speculation the first batch did I decided to pen a little interlude to give you all a glimpse of these characters directly. I hope you enjoy it.
And if the holiday has found you feeling generous or unusually flush, I hope you’ll remember that Tales of MU depends largely on the direct support of readers.
Thank you, and I hope you’re all having a warm and safe holiday.
With the university shut down for the holidays, the only food service to be had on campus was in the great stone and timber building the students called the lodge. The food prepared for the remaining students was somewhat better than they were used to, though with fewer choices. It was table d’hote, a mixture of whatever the cooks felt like preparing and whatever they desperately needed to use up.
There was plenty of hot cocoa, though, kept in urns in the lodge’s upper lounge. Under other circumstances this was a men’s space, except for scheduled mixers. With most of the buildings on campus buttoned up for the winter break, though, the rules had been relaxed.
The sort of situation those rules were meant to prevent was more likely with isolated, lonely students huddled together with much time to kill and little supervision, but the fact that there were fewer faculty members on hand meant there was no one in particular who had to care about it if it did happen.
Besides, there was the tacit understanding that the students who were on their own for the holidays were on their own. The families that were likely to blame their children’s indiscretions on others were the ones most likely to keep those children close.
The campus weather dome kept snow from landing on the still-green grounds, but it did nothing to help the sunlight pierce the snowstorm that was raging above it. The result was an eerie, unnatural twilight… looking out the window was like viewing the world through a heavy gray filter.
The occasional light dusting of snow was not unknown in sub-tropical Anonymity, but that was nothing like the full coat that the plains provinces received. One wouldn’t know it to look at the grounds of Magisterius University, though… it was like being in a reverse snowglobe, Melanie thought.
“Would you rather we had to walk outside in it?” Samuel asked her when she remarked on it.
“Well, we have to bundle up against the cold,” she said. “We might as well be out in the snow if we’re out in the cold.”
“I don’t like cold any more than you do…”
“To put it mildly!”
“…but I’d rather have cold by itself than cold and blinding snow or slippery ice,” he said.
“Well, if they can keep the rain and snow out, I’d think they would find a way to let the snow in and keep the ice out,” she said. “And to hold it to… to a manageable amount of snow. Enough to be festive without inconveniencing anyone. After all, isn’t that the point of all this modern enchantment? To spare us inconvenience?”
“But it’s not inconveniencing anyone as it is.”
“Maybe not… but it’s not very cheerful, either,” she said.
“It’s the middle of winter,” he said. “The campus is mostly closed down, and it’s hardly a mirthcrafter when school is in session. What should be cheerful about it?”
“It’s the holidays! We should be celebrating.”
“Celebrating what? Commemorating the time that a greater dragon impersonated a god?”
“We agreed, no blasphemy,” Melanie said.
“You put that forward as a condition of your company, which I don’t recall asking for,” Samuel said. “But in deference to your sensibilities… pretend I said ‘the time that a greater dragon im-deity-ated a god’.”
“Honestly, the things you come up with,” she said. “I swear you do it just to shock me.”
“My beliefs don’t exist to shock you any more than yours exist to charm me with their naevete,” he said. “But it’s an open theological question, Melanie… even the Khersians admit that no other god has ever spent as long a time manifesting outside his or her own realm, though they think in doing so they’re making some point about the greatness of their own god and not pointing out the flaw in their mythology.”
“Clearly it’s possible, because Khersis did it,” she said. “Maybe the other gods just don’t have the will that he did, or maybe they’re too wrapped up in their own petty enmities with each other to intervene as directly for their followers as he did. Anyway, has any greater dragon… or any being short of a god… ever accomplished anything as sweeping and powerful as the great banishment?”
“Well, that’s your own logic thrown back at you,” Melanie said. “You can’t say the fact that no other god is known to have walked the world as Lord Khersis did proves that Lord Khersis wasn’t a god and not accept the fact that no dragon has ever done anything like that banishment proves that it was a god who did it.”
“Okay… except you’re talking about a singular event,” Samuel said. “Whoever or whatever Lord Khersis was, he is apparently the only one who managed to cast an entire race of beings off this plane and bind them to another. No god or dragon or titan is known to have done anything similar, so the only thing it proves is that whatever Lord Khersis may have been, it was possible for that sort of… creature…”
“Creature!” Melanie repeated loudly.
