Politically, Laughter enjoys the same level of near-complete independence as Whitehall and Mountaintop. The school does follow the White Council’s standard curriculum, wherever possible, with a handful of tiny modifications. The majority of the tutors are accredited by the council well before they’re invited to join the staff. However, it inspires somewhat mixed feelings within the White City. Both aristocrats and magical families are often reluctant to send their daughters to the school, although for different reasons. The former feel the school’s education will give their daughters ideas, and an unhealthy degree of independence; the latter believe Laughter isolates its students from the patronage networks that dominate magical society. This does not, however, keep the school from having more applicants than it can handle.
The origins of the school – and particularly who built the twin castles – are lost somewhere in the mists of time. The officially-accepted story states that a powerful witch, the sister of a king, defeated a banshee-like creature that plagued the Howling Peaks and, in reward, was given the region as a personal fiefdom. This witch, whose name has also been lost in time, went on to found Laughter, first as a retreat for her fellow women of magic and later as a full-fledged school. The more dubious stories suggest the founder was, in fact, the banshee herself, who made a deal with the king for reasons of her own. A final version of the story, told by the local men, speaks of a powerful and haughty witch who was bested by the kingdom’s prince and swore herself – and her sisters – to his service for the rest of time. It is difficult to know, now, which version of the story is correct. The only thing known for certain is that the Howling Peaks, and the town of Pendle, have effectively been ceded to Laughter Academy. Those who do not care to live under a witch’s rule have no choice, but to leave.
Laughter Academy consists of four separate buildings, resting on the two highest peaks within the fiefdom. The Keep – a sinister-looking castle – houses the school itself, as well as most of the teachers. The Retreat provides accommodation for Sisters – see below – and other women, mainly magical or aristocratic, who wish to retire from the world. The Guesthouse, positioned between the Keep and Pendle Town, houses male tutors and guests who, by law, are not allowed to be within the castle after dark. The Redoubt – a ruined castle of uncertain purpose – dominates the other peak. It is normally deserted, save for martial magic-style training sessions. The girls claim the castle is haunted and make a habit of daring their fellow students to spend the night in the region. This is officially discouraged, but – in practice – tolerated as long as it doesn’t get dangerous.
On the western side of the castle, a narrow road leads down to Pendle, a town resting within the valley. Home to many former students – and merchants who make a living from selling to them – it is a peaceful place to live, even during the worst periods of unrest. It is generally self-governing, although the headmistress has the right to step in if matters are deemed to be getting out of hand. In recent years, the New Learning has spread to the town, bringing with it ideas and concepts from the outside world.
On the eastern side, a rocky path leads down to the Silent Woods, a valley that cannot be reached save by passing through the school itself. The hidden forest represents both a source of potions ingredients and a place for the girls to test themselves against nature. Men are not barred from the woods, but their presence is strongly discouraged.
By long-established custom – precisely who established the custom and why is hotly debated – the school is ruled by the headmistress, who is known as the Old Woman (this is more of a nickname than a formal title). Her deputy, and presumed successor, is known as the Young Woman. The Young Woman is elected by former students, who will generally confirm her as headmistress when the older woman retires or dies in office. (If there is a challenge, by custom it has to be made before the succession has to be settled one way or the other.) The Head Girl, elected by her fellows as they complete their fifth year, makes up the third of the triumvirate, but she doesn’t have the power to override the other two, merely make her opinions known.
Below the triumvirate, there are the senior tutors, each of whom is a specialist in her subject and has a junior tutor to assist them. The tutors have very little weight individually, but collectively can vote to override, suspend or outright expel the headmistress. Some of these tutors are male, but they can never rise any higher than senior tutor and have a number of other restrictions placed on their behaviour. It’s rare for any of them to last more than a handful of years.
The student body is composed of young witches – the term is not seen as derogatory in Laughter, unlike the other schools – who come from all walks of life. Students – Little Sisters – are considered equals once they walk through the doors, although it isn’t hard for students with powerful connections to establish themselves as leaders within the school. The school does go to some effort to make everyone act as equals, from a deliberately bland uniform to a rotating system of chores that everyone, regardless of their birth, has to do. There are no servants within the school, save for the cooks. Their duties are shared amongst the junior students.
There was one boy who studied at the school. It didn’t work out. It is flatly forbidden to bring a boy/man into the school without special permission and no male is allowed to remain in the school after dark. Students have been expelled for trying to sneak their boyfriends into the school (although the horrific tales of what happened to those poor boys are largely exaggerated.)
Junior students – years one to five – are expected to fetch and carry for the senior students, although there are consequences for any senior students who abuse this privilege. Years two and above are allowed to elect their dorm heads; those who do well in the role are generally re-elected, although they know better than to take re-election for granted. They also elect the Head Girl as they complete their fifth year, as well as the prefects. Senior students have a lot more privileges, ranging from being allowed to stay up late to wearing their own clothes outside school hours, though they can lose them quickly if they misbehave.
The school uniform is universally regarded as ugly, although – after graduation – it becomes a badge of honour. Junior girls wear grey: grey floor-length skirt, grey shirt, grey blazer. Senior girls wear black, save for when they attend formal functions when they are allowed to wear aristocratic-style dressers. (Students who enter as senior girls are expected to wear a grey blazer or shirt.) Trousers are explicitly forbidden, outside sports and games.
The lessons themselves are not that different from Whitehall, although there’s more focus on politics, land management and other gaps in more customary (i.e. traditional) forms of female education. (The school is noted for producing more healer candidates than any other.) Outside classes, the girls are free to do what they like – within reason. Senior girls are free to visit Pendle at will and many of them form relationships with boys from the town; junior girls are only allowed to visit on weekends, under supervision.
Unusually for a magic school, the students are taught to levitate – and fly – from a very early age. The dangers inherent in any form of flying spell are noted, and there is usually at least one serious accident every year, but the school refuses to rethink its policy. Indeed, it is often seen as something that sets Laughter apart from the rest. The tutors do, however, maintain careful watch on the students, and any student caught trying to disrupt someone else’s spell is instantly expelled, without appeal.
Upon graduation, either from the junior or senior school, a student is inducted into the Sisterhood, a quarrel (association) composed of former students. The Sisterhood serves as a combination of Old Girls Network and political pressure group, which – given the number of magical patrons and aristocrats within its ranks – gives it a surprising amount of clout. It rarely shows its hand openly, if only because the Sisterhood is structured to make action difficult without consensus, but is feared by many throughout the Allied Lands. Sisters are expected to help other sisters, although they are also supposed to bear in mind the political consequences of their acts. When Princess Joanna, daughter of King Edwin, married against her father’s will – to a rebel lord, no less – the Sisterhood helped her and her husband to safety, but refused to interfere further. (The Elders reasoned that it would lead to a clash with the aristocracy, which would be a breach of the Convent.) They have far fewer qualms about assisting common-born women.