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Armageddon by Nicholas Roerich, created 1935–6 and available under Creative Commons license

Part Two: A flash of rainbow

The first time I noticed Sòr Katerin, I was teaching a class I ought never to have been teaching.

And once noticed, never forgot. For Katerin was one of that select band of students destined to stick in my memory, for good or ill. Of course, I’d seen her around. She was ever rushing this way and that across the courtyard, to lessons or the library. A tousled streak of dark-haired, rainbow- attired counter-fashion! Or she would arrive last of all at the Dining Hall, taking her place under the glare of whoever was host that evening.

The stars had decreed that she would be forever late. And I, likewise one of nature’s less punctual creatures, could only approve.

Beyond this, I knew little about her.

As for that class, it was not a match made in heaven. Students assume their teachers to be uncritically enthusiastic, no matter the subject. Yet Portals, as topic, bored me to the core. All that clearing of the mind and making yourself a channel for your sister. All that purity!

Don’t get me wrong. I know why it is important: vital, even, to our continued prosperity. Just — please! — never, ever ask me to teach it. Or if you must, warn me before you ask!

That morning, Sòr Anna came to me all afluster. Two of her lecturers were on leave. Three were unexpectedly ill. A batch of fresh mushrooms was named as culprit: and I — lucky, lucky I! — had opted for salad the night before. This was emergency. Please, would-I-step-in-she’d-already-checked-the-timetable-she’d-seen-I-was-free. Once determined on a thing, Anna would not be paused.

So I said yes. For a brief instant forgetting the bloodless nature of the novice curriculum, I imagined a morning spent teaching the Duel Arcane. Or, if they were capable, Projection.

I think I managed not to signal my disappointment as Anna fired back: “Thank you, Lissa. I’m desperate for someone to take Portals.”

“E ben!”, I muttered under my breath, before dashing off for a quick reprise of my notes on the subject. What? You think us teachers know everything, all of the time? Let me tell you: we cheat. Constantly. But we call it preparation, so that’s OK.

Five minutes into my lecture and Katerin made her entrance. As quiet as a mouse: and as disruptive as any bonnacon galumphing about in a crystal emporium. Because have you never noticed: the harder you work at being invisible, the greater the impact you make.

Bad enough she was late. Worse was her creeping around the back of the hall, while her fellow students, perhaps as bored with learning about Portals as I was with teaching them, shifted their focus from me to her. From the winks and whispers I intuited two facts: this was not the first time she had interrupted proceedings; and — something in the under-buzz — her fellows saw her as not, quite, one of them.

Not unpopular. Different.

An echo, perhaps, of my own days in the academy? Still: it was impolite. The teacher thing to do was to be annoyed, and so I feigned annoyance.

“Miss?”, I demanded

“What? Oh, am I late? I’m sorry, mèstra. I…”

“No. Not your excuses. Your name!”

“OK. Yes. It’s Katerin. Dòna Katerin”, she stammered back.

I was intrigued. Few nowadays still held to the formality of ‘Miss’: fewer still to the old form. Dòna: was she some hold-over from the old families? I made a mental note to ask at a later date. For now, though, I just needed to get my class going again.

“Well, Dòna Katerin: perhaps you could take your place without further disturbance. Down here? At the front.”

She wandered down. Not, it seemed to me, the least but repentant for the disturbance caused. But it got her settled and I could get back to my lecture.

At the end, she did it again. “Questions, anyone?”, I offered, expecting the usual grab bag of slow on the uptake and misunderstanding. Because the real problem with Portals, as far as I am concerned, is that it is a nothing of a subject. This time, though, just the one hand raised, and I knew straight away, by the looks exchanged across the room, that Katerin had a reputation for asking the unaskable. I was not disappointed.

“Yes, Miss Katerin?”

“Sòr Lissa, can you explain: why are portals so big?”

A ripple of amusement ran around the class, mixed with quiet disdain. Because why would one ask such a foolish question? Portals were big: everyone knew that. Besides, they’d worked hard all morning, and the lunch bell had sounded not five minutes previous. They wanted to be out and eating

Still, my job was to encourage original thinking and I was curious as to why she would ask such a thing

“That is an interesting question”, I stalled, casting about for the words that would provide an answer, without being so dismissive as to cause her embarrassment in front of her companions.

“Did you read that somewhere?”

Katerin shook her head. “No. It just seemed obvious.”

Obvious? I raised a mental eyebrow. Either this girl was a genius or…

“Yes. Because when all the energies balance they should just hold the gateway open by themselves. I mean, in theory, you don’t need a portal at all. Just two bridge-builders, one at either end. Or one builder who can hold the balance”

At this point, I remember, someone did laugh. A single glare put a stop to that: bought me, too, a little time. I tilted my head to one side and picked my words carefully. “An invisible portal! Whatever next?”

