A Matter of Discipline

Magery student Amber Wardell wants to learn more about water, air and fire so she can draw realistic illusions—and is tired of staying within the bounds of earth. In a moment of rebellion while practicing illusions, she accidently brings to life a tiny dragon called a firethorn. Its startled belch of fire sets a compost pile on fire. Amber’s efforts to put out the flames fail. Instructor Master Garnock discovers the situation and douses the blaze, then tells Amber to follow him as he strides back to Frayne Hall.

Genre: fantasy
Opening scene: no
Author: anonymous
Hover over text removed and text added below to see reasons for the suggested changes, as well as overall comments.


Original Scene

Archmage Tremaine was not in his office when they got there, but was expected back soon.

“We’ll wait,” Master Garnock informed the head clerk—who smiled kindly at Master Garnock as he showed them into the inner chamber. Master Garnock was a favorite among the staff as well as the students, and the benches in the outer office were notoriously hard and stiff on the backside.

Amber had been in this room only once before, on the day she applied for admittance. Armed only with a letter of recommendation from Thrael, the mage who served her father’s liege, she had traveled downriver here to Harken-on-Aise with a party of merchants. On that first day, she had been far too nervous to look around the chamber. Even though she was nervous now as well, she was badly in need of distraction.

It was a large room with tall ceilings and ornate carvings. Light from the setting sun streamed in through three windows that looked west over wide lawns that sloped down to the Aise River. A fourth window faced south onto the front courtyard.

The Archmage’s desk was a masterpiece of carpentry. It seemed to have no seams, no joints—as if it had grown into its current form instead of being shaped with saws and planes and chisels. A few scrolls and parchments were scattered on its top and several thick tomes were stacked on one corner, but the desk was not in true disarray. It was more as if he had been studying intently when called away on some other business.

Dust motes gleamed in the shaft of sunlight. It was so peaceful here, so quiet and contemplative. Amber began to hope that her summons here would not be a complete disaster.

“Master Garnock? Miss Wardell?” The Archmage’s voice sounded surprised as he closed the massive door behind him. His long black robes swirled around his tall, thin body. His thatch of auburn hair had gone silver at the temples.

“We have a serious problem, I’m afraid,” Master Garnock said. “Miss Wardell summoned a firethorn this afternoon, and it set fire to the compost pile. The entire garden could have been lost.”

“I was about to send for help,” Amber protested as the word summoned echoed through her startled brain—though she didn’t know how else the dragon could have arrived. “I wouldn’t have let it burn.”

The Archmage came farther into the room, up to where Amber sat clutching her cloak, and took it gently from her fingers. She watched him examine the ashen scorch marks in the sodden wool. He pursed his lips, frowned, and raised one eyebrow toward Master Garnock. “A firethorn? You are quite sure?”

“I dismissed it myself.”

The Archmage nodded. “I see.” Then he turned to Amber and his gaze seemed sad.

“I didn’t realize it was a summoning,” Amber said, the words tumbling out of her mouth. “I was practicing illusions. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known—you’ve got to believe me . . .”

“But it was a firethorn?” the Archmage asked.

Amber nodded.

“And you are of course aware of the proper progression . . . ?” Each word fell from his lips like separate drops into a pool: “Earth . . . water . . . air . . . fire?”

Amber nodded again, feeling completely miserable.

The Archmage sighed. “Well then. Now you know one of the reasons for that progression—to prevent eager novices from plunging into realms they cannot control.”

“I won’t do it again.”

“No, I don’t suppose you will.”

But his tone didn’t sound encouraging. He went to his desk and placed his palms together in a way that at first suggested prayer, but then opened his hands as if hinged at the pinkies like a book—or like the folder that appeared on the desk just below his hands. He picked the folder up and began to read. Amber didn’t need to be told that it described her recent history at the Hall. All too soon, he waved the folder away and it disappeared with a slight POP.

He stood there in silence for a moment, looking thoughtfully at Amber. Then he moved over to one of the windows overlooking the lawn and gestured for her to join him.

“See the ruins over there by the riverbank?” he asked her.

A tall tree shaded a rectangle of tumbled rocks at the northern end of the lawn. A jagged stone spire that had once been a chimney rose from the middle of the site. The ground inside the rectangle seemed sunken, lower than the surrounding lands, and was overgrown with ferns and grasses. The ruins had once housed the alchemy lab. Speculation was rife among the novices as to what had caused the sudden explosion all those years ago.

“When I came here as a young Master, that was my specialty. There was a student . . . young, talented, promising—and impulsive. Very much like you. Tyrus wanted to experiment, try new things. And I encouraged him.”

The Archmage said nothing more, just stared at the ruins. Amber shivered in her damp clothes, waiting. The silence was making her skin crawl. She had to know. Had to ask.

