1.1 – The Magician Grad Student

For the guides bobbing up and down on tour boats, it was another Friday morning. Sunbeams peeked from behind the eastern mountains, where the sun was rising with no sense of urgency. A dozen tour boats waited in the bay, each controlled by one small but extraordinary marble with computing power one might categorize as overkill. The tour boats held hundreds of tourists, who couldn’t care less about the everyday marbles within their boats. Instead, they held cameras at the ready with increasing anticipation as the sun crept upward inch by inch. Despite the sun’s sluggish ascension, the hundreds of onlookers were waiting on it, their gazes locked on a single white, silver-capped obelisk.

Stretching higher into the sky than any other building in the city, the structure was home to the International Council of Exalted Magicians. Only the most powerful Magicians were granted the title of Exalted Grand, and only those with the title could be part of the council.

Onlookers commonly traded hypotheses regarding the mystery of what lay within the obelisk’s walls. Many guesses included deep occult secrets, private illicit rituals, and dark conspiracies, while others assumed there were private pools, badminton courts, and ample meditation. 

Neither of these was true. In fact, many of the Exalted Grand Magicians had harsh feelings against the dark side of the occult as well as badminton.

Finally, the sun emerged from behind the mountain peaks, figuratively smiling upon the silver cap of the obelisk. Meanwhile, the tourists in their boats literally smiled in the exaggerated way that tourists often do. To those in the bay, who “ooh”ed and “aah”ed, the experience felt holy. Unknown to the sightseers — though not to the tour guides, who were quite knowledgeable about their city — the sun’s rays also reflected off of the obelisk, back toward the mountains, through the National University of Magic’s historic archway, and into a large circular plaza.

Stone Plaza, as it was called, was not so much made of stone as it was made of hundreds of thousands of gemstones. A two-hundred-foot-wide masterpiece of design and craftsmanship, each shard of noctralite was laid at a precise angle such that after charging in the sun’s light, it luminesced at the intended intensity.

The university seal sat at the center, and the gemstones that made up the university’s initials glowed even in the daylight. It was quite a remarkable display, and it was even more disappointing that it sat adjacent to one of the most unremarkable and frustrating buildings on the campus: the administration building.

Graduate students aren’t known to be excitable, but Octavian was even more morose than typical. He sighed as he walked around the edge of the plaza, glancing at the explanatory sign nearby. Although he had never actually read it, he correctly assumed it listed facts about the university’s connection with the International Council of Exalted Magicians. 

He squinted at the bright reflected light from the sun. Despite his grumpiness, he marveled at Stone Plaza’s unique blend of engineering and art.

After taking a quick look back to be sure his bag was still floating beside him, he started up the ramp to the administration building. His bag bobbed up and down as it followed, oblivious to his angst. Even the fresh coat of paint on the administration building’s trim didn’t soothe the uneasiness in his stomach.

Once inside, Octavian started up the large, circular rampway that wound up and around an atrium that stretched to the third floor. Portraits of Exalted Grand Magicians lined the walls, each a former student of this National University of Magic campus. Octavian read the plaques below each as he passed. The nervous graduate student scoffed at the fact that “Exalted Grand Magician” was written before each name.

Octavian followed the signs up the rampway, down hallways, and through doorways until he reached the office of Grand Magician Kastra. A “Do Not Disturb”message glowed just in front of it, and beyond the message, Octavian could sense that the door had a low-level trap keeping it locked. That message was meant for him, so he resigned himself to waiting.

Casual seating areas scattered throughout the hall, as if to warn visitors they were going to waste precious moments of their lives waiting there. With a heaving sigh, he sat down, The chair was even more firm than it looked and not in a good way. 

Above him and along the walls were frames that held portraits of each year’s doctoral graduates. On one side, the people of the feminine discipline stared across the hall. On the other side of the hall were the graduates of the masculine discipline, staring right back.

It was a total misnomer to call the disciplines “feminine” and “masculine” as there was nothing masculine or feminine about magic. When the study of magic was in its infancy, the not-so-grand magicians sought to organize magic. At the time, Grand Magician Ostara Patel noted in an often-quoted paper that magic could be categorized into a finite set of research areas. He divided these areas into two disciplines based on wildly speculative, anecdotal, and overall bad evidence.

Magicians who happened to be women weren’t allowed to be designated Grand Magicians at that time. Years later, some forgotten magician who was much grander than Ostara Patel awarded the title to Chioma Obiakaraije. On that day, she became the first woman to be named Grand Magician and the most powerful Grand Magician of her time. Grand Magician Patel’s blunder was not taught in schools, though the later reorganization of disciplines by Grand Obiakaraije became a standard part of every magic curriculum.

Octavian, still being stared at by NUM graduate portraits, rolled his eyes at all of their smiles as he contemplated whether he would make it to graduation. 

The seat remained awkward — maybe even worse the longer he sat in it. He leaned forward, then laid his head back against the wall, then crossed his legs. Absolutely none of it comforted him. He tried to ignore the frames along the walls, instead focusing on what he would say when that door opened…someday.

He may have been about to die from boredom and anxiety when a loud click preceded the creak of the door. Octavian rushed to his feet, almost tripping over his floating bag as he tried to keep eye contact with his academic advisor. The effort to do so was enough to knock the wind from him, and he missed the opportunity to say hello.

Grand Magician Kastra was definitely not a man of few words, but he knew how to hone his words into sharp edges. Octavian had only met with him twice previously, once for his initial course suggestions and then again for a progress review at the end of his first year.

