One of the four Great Academies of the Scarlet Empire, the Spiral Academy is the birthplace of bureaucrats, satraps, ministers and all manner of those who keep the Thousand Scales in smooth, seamless operation. Though it is physically the smallest of the Academies, it boasts one of the largest student bodies, boasting up to 250 students at any one time, and usually filled to capacity.
Of the four Academies, the Spiral Academy is also the only one located in the Imperial City itself. It sits in the bureaucratic heart of the Imperial City (and thus, the Empire), the Thousand Scales district. A pair of massive, square towers rise from a relatively small set of courtyards and gardens. These ten-story towers flank one of the major thoroughfares of the district - unlike the other Academies, it gives no impression of being remote or distant. It is undeniably part of the pulse of the city's infrastructure.
The school embraces a philosophy referred to as the Four Arts: referring to the four highest arts that any of the students of the Academy can aspire are calligraphy, poetry, music and Gateway. Each of these arts symbolize the traits deemed most desirable in an Imperial servant: penmanship and clarity of written communication (calligraphy); mental acuity and memorization (poetry); the ability to gauge an audience and express oneself well (music); and the ability to think critically and tactically, and to execute plans (Gateway).
Ragara Dinia runs the Spiral Academy with the care and precision of a shrewd merchant-prince. She is aware of the commodity her students represent, and makes sure that their time and efforts are well-reflected in her reports to the Thousand Scales. She is a severe woman, a Earth-aspected Exalt of just over a hundred years of age. Her hair is twisted and braided intricately and piled atop her head, and she wears bureaucrat's robes with buttons done up to just below her chin. She eschews cosmetics, though she does allow herself the vanity of a set of beautiful white jade and orichalcum fans.
The instructors of the Spiral Academy gather in traditional classrooms at the beginning and end of each project, first to teach the material necessary for the upcoming project, and then to go over where the project suffered. These are done lecture style, with the student expected to take notes in his Project Logs.
All other times, instruction is done one-on-one or in very small groups, and are truthfully more of a form of management than teaching. These sessions are precise and to the point about what is necessary to accomplish the goals laid before the student, and it is the student's responsibility to ask questions and do research into the task at hand.
Some noteworthy instructors of the Spiral Academy include:
- Ragara Calel Rentan: Professor Rentan is perhaps the best-liked of all the Spiral Academy's instructors; unsurprising, considering he is the Sponsor of the Mantle Creed, and the instructor of diplomacy, negotiation and similar social techniques. It is a running joke that all the girls (and no small swathe of the boys) are in love with Professor Rentan, and his students work hard in an effort to win his favor.
- Ledaal Nalina: The Sponsor of the Brush Creed is Professor Nalina, or "Silent Nalina" as she is sometimes referred to (outside of the hearing of any professors, of course). A silver-haired, ice-eyed beauty, she is quiet in her lectures and not particularly forthcoming with vocal praise or criticism. Her extensive notes in her students' Project Logs are always deeply instructional, however, as she pinpoints the specific weaknesses of that student and provides advice on how to fix it. The Brush Creed even keeps a secret journal where the Prefect of the Brush Creed writes down all the advice she gives to every student in the Creed throughout the year. There are years worth of valued advice in it, and it is considered something of a treasure by the Creed. Professor Nalina is also the author of a number of books in the Academy's library.
- Barinan Cyan: An Air-aspected Lost Egg from the Haslanti League, Cyan is considered eccentric and flighty. She also appreciates creative problem-solving and quick wits as applied to mercantile efforts. She is hands-down the best instructor of business skills, and it is said that House Nellens, House Ragara and House V'neef have all at one time or another attempted to win her away from the Academy. It is clear that she loves teaching too much to do any such thing, and her first loyalty is to the Spiral Academy. Cyan is also the Sponsor of the Brush Creed.
- Mnemon Serol: Professor Serol is a simple man with a granite-colored beard. Sponsor of the Stone Creed, he loves Gateway and plays it constantly; in fact, it's well known that he gives his students reviews, advice and criticism over a game of Gateway. Serol teaches organizational skills, the execution of plans and those skills and techniques that require some measure of forethought.
Even before they are accepted, students are given rigorous testing to determine how strong their affinity for the Four Arts are. These tests, which involve both artistic and academic rigors, determine which Creed new students are assigned to: the Creed of the Brush, the Creed of the Mantle, the Creed of the Bell and the Creed of the Stone. A student remains in the Creed he is fitted into for the whole of his academic career.