Beneath the surface I was paddling furiously, trying to work out how to answer. Because how should I answer a student who had somehow stumbled across a theory so heretical that the treatise in which it was first suggested remained locked and encrypted in the Guild’s innermost archive?

“Perhaps”, I added, “that is not a question for this class”. I hated myself for the weakness, for the cop-out. Still, I refused to do as I knew some of my fellow instructors would, and mock the girl for her originality.

Then, I had an inspiration. With my right arm, I sketched a large circle in the air, at the same time, fixing Katerin with a look.

“There, Dòna: there is a free-hanging portal. Would you walk through it?”

“Of course.” The confidence of the woman!

“You would walk through it even though you could not see the edges? You would walk through, knowing that if you mis-stepped by so much as a fraction of an inch the portal forces would tear your body to shreds?”

“Oh.”

She hadn’t thought of that one. I felt triumph: had nudged her away from a dangerous train of thought without totally squashing her.

Then I scarce saw her again for a couple of years. Sòr Fedele recovered from her mushroom inconvenience, and took back her class. I returned to training the City Guard, which was a notch or five above Katerin’s capabilities. Besides, I had the impression from others, that my own discipline bored her almost as much as bridge-building bored me.

Occasionally I picked up a class in which she was included, noting when I did so that always she sat to one side and apart. It worried me, from our very first encounter, that she was natural prey for the bullies. For there are none so sweet and also none so vile as girls embarking upon their first maturity. And Katerin: bookish, unorthodox, not afraid to ask awkward questions might so easily have become a target. Instead, as time went by, her fellows seemed to accept her and take her to their heart. Never the most popular: but respected all the same.

Too, I kept a watchful eye out for further heresy. Though if she did harbour any such thoughts, she kept them to herself. And I was surprised, at the start of her fourth year, when students begin to move onward from theory and to serving the wider community, to receive a request from her. Somewhere along the way I had made enough of an impact that she wanted me as her final years mentor.

I was flattered. Also, concerned. She was, clear as the nose on my face, a bridge builder. Bridge maker. Voyager of worlds. Nothing wrong with that, but…

Well, if you do not know the history of the Guild, you should!

There was a time that we, like so many others in the immensity of our universe, were confined to just the one world: our home world, Cassonne. And there we lived, loved, grew old as well, or ill, as any others.

Always, though, our women had the gift, almost unique to creation, of power. In our words: in our ability to twist the dimensions of time and space. Twist this way and there would be a portal and a bridge, joining two worlds that no science has yet succeeded in connecting.

It was a leap, in every sense of the word, gifting Cassonne, and later, the Guild of Cassonne, an unparalleled advantage. For we, and we alone, could create and manage a system of interstellar commerce that benefitted all it touched. What potential we had! Except, through luck or foresight, we never sought to convert our unique gift into political power. The Cassonne Empire? Ridiculous idea! After all, why invest blood and capital in fitting out armies to conquer far-flung places, when the modest payments made to us by each and every world within our bridge web gave us a prosperity beyond our wildest dreams.

Federation? Same issue. Why would anyone prefer a life of bureaucratic drudgery to just enjoying those things that matter: our friends, our partners and our children?

We had no need of armies: why would we? On those rare occasions that client worlds attempted to abuse our gift, our response was simple. For a period of time — five years approximately, as our own world turned — we cut them off. No bridges in: none out. Was that cruel? Perhaps. But they would not starve. Rather, those in charge on that single world would, for a while, be deprived of the off-world luxuries to which they had become accustomed.

Five years was always enough. No world had ever held out for more.

So that was that? Not quite. Because sometimes revolutions took place and Guild members were taken hostage. Very occasionally, some glimmerings of our own power would emerge on these worlds and, when that happened, and turned to threat, something else was needed.

Then the Guild would call upon those of us designated members of the Defender caste: my caste.

For twist again and you create not a bridge, but a weapon of such ferocity that, properly channeled, it will sweep away entire star systems. Is that ironic? The same force that raises us up and improves the life of each and every person it touches, carries, too, the potential for such destruction?

Such question I leave to the philosophers. All I know is that bridge-building and defending are, alike, a calling. They are roles and abilities that somehow speak to the inner person. And they are pretty much exclusive.

The greatest of our great Defenders would stumble if asked to create a bridge: and there is not a single builder I have met who could not be disarmed and brought down by the least exercise of my own ability: the merest flick of a finger.

