Cal awoke early on the first day of class. With the constant sunlight, it was hard to sleep in the Day Court at the best of times, but the thin walls did nothing to dampen the sound of hundreds of new students preparing for their days.
Her stomach growled as she walked through the gate into the Summer Court, but she ignored it. Instead, she focused on her surroundings. It was the usual sweep; looking for guards, weapons, fat coin-purses, and so forth. Yet all her knowledge was useless here. There were no guards, the students carried no weapons, and she couldn’t see anything through the elaborate robes that passed as fashionable in the city.
But she did see a familiar face. The Aketsi from the day before. She made her way through the crowd until she caught his attention.
“Rathana, isn’t it?” She said.
“Callion,” he nodded.
“You, uh, wouldn’t happen to know where class is?”
“A question I myself was hoping you could answer.” He frowned. “None of the new arrivals know and none of the older students will tell us. I believe it is a form of test.”
“And the bullshit begins,” Cal muttered.
“Lady Callion?” A voice called. She turned and saw a boy with an angular face, high cheekbones, and fine red robes. He was oddly familiar, but she couldn’t figure out how she knew him.
“Lord Jasten Forthale? From the orientation test?” Cal remembered him now. He was the annoying one who she’d greatly wanted to punch. He smiled and eyed her up and down. “I see you too chose to pursue the Estival Court.”
“Yes, though they aren’t making it easy. I still haven’t figured out where the class is supposed to be.”
“How fortunate, I’m on my way there right now. I can show you.”
Cal raised an eyebrow. If that was true, it was almost enough to make her not want to hit him. “You know where class is? How’d you find that out?”
“It wasn’t easy, but for the right price, anything is possible.” The urge to punch the young lord was growing again.
She faked a smile. “Lead the way.”
The classroom wasn’t easy to find. Cal and Rathana followed Jasten around the side of one of the towers and down a small stairway. The stairway hugged the exterior of the tower as it descended, giving Cal a spectacular—yet terrifying—view of the city. Only a thin guardrail separated her from plunging several hundred feet down.
The stairs curved all the way around the tower, until it ended at a doorway placing them somewhere under the courtyard. The corridors within were lit not by dim torches, but strange blue lamps which cast an unwavering light across the cold stones.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” Cal said. She hated being underground. It was far too cramped and cold.
“It’s just a bit further,” Jasten said, walking down the hall. After about fifty feet, he turned left and the tunnel opened into a circular room.
The room was a bowl, with rings of benches around a central stage. More blue torches cast strange shadows on the walls, but Cal was glad to see sunlight streaming in from a small skylight above. Students, no more than thirty, dotted the benches.
“Should we find a spot?” She asked, looking to Rathana.
“I will stand,” he said. “Sitting is… problematic.”
Cal nodded slowly and found herself a seat. As she did, an older woman walked in.
When she pictured professors—or any academic for that matter—she envisioned stuffy little men with thin glasses and beards so long they tripped over them as they walked. She’d never suffered from an abundance of schooling. Numbers and letters were picked up as she went, learning from the other children or the occasional well-meaning priest.
But the woman that walked into the lecture room seemed out of place. She was wearing a black leather smock over fitted robes. Her hands were covered in soot stains and her brown hair was just beginning to show streaks of gray. She stepped into the center stage and looked around with a sigh.
“Gods above, I swear you first years are getting younger and younger,” she said. “My name is Hasham Teagan. While the pedants in the Autumnal Court may wish for you to address me as professor, or artificer, I forbid you from using it. Teagan will do fine. And you!” She snapped at one of the boys in the front rows. “Stop writing down everything I say, I can hear you scribbling from here and I have a splitting hangover as is.”
“I am here to introduce you to rune-based magic, artificing, and to the Estival Court as a whole. We will start with basic runes—” A hand shot up. It was Jasten. Teagan raised an eyebrow and nodded to the young lord. “You have a question?”
“Prof—sorry, Teagan, I think I speak for some of us here when I say that we already have a grasp of runes. Would it be possible to gear our efforts towards something more advanced?”
“A fair point. Tell me, does anyone else here feel this way?” Several other hands went up. “Alright, then you are excused from this lesson. We will meet again next class for a more a more advanced take on runework.”
The students grabbed their things and filed out the door, smiles on their faces. Once they had gone, Teagan shook her head.
“Happens every fucking year. For those of you who have chosen to stay, congratulations, you’ve made a wise decision. Hopefully it won’t be your last.” She crossed over to the large stone table at the center of the room. “Honestly, it’ll take far too long to train that lot out of all the bad habits they’ve learned from their tutors.”
“You are here to learn runes,” she continued, holding up a leather bag. “Each of you will be given a slate tablet. This piece of rock is your new best friend. It is on this canvas that you will learn the basics of practical magic. Not the fanciful casting of elementalism, nor the effete and wilted powers of the Autumn Court, but real magic. The kind which the modern world is built upon.” She spilled the slates out of her bag and onto the table. “Come get one, they’re all the same, so it doesn’t matter which one you choose.”
