It would be fair to say that Yam retreated deeply into studying. It would also be fair to say he read for two and a half days straight and almost needed medical assistance when he finally came to a stopping point.
The texts the bookkeeper had given him were very strange. Three of them dealt with the cultivation of a non-physical type of magical. They called it Soul’s Work, and the books went through exercises and potions that would help cultivate the ability to sense soul’s magic as well as control drills. There were no techniques mentioned.
Though the graphs and equations were oddly beautiful if you squinted your eyes. So there was that at least.
The bookkeeper had only told him to return once he had read the books.
He would prefer to return to the Understacks triumphantly. Able to show his dedication with mastery over new magic. That would be the best way to show his value as a potential employee. But to learn even two of the cants he had seen would be incredibly difficult and expensive.
Yam slapped his legs and leapt to his feet. Difficult was not an excuse! Difficult was an obstacle, a test. He just had to remember why he was here, and where the path he was on would lead.
First things first, he could go through the shopping district and see how much additional texts would cost. He would not be assigned classes until he joined his Court and so his only real time commitment were meetings with different Court representatives. That left plenty of time to study magic.
With every intention of making a dramatic exit Yam crawled from the thick bushes he had camped in. Then he realized he hadn’t put his wrap back on and was dead naked.
His second attempt at an appropriately heroic exit ended when he forgot his bag of drams. The third attempt was delayed by him tripping. He did not trip on anything in particular; not unless one counted sleep deprivation or malnutrition as ‘anything in particular’.
That was when he decided that no matter what, he had to push through with his plan! Nothing would stop him from executing his will on the world.
First step, amend the plan so it included sleep. Second, eat. Third, continue with his first draft of the plan. Maybe bathe too.
With a self-satisfied nod Yam tried to stand so he could execute his plan and begin chipping away at fate with the force of his will alone. However his legs were still weak and he fell again.
But he narrowed his eyes in an expression of stoic determination.
Then, heroically, Yam barrel rolled himself back into the bushes so he could execute step one of his master plan, and fall asleep in his clothes.
When he checked in with the front desk of his dorm, he was given a folded piece of paper that only he could open. With a magical sensation the rough equivalent of chewing mint leaves, his student identification number settled into his mind so clearly it was like he had already spent a week memorizing it.
Written at the bottom of the letter was a note from the Autumnal Court saying they had expedited his paperwork and sincerely looked forward to his meeting with their representative.
Yam moved on and sat on the uncanny bench from his last trip out of the day court, still unwilling to lose to its inexplicable and uncomfortable presence. He re-read the letter several times. To him it spoke of power and bribery via favors.
Which was a novel experience; he had always wanted to be bribed.
Though Yam was still tired, his mood soared. Though, when he left the eternal sunshine of the Claral Court, the young Len was unpleasantly surprised to learn that nearly three days had passed. The day for his meetings with the Autumn Court had already arrived.
As always, more information, more time to study, would have been better. But there were ways to compensate for that ignorance.
He hurried through the streets, trying to move with the sort of confidence that told muggers he belonged here and was not a potential victim. That aura, in its own kind of magic, caused the crowds to part around him. It also helped that he frequently met the eyes of people surrounding him while fingering the hilt of his not-for-eating knife.
Finally, he stepped through the archways of a different court and stopped dead. A warm summer breeze stirred his fur and the smell of flower fields danced under the scent of coal and chemicals. Massive be-scaled smokestacks rose into the sky. The air around them rippled with magic and heat. The head of each stack was shaped into that the visage a mythic beast opening its mouth and shooting smoke into the perfectly blue sky.
He eventually greeted his contact, a professor who reeked of brandy and spoke grandly of the treasures of the Estival Court. His fine vest and crisp shirt were marked by grease and, under the reek of a high functioning alcoholic, the Young Len could smell oil and burning metal.
The man’s magic felt weak, but his liquor went down smoothly, so Yam treated him with courtesy. When he outlined his plan the representative of the Estival court snorted and immediately called over a secretary to see to the details.
“I am Study Yam Hist. Based on your rich accommodations and apparent knowledge of the Len, I expect subtle bribery of a high caliber from you.”
“Of course, of course.” The woman across from him nodded, “I am a Master of the Autumnal Court of Istima.”
Yam’s eyes widened. The woman across from him was plump with permanently red cheeks. If any other human had said that, he would have doubted that they understood what they were saying. But her decorum had been perfect, following the rules of etiquette to the letter.