Not that I ever would…

Though now you understand my dilemma better. A mentor supports her student in many ways, both practical and emotional. They help them navigate the bureaucracy that, sadly, the Guild has swollen to contain. Occasionally, they are there to read the riot act: when a student goes astray.

But, too, they may be called upon to instruct in the finer details of technique. Aligning portals. Bending space. Finding the least energy lines between worlds. And what could I, who still blush with embarrassment at failing my first year portal exam: what could I tell a potential bridge builder?

How to create a shield? I think not. How to blast through an enemy’s shields? Not a skill that Katerin would ever be called on to wield.

I prevaricated. I suggested she find another mentor: suggested Sòr Aidelina, one of my oldest friends within the Guild; and one of the most skilled builders it has been my fortune to know. Katerin, though, was adamant. She would be a builder: of that there was no doubt. Yet she also wanted to understand the principles of my own craft.

I shrugged. There seemed little point. On the other hand, what harm could it do? In the end, I took her on, with proviso that if ever she needed help with the finer points of building technique, she would go to ‘lina.

Mostly, it was an uneventful mentorship. Never once was Katerin in trouble for breaking Guild Rules: though I did, with smile suppressed, find myself rebuking her at least twice a term for her lateness to lectures and seminars…

From time to time I checked in with ‘lina, who spent the conversation heaping praise on her. Words like “Inspired.” “Gifted”. “Original”. Apart from once. I remember the afternoon well. Sòr Aidelina caught up with me in high dudgeon: angry; even, I sensed, a little fearful. Why? She would not say: though a curse and a mutter about “that stupid irresponsible girl!” was clue enough.

What had she done? Neither ‘lina nor, later that day, Katerin would tell. It was all ‘builder stuff’: nothing I would understand. “Mèstra Aidelina was dealing with it.” And that was that.

Hmmm. I knew Katerin well enough by now that the more respectful her language, the harder she was working to conceal something from me. Her use of the formal title for ‘lina — not Sòr, even: but Mèstra — told me all I needed to know about how serious the matter was.

Only much later did I find out more. Katerin, in flagrant breach of every rule in the builder instruction book, had attempted to create and hold open a bridge by herself. Even though everyone knew that a bridge required two portals and, for safety, two builders, one at each end to balance it.

Luckily she made the attempt in a sheltered woodland glade, some miles from the capital and far from prying eyes. But the failure of her effort had left a corridor several hundred yards long of pulverised trees. As ‘lina told me, when finally she opened up about the incident: “Imagine if she had done that near the city! Near anywhere inhabited.”

Had either of us chosen, at that moment, to make report of what she had done, her career as a builder, as a Guild member, would have been over before it began.

Should I have paid more attention? Her conduct, if not her wardrobe, which, with the years became only more extreme and colourful, remained otherwise exemplary. Though she did pursue interests that were unusual in the extreme for a builder. She wanted, she told me one day, to understand how to create basic shields and I, seeing no harm in the thing, taught her.

Twice, in that time spent with me, I received urgent summons from the Guild Librarian. Because, it seemed, Katerin had a taste not only in more esoteric texts but, too, in texts forbidden to one of her rank. “Stop worrying, Lissa”, I told myself. “This woman is gifted with greatness: and in a year or two, she will be writing texts of her own.

“Besides, ‘lina will spot any real danger.”

How wrong, could I be!

Then, one night, not long before she was due to graduate and take up her first post as apprentice builder, she came, unannounced, to my room.

She had something important to talk about. Important and…personal.

Why me? I was, she confessed, just that bit less “stuffy” than my fellows. I took that with good grace. It seemed like a bad time to remind her of the essentials of Guild Etiquette, and respect for one’s elders. So I merely nodded for her to explain.

Although I guessed what was coming next: had answered the same question in a dozen different ways down the half century or more that I have held my post.

She did not disappoint. Went straight to the heart.

Must a bridge-builder choose celibacy?

Quite.

It was a good question and one debated endlessly by students when it came to choosing their majors. Alumne, too. Because the Academy turned out mages of all types: the gifted (and less gifted) in a panoply of skills. In addition to bridge-building and defending, we trained our students in the more mundane arts. How to heal, and to grow crops. Or how to build in the real world: walls and houses and actual physical bridges.

Mundane? Well, the end result was usually real, practical. Though the method of achieving it still took some exercise of power.

Students learned and, if they were lucky, as Katerin and I had been, felt a pull toward one or other specialism before the end of their study. Then it was a simple enough task of matching student to project and sending them out into the world as Guild journeywoman.

