Interlude: Professor Theodosia Amatar of the Night Court

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Lyssana chapters will be delayed for a while as her writer takes a hiatus. If you have any secondary characters or aspects of the world you would like to see in the interludes filling that posting slot than let us know. 

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“Professor?” A quiet voice said. Theodosia Amatar, professor of the Night Court, looked up from her desk. A wispy girl stood before her. “I was told to come find you. It’s happened again.”

She sighed, setting down her quill and standing up. “Show me.”

Theodosia, was, perhaps, the sanest member of the Night Court faculty. She supposed that also made her the most useless, at least where her court was concerned. But her relative lucidity served an important purpose—someone had to fetch the students when they started walking on the walls.

Metaphorically and, sometimes, physically.

She exited her office, following the girl. She led her outside, leaving the warm, yellow rune-lights of the staff hall and stepping into the courtyard. As the name implied, the Night Court existed in a state of permanent night. Some people found it disorienting, especially when through the entrance to the court, the sun was still high in the sky. Theodosia, for one, found it calming. The fall air was crisp, just beginning to lose the sticky warmth of summer evenings. Pale blue lights marked the stone paths, casting long shadows across the dark grass of the courtyard.

She followed the girl into another building, this one a lecture hall. Through the doors and up a flight of stairs they went, before turning a corner and stopping in their tracks.

The architecture before them was, for lack of a better word, moving. The dark, stone blocks flowed past each other like leaves in water, swirling in eddies of brick and mortar. First-years stumbled through the twisting hallway, unsure of how to navigate the morphing terrain. More than one upper-class student simply walked through, seemingly unphased by the ever-changing paths. Even as errant bricks flew past their faces, they kept a steady pace, and without fail, one classroom door or another would appear in their path, and they’d disappear through it.

“I… this was a hallway earlier,” the girl said, her voice doubtful.

“Yes, it was, wasn’t it?” Theodosia replied with a sigh. She turned to look at the girl. “What’s your name?”

“Nara, Professor.”

“Please stand back, Nara.”

Theodosia turned back to the shifting hallway and closed her eyes. She was the weakest of the faculty, but she was still faculty. And here, that required a will of iron. In her mind, she pictured the hallway not as it was, but as she knew it to be. And when she opened her eyes once more, it was as her mind saw it. Floor, walls, and ceiling, all where she expected to find them. More than one first-year quickly made their way across the stabilized path, unsure of what they had just witnessed.

“Better,” Theodosia said, nodding curtly. “Now, where is the student?”

Nara pointed up. Theodosia followed her gesture and saw a boy sitting cross-legged in the middle of the ceiling. She recognized him as Cole, a first-year. He was in her introductory seminar course, the class students affectionately called ‘The Breaker’. All of the new arrivals to her court took it in order to expand their mind, to learn how to challenge the assumptions they had been taught about reality.

“Thank you, Nara, I’ll handle it.” Theodosia walked over to one side of the hall and, focusing her will, planted one foot on the wall, then the other. For a brief, nauseating moment, the world went sideways. Then, her mind adjusted. When in the Night Court, you learned quickly that it was best to think of whatever surface you stood on as ‘the ground’.

She walked upwards to the ceiling, and the world shifted again as she made the ninety degree transition. Theodosia frowned as her hair turned upward to the ground. The nausea returned, the sensation of wrongness, of realities clashing together. She was on the ground, so why would her hair be falling upwards? She knew for a fact that her hair was wrong.

The thought alone was enough to assert her will, and she smiled as her hair settled into place back on her shoulders. That was better. With reality back in order, she crossed over to where Cole was sitting and joined him, ignoring the crowd gathering on the ceiling below her.

“Hello, Cole,” she said. “How are you today?”

“It’s all wrong,” he muttered. “How can it all be so wrong?”

Theodosia smiled softly, feeling a sense of relief. This was a simple enough issue, and quite common to first-years.

Some people joined the Night Court because all they wanted to do was learn how to think differently, but some entered the court because thinking differently was all they knew. Cole fell into the latter category. Across the semester, Theodosia had seen him open up. He’d found friends and excelled in class.

But excelling in the Night Court didn’t come without its cost. The magic of this place required a strong will, a will strong enough to overrule the suggestions of ‘reality’. Sometimes, a student could reject reality, but fail to substitute their own. The end result was mind-lock; getting caught in a state where no reality was true.

“Cole, do you know where we are right now?”

“Nowhere.”

“What a lovely place to be,” Theodosia said. “Do you know why?” Cole turned to look at her, eyes dull. “Because when you’re nowhere, you ‘know where’ you are!” She chuckled at her own  joke. Then she furrowed her brow. “So what happened, Cole?”