For someone with knowledge of the Len to claim to be a Master…
A true master of a craft was uncommon and renowned. But she clearly knew the rules, and this was the greatest university in the known world.
He reexamined her perfect silky robes and glanced at her hat. It was unusually tall and very ornate, which seemed to mean a great deal in the Autumn Court.
“Thank you for your time, M’am.” Yam said, dropping his eyes. “What craft are you a Master of?”
“Within the Autumn court my titles are many, and I am considered to be a great source regarding the non-physical magics. However, to one not in the Autumn court, my titles would be meaningless and would only serve to make you feel ignorant and uncomfortable.”
Yam nodded seriously. Finally, a taste of civilization.
“You are here to negotiate with the Autumn Court?” She asked.
“Yes. I desire the skills of your court. In fact, you are one of the earliest parties I have visited today.”
“Of course, and what other Courts have extended you offers?”
Yam smiled politely, “I am rather disappointed so far. The Winter Court tested my magic and found me wanting. However, they did offer tutoring at a discount.”
“So, they believe you have insufficient natural talent, but a small chance at building skills.”
“And they want to keep eyes on me so they can maintain control of anyone who could execute their magic in public. Yes, that was my assessment as well. Luckily, my magic is pure enough of elemental influence that the Summer Court made me a modest offer.”
Though the woman had obviously studied the Len, but she was only human. He put a very particular emphasis on ‘modest’ and saw the muscles of her face twitch with displeasure. He had not been as diligent in gathering information on the different Court relations as he should have been. However, his impression of the Summer court was of lawlessness. They spoke with a gallows humor; every student checked the shadows for thieves while watching any hands that came near their bags.
In contrast, the Autumnal Court had paperwork for everything. Their robes were meticulous even when ink stained. They lived by the rules and for the rules. From his talk with Thomnas it seemed as though they had been saddled with running most of Istima’s gritty details.
He had not confirmed it, but he was willing to bet that there was no love lost between the two factions; they felt like natural opposites.
“And what exactly did the Estival Court offer?” The representative asked, her voice holding a nearly imperceptible hint of strain.
“Please,” he said, brushing the question away with a flick of his fingers, “I am here to speak about the wonders of the Autumn Court. I would not want to be improper.”
“Ooh, of course. At least not before you hear my starting offer.”
Yam’s only reply was a smile.
She snorted, “Well, before I can give you details, it would help for me to know what specifically interests you about us.”
Images of telekinesis and acts of power that would awe a crowd played behind his eyes, but his pride as a Len would not let him be baited so easily.
“It seems to me that the Autumn Court excels not just magically, but in their overall consistency. When choosing a master, doesn’t it seem prudent to consider the environment as well?”
He described with a careful mixture of rhetorical questions and general statements how the Autumn Court was sane and stable. How they kept the school running. He asserted that almost every student would benefit from a systematic approach to learning and the backing of a cohesive organization.
He avoided saying that he was not almost-every-student. Nor did he mention that he had every intention of learning from every single school, in every single way, no matter if they approved of his decision or not.
But he didn’t say that wasn’t the case; which was all that really mattered.
“—leads to a clear conclusion that the Autumn Court has put the most thoroughly systematized approach behind their goals.”
The representative’s hand drifted to a book that was so tall that the spine had to be enforced with brass bands, “That is true. Our first semester curriculum has taken every contingency into account. But,” she said, pulling her hand away from the book with obvious reluctance, “What other aspects of our court are you interested in?”
“Aside from the organizational aspect? I am also intrigued by the creation of a familiar bond, telekinesis, mental magics, and the uses of souls magic.”
“Well,” the master said, a genuine smile coming to her face, “You have come to the right place. As I said earlier, I am considered to be an authority on many of the non-physical magics.”
Which was why he had not mentioned firing invisible missiles, summoning beasts, teleporting, or any of his other interests.
“Truly?” he asked, his eyes going wide in apparent awe
The representative’s spine straightened, and her smile grew brighter. “Honest word. Though, I would be fascinated to discover how someone without a court had already learned about soul’s magic. But first, let me tell you how our court would help you learn those skills.”
She took out a sheet of parchment and levitated a quill to her hand from across the room. “First, we would give you accommodations close to the center of the court as well as a stipend. Then—”
“Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I am still fresh from the caravans and I am a Ken Seeker. Material comforts mean little to me.”
