Homunculus: the little man inside your head. Modern homunculi are portable digital devices that assist spellcasting by properly stimulating the brain through vibrations, sound, and visual noise. Hooked into the biometrics of the spellcaster, homunculi perform the subconscious cognitive work of magic so the spellcaster can focus on execution.
A small windowless office was oppressive enough, but when a flyover portrait of the Old College took up most of the wall, it added an additional eerie quality to the space. Every moment she spent in the Department Head’s office Minerva felt like she would be kicked off a helicopter or a plane and fall to her death at the feet of the Lord Turrington statue in the Plaza, a sacrifice to the National and its endless history. She felt suffocated there.
Even more so because most of the free air in the room was now heavily in use.
“I don’t know what to do with you anymore, Beatrix! I have professionally and personally given you so much space and chance and yet, here I am, once again!”
Beatrix nodded politely along with each repetitive scolding and talking-down-to she received from the department head of the college of Anthropology, Miriam Hirsch.
“It feels like it was last week that I gave you a warning and yet here you are, the focus of complaints, complaints and more complaints! From faculty, students, from parents!”
Beatrix behaved ironically like a student sat down before a school principal. She had a childishly contrite expression, her head bowed, nodding silently each time Ms. Hirch raised her voice one twist higher on the volume knob. At her side, Minerva sucked on a straw attached to a grey foil packet, drinking a salty-sweet brown fluid to restore all the vitality she lost to negative energy sickness — in this case, to stomping on a ghost.
A ghost that, as Miriam Hirch rightly pointed out, was summoned through Beatrix’s negligence and nearly allowed to attack students, which violated this and that code; and which was summoned because of Beatrix’s unauthorized ‘raiding’ of the Anthropology Department’s Esoteric Assets stores, which, she pointed out, was quite ‘frowned upon’.
And so on and so on.
Minerva, too, had her head bowed low but mostly out of embarrassment.
At least Beatrix had acquiesced to wearing Minerva’s coat, so she would look decent.
It would be salt on the wound to look thrown about while being thrown about.
“Just because you work for the Department doesn’t mean everything here is your toy! Do you have a child’s concept of ownership? There’s a process!” She shook her hands as though she wanted to wring Beatrix’s neck from afar, as she spelled out p-r-o-c–e-s-s. “Process! You get class materials signed! I would’ve done it! And we could’ve made sure that wand you were supposed to have been working on since a month ago wasn’t cursed when you decided to let your students work out your backlog! I am bewildered, Bea!”
Miriam had practically made a hole in the ground from circling around the couch in front of her desk so many times, as she waylaid Beatrix from all directions. When she finally sat down, her shoulders slumped and it seemed almost that she would deflate like a balloon right in front of them, utterly emptied of hot air. Minerva looked up from her juice pack and caught Miriam looking her way, exhausted. Miriam was an older lady, older than Beatrix, whom Minerva placed in her thirties; definitely older than Minerva’s fresh, spry 25 years on Aer. Out of all of them she was the most corporate-looking: black blazer, red shirt, pencil skirt, sleek glasses. She looked like her own secretary and like her own boss at the same time. Her black-and-white hair was tied up in a bun far more tidy and professional than Minerva’s “stick a pin in it, call it done up” affair.
“I don’t know what to do with her, Minerva.” Miriam said. “Did you know she could’ve been Department Head? Once upon a time she was practically in the chair.”
Minerva briefly glanced at Beatrix and then back at Miriam. She just couldn’t see it.
“Years ago, Beatrix was a historical prospect! On skill alone!” Miriam shouted.
She seemed almost personally offended at Beatrix’s current state. Minerva, meanwhile, wondered if the ‘skill alone’ fragment was meant to separate it from Minerva’s historical prospect, and from there she became hyperaware of the situation. She was in the office of the Department Head on a reprimand. And she was not like any other T.A. in this seat.
Beatrix, meanwhile, smiled just a touch, as if only allowed a few humble millimeters to display joviality. “Yes, but instead I married my girlfriend and live my days casually.”
“Why are you dressed like that?” Miriam shouted, her head resting on steepled hands.
This was such a sudden turn in the conversation even Beatrix seemed bewildered.
She absentmindedly fingered the plunging neckline of her tanktop, just over her chest.
