The professor held a candle before the class. With a sharp efficiency she lit it, and everyone watched the diminutive flame bend and flicker at the mercy of the room’s currents. Then the professor uttered a few words, lay the candle down on the floor, and raised her arms slowly. In a few blinks the classroom was engulfed in flames. Tongues of fire lashed against the walls. Waves of conflagration roiled across the carpet. Fiery clouds billowed across the ceiling. The blaze roared and pulsed with heat. No one moved a muscle. Pens poised, they watched to see what the professor would do.
What the professor did was close her eyes. A smile spread across her lips until it was a large grin, her teeth sparkling in the fire’s light. Then she brought her hands together and whispered a word, extinguish. That whispered word became a forceful gust of wind and just like that the flames were transformed into smoke and made a hasty retreat through an open window. The only remnant of the inferno was the candle—still on the floor—still tentatively burning—and which the professor picked up and extinguished casually. The most observant pupils noted that the wick had been restored so that it looked like a candle that had never burned.
Fire is a complicated element to master. Only the most advanced students were allowed in this class, and it was known (though never said) that a few of them might not survive the rigors of the course. This would be very unlike the water practicum. After a few days of instruction in liquids, even the most remedial pupil would be able to turn a tear into an ocean and back into a tear again. Fire was different. It was much more volatile, reacting strongly with even the faintest unbidden thought or uncontrolled emotion.
Fear, anger, doubt, jealousy, a reluctance to forgive—there were many obstacles and incendiary vices that could render someone incapable of flame mastery. Let your thoughts wander to fantasies containing your latest crush or allow your rumbling stomach to bring daydreams of gluttonous revelry to mind and…poof. Entertain any bitterness about how your sister always gets her way or your brother never gets the punishment he deserves and…kaboom! And should you be reduced to a pile of ash, it was a lengthy and expensive process to get you back. And upon your return you would be, well, different. You might find your new life exciting or unpredictably difficult.
In truth, it is not the flames themselves that are difficult to control. Fire is easier to conjure than a child’s smile and not significantly stronger. However, mastering fire has a prerequisite that daunts, dodges, and defies many—self-mastery. Only someone with complete self-control can equitably manage the light and the heat so that only what should burn burns. Those with short tempers or attention spans; those harboring lust, envy or hate; those who are inclined to indulge rather than show restraint; the proud; the conceited; the selfish; the afraid—many such and many more would never even be able to light or extinguish the candle on a birthday cake—aside from the conventional ways.
Students who survived—succeeded in—Flame Management 101 were then permitted to pursue a Master of Fire degree. Some were simply interested on an academic level and had no plans to use their skills professionally. However, the vast majority of them hoped to become ambassadors. This knowledge would prove essential in their diplomatic pursuits—for obvious reasons. However, one student in particular had a more personal motive for enrolling in this class. If she was to go free her family, mastering fire was an essential step on that path.