Rather than being flustered, the master gave him the exact same serene Len smile that he himself wore. “True, but you have not heard why those ‘material comforts’ are necessary. Though we do not have the ability to throw drams at every problem until it goes away, like other courts do, we have a system for building our students’ magic reserves. With our facilities you can spend far more time casting and learning.”
Yam caught himself leaning forward and quickly hid the motion by adjusting the back of his wrap.
“As you noted,” she continued, ”the Autumn Court is the life blood of Istima. And we could not run the school if we needed to burn drams for every spell. Barring the Winter Court and its unusual circumstances, you will hardly find a student outside of the Autumn Court that can match our magic reserves.”
Yam did not drool. He also did not grab her by her robe and shake her until her secrets fell out. Instead he replied in a calm and measured voice. “Truly? And how would you expand my reserves?”
“I am sorry young Study”, she smiled, ”but I shouldn’t say. Our training regime is rigorous, and one of our Court’s greatest assets.”
“That is a shame.” Yam sighed, pulling out the folded piece of paper he had gotten at the Summer Court and pinning it to the desk with a single finger. “Because I may have access to considerable funds in the future, and I find it difficult to believe I could not achieve similar results if I was willing to throw enough drams at it.”
His opponent’s eyes flickered to the very visible Estival seal on his paper and her mouth tightened. With a practiced economy she wet her quill and began writing out a list.
“I cannot share the details, but some of the underlying principles are safe to discuss.”
Yam smiled as she made several columns on the paper. They were titled: Body, Phagic Regeneration, Auric Regeneration/Strain, Harmonic Regeneration, and Efficiency.
“These are the only ways to re-fill and advance the size of your magic reserve.” The representative said, posture perfect and handwriting a soulless, small, but easily readable script. “Obviously, you can just wait for age to naturally increase your reserve, but we have timetables to meet.”
“It begins with the body.” She said, ”The stronger your body, the more energy you can produce, channel, and the faster you will recuperate. Our Court has once weekly physical training to that end. But we are wizards, not laborers. So, we have other methods to speed recovery and enhance the reserve.”
She placed small dots next to Phagic Regeneration and Auric Regeneration. “We will routinely serve meals that are nutritionally, calorically, and magically dense. Either meat from magical creatures, fruits that naturally hold more life force or, on rare occasions, foods from ancient sources that have aged their own reserves to formidable heights. This will cause your power to recover faster and, if already full, some research suggests the strain will slowly expand your capacity.”
He responded in a dry voice, “So you will provide me with exercise and rich foods?”
“We will provide you with Fall Bear steak, fruit from Ancestral Magma Trees and,” she added, tapping at Auric recovery, “gold.”
Despite himself Yam’s eyes widened. He tried to reassemble his bargaining face as quickly as possible, but he could tell that she had seen his slip.
“Finally, we will teach you Harmonic recovery techniques. It is a slow unrewarding process similar to meditation, but you can speed how quickly you are able to recover magic from the ambient energy. Which is key for the final point; efficiency. Both in spell casting, in spell formulation, and in your bodies’ channels. Each time you go about our training, you will become more efficient in how you cast. A great wizard is able to split a bounder with the same energy it would take a student to levitate a single person.”
She spoke of a few more points but none of them changed the meat of her offer. And, despite how tempting the program sounded, the Young Len forced himself to think before responding.
This woman was a master, or at least thought of herself as one. Even to Len there was a spectrum of mastery, and he doubted she was near the top end. Thomnas had surely intervened on his behalf, but she was still speaking to a novice who had yet to pick a court. That was not how the powerful and influential spent their time. Which meant she was speaking with game in her words, and likely resided near the lower levels of mastery.
If that was true, and she was giving this information to one not yet in her court, then it might not be as valuable as she presented it to be. Which seemed impossible. It boggled the mind to consider that dense packet of secrets to not be worth a fortune.
At the height of his family’s success they had hired a tutor from one of the lesser magic schools. That man had taught him simple control exercises and meditation, or harmonic recovery as he should start calling it, like they were the royal family’s own secrets.
But this was the Istima. Brilliance was as common as dirt here. Maybe this information was only valuable to common people.
There was no way to tell. So, he did the only thing he could: he checked his instincts and pushed on.
“Honored master, what you describe sounds wonderful but via… sources let’s say, I have heard of some of these principles already. And, while I’m sure your expertise would help the process, I still fail to see how exercise, good food, some gold, and a dedicated perusal of the library would not give me the same results you promise.”