“Well, the flower crown helps align my aura with Earth magic, which I need a lot of for the piece I wanted to work on. And me and the wifey do yoga every morning, but then–”
“I don’t care anymore, Beatrix.” Miriam cut her off, waving a hand dismissively. “Listen well, you wannabe bohemian, you’re a tenured Professor of the most prestigious university on the continent. People like Minerva can be held up to different standards–”
Minerva snapped her head up. “Excuse me–?”
“–She’s a teaching assistant, after all–”
This one time, Minerva was glad her objection was ignored as usual. She quieted again.
“–but you, Beatrix, must act like the professional you are!”
Miriam pushed herself to a stand by her arms, but quickly lost her energy and sat again.
“Honestly, if it weren’t for the value your research has brought, Beatrix, if it weren’t for the history, and not just the history you’ve uncovered, but our history, and just. Ugh!”
The Department Head pushed herself against the back of her chair, gritting her teeth.
She sighed with a kind of grave finality, fanning herself with her hand.
“We bleed money every year to things like Quantum Effects and Applied Energetics. It’s only our routinely excellent scholarship and high student performance that keeps us alive here, you two. And yet it seems like the good Professor just takes her teaching job for granted when she is not handing it off entirely to her freshman Teaching Assistant.”
“Minerva is a cut above any T.A. I have ever worked with.” Beatrix said.
“She reminds me of you and that’s ultimately what worries me most.” Miriam said.
Miriam turned from Beatrix and back to Minerva, staring at her with a dull expression. She wasn’t mad at her, but she seemed tired of having to talk, or maybe displeased with having to talk to her now. Her voice was dispassionate, as gray-sounding as her coat. She felt exhausted looking at that woman and exhausted for being looked at by her too.
“Minerva, the Department thanks you for making sure no students saw harm from Beatrix’s little stunt. Everything regarding that incident will be fine, I will see to it, it’s too much of a nuisance not to sweep under the rug for us, however; you yourself were also called here for a purpose. Seeing as how you are basically teaching Beatrix’s classes right now, aside from her foolishness, I must speak to you about your performance.”
From behind her desk came a sliding noise, wood on metal. Miriam pulled open a drawer and pulled out a folder, and she spread it open on the desk. Minerva could not see the contents of it from the couch, but she grew a little nervous now that she was being addressed directly. This was not the first time she had met with Miriam, but those times had been social and courtesy occasions, educational committees, things like that.
A performance review was ominous. Performance was an ominous word.
Minerva had a monumental pressure placed on herself to excel.
She had a unique pressure on her to succeed.
“Beatrix’s class averages have been declining for the past few years by an expected one or two percent, given her, well, unique teaching style. However, Minerva, the average for her classes under your tutelage is declining by a staggering 12%.” Miriam said dryly.
“Well, new students come in and they need time. It’s only been a few weeks.”
Minerva tried to temper her defensiveness and the passion with which she wanted to decry this injustice. Those averages could have been easily upset at any point by a below average freshman class. Magic and especially Magic scholarship was not exactly drawing the cream of the crop from society anymore. Minerva had apparently gotten unlucky and the year she was finally accepted as a teacher was a year with some black sheep in it.
And yet, it was absolutely being used against her now! It felt like a terrible injustice.
She had to wonder whether there were ulterior motives for bringing up this topic.
“I understand, and I do not hold it against you. I am just saying, I expect great things from you and from the class of 1998, as I do every year. And having had a few incidents with this class this year, I was inclined to review its performance, and I saw this pattern.”
“I feel I have gone above and beyond to do what I can for my students.” Minerva replied, trying to keep herself cool and professional. “I have more office hours than any of my colleagues, and Professor Kolsa and I have developed a very student-friendly unit plan.”
Beatrix smiled and waved as if asked to. Miriam grunted at her as if to preempt her.
“I recognize and applaud that. Believe me, I am not holding you to a different standard.” Miriam said. “In fact, I too have gone above and beyond and identified the predominant cause of this trend. You have one student in particular, who is troubled and troubling.”
She handed Minerva a folder and Minerva took it and opened it, to find a photograph of a young woman with purple-streaked twintails, pearly-pink skin, amber eyes, dressed just a bit messily. It was Lyudmilla Kholodova, a recent immigrant from Rus-Moroz according to her file. Minerva knew her grades were not good, but she expected her to swing up soon. It felt just a little harsh to judge her like this so early on in the semester.
“She transferred here with a special status, along with a few other refugees.” Miriam said. “It was good P.R., but now it’s on us to make sure she doesn’t just coast by. It’s regrettable but she seems to be setting herself up for failure. She needs supervision.”