Accolades and high marks are not given to individuals, but to Creeds. This is believed to teach the students of the Spiral Academy that their individual victories matter little - it is only the success of one's organization, ministry or bureaucracy that counts. Low marks and failures are likewise given to the Creed, and it is expected that each Creed shall deal with failure on the parts of its members according to their own traditions, from the public humiliation and shunning of the Sanxian Creed to the more violent beatings administered by the Stone Creed.
Each Creed is run by a Prefect, a seventh-year student who is effectively the head of his Creed. The Prefects can also appoint Year Ministers, who act as managers within their Year. First-year students are never appointed a Year Manager; they are instead the direct responsibility of the Creed's Prefect. Creeds also have a Sponsor, who is a member of the teaching staff.
- The Brush Creed: The student who shows excellent penmanship and written communication skills is assigned to the Brush Creed. They are known as quiet, studious sorts who eschew excessive boisterousness and nonsense.
- The Mantle Creed: The student who demonstrates a strong mind capable of great reasoning and memorization usually ends up in the Mantle Creed. They value reasoned diplomacy and debate, and hold emotional outbursts as undignified.
- The Sanxian Creed: The student who shows an understanding of the emotional states of others, and the ability to play those states like an instrument find their way into the Sanxian Creed. They are gregarious and warm, always the life of the party, and look down on those who they consider cold and aloof.
- The Stone Creed: The student who demonstrates a tactical mind and excellent planning skills ends up in the Stone Creed. The Stone Creed is self-assured and even sometimes brash, known for their tendency to take charge in situations, and they hold those who do too much talking and not enough acting in contempt.
The Spiral Academy is largely project-oriented. That is, its teachers assign three-month projects to their students, spending one week at the beginning of the year instructing them in the skills they will need to succeed, and the specifics of the project, and then turning them loose to develop their own work ethics and seek out the answers to problems they encounter. Such problems, discoveries and learning are dutifully recorded in a student's Project Log, and at the end of each month, their progress and learning is reviewed.
At the end of the project, the student's successes or failures are tallied, and recorded in the records of their Creed, to be rewarded or punished as the Creed prefers. A student is permitted to be found wanting on no more than one project per year. Any more than this results in expulsion from the Academy, in shame (although even those who fail the Spiral Academy are often better-trained than other bureaucrats, and go on to find bureaucratic work in more ordinary circumstances).
Older students' projects are actual bureaucratic endeavors. The Spiral Academy receives as much funding from the Scarlet Empire as it does because their older students perform much of the tedious minutiae of the Thousand Scales that would normally require a small army of clerks and minor functionaries. But such undertakings are good practice for older students in the Spiral Academy, and go a long ways towards getting promising students noticed by the ministries they do good work for.
Younger students are not given genuine projects - or rather, they are, but no one is depending on them doing this work. Generally speaking, these projects are either mirrored versions of work someone else is doing at the time, permitting students to make mistakes risk-free, but also possibly demonstrating their talent, or the projects are something that has already been tended to by experienced bureaucrats.
Down the middle of the Thousand Scales District runs the Jade Way, a large road that is one of the defining streets of the Imperial City. At the edge of the district, furthest from the Imperial Palace rise a pair of dominating, square towers. Each of these towers is surrounded by courtyards and gardens, and well walled-in, with single double-doored gates that face one another across the Jade Way piercing them, and providing access to the double towers of the Spiral Academy.
The northern tower is the Four Arts Tower, a name that speaks to the Spiral Academy's philosophy of scholar-bureaucrats. The The Four Arts Tower is filled with libraries, offices and classrooms, and is where the students of the Spiral Academy attend classes and work on their projects. The uppermost stories of this tower house the private quarters of the Academy's teachers, and the topmost floor is the office and living quarters of the dominie.
The southern tower is the Gentle Rest Tower, the student dormitories. The lower floors are guest quarters and the mess hall. The second floor is the large common student room, used for large symposia and other public gatherings, with four entrances to the Creed Halls on the floor above. This third floor is divided into four large gathering halls, one for each Creed, where students gather to study, relax and associate with one another within their Creed. Above this floor, the student quarters begin. Each floor is divided into four different wings, one for each of the Spiral Academy's organizational Creeds. Each year, a student is assigned a room in one floor higher than the one he had last year, in the wing assigned to his Creed. The topmost floor is divided into four spacious suites, for the Prefects.