“Being, then… it was possible for that kind of being to do so, under the right circumstances,” Samuel said. “And I’m not ruling out divine aid. Maybe the actual god Khersis empowered your ‘Lord Khersis’. Who knows what a god with a sufficiently powerful being as an avatar could accomplish?”
“The belief that Lord Khersis was the human incarnation of Khersis Dei is an inarguable tenet of the Khersian creed,” Melanie said.
“Yes, well, I’m not Khersian,” Samuel said. “So if you don’t want to hear an argument, don’t bring it up in front of me.”
“Who brought it up?” Melanie asked. “I just wished for a cheerier holiday. No one should have to be alone at Khersentide. Or… you know… in general.”
“You like to be alone,” he pointed out.
“I like to have my space,” she said. “But can you blame me? I was an only child. I’ve never had to share a house with another girl, much less a bedroom.”
“Some only children grow up lonely.”
“Yes, and then they go away to college and find that having another girl their own age living on top of them is not at all what they imagined,” she said. “Not that Cindy was… I mean, she wasn’t actually…”
“Your distaste for her was obvious,” Samuel said.
“Was it?” she said, a little alarmed. “I hope it wasn’t obvious to her, I was trying not to be rude…”
“Yes, that’s what was obvious,” he said. “It’s hard to miss someone who’s trying not to be rude, after a while.”
“I’m sorry, should I go around being rude to everyone, then?” she asked.
“I’m not saying that,” he said. “I’m saying that I can tell when someone isn’t being rude because they aren’t rude, and when they’re not being rude because they’re trying not to be.”
“So I’m rude, then?”
“Not in general,” he said. “Look, here’s a simple illustration: are you trying not to be rude to me?”
“I’ve tried to be polite…”
“Yes, you have,” he said. “And welcoming. But do you need to try not to be rude to me?”
“Why in the world would I be rude to you?”
“That’s a no, then,” he said. “And now think about Cindy.”
“You see?” he asked.
“I don’t, in point of fact,” she said. “You know I dislike her because I’ve told you, not because I ever treated her poorly or acted unkindly to her. I was perfectly polite to her.”
“Yes, you were.”
“So how have I treated her any differently than I do, for the sake of argument, you?”
“For one thing, you were perfectly polite to her,” Samuel said. “For another, you’re nice to me.”
“Anyway, how is it that everytime I try to talk about you, you turn it back on me?” Melanie asked.
“You were talking about me?” he replied. “I thought you were talking about no one.”
“Alright, then… you shouldn’t have to be alone for winter break,” she said.
“I’m not, though,” he said, taking in the lodge with a glance. There were three other students… all male, each sitting in a separate corner of the room and absorbed in his own pursuits.
“You don’t know them, though,” she said.
“You barely know me.”
“But here I am, trying to get to know you,” she said. “If I wasn’t here, you’d be just like them… nose buried in a book or hunched down over a paper or just staring at the knots in the wall. You could all be alone together with them…”
“As opposed to what? The two of us being together alone?”
“Stop,” she said.
“I don’t mean… wouldn’t you rather be with your family?”
“Well, I will be with them again,” she said. “I mean, I’m going to have to see them sooner or later… I mean, in the course of things I will see them. There will be plenty of holiday seasons with them, I’m sure.”
“You’re worried about the reception you’ll find when you do go home,” he said.
“Back to me again! And… I’ve never done anything like this,” Melanie said. “Though I think it should be expected that I would do a few wholly unexpected things, now that I’m out in the world and acquiring an education. I mean, we’re adults, aren’t we? I’m my own woman, for a few years at least.”.
“You’re kind of an old-fashioned girl,” Samuel said.
“Well, I do try to be,” she said. “I mean, progress has its place, but it doesn’t do any good to build a fancy new house on a poor foundation, does it? You’re laughing at me again, I can tell. I just know you’re laughing at me.”
“No, I’m not,” Samuel said. “If I were, you’d know because I’d be laughing. You wouldn’t have to ‘just know it’.”
“Behind your face, you’re laughing,” she said. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“It’s… slightly amusing, that’s all,” he said. “The idea that progress has its place. It’s like saying that good things are good, in moderation.”
“Well, they are!” Melanie said. “Haven’t you ever heard of ‘too much of a good thing’? And I’m not being inconsistent. I think too much stability isn’t good, either.”