“What happened?”

“He blew it up. Seven students died in the explosion, and one of the Masters.”

A shocked noise came from behind them. Apparently Master Garnock hadn’t known about this either.

“Twenty more people were injured,” the Archmage continued, “including myself.” He rubbed absently at a jagged scar along his wrist. “That’s why we have rules. So nothing like that will ever happen again.”

“But—why don’t you tell people? Explain what happened?” Master Garnock asked. “It would help them understand why we have rules.”

The Archmage turned to Master Garnock, his eyes flashing. “It was common knowledge. Everyone knew. Besides—rules are made to be followed, not questioned. Especially by a student, no matter how talented. If everyone questioned the rules, pretty soon we’d be back in the mumbo-jumbo times. Magic based on superstition. Rituals and chants instead of reason.”

“But if the students understood the reasons—”

The Archmage glared, and Master Garnock’s cheeks flushed red. An uneasy silence filled the room. The Archmage turned to Amber.

“Miss Wardell, suppose someone had told you what happened in those ruins. Perhaps one of the Masters . . . another student . . . would you have acted differently? Would that knowledge have stopped you today?”

Amber wanted desperately to think so—she knew it should have stopped her—and wanted desperately to say, Yes, I wouldn’t have done it—but she couldn’t. Feeling utterly downcast and miserable, she shook her head.

Archmage Tremaine looked back at Master Garnock and waved a hand as if to say, “You see?”

“But of course we can’t stop them,” the younger man said. “We shouldn’t try. It only drives them underground—to cellars and compost piles and such. We should guide them, give them direction and supervision so they know the dangers—”

“I did! Tyrus was not experimenting in a void!”

“But . . . you can’t possibly know what caused the explosion.”

“Ah, but I do. We scried the ashes. He was obsessed with the idea of making pure water. Apparently he tried to burn hydrogen—and succeeded all too well.”

“That’s still no reason to insist that everybody follow the exact same path of learning, to stifle their creativity and curiosity—”

“No one is talking about stifling creativity!”

Master Garnock’s cheeks again turned red. “No, of course not, sir. I only meant—”

“It’s the same as music—or masonry.” Archmage Tremaine’s red thatch of hair bobbed impatiently on his forehead. “You cannot break the rules until you know the rules—and that means following a certain order, a certain structure. It takes discipline, not indulging one’s impulses in helter-skelter fashion.”

The Archmage turned back to Amber. “Do you see, my dear?”

She didn’t, not really, but she nodded anyway, waiting for the axe to fall. His voice was the velvet that hid an iron fist. She knew he would not waver. What would it be? Restricted to quarters? Kitchen duty for a month?

“The firethorn is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s a question of discipline. Whether or not you will follow a Master’s direction even if you don’t know the reasons for an instruction.”

She nodded again. Just say it, she thought. Tell me and get it over with.

“You are hereby suspended from this institution.”

Amber heard a shocked “No!” from Master Garnock, but it barely registered.

“When you can demonstrate that you are both willing and able to control your impulses and follow direction, you may apply for reinstatement. Until then, your name will be posted in the Guildhall as anstruchen.”

Which meant no one in the Guild could teach her—no one!

Amber nodded. Swallowing the tears that were rising in her throat, Amber managed to say, “Can I go now?”

“I do hope you choose to reapply next Fruitmoon,” the Archmage told her. “Your talent is most promising.” He paused, looking expectantly at her, but she had no words, nothing to say past the pain in her chest.

He sighed. “Yes, you may leave now.”

She clutched her cloak and dashed for the door.

“Amber! Wait!” Master Garnock called after her.

He probably wanted to help, but it was too late. She felt like a scalded cat and desperately wanted a place to hide and lick her wounds in peace. Amber fled to the garret room and tossed her books and notes into her trunk, along with her meager supply of clothing. Within half an hour, she had passed through a side gate into the larger world of Harken-on-Aise.

Suggested Revisions

Archmage Tremaine was not in his office when they got there, but was expected back soon.

“We’ll wait,” Master Garnock informed the head clerk—who smiled kindly at Master Garnock as he showed them into the inner chamber. Master Garnock was a favorite among the staff as well as the students, and the benches in the outer office were notoriously hard and stiff on the backside.

Amber had been in this room only once before, on the day she applied for admittance. Armed only with a letter of recommendation from Thrael, the mage who served her father’s liege, she had traveled downriver here to Harken-on-Aise with a party of merchants. On that first day, she had been far too nervous to look around the chamber. Even though she was nervous now as well, she was badly in need of distraction.

Tall ceilings and ornate carvings dominated the large room. Light from the setting sun streamed in through three windows that looked west over wide lawns that sloped down to the Aise River. A fourth window faced south onto the front courtyard.