So far so simple. Except when it came to bridge-building. For of all the dozens, I daresay hundreds of skills to which a student might bend their energy, this alone came with a requirement, or at least a recommendation for celibacy.

The logic seemed sound enough. After all, the task of bridge-builder was all about balance. Training for those destined to join the furthest ends of the cosmos began with practical theory: but then it delved deeper, into the realms of focus and inner mindfulness. Somehow, somewhen, it was decreed that attachment to others, and to bodily lusts, was serious obstacle to achieving the proper state of mind for this task.

Or rather, the idea took root amongst the bridge-building chapter. It was commonplace for those endowed with this skill to dedicate themselves to a life of selfless bridge-building, unencumbered by all thoughts for others.

Defenders, on the other hand… What can I say? There is a sort of bawdy humour grown up around our supposed wantonness. We are the opposite in every way to bridge-builders. So if one chapter is destined forever to chastity, the other MUST be gifted with excessive carnal appetite.

That much I guessed Katerin knew already. My task, that night, to explain how it was as much myth as true. There was no rule, in either chapter, regarding sexual conduct. Bridge-builders there were who had partnered for life, with no ill effect on either their bridge-building capabilities or personal fulfillment.

Defenders, too, mostly settled down. Alright: I had not. And it was likely not helpful for Katerin, at that point, to hear tales of my own misspent youth!

So, I ended, as I always end these talks, with some sage advice. If chastity suited her: if she felt it would make her future career easier, then so be it. But if she fell head over heels in love — or lust — she would make that work, too.

That was usually the point where the student mumbles an embarrassed “thank you” and takes her leave. This, though, was different. We were sitting on the rug before the fire in my personal quarters. Half-sat, half-kneeling. I have never been a great believer in formality and for such talk, the comfort of cushions and a bottle of decent wine felt the better approach than the two of us sat either side of my wooden desk. Like I was delivering a first-year’s lecture on personal responsibility!

Katerin, however, stayed still, eyes down, hands in lap, kneeling on the rug beside me. She was not, it seemed, quite finished. I waited. She twisted absent-mindedly at the corner of a cushion. After an age, that was likely no more than a minute or two she stopped twisting and looked up, fixed me with her eyes, great dark whirlpool eyes, and started again.

“Sòr Lissa”, she started cautiously.

“Yes?”

“Is it allowed…permitted…for an apprentice to be with her teacher?” And there it was. The reason for this late night visit. Maybe, even, her reason for choosing me in the first instance. All coming together in one pointed question. And I knew, as she knew: as she knew that I knew; the question she was truly asking.

I shook my head. Flattered, of course, for all of two seconds. At the same time, aware of how wrong it would be to permit this conversation to go any further.

“No, Katerineta.” I addressed her informally. “There is no rule. But not everything you learn here, in the Guild is written down. How much less a mentor would I be, would any mentor be, who thought for one moment, to take advantage of a student’s feelings in such a matter?”

“But…”

“No, Dòna. It would be wrong. For me. And, you may think otherwise now, wrong for you, too.”

Poor, Katerin: she looked so sad. For a moment I thought she might burst into tears. As quickly, though, she pulled herself together and with a muttered “Sifaut!” — if it must be! — stood up. I rose, too, planning to accompany her to the door. But she moved quickly: quicker than I.

With a hurried “So sorry to disturb you”, she was out of my lodgings and gone. Not, as I imagined at the time, for the night or even a day or two. But gone, almost entirely, from my life.

That sounds dramatic: perhaps more so than was the case. The fact is, the night she came calling, she was already alumna, already pledged to her first journeywoman role, assigned to the woman who was to be her Mèstra for the next five years, somewhere out on the western arc of our galaxy. And she was due to report for duty a couple of days hence.

Instead, in her embarrassment, she requested — and was granted — early passage. So when, tentatively, I dropped round to her apartment the next afternoon, seeking to put her mind at rest, she was no longer there. A next door neighbor remarked how surprising it was that she took off so quickly.

But then, my informant explained: she was young; a mere slip of a girl! And who knows what passed through such creatures’ minds? (It goes without saying that her neighbor was closer in age to me than Katerin!).

I was sad. But what could I do? Katerin was gone and I would not be seeing her again for a long while to come. “Adiu siatz!” Goodbye my rainbow student.

And that, for a very long time after, was that.

A Flash of Rainbow is Part II of a four part story set in a fantasy universe. If you liked this and would like to read more, drop me a line or say hi on Twitter (@janefae). And if you like it, please indicate in the usual fashion.

And if you would like to read Part III, head off to here.

Written by

Feminist, writer, campaigner on political and sexual liberty who also knows a bit about IT, the law and policing. Not entirely serious…

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