It was distracting enough that the man had a pointed nose that looked like it could cut butter, but his taste in clothes was, to put it kindly, dated. To put it unkindly, his clothes were gaudy, in poor taste, and ugly. The flashy outfit made Octavian quite embarrassed to even be in a room alone with the man, and he was suddenly glad that the office was in a seldom visited hallway.

When Octavian managed to pull his attention back to Kastra’s words, they gave him no better feelings toward the man.

Those ill feelings meant that, while most of Octavian’s cohort was getting course suggestions from their advisors, he had chosen to fumble along on his own. That limited approach brought him here, where he was obligated to contact the Grand Magician for assistance. Despite the need for advising, he already regretted reaching out.

“Your message said that you need assistance choosing classes for next semester,” the Grand Magician said.

Grand Kastra stepped back into his office and gestured toward an ornately carved wooden chair. 

“Yes, Grand Kastra,” Octavian responded as he eased into the chair. It creaked, and fear shot through him. Had he broken it? The many layers of lacquer and dozens of hand carved reliefs probably made the chair priceless. And if there was one chair that Octavian did not want to break, it was this one. Somehow, this seemed like the most inappropriate and yet most likely time for it to happen.

As soon as the two magicians were seated on opposite sides of the desk — both in unbroken chairs, thankfully — the door closed with a gentle click. Octavian felt the trap on the door activate, locking it. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he forced himself to sit up straight, though his fidgeting hands betrayed his anxiety. 

“I was hoping to get recommendations from you based on my unique professional goals,” he said.

Grand Kastra sat back in his chair. He held up his hand, and the small marble sitting on his desk glowed. The dark red marble was a typical computer, though it sat on a decorative stand perfectly matching Grand Kastra’s unique aesthetic.

An interface appeared above it, floating in the air and glowing faintly. Although the contents were obscured from where Octavian sat, he knew exactly what Grand Kastra was doing: looking for ammunition to add to the judgment he had already made.

“Your unique professional goals, yes.” Grand Kastra’s tone bordered on mocking, though he kept a stern expression. “I was reviewing your records.”

Octavian gripped the arms of the chair to keep his hands still, but his tense posture was no less revealing of his emotion.

“You’re still in the Exalted Grand Magician’s tutelage, correct?” Kastra asked as he controlled his marble with gestures. 

“Yes, that’s right,” Octavian replied. “And the Exalted Grand has approved all of my coursework so far. So I just need help with—”

“Octavian, I’m concerned,” Grand Kastra interrupted as he stopped scrolling, probably devoting an entire inner monologue to his triumph in finding the ammunition he needed.

The man’s sharp nose turned back to Octavian. Trying to distract himself from wondering how many times the man had stabbed someone with it, Octavian made eye contact and immediately regretted the decision.

Grand Kastra’s irises were mostly gold, with only a small rim of brown remaining at the edge. The eye color change from natural to unnatural was a clear indicator of his Grand Magician expertise, but Octavian also wondered if it was possible for the eye color change to be a measure of his haughtiness. 

That wasn’t a thing, but it gave him a thought to escape to for a moment. 

He knew what was coming because it seemed to be what everyone in the magic community focused on. Not his talent or his persistence, but his course of study. The only comfort he could bring himself was to bite the inside of his cheek and clench his jaw, which wasn’t all that comforting.

“I recall you attended a small university for your undergraduate degree,” Kastra continued. “It’s quite unorthodox that your school allowed you to double major in both Life Science Magic and Magical Engineering. But that kind of indecisiveness cannot continue.”

And there it was. 

This wasn’t the first time a professor expressed their concern about his choice in disciplines, or, more accurately, his lack of choice between the two. Life Science Magic was in the masculine discipline while Engineering & Technology was a feminine subdiscipline.

Octavian opened his mouth to recite the response he had practiced in the hallway.


Kastra’s hand dropped down onto the desk, sounding a firm thud with a clear meaning. That small but loud gesture asserted with great clarity that nothing the graduate student said would be heard.

“One does not try to be an expert in both disciplines, Octavian. You either study in the masculine discipline or you study in the feminine discipline, not both. Your graduate transcript makes it obvious that you are continuing on a path unbecoming of a magician trained at NUM. And I frankly cannot believe that your mentor, a member of the International Council of Exalted Magicians, would approve such a reckless and offensive academic plan.

“My understanding based on your first-year statement of study was that your…unique undergraduate career was somewhat inspired by your gender transition.”

This was exactly why Octavian hadn’t shared his second- or third-year statements of study with the man. Anything he shared would be taken out of context as long as he chose to ignore discipline boundaries. 

Kastra continued as Octavian concentrated on not rolling his eyes.

“I applaud your ability to challenge your limits and complete your double major at the undergraduate level. However, I cannot advise you on any further graduate coursework until you get past this roadblock and choose a discipline.”

Grand Kastra stood, the door traps unlocked, and the following click and creak told Octavian it was time to leave. 

His body felt heavier with each step toward the building’s back exit. Tears welled up, but he wiped them away before they could reach his cheeks. Every portrait he passed in the halls seemed to stare down at him with proud arrogance.

As soon as he was outside, he let out a frustrated scream before looking around to make sure no one was watching. Not that he had a reputation to worry about, but it just seemed like the thing to do.

Suddenly, a glow emanated from around his neck. He pulled out the glowing marble computer that hung from his chain necklace. Bursts of light relayed a message from his research advisor.

From: Teacher

Message: You’re late.

“From Teacher

Message: You’re late.”

Octavian’s face reddened. He screamed again, this time kicking his bag as hard as he could. Unaffected by his effort, the bag bobbed up and down until it was back at his side. He took a few deep breaths before tapping the marble to send a response.

“Reply,” Octavian said. The marble’s green glow pulsed on and off as it waited for his response. “Be there in five.”

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