With a smirk the woman turned over her paper and began doing sums. As she added the cost of various equipment, tutors, and the material costs of food, not even counting the research needed to determine which foods would work most efficiently or the risk of dying from improper cooking, and the expense quickly became staggering.
If what she was saying was correct, then each and every mage walking through the Autumn Court could buy a horse just with what it cost to feed them.
The numbers only rose from there and she stared him in the eyes with a look of triumph.
The rebuttal was well made, but rather than lowering his gaze, Yam raised a single eyebrow and slid the Summer Court’s offer across the desk to her.
He felt her magic lick against the seal of the court and her expression dimmed. It was authentic. She opened the letter and read through it quickly. The look on her face when she saw the number at the bottom was a work of art.
Before her hands could clench in rage, Yam plucked the letter from her grasp.
“Ma’am, as I said before, I am of the Ken Seekers, material wealth meant little to me when I arrived. And now,” he tapped his finger against the letter, “it means even less. So, please help me. I want everything you have to offer. But how can I justify to myself, to my family, that I chose the Autumnal Court over all the other opportunities I’ve been given?”
From across the desk the master’s mouth tightened, and Yam laughed silently from ebhind the serene smile affixed to his bargaining face.
He left negotiations after approximately two hours had passed. He would have stayed longer and gotten a second meal out of them, but his host had developed a small twitch in her left eye at around an hour and a half.
In his experience that was a symptom of imminent pitch forks. Which usually meant little to him, but he couldn’t pack the caravan and leave Istima. As such, he made a graceful exit. Even if it stung his pride to let her off with the light treatment.
His time hadn’t been fruitless though. Around the second or third time she had almost ended their negotiations, he had subtly guided her towards offering to give him common control exercises.
Of course she thought it had been her own idea. Which made it even more impressive when he ‘miraculously’ mastered them in under a minute. Almost as if he had been doing those exact exercises for two hours a day, every day, since his family had first discovered his potential and bought a tutor.
That had renewed her interest. Which was just enough negotiating power for him to get a book of cants as well as primers covering the theory of souls magic and familiars.
To a regular student those books would barely be useful at all. But, to a Len who planned on working in the Understacks, they could prove invaluable if they were well cited.
Aside from the books he had also been given paperwork so he could request a limited number of tutoring sessions with a pre-set group of teachers in the Autumn Court.
Those he had fought particularly hard for.
Because, for all of his talk, he did not expect to make a second appointment with that woman. She was tight fisted with her resources and, ultimately, held all the power in their negotiation.
Plus, he already knew which court he would join.
At the thought his hand fell to his side where he now carried two very generous offer letters. Anything else, any bribes he would be able to cash in on, were just a bonus. The letters were what really mattered.
No matter how much going easy on the representative hurt his pride, this was just preamble for the true negotiation, and he was going to take the Spring Court for all it was worth.
Yam had hardly left the Autumn court when something sent a prickle through his fur. He kept walking while casting a covert eye to his surroundings.
The anomaly stood out immediately.
Most figures left the Autumn court’s brisk air and dropped their hoods or opened their robes. But one figure had kept their hood high and, to make things even more interesting, Yam recognized the face hidden inside the hood.
Nathanael, the library assistant, was not far behind him and he was keeping pace.
The situation reminded him of something his mother used to say after returning from fruitful negotiations. Something he had heard since he was a toddler: one day they might realize what she had done, and one day they might be fast enough to lynch her for it, but that day was not today.
Within a few minutes the canny Len was able to turn a corner, run to an open shop and dive inside before Nathanael could re-establish his line of sight.
With brisk, efficient motions Yam hid himself behind a tapestry display and peered through the store’s eerily unblemished windowpane, until Nathanial came into view. He watched the other student and the smirk slowly left his face.
Nathanael did not look up. He did not balk, and his head did not swivel. He continued trudging forward, face hidden. He only paused once to glance very furtively over his shoulder.
Which was when the young Ken Seeker’s curiosity began to kindle. What could Nathanael be hiding? A shopkeeper was saying something to Yam and he let his mouth run on without checking what it said.
There were very few Len in the area around the courts. They tended to frequent the more exterior portions of the city. That would make it difficult to follow Nathanael without being noted. Worse, covert street surveillance was not one of his skills. Some people could follow a man into the very bed chambers of his mistress without ever being noticed. It was a good business, but that had never been Yam’s job.
He had no training, and he did not know how violent the other boy could be if he spotted Yam. Overall it seemed like a poorly thought out and potentially dangerous idea.
But, he wanted to know. So he did it anyway.
As it turned out