In the lull between bells, the campus walks were deserted and their scent trails stale, the pupils all in their classes this late morning. They worked them hard at the College of Mages, and no student would have a break until after a lunch of bread and fishy oil and the moments they could snatch for chatting, flirtation, naps, or mischief, before they were forced to plod on to other debates in other classrooms.
The sunlight was weak in this place, a thin draught of heat unlike the fierce burn of home, particularly in this late spring. The Sphinx lay on a stone slab outside the Hall of Instruction, wishing for the comfortable give of sand and listening to the voices from inside: an instructor teaching her first year pupils about the Lists.
The Sphinx combed her hair with a paw. Black strands, dull from infrequent brushing, had fallen in front of her face — discolored claws slid through them, dirt-darkened to a matching color. A fly crawled across her tawny flank, and her limber tail swatted it away as she listened.
“How do we know,” a student asked. “What is Beast and what is Man?”
The instructor’s voice was mild, although she had answered this question before at the lecture’s beginning. “The races that are Human and the races that are Beasts are set forth in the Lists.”
“What if the listmakers were wrong?” a student asked. There was brief, shocked silence at the words before the instructor said “We do not believe that they were wrong.”
The words’ quiet conviction made her hackles rise, the fine fur at the nape of her neck, where it shaded between hair and mane, bristle. Irked and restless, she rose, abandoning her puddle of sunlight to move along the gravel paths of the College, in and out of the pine and cedar shadows.
An itch between the pads of her paws, furry grooves full of sensitive hairs, told her that somewhere in the crypts below the college, Carolus was teaching a class on summoning ghosts. There was electricity and regret in the air, and spiritual energy stirred on the breeze, pulled here and there by forces of attraction and repulsion.
A wiggle of ectoplasm circled her ear, an incipient ghost trying to figure out whether or not it wanted to be born. Another flick of her tufted tail, as big as a fat feast carp, dispelled it back into shredded wisps, and it did not reform as she passed out of range.
She patrolled along the high iron fence that kept the townsfolk out and the students in, intricate ironwork that held containment sigils, woven together so thick and strong that passing through the gates felt like sliding through velvet and steel curtains, heavy weights catching at her. She resisted their impediment to pause outside, surveying the street.
Only one passerby paid her much attention – some northerner newly come to town, country dust still thick on him and his eyes wide with wonder at the city’s nature as it unfolded strange thing after strange thing. Including her, who he eyed with trepidation as he moved along the street. He was a mouse, a boy who would snap beneath one pounce. His clothes were not a farmer’s, but the robes of a Temple acolyte, stiff with newness — just accepted and still learning his way around.
She watched him with her wide golden eyes, knowing their unnerving nature. Outside the city, Beasts were more dangerous – her uncanny fellows stalked the humans through the wilderness, and claimed hundreds each year, but she had become Civilized in her role as the doyenne of the College of Mages. She was legendary to the students — generations had tried to evade her detection when sneaking in or out of the grounds. Though she was forbidden to harm them, they acted as though she would. As though she was still dangerous.
Perhaps she was.
Cat Rambo’s fiction has appeared in such places as Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, and Weird Tales, among others. Her collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, is available on Amazon.com. She is the managing editor of Fantasy Magazine.