The wind whistled as the cowled figure stepped out across the timeless stone of the faculty floor. Soft footsteps brushed over the cinereal surface, moving from corner to corner. These corners were dominated by heavy candalabras, each constructed from the beams of the inn that had once stood upon this spot - the spot where millennia ago, the settlement of Meander had been formed.
Of course, Meander had come a long way since then. A simple village, a trading hub, a thriving port, a centre of commerce.
The figure paused only once, as though considering the time that had passed since Meander had come into being. In the mind, chronology streamed away relentlessly like vapour into the void. At the tapered end of that imagined surge, roughened skin cupped around tallow and wick, and fragile light gave birth to shadows. The wind briefly gained strength, only to die away to frigid whispers.
The city teemed and flowed, and with that flow came ideas. Meander became a haven of philosophy, a sanctum of knowledge. Wood yielded to marble, and air to glass. Small, unbidden embers burned in a hundred grates. That was when they built the Institute.
Only when all the candles had been lit did the figure approach the upturned steel coil that doubled as a throne at the end of the room. The figure rested lightly on the edge, testing the surface, and then flipped back her hood to reveal a cataract of auricomous hair. She glanced upwards, amused, to where the statue of a squid, carved from obsidian, stretched its tentacles into the air.
The Headmistress was home.
She set a tiny brazier down onto the coal table before her and crushed sandalwood bark and powdered mhiatic into the bowl with her thumb. When she was done, she touched the surface with the index finger from each hand, and the bowl began to glow. In a minute or two, the aroma filled the enclosed space and she allowed her shoulders to settle.
The delta surrounding the city was rich, the farmlands fecund. The granaries filled and the specialists thrived. In this most golden of ages, The Institute produced the first of the Great Reports. Four calling birds, four houses. Four classes of people.
The masses, strong, uncomplicated, infinitely fertile, with shoulders that carried the world. They encompassed all roles from simple farmhands and fishermen to the rawhide tanners that coloured the markets with their wares, but their first leaders were the buttermakers and the bakers. They became House ButterTart.
There was a knock at the door. The Headmistress said, 'Enter.'
The dark-skinned man that came into the chamber was so immense that he had to unfold himself after stepping across the threshold. His muscles shone beneath a threadbare shirt and loose cotton shorts, and he wore light moccasins upon his feet. A bright scarf was tied around his stubbled head.
The Headmistress nodded. 'You are welcome, Representative.'
'Zakaria Al-Aymane, of House ButterTart. I offer you greetings, Headmistress.'
'Your greetings are acknowledged and appreciated, Representative. What can my humble house offer the people of ButterTart?'
Zakaria opened his hands like a salesman offering wares. 'What can you offer, Headmistress? Why, you can offer the things that rich men have refused to poor men since society began. The people want work, they want security, and they want freedom.'
'The people of ButterTart already have the freedoms of association and action. What more does a citizen in possession of aspiration desire?'
Zakaria counted the freedoms in the palm of his hand. 'Freedom from poverty, and freedom from fear, to name but two. But you should know that there is more to freedom than an individual's choice for themselves. There are the choices they would make for their children, and for those generations still to come.'
'I trust that the workers are making ample provision for those future generations.'
Zakaria grinned, showing off a single jewelled tooth. 'We make our sacrifices so that others may better themselves, 'tis true. But well you should remember, Headmistress, that a leader rules with the permission of the people. Heed this advice, for we will not long tolerate tyranny.'
The Headmistress raised a single immaculate eyebrow. 'Your warning is heeded, Representative, and the strength of a thousand years of mutual respect and teamwork between our Houses should serve as evidence that you can trust my word. Rest assured that the well-being of your people is uppermost in my thoughts.'
Zakaria observed the remainder of the formal obligations and left, closing the door softly behind him. The Headmistress regarded his warning as the posturing it surely was. Yet, if anyone could marshal the masses, it would be Zakaria. He was handsome, charismatic, and she had heard rumours that he was father to a dozen children. Like a dysfunctional family, the members of House ButterTart were wild, furious, uncontrollable. But if their power could be focused, it could overwhelm the other Houses in a day.
That day had not yet come.
The Headmistress stared into the glowing bowl before her. The concoction within fizzed and smoked. The Headmistress' mind swirled, and she was once again within the rainbow flow of time. Angry shouts echoed into the abyss. Embers became flames within a thousand brick hearths. Minds once devoted to the accumulation of wisdom swelled instead with ambition and avarice.
There was another knock at the door. This time the Headmistress did not look up. 'Enter.'
This figure was well-known to the headmistress. Melania Wittgenstein of House Bleeding Moon sidled inside and glanced around nervously. Her pallid demeanour might have been frustrating to some, but the Headmistress had not risen to Head of the Faculty without a natural gift for diplomacy. Rather than hurry the other woman, she waited as long as was necessary for her to feel comfortable.
The traders and the artisans, creative and shrewd. The landowners, the lobbyists and the makers of laws. The explorers that went to the corners of the earth, the wide-eyed wonderers that looked to the heavens. All were given to House Bleeding Moon.
Wittgenstein introduced herself and her house in clipped tones. She had dark, perfectly-straight hair and tended towards consumptive, with the narrow bones in her wrists particularly prominent. A network of blue veins ran across her pale skin, spiderwebbing in her temples and the backs of her hands. Her eyes searched constantly in all directions. Despite this, the Headmistress knew that her brain was needle-sharp, and afforded her respect accordingly.
'It is a pleasure to see you again, Representative.'
Melania glanced around. 'Headmistress, I am concerned that we are not alone.'
The Headmistress flicked the edge of the glowing bowl that was sat between them, letting out a dull tone that reverberated around for a few seconds. She tipped her head and listened. When she was satisfied, she met the other woman's eye.