The Archmage’s desk had no seams, no joints—as if it had sprouted into its current form instead of being shaped with saws and planes and chisels. A few scrolls and parchments were scattered on its top and several thick tomes were stacked on one corner.

 

 

Dust motes gleamed in the shaft of sunlight. The quiet, contemplative mood of the chamber lightened Amber’s spirit. She began to hope that her summons here would not be a complete disaster.

“Master Garnock? Miss Wardell?” The Archmage’s voice sounded surprised as he came inside, then closed the massive door behind him. His long black robes swirled around his tall, thin body. His thatch of auburn hair had gone silver at the temples.

“We have a serious problem, I’m afraid,” Master Garnock said. “Miss Wardell summoned a firethorn this afternoon, and it set fire to the compost pile. The entire garden could have been lost.”

“I was about to send for help,” Amber protested as the word summoned echoed through her startled brain—though she didn’t know how else the dragon could have arrived. “I wouldn’t have let it burn.”

The Archmage came to where Amber sat clutching her cloak and took it gently from her fingers. She watched him examine the ashen scorch marks in the sodden wool. He pursed his lips, frowned, and raised one eyebrow toward Master Garnock. “A firethorn? You are quite sure?”

“I dismissed it myself.”

The Archmage nodded. “I see.” Then he turned to Amber and his gaze seemed sad.

“I didn’t realize it was a summoning,” Amber said, the words tumbling out of her mouth. “I was practicing illusions. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known—you’ve got to believe me . . .”

“But it was a firethorn?” the Archmage asked.

Amber nodded.

“And you are of course aware of the proper progression . . . ?” Each word fell from his lips like separate drops into a pool: “Earth . . . water . . . air . . . fire?”

Amber nodded again, feeling completely miserable.

The Archmage sighed. “Well then. Now you know one of the reasons for that progression—to prevent eager novices from plunging into realms they cannot control.”

“I won’t do it again.”

“No, I don’t suppose you will.”

But his tone didn’t sound encouraging. He went to his desk and placed his palms together in a way that at first suggested prayer, but then opened his hands as if hinged at the pinkies like a book—or like the parchment that appeared on the desk just below his hands. He picked the document up and began to read. Amber didn’t need to be told that it described her recent history at the Hall. All too soon, he waved the parchment away and it disappeared with a slight POP.

He stood there in silence for a moment, looking thoughtfully at Amber. Then he moved over to one of the windows overlooking the lawn and gestured for her to join him.

“See the ruins by the riverbank?” he asked her.

A tall tree shaded a rectangle of tumbled rocks at the northern end of the lawn. A jagged stone spire that had once been a chimney rose from the middle of the site. The ground inside the rectangle seemed sunken, and was overgrown with ferns and grasses. The ruins had once housed the alchemy lab. Speculation was rife among the novices as to what had caused the sudden explosion all those years ago.

 

“When I came here as a young Master, alchemy was my specialty. There was a studentyoung, talented, promising—and impulsive. Very much like you. Tyrus wanted to experiment, try new things. I encouraged him.”

The Archmage said nothing more, just stared at the ruins. Amber shivered in her damp clothes, waiting. The silence made her skin crawl. She had to know. Had to ask.

“What happened?”

“He blew it up. Seven students died in the explosion, and one of the Masters.”

A shocked noise came from behind them. Apparently Master Garnock hadn’t known about this either.

“Twenty more people were injured,” the Archmage continued, “including myself.” He rubbed absently at a jagged scar along his wrist. “That’s why we have rules. So nothing like that will ever happen again.”

“But—why don’t you tell people?” Master Garnock asked. “Explain what happened? It would help them understand why we have rules.”

The Archmage turned to Master Garnock, his eyes flashing. “It was common knowledge. Everyone knew. Besides—rules are made to be followed, not questioned. Especially by a student, no matter how talented. If everyone questioned the rules, pretty soon we’d be back in the mumbo-jumbo times. Magic based on superstition. Rituals and chants instead of reason.”

“But if the students understood the reasons—”

The Archmage glared, and Master Garnock’s cheeks flushed red. An uneasy silence filled the room. The Archmage turned to Amber.

“Miss Wardell, suppose someone had told you what happened in those ruins. Perhaps one of the Masters . . . another student . . . would you have acted differently? Would that knowledge have stopped you today?”

Amber wanted desperately to think so. She knew it should have stopped her. She opened her mouth to lie, to say, Yes, I wouldn’t have done it—but the words wouldn’t come out. Feeling utterly downcast and miserable, she shook her head.

Archmage Tremaine looked back at Master Garnock and waved a hand as if to say, “You see?”

“But of course we can’t stop them,” the younger man said. “We shouldn’t try. It only drives them underground—to cellars and compost piles and such. We should guide them, give them direction and supervision so they know the dangers—”

“I did! Tyrus was not experimenting in a void!”