“I… was trying to get to a class—Introduction to Probability with Professor Akham. But I couldn’t remember where it was.” He paused, frowning. “Or… I did know? The building isn’t right, it isn’t like it was before.”

Theodosia nodded. “As I warned you all earlier in the semester, that can happen here. Too many minds all projecting different versions of reality have a tendency to… muddy the waters, as it were. So what happened next?”

“I was lost, and now I was running late. Then I thought, well, I know the class is in here somewhere, so why not right here?” He pointed at the ground for emphasis. “Then the hallway… I don’t know what happened to the hallway.”

“You looked before you leapt. You decided that the reality you currently inhabit was no longer accurate, but you failed to create a replacement.”

“And now nothing is real.” Cole hugged his own legs tight against his chest.

“You know, some researchers believe that there are actually an infinite number of realities, and that what we in the Night Court do is simply pull the one that we want into our world.” She stared up at the ground. “Of course,” she shrugged, “it’s impossible to say for certain if that is the case, but do you know what it would mean?”

“What?”

“That all of the realities are true. You just have to pick one.”

“But in class you told me to deny reality, and I did. But if reality can be so easily denied, than nothing is real. Nothing has meaning.”

“Denying reality doesn’t deprive it of importance, Cole!” Theodosia leaned back, propping herself up on her elbows. “Reality is a useful fiction—a white lie—and lies hold great value, especially the lies we believe.”

He turned to look at her. “But, if you know it’s a lie, how can you choose to believe it?”

Theodosia shrugged. “You just do. The same way you choose to believe in the gods, or true love, or a just and caring universe. There’s no way to prove their existence, but we believe it all the same. Because in our hearts, we want these things to be true.”

“I… I suppose that makes sense.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Now how about we give it a try, hmm? Let’s start with something easy. Can you choose to believe you are in the Umbral Court?”

Cole thought for a moment, then nodded.

Theodosia smiled. “And just like that, you are.” She looked up at the floor. “How about another? Can you choose to believe we are on the ground?”

“But, Professor…” Cole frowned, “we are on the ground!”

Theodosia looked around. Somehow, they were sitting on the floor of the hallway. If she craned her neck up, she could see the spot on the ceiling where they had been just moments ago. The crowd of students who had been watching her from above were now standing around them, and her eyebrows went up in surprise.

“So we are,” she said, standing. “Last one, okay? This is a big one. Can you choose to believe that you will be okay?”

“I… I am okay.” Cole said, his voice growing firm with conviction. “I know I am okay.”

“I know you are too.” She looked around at the gathered crowd. “Just as I know that you all have other places to be!” The students evaporated like fog in the rising sun. She turned back to him. “Go on and head to class, it should be at the other end of the hall. If Professor Akhan needs an explanation, tell him to find me.”

“Okay,” Cole said, running off. “Thanks, Professor!”

Theodosia smiled. That boy was going to go far here. To some, that could be considered a tragedy. After all, getting far in the Night Court often led one down a path others couldn’t follow, let alone understand. But for those like her, or like Cole, most already didn’t understand. It was like being a bird amongst fish, no matter how hard you tried, you would never be able to breathe underwater. Better for these strange birds to come here.

Where they could learn to fly.

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Interlude Miller #3, There’s Always One Feather Brain in the Flock

Miller sat at a desk in the Eyrie and plied the full mental powers of an Istima trained mage so he could split his focus. Nay, bifurcate the very fabric of his mind. 

One half focused on Jercash giving gruff scowls, sharp orders, and eating an entirely mundane pastry from down the street. Miller personally thought it would have been more bird-like for him to be sipping scotch, but you couldn’t have everything. 

The second half of his mind was very concerned about the proper way for a tough bird-of-the-streets to sit. He felt fairly confident that he didn’t want to cross his legs. Intuitively, he knew throwing an ankle over his knee would only work if he could also slouch confidently. But Miller didn’t just want to be a fast-talking, wise-cracking bird. He wanted Jercash to know that he was tough. That he was merciless in the hunt, and that he was the perfect person to take under his wing (Heh. Bird pun. Classic).

The reed-thin diviner frowned. How did someone act like a tough, but ready-to-be mentored Bird?

Bringing an apple wasn’t the right move.

Bring a steak? Alcohol? Get into a very manly fistfight so they could become very manly friends afterward? From what he had read in magazines that was how tough manly men became tough manly friends.

He tried to sit like a tough (but ready-to-be mentored), competent, manly-man, laconic, bird while he also tried to think of where the closet butcher was. He’d always heard that when men became friends and hung out, they were supposed to have ‘sausage parties’. He himself preferred less fatty food, but he could probably find something spicy and hearty.

“—Miller!” Jercash said, waving a hand in front of his face. 

“Sorry, what?”