'You need not be concerned, Representative. Now tell me - what does House Bleeding Moon require?'
'Guarantees, Headmistress, such as only you can give. If the city is to truly thrive, we must be sure that our pioneering spirits are rewarded for their investments. Corporate power is waning, and in its stead, there will be a vacuum that is unhealthy for all parties. We need to be able to market our goods and services, and to create the demand where it does not already exist.'
'The lobbyists within your ranks are already champions at exploiting opportunity.' The Headmistress studied her nails. 'Surely you agree that rewards are to be earned, not provided?'
'Stability cannot be taken for granted,' Melania advised. 'Tariffs from abroad already threaten our prosperity and to make matters worse, we are concerned that the workers become too bold.'
'I don't know what you mean.'
The Headmistress had never truly seen another person splutter until that moment. Despite her distaste for intervention in inter-House affairs, she had to admire Melania's horrified protestations.
'It is Zakaria, Headmistress! He fills the workers' heads with nonsense. Tells them that they can be kings...he has no respect for the natural order of things!'
The Headmistress smirked. She was remembering Zakaria's vast frame, his absolute confidence as he warned the ruler of the consequences of not following his advice. And those muscles...
She sighed and came back to the present. 'What would you have me do?'
'Rein him in,' Melania hissed. 'Surely you must appreciate the potential problems of allowing any House to dictate to the others.'
The Headmistress was aware of this, of course, but she wondered if House Bleeding Moon was aware of the ironic nature of its own stance. 'I will deal with Zakaria. Think no more upon it. And now, if there is nothing else?'
'If the Headmistress would consider it, House Bleeding Moon would appreciate guarantees of minimum prices for our goods...'
Affairs risked becoming bogged down in trivial detail, and the meeting was quickly adjourned. Melania fussed as she withdrew, and she stopped once again in the doorway to look around, before seeming to feel that any potential danger was lessened by leaving.
The Headmistress ran a finger around the steaming bowl, feeling the heat surge up her arm and the raised skin forming a welt on the tip of the digit. Then out of nowhere, she snapped her fingers, causing the light to briefly flare. A figure, dressed all in grey, was standing just a few feet from her desk.
Wherever there is light, there is shadow. The two are like lovers, walking hand-in-hand. And wherever there are shadows, there are those willing to hide in them. As progress determined, the city grew and developed, but there had always been those that fate left behind.
House JaBooty was home to the beggars and the nightwalkers, those who were light on their feet, and desired to lighten the purses of others. Those who caused pain, and those who treated it. Those who lived by swords and cudgels, broken souls that yearned for war.
Those who were victims of a terrible genetic plague that destroyed their bodies, survivors who prospered only thanks to their unique skills and steely determination.
'Your presence is appreciated, Representative, but decorum strongly suggests that you should enter the sanctum only after the others have left.'
The laugh that answered her could best be described as gravelly, vocal pressure forcing itself out of the tortured tubes that made up the throat of the figure before her. 'If we agreed to that, how would we know what was being discussed?'
The Headmistress knew the greyshirted figure only as Ken-Ken, though her sources advised that he also answered to the name 'Null'. It was a tradition within House JaBooty for the members to take new names, ones that played down their former personalities and reduced them to nothing. Beneath the bandages that covered Ken-Ken's face, the Headmistress could see sores and rapidly-decomposing skin.
Even though she had known Ken-Ken was there all along, the Headmistress was surprised to find him so close to her desk. It was a rare and delicious feeling, not knowing everything. Realising that she could still be discomfited was a reminder that she had not ascended, and was still every bit a living human being as those she greeted.
Though were they human, the JaBooty? The silence was lengthening, and their representative had not moved so much as an inch.
'Tell me,' she said, 'what does House JaBooty want?'
'Power,' the figure said, in a voice like the rustling of dead leaves.
The Headmistress stared into the darkness. 'And how do you propose to achieve that, Representative?'
'However the opportunity presents. Whenever there is darkness, we shall rest within it. Wherever another House shows weakness, we will exploit it.'
A thousand hearths became a million communal smokeshafts, and the shadows that grew from them became large indeed. Shape us, they called. Lead us, for we are many, and our hunger is great.
'I rather like House JaBooty,' the Headmistress whispered, 'if only because your goals are so transparent and single-mindedly pursued.'
Ken-Ken said, 'I couldn't help but hear that you are having some trouble with a man called Zakaria. If you wish it, House JaBooty could see to it that this problem is appropriately resolved.'
'Rest assured,' the Headmistress snapped, 'that if I decide to take that course of action, you will be the first to know.'
Even as she finished speaking, the Headmistress admonished herself for betraying an emotion. It was unbecoming of a woman in her position, and that only magnified her irritation to a further degree.
After an appropriate time had passed, she said, 'Do not let me detain you, Representative.' The shadows licked at the walls, and laughed like hyenas. The next sound that she heard was hissing, and the gaseous form of Representative Ken-Ken disappeared through the keyhole at the other end of the room. The Headmistress let out the breath she had been holding.
Above the now-empty space, past the obsidian squid, the heraldic shield of the city had pride of place above the door. Next to the horseman archer, the trumpeteer and the curved-blade-and-star that represented the other Houses, the image of the feline was that of her own House, TacoCat.
They were the leaders, the rulers, those marked by divine right. Those that planned for the day when a million smokestacks would become a ship to the stars.
TacoCats were the only ones who really understood the responsibility, and for that realisation, they became as Gods.
'Are you ready?' she whispered to the smouldering bowl.
'Yes,' the fire replied.
Eudaimonia awaited, and the Headmistress was impatient.