Itinerant lifestyles & moments of clarity about powerlessness

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


The worst part of her graduation stint as an itinerant mage was when the aether winds shifted and the cold rain burned her aura away. Without magic or the trappings of her Collegium robes, people always pegged her for a vagrant.

Emily wondered if her peers realized it was the Collegium's most important lesson.


After I wrote The Black Stones of Sanctuary, I knew I needed to do more to flesh out the Collegium of Tal. I discussed university experiences with friends from a wide range of professions, and ultimately realized how much I want to showcase how much I value "practicum" and "apprenticeship" type experiences.

I didn't want my showcase to be mundane, though. The Collegium is a sanctuary and training ground for mages — its final training exercise should involve something a little more interesting than a practice tour of duty. More fantastical, as it were.

When we talk about our long-term parenting goals, my husband sometimes tells the story of how valuable his teenaged experiences volunteering to help with projects like Habitat for Humanity were. They gave him a better understanding of parts of society he might have otherwise remained ignorant of. Other friends talk about early internships that exposed them to lifestyles and problems totally foreign tot heir upbringing.

In a similar vein, I've been reading a lot lately about how a characteristic of gifted individuals is that they are more open to experiences. Collegium mages are by definition exceptionally gifted. The Collegium, like all institutions, is imperfect — but at this point in the history of Verraine, it is doing its best to get its graduates to understand the realities of life beyond its walls.

It's hard to appreciate the advantages of your position unless you've experienced life without them. Emily's background (hinted at in The Black Stones of Sanctuary) was pretty rough. Enough so that such that she intuitively understands the lesson being taught by the Collegium:

When the trappings of power are stripped away, and you become suddenly vulnerable in an unexpected away, you may gain a better understanding of the underlying powerlessness of the human condition. Such moments offer clarity. They erode unthinking trust in institutions and create a mental habit of vigilance.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a moment of clarity (which is to say: a spike in stress levels) for many people, me included. I am not a social scientist, but I often speculate that this is a reason for the labor shortage I've been hearing about. I suspect that many people's pre-pandemic incomes were spent on things that were, when looked at from a cold-eyed survival perspective, unnecessary luxuries.

Kids who once would have been expected to get a job when they turned 18 are finding that their parents are willing to let them stay home (and unemployed) for longer. Many parents who once would have expected to send their children to daycare or school are finding it necessary or beneficial to stay home, even if that means slashing the household income. People who lost their jobs and were forced to cope by relying on community and alternate employment and tightened budgets are sometimes discovering that their new lifestyles are safer than getting a new job in their old field might be.

More importantly, some people are discovering that the institutions they once pretty much trusted can't necessarily be relied on to make ideal choices.

The Collegium of Tal was founded to protect and train mages. It exists to be their haven, and being a safe haven requires political power. It also requires its members to be committed to a common cause, which is easier when everyone knows the stakes. Forcing graduates to become itinerants for a time makes them understand in their bones how vulnerable they are alone, without the collective might of their fellows behind them.

It also prepares them for the possibility that the Collegium might one day fall. They might one day be forced to become itinerant mages in truth.

Used as a noun, the word itinerant means a person who travels from place to place. The classic example is itinerant traders, and it generally refers to people who have a nomadic lifestyle — although there are nuances to differentiate the two terms in English. Nomads are mostly associated with pastoralism, whereas itinerants are associated with vagrancy.

Vagrants, again by definition, are people without settled homes or "regular work" who travel from place to place, often surviving by begging or "tinker" type work. Some groups, such as the Irish Travelers and the Romani people, are associated with a "vagrant" lifestyle, and face negative stereotypes as a result.

One such individual is the protagonist of Vagrant, which I published in December.

There's also the "carney" lifestyle, which Seanan McGuire talks about often in the InCryptid series. Traveling carnivals and circuses (the most well-known of which is the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) involve communities that occupy a liminal space between "welcome" and "respected" for their hosts.

In the excellent Paladin's Strength by Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher), Doc Mason travels through villages and towns selling his "Astonishing Herbal Medicine" from a cart. The "medicine" is mostly flavored alcohol, and most of what he's selling is showmanship and entertainment. The protagonists help get his wagon wheel unstuck and accompany him for a while as a guard — because fundamentally, as much as the locals enjoy Doc Mason's wares, they also view him as an outsider and will not necessarily tolerate his presence for very long. He brings chaos that is welcome for a night of revelry, but represents too big a disruption to integrate easily into the local community.

Emily's situation is pretty similar, really.

At this time in Verraine's history, mages are still relatively rare, but the Collegium was founded after the Salted Wars. During the Salted Wars (mentioned in The Laundress & the Fungal Growth & Vulpine) it became abundantly clear that mages were not invulnerable — thanks to the murderously eugenic impulses of the Cult of Valor (mentioned in Shattered). Since mages are by definition dangerous and different, it's easy for them to become othered in a negative way once society no longer views them as divine.

The Collegium wants to teach this lesson early on, in the safest way possible, so that its members aren't caught flat-footed by the cold reality of how they might be treated if magely status stops being sufficient to protect them from the populace.

Of course, it also gives them empathy for (and a connection to) the otherwise powerless classes in Tal, which will become relevant in later stories...

As always, the more you let me know which storylines you'd like to see me work on, the more likely I am to focus on parts of Verraine you find interesting. If there's a character you want to know more about, or an event you're curious about the implications of, let me know. You can hit reply if you get this via email, or leave a comment if you're on the web version — I'll get an alert either way.


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