Various footbridges connect the towers, crossing over and above the Jade Way below. First and second year students are forbidden from using these bridges, forcing them to often rush from their dormitories to class through the crowded day-business on the Jade Way.
The defenses of the Spiral Academy are, largely speaking, the defenses of the Imperial City. There are Black Helms posted at the entrances of the Academy grounds to keep out those who do not belong, and a Black Helms patrol checks in with the sentries once an hour (and can be fetched by runner in a few minutes). At night, the libraries of the Four Arts Tower are locked by the Key-Steward, who acts as major domo for the Academy, though Prefects have copies of the keys by rights, and a variety of copies of the keys have been made over the years (and sometimes even taken away from the school when a student graduates, and turning up in the possession of a member of that family newly arriving years later).
Not only is membership in the myriad secret societies that infest Dragon-Blooded society tolerated in the Spiral Academy, it is practically required. Where other Academies see conspiracies beyond the control of the administration, the Spiral Academy sees the weaving of contact networks that is perhaps the central lesson the Spiral Academy seeks to instill: Nothing matters as much as who you know. Some of the best-known (but least-acknowledged) societies active in the Spiral Academy include:
- The Jumosh Brotherhood: An active brotherhood composed of those who deeply value information and what it says about communities. The Jumosh initiates are notorious for their "double copying" habits, in which any information that crosses their desks gets copied into their coded journals for sharing within the Brotherhood. The Jumosh are known to be recruiters for the All-Seeing Eye.
- The Diligent Inksmen: Scribes and accountants, the Diligent Inksmen are a secretive order of calligraphers who revel in cypers and code-breaking. Like the Jumosh Brotherhood, the Inksmen have ties to the All-Seeing Eye. They rarely actually become members of the Eye, however - most often, they pull small salaries for the whole of their lives as informants for the Eye.
- The Sau Fang Banner: All throughout the Threshold hang the banners of satraps from every House. On anywhere between a third to a half of them hang a tassel of white silk - the Sau Fang Banner symbol. The Sau Fang is a fraternity of Dragon-Blooded who all occupy positions of leadership in some capacity. The majority of them are satraps, or juniors in the Foreign Office preparing to be made satraps one day. The Sau Fang recruit from the Spiral Academy, seeking those who have natural leadership, and guiding them to the right instructors and mentors who will help shape them into the future leaders of the Dragon-Blooded Host.
- The House of the Nightingale: A forbidden society within the Scarlet Empire as a whole, the House of the Nightingale is a criminal brotherhood. Its members become mob bosses and kingpins, both in the Threshold and on the Blessed Isle, playing a careful game of balancing legitimacy while dominating the criminal enterprises in their locales. The House of the Nightingale recruits most of its members from among the business-minded students of the Spiral Academy, particularly those with a bit of shady history or criminal inclinations, which its membership watches for, and sometimes encourages in their classmates.
- White Veil Society: A deeply secret society whose very existence is only a rumor, the White Veil Society is more conspiracy than social club. They are information-gatherers and influence-brokers. Those who demonstrate a gregarious nature without being domineering, who show wisdom in their ability to keep their mouths shut and who others turn to for advice and assistance are the candidates for the White Veil.
Though the academic year in the Spiral Academy begins in the month of Ascending Earth, first year students begin arriving the last week of Descending Fire, allowing time for orientation, testing and sorting into Creeds. Each of the following seasons is a given Project month: First Project in the Season of Earth, Second Project in the Season of Air and Third Project in the Season of Water.
Though they are forbidden from leaving the Imperial City, students are given Calibration off from classes. Most students return to House wings in the Imperial Palace, but those with far-off families and the like (or who simply wish to remain outside of their familial watchfulness) may remain in the student dormitories.
Once this break is over, students begin Final Project, in the Season of Wood. After this, students return home for the Season of Fire (and, not coincidentally, the beginning of the Imperial Social Season). The only exception to this is the seventh-year students who graduate in a formal and ritualistic ceremony in the first week of Ascending Fire. This graduation is attended not merely by families, but by representatives of ministries and bureaucracies looking to sweep up the best of the new graduates.
This event, which lasts three days, is a lavish party and feasting environment on the grounds of the Spiral Academy, with entertainers (including beautiful companions for after-hours orgiastic revels) hired, and the wine flowing freely. This graduation is considered the beginning of the Social Season on the calendar of every ministry in the Thousand Scales, and many bureaucrats vie for the invitations to the event, even if they aren't looking to hire graduates.