“I asked why you were scowling. And why you’re sitting like you need to make an extra-large donation to Istima City Sewage Committee.”

Oh no. 

He needed to change the topic. Faster than thought, Miller scanned the chalkboard diagraming their hunt and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. 

“Why Staylen?”

Jercash glanced at the board, “I heard he sewed up a few of your circle jockeys pretty tight last month.”

Miller blinked. Circle jockey?

Oh! Spring Court. Because of the spell circles they manifested. 

“Ahhh,” Miller said, moving to the chalkboard, “gotcha. But you lost your guy in the Stacks, right?”

“Yeah.”

He chewed at his lip for a second before wiping Staylen’s name off the board and replacing it with Millie’s, “Staylen’s best with runners. Millie’s who you want in the Stacks.”

“Millie? You mean The Machine?”

“Yes.”

The Raven frowned, “I heard the Machine was a heavy. We need a tracker, not a brawler.”

Miller nodded but didn’t take his eyes away from the rest of the names on the list, “Staylen has contacts everywhere within a few days’ ride of Istima. But he likes to pick his fights. Follows people for days, waits till they think they’re clear, and then spikes their drinks.” He tapped his piece of chalk next to the name he had just added, ”Millie’s numbers in the Stacks are the best in the whole Eyrie.”

“Numbers?”

“Numbers,” Miller nodded as he mumbled and switching a few other names. “She captures a higher percentage of people hiding in the stacks. A statistically significant higher percent.”

The Raven stalked forward and snatched the chalk from his hand, “What are you spewing?”

Miller didn’t even blink, just brushed the chalk dust off his fingers and whispered under his breath as he stared at the list. After a few more seconds he was able to tear his eyes away, though statistics, maps, stories, and schedules continued to flash through his mind’s eye. 

With a grunt, he motioned for the foreign bird to follow him and went back to his desk. They were already in the area used by the diviners so it only took a moment to skirt around the dust covered and neglected seat of a crow. Once at his own station, he rifled through the drawers and pulled out a massive book. It was fully a quarter the size of his desk even when closed. 

He flipped through it and came to a page that had Millie’s name underlined at the top. The first three pages after that were relatively clean and organized. But everything beyond those three pages was a jumble of notes, logs, calculations, and shorthand. All blended into a mess that was incomprehensible to anyone but Miller. 

“I’ve got records on Millie going back three years,” he said, marking the start of Millie’s section with a slip of paper and flipping through the pages until he hit Big Bernard’s page. “But look at this. If you look at Big Bernard, within two weeks of getting a case, he gets results seven out of ten times,” Miller went back to the blackboard and wrote down the fraction. “Then, if you look at four of the last five months, he got the same numbers, seven out of ten, but at the five-week mark. You know why?”

Jercash shook his head. 

“Dumb luck,” Miller said. “There’s some math you can do. You plug in the number of times something happens under two conditions, like how many times you get food poisoning from a festival booth compared to a street vendor. The math can tell you how likely it is that the difference between the two is due to dumb luck and randomness, or if the difference means something. You follow?”

Jercash grunted, eyes flickering as he scanned the figures Miller was pointing at. 

“So, you run the numbers, read the results, and see if it gets to the point where you take it seriously.” The diviner quickly circled the ‘two weeks’ and crossed out the ‘five weeks’ on the board. “The numbers at two weeks are statistically significant; it’s almost assuredly not due to chance. But the five-week results look like they could just be dumb luck. 

Then you look at Bernard’s file and you see he’s an artificer. After two weeks, the evidence is too old for the tools he made. They’re not sensitive enough. Then you see that he was barely given any cases the last few months. He spent most of the time helping the diviners build a new device. So, with so few cases, it was easy for him to get lucky on a couple, and suddenly it looks like something changed that mystically helps him around the week five.”

“So what’s your point? Seems like something you could have talked to Bernard about and figured out in two minutes.”

“First,” Miller said, making a little mark where he had added Big Bernard’s name to the list, “your guy only slipped away a few days ago. For the next week and a half, so long as it’s Bernard reading his own tools, there is a seven out of ten chance he’ll find him. Imagine that you’re at the racetracks and you’ve got a horse that only loses three out of every ten races. If you need a win, then those are odds worth betting on.”

For the first time Jercash’s scowl turned into a mere frown, “And your weird math says something about The Machine?”

“Yes!” Miller said, smiling and frantically scribbling on the chalkboard. “She’s helped out with plenty of searches, there’s always a student who needs a talking to. But if you look at her numbers, she seems to find people who hide in the Stacks more often than anyone else. So you think, ‘it’s probably just chance,’ right? Have us comb through the city enough times and people are bound to have hot streaks for no real reason. But no! If you run her numbers, then there is a meaningful difference between how she does in the Stacks compared to everyone else. And get this, it’s not just when you compare her to everyone else. If you compare her results in the Stacks to her results in the Falls District then, mathematically, she is different compared to her own self. Out of the Stacks, she’s actually worse than the average bird.”