“That’s a little harsh.” Beatrix said suddenly, airing Minerva’s thoughts. “This girl is a student like any other. And this is a University, we’re all adults here. I think Lyudmilla ill deserves this treatment. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d think you were being bias, Mir.”
Miriam glared at Beatrix. “It’s your fault predominantly that she is not acclimating well! So be quiet. We keep tabs on special students. This is a prestigious institution with a strong reputation, I’ve told you this before. She will succeed at her classes, and you will make sure of that, Beatrix. Or I guess, effectively, Minerva will make sure. I trust her.”
Beatrix gave a sympathetic look toward poor Minerva, who did not respond in kind.
The Department Head very deliberately took back all the files and stowed them away.
“I didn’t just do this at random. Minerva and Lyudmilla may be worlds apart in many respects, but I feel they can bond over some common experiences. Minerva is the best mentor for this young, troubled girl. I am sure of it, and I am sure it’s for the best.”
Minerva sighed. At the end of the day, it was all indeed about her race and status.
Unlike Miriam and Beatrix, who could well pass to anyone as simply “white Otrarians,” Minerva was one of the Alwi. Her mixed race was engraved in the color of her skin, the slightly fussy texture and behavior of her hair, among other things. There were other, more sensitive reasons that made her different, but this was the obvious one. Before she was a woman, before she was an Otrarian, before she was a magician, she would always be an Alwi. And it was even more obvious in the National than it was anywhere else.
“Be proud! The First Alwi Magician of the Otrarian National Academy, will take on the first Alwi-taught Apprentice! It would be historical if I wasn’t trying to keep it low-key.”
Miriam smiled and stretched a hand out over the desk and Minerva shook it dejectedly.
“All of the paperwork is in the process of being done.” She said. “You will all be notified.”
Beatrix clapped a little and mumbled a little ‘yay!’ and Miriam scowled at her in return.
Minerva and Beatrix then left the anthropology department side by side, having both essentially gotten slapped on the wrist given the sheer nonsense that Beatrix had decided to do. In the grand scheme of things they were unscathed, but Minerva was troubled by this idea of apprenticeship, of being a mentor. Ambling out of the old building and into the wide open plaza across the street, they were both silent, Minerva having become absorbed in thinking about her own situation. It was not until Professor Kolsa patted her on the shoulder and back that she realized she had walked past the statue of Turrington.
Ahead of her, a bus came to a stop, picked up and dropped off no students, and then went on its way once again. Far in the distance, the yellow line of the sun split the heavens from the tops of the various National campus buildings encircling the park.
“Oh right. I think– no, that was not my bus.” Minerva said. “But we do part ways here.”
Minerva waved a half-hearted goodbye and made to sit down on the bench nearby.
Beatrix reached out a hand to stop her, wearing a nervous smile on her face.
“I apologize, Minerva. I had no idea she would respond like this.” Beatrix said.
“It’s fine.” Minerva said. “I’ve accepted you’re some force of nature I can’t control.”
“Aww, I think you’re very energetic too. Thank you.” Beatrix replied cheekily.
Minerva grumbled, but reciprocated the friendly pat on the shoulder that Beatrix had given her before. Beatrix in response took both of Minerva’s hands in her own, and Minerva did not break the touch or shrug her off. She smiled back just a little.
“Regardless of everything, you did splendidly today.” Beatrix said. “And though I may not seem like I would, I hope you know that I will do my very best to support you in all this.”
“I know you would.” Minerva said. “Though I question what you’d do to support me.”
“I’d go to great lengths. You’re a magnificent assistant. Plus, I’ve been a mentor before.”
“Well, thank you.” Minerva said. “For reference though, random stunts don’t help me.”
Beatrix’s smile turned into a fiendish grin.
“Well, well. You should know that like Miriam Hirch, I don’t do things randomly.”
She took off Minerva’s coat, and produced from the pocket a little booklet.
That had not been there when Minerva handed her the coat.
She handed the book to Minerva, who, sensing what it could be, did not open it.
“Tell your commanders it’s a little cheat sheet. They’ll understand the contents.”
Minerva blinked, looked down at the booklet, and sighed, stowing it away.
“I see you can be real tricky when you want to.” Minerva said. “Was it this morning?
“Trade secret. Listen: I don’t do this for just anyone.” Beatrix said, sticking her chest out.
Minerva grinned a little herself. Amazingly enough, she felt glad for Beatrix right then.