“But . . . you can’t possibly know what caused the explosion.”

“Ah, but I do. We scried the ashes. He was obsessed with the idea of making pure water. Apparently he tried to burn hydrogen—and succeeded all too well.”

“That’s still no reason to insist that everybody follow the exact same path of learning, to stifle their creativity and curiosity—”

“No one is talking about stifling creativity!”

Master Garnock’s cheeks again turned red. “No, of course not, sir. I only meant—”

“It’s the same as music—or masonry.” Archmage Tremaine’s red thatch of hair bobbed impatiently on his forehead. “You cannot break the rules until you know the rules—and that means following a certain order, a certain structure. It takes discipline, not indulging one’s impulses in helter-skelter fashion.”

The Archmage turned back to Amber. “Do you see, my dear?”

She didn’t, not really, but she nodded anyway, waiting for the axe to fall. His voice was the velvet that hid an iron fist. She knew he would not waver. What would it be? Restricted to quarters? Kitchen duty for a month?

“The firethorn is merely a symptom of a deeper problem,” he continued. “It’s a question of discipline. Whether or not you will follow a Master’s direction even if you don’t know the reasons for an instruction.”

She nodded again. Just say it, she thought. Tell me and get it over with.

“You are hereby suspended from this institution.”

Amber heard a shocked “No!” from Master Garnock, but it barely registered.

“When you can demonstrate that you are both willing and able to control your impulses and follow direction, you may apply for reinstatement. Until then, your name will be posted in the Guildhall as anstruchen.”

Which meant no one in the Guild could teach her—no one!

Amber nodded. Swallowing the tears that rose in her throat, Amber managed to say, “Can I go now?”

“I do hope you choose to reapply next Fruitmoon,” the Archmage told her. “Your talent is most promising.” He paused, watching her with gleaming eyes, but she had no words, nothing to say past the pain in her chest.

He sighed. “Yes, you may leave now.”

She clutched her cloak and dashed for the door.

“Amber! Wait!” Master Garnock called after her.

He probably wanted to help, but it was too late. She felt like a scalded cat and desperately wanted a place to hide and lick her wounds. Amber fled to the garret room and tossed her books and notes into her trunk, along with her meager supply of clothing. Moments later, she trudged through a side gate into the larger world of Harken-on-Aise.


Critique

Overall: Many elements in this scene appeal to me. I like Amber’s character. As the Archmage says, she is impulsive—also ambitious and talented and rebellious. Her own actions lead to the change in her circumstances, even though I agree with Garnock that the Archmage is over reacting. However, we see WHY the Archmage’s reaction is so intense, and also see the difference in teaching philosophy between the two instructors. Also, the dialogue sounds like real people, and the scene certainly has conflicting goals with a struggle between them.

Craftsmanship: The sentences are well crafted and clear.

Setting & Sensory Details: The world is well drawn, although a few more sensory details would be good. Add some smells and texture. Include a few details on Garnock and Amber’s appearance as well—building on or reminding us of their descriptions in the earlier chapter(s).

POV: We are solidly inside Amber’s skin.

Dialogue: The Archmage has his own voice, but Garnock and Amber sound pretty much the same. Develop a different voice for Garnock, something that reflects his background and personal goals.

Conflict: While the scene does contain conflict, most of it is between Garnock and the Archmage. See Problems, below.

Stakes & Tension: We know that Amber is likely to be disciplined in some fashion, and wonder what the outcome will be. The tension would be heightened if she ponders this at the outset of the scene instead of near the end—especially if the reader can see what Amber does not: the consequence will be worse than she imagines. But help us feel her dread more intensely. Have her think about being restricted to quarters and what that would feel like, or being stuck with kitchen duty, the two fates she does anticipate.

Sequel: The sequel needs further development, especially since this moment launches her struggle for the rest of the story. We have her feelings (scalded cat) and what she wants next (a place to hide and lick her wounds), but no dilemma (what will she do now that she is no longer in school) and no decision on what she will do next. Does she want to try for reinstatement in Fruitmoon as the Archmage suggests? Or something else? We have only her action of going out into the larger world. (See elements of a sequel.)

Core Problem & Recommendation:

The struggle is between Garnock and the Archmage, rather than Amber and the Archmage. Amber does nothing to try to persuade the Archmage to let her stay in school. Also, would Garnock really go so far out on a limb to protect Amber? This level of disagreement with the Archmage puts Garnock’s job at risk.

Make Amber more proactive. She needs to have a goal going into this scene.

Have her struggle with the Archmage to stay in school. She could promise to behave, plead for a lesser penalty. Give Garnock a different goal in line with his own self-interest. Yes, he can support Amber’s struggle, but his actions need to be more in service of what he wants to achieve in his own life.


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