“That’s… huh. That something.”

“I know!” Miller beamed, “Isn’t it fascinating!”

Jercash came back to the board and put a hand on his chin, eyes going sharp. “So you’re telling me that all of these people,” he waved his hand at the names the Diviner had changed. “They’re more likely, than literally any other bird in the eryrie, to help us find this sick fuck if we put them in the right place.”

“Not quite,” the diviner pointed at a few names. “These crows usually get put together because their training matches up well on paper. But if you sub out Salazar with Lee Shin then you get the same exact mix of training, plus Shin can receive distance messages from this diviner,” he said, tapping one of the original names. 

Jercash asked a few questions, and the two of them spent the next half hour going through each name. Most of the time the raven took his advice, but Miller was fascinated with the points where the other man didn’t. 

In that half hour, he learned more about the combat training and team tactics of the Crows than he had in months of his own research. 

By the end, they had a shortlist of people who would help them chase down the trail. They also had two strike teams that, in addition to Jercash’s own group, were ready to swoop in if things got heated.

“Miller,” the other man said, “this is good shit right here. Real good shit.”

“It’s going to be a real show of force,” the diviner said, eyes glittering as he imagined this star-studded cast taking to the streets. 

They were silent as Jercash examined the list one last time and Miller imagined how this story would be written up in one of his favorite magazines. 

“Why is it that the Machine does so well in the Stacks?”  Jercash suddenly asked. ”She grow up there?”

Miller shrugged, “No clue.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Look at Big Bernard’s record and it’s pretty obvious why two weeks makes such a difference. But the numbers don’t tell you why something happens, at least not these numbers. They just say how likely it is that a difference is meaningful.”

“Results, not reasons,” the other man said, baring his teeth in a lopsided grin, “I can get behind that. But where did you learn math games like this?”

“The Night court.”

“Night court? That’s what you all call reality benders right?”

“Maybe? All magic looks pretty reality-bending from a certain perspective.”

Jercash grunted, “I’m talking about the style where you believe something till it happens. That one?”

“Yes, that’s my school of magic.”

“Then why were they teaching you math? I thought you folks just got real high and read sad poetry until crazy stuff started making sense to you.”

“Sad poetry?”

“Am I wrong?”

Miller shook his head and got a far-off look in his eyes, “Believe me when I say that nothing will make you doubt the mechanisms of the world quite like math.”

The Raven didn’t look convinced.

“It’s much easier to imagine being able to fly than it is to realize that the world is made of numbers and equations. That they rule you whether you know them or not, that your brain calculated hours of advanced physics each time you toss a ball, and that the really advanced stuff says things you can’t understand but have no choice but to believe.”

There was a pause where the diviner stood with a emptyu look in his eyes. Then Jercash snorted, spit to side, and said, “Dunno, that sounded a lot like sad-boy poetry to me.”

Miller couldn’t help it, he laughed, “You sound like a bird from the magazines.”

Jercash gave him a knife-edged grin, “There’s no dandy with a quill alive who could think up the things my boys and I have done. No, I may be garbage, but I’m not that kind of trash.”

Once again, he felt his mind split. One half of him felt like he was outside of his body. Floating over the scene and watching the rough talking, casually offensive banter from his favorite stories played out on a theatre’s stage.

The second half realized that he read what those dandies with a quill wrote. That, in point of fact, he was part of an investigative fiction appreciation club, a Rue DeLite fan club pen-pal program, and that he needed to drop by the postmaster to see if a bundle of magazines had come in from a club member in a different city. 

“HA!” Miller barked, forcing his face to make a smile “Yeah. What sort of FOP would read THAT? I mean, I bet they don’t even go on dates.”

Jercash laughed, “Too busy trying to bugger the weekend comic sheet, I’d bet. Seven out of ten odds on that one for sure.”

The other man thumped him on the back, and Miller had to bite his tongue and pretend like it hadn’t hurt his shoulder. Or his feelings. 

“Yeah,” he grimaced, ”like, I mean, what do they even do?”

“Probably embroider their underwear and go to the healers if they get dirt under their nails.”

“HA!” Miller said, carefully hiding his perfectly manicured hands behind his back. 

“But enough grab assing,” Jercash said, fingers flexing like a cat testing its claws. “I’m tired of breathing the same air as this piece of shit. We’ll round everyone up, introduce you to my boys, and kick this hunt off. You ready, Miller?”

“Oh, I was born ready,” he lied, returning the raven’s blood-thirsty smirk while wondering where the nearest source of dirt was that he could get under his fingernails.

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