“That’s why you pick and choose from your parents’ morals,” Samuel said.
“I don’t!” she said. “That’s a horrible thing to say… picking and choosing morals. If you can pick and choose morals, it isn’t morality at all, it’s… it’s convenience.”
“I thought you were in favor of modern convenience,” Samuel said.
“In moderation, if you recall,” Melanie said. “I do think that when it comes to the weather, we could give up a bit of convenience for a bit of… romance.”
“I hope that isn’t what you’ve stayed behind for.”
“Oh, stop!” she said. “I don’t mean romance like man-and-woman stuff… I mean it in the more bygone sense. Like a scene in an old book, or a painting. I don’t want a midwinter romance, I want a romance of midwinter. If that makes sense to you.”
“Only because I’ve read as many old books as you,” Samuel said.
“Well, I was an only child,” she said. “What’s your excuse?”
“I was a lonely child.”
“Oh!” Melanie said. “I… I’m sorry, I’d forgotten.”
“It’s okay, I’d rather people occasionally forget than walk around reminding them I’m an orphan.”
“Do you have any family at all?”
“I suppose I must,” Samuel said. “If only distant relatives who don’t take kindly to me showing up in their neck of the woods.”
“Is there… was there something… embarrassing about your birth?”
“Well, my memory of the event is not complete, but I gather it isn’t often an exercise in dignity for any of the participants.”
“What do you… oh,” Melanie said. “Anyway, I’d think you’d be the last one to needle me about the choices I make, seeing as you’re the primary beneficiary of… my decision to stretch myself.”
“I’m not needling,” he said. “Just pointing out the sort of choice you’re actually making.”
“I can’t tell if you approve or disapprove, though.”
“Is that important?” Samuel asked.
“Well, why else would you bring it up if you don’t have a stance on it?” Melanie asked.
“Why should I have a stance on how you live your life?” Samuel asked. “Practically speaking, I think you stand a decent chance of being safe and healthy if you never strayed from your parents’ teachings at all. You might be happier if you do stray, of course, but I think you’re more likely to survive the experience if you do it with your eyes wide open, not by half-measures and not thinking you can keep one toe on the other side of the fence and enjoy its full protection.”
“‘More likely to survive’… honestly, Samuel, sometimes I think you would get along with my father after all,” she said. “He’s convinced that libertine women will come to a bad end.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say ‘will’,” Samuel said. “If it were a foregone conclusion, there would be fewer libertine women around. And when I speak of survival, I don’t mean… necessarily… life and death. I mean… existence. Personal integrity. Even if you live to graduate in three and a half years, you might not be the same person who enrolled.”
“And isn’t that the point of an education?” Melanie said. “Shoudn’t I want to change and grow as I… mature?”
“I think it’s possible to hold onto yourself through the changes,” Samuel said. “Possible, and important… but only possible if your eyes are open.”
“You think I have to choose, between the old and the new… between my parents, and this place,” Melanie said.
“No,” Samuel said softly, shaking his head slightly. “Why do you want everything to be all one thing or the other? I think you will choose, a dozen times… a hundred times… and that it’s important for you to know what you’re choosing. It’s important for you to know that you’re choosing. There’s no sense in putting your foot down firmly before you know for sure where you’re standing. That’s all.”
“I think I know my own mind, Samuel.”
“How did you make the decision to stay on campus?”
“Carefully,” she said. “I took my time over it, I can tell you that.”
“So much time that by the point you made up your mind, the coaches were full?” he asked.
“Well, yes… but it’s not like I decided to go home and then found that out and was stuck here,” she said. “I decided to stay here first.”
“When it was a foregone conclusion.”
“Are you saying you wish I’d gone?”
“I’m saying I wish you’d made up your own mind.”
“Whose mind do you suppose I made up?” she said. She looked down at the cooling cocoa in her hands. “Anyway, I think we’ve been sitting here talking too much.”
“Oh?” he said. “I thought you wanted to talk more.”
It would have been easy to take the red in her cheeks for a blush before that, but now the rosy glow bestowed by the cold was joined by a darker, splotchier red drawn from heat.
“I just meant… well, the cocoa’s gone cold,” she said. She looked from the tepid mug in her own hands to the steam rising from the surface of Samuel’s. “Oh, but yours is still… how?”
“Elementalism, my dear Melanie,” he said. “Elementalism.”
Setting: Old Campus