Cal joined the rest of the students as they made their way down into the center of the bowl and grabbed a rock tablet. It was a little larger than her hand, rough at the edges, and cool to the touch. As she retook her seat, Teagan began to speak.
“Grab a rock, a quill, or whatever else you have on hand and draw a line like this.” Teagan made a small line on her own slate. Looking around, Cal found a pebble by her feet and quickly copied the line. “Now one like this. Then this. Well done, you’ve just drawn your first rune.”
Cal squinted at the small jumble of squiggles she had scratched into rock. It wasn’t glowing, and it certainly didn’t seem magical.
“This is an anchor rune around which other runes can be drawn. It is simple, but necessary, so get used to drawing it. Without an anchor, your spell has no target, and is liable to affect anything in the nearby area. Not so bad, unless you are trying to do something useful. If the ever-burning torches in here didn’t have anchor runes, this entire room would become a massive arcane fireball.” Cal glanced around the room. The pale blue light suddenly seemed much more ominous.
“Now,” Teagan smiled, “let’s learn how to make one.”
An hour later, and the rock slate glowed slightly in Cal’s hands. Her head hurt from everything Teagan had thrown at them. Anchors, targets, values, energy conversion statements, and all the others she couldn’t remember. And yet, she’d done it. So had most of the other students.
“Excellent,” Teagan said, tossing her slate onto the table with a thunk. “You’ve taken your first steps off the path of idiocy.” She leaned back against the desk and folded her arms. “As I said, I will be teaching you not just runes, but the basics of the Summer Court. Unlike the other schools, we do not have grades.” Some of the students spoke in excited whispers at this, but Teagan silenced them with a hand. “Instead we use a system of points. Points are awarded to winners of challenges set forth by your teachers. The only way to advance out of your first year is to have enough points to do so. Keep in mind, there will not be enough challenges for everyone to do so.” She smiled. “As I said, it was wise of you all to stay, as I am going to assign your first challenge now: to take what you have learned and recreate the rune-lights we have made today, but improve upon the design somehow. A point will be given to the most impressive design. Good luck.” With that, she grabbed her satchel bag and walked out of the room.
No one moved for a moment, then Teagan’s head appeared in the doorway once more. She rolled her eyes. “Gods above, you’re dismissed! Leave!”
Without Jasten to guide them, Cal and Rathana had to find the next class alone. Fortunately, the other students in Teagan’s class had some ideas, and it only took a few false starts for the group to find the right room. It was located up a winding staircase within the tower, high above the courtyard.
The room was about halfway up the tower, in a bartizan—one of the turrets which sprouted off from the main cylinder of the structure like a branch off a tree trunk. As she stepped through the door, Cal was hit by a wave of heat and bright light. As her eyes adjusted she gasped. The roof, the walls, and the floor was almost entirely glass. Verdant plants were hung in pots, ivy coiled and draped along desks and railings, and hissing pipes spray water mist across most of the surfaces. In the center of the room was a small clearing with stone tables and strange equipment.
Standing in the center of the mess was an Aketsi. Female, Cal thought, though taller than Rathana, and older. Her skin was a gray-green, and flecked with spots of gold. Around her neck hung a strange glowing pendant. The woman turned and spotted the students.
“Ah, you’ve found me. Have a seat, if you need.” She waved at some stools. Cal took a spot while Rathana stood beside her.
The professor shifted her legs beneath her robes, bringing the second set down and raising the first. She wiped her hands on her smock and looked at them.
“I am professor-artificer Sita Mach. I have been assigned to teach you about potions.” She grabbed several small bottles, each filled with a thick brown liquid, and set them on the table. “In front of me, I have placed samples of several potions. One heals stomach ulcers, one helps maintain body heat, and one is a deadly poison.” She held up one of the potions. “Can anyone tell which one this is?”
The room was silent.
“Excellent. No answer is better than the wrong answer. Especially when mistakes can cost lives. Now, this class will be a combination of biology, physiology, and a smattering of other disciplines. Some of you might question the necessity of this, but if you ever wish to make a potion, and not simply copy the recipe from a book, then you will need to understand what you’re working with. Let’s begin with the basics.”
For the next hour, Professor Mach went around the room describing plants. It was mind-numbingly dull, and Cal struggled to keep up. Finally, she circled back to the central table.
“This is a lot to take in, but with time you will learn,” she said. “Any questions?”
Someone raised a hand. “What about that fourth bottle, professor?” He pointed at a fourth bottle of brown liquid sitting on the table. “You talked about the other three, but what does the last potion do?”
“What, this?” Professor Mach lifted the bottle. “It’s perhaps my favorite potion, known for both causing and relieving headaches.” She uncorked it, and took a swig. “It is commonly known as brandy, child.” She set the bottle down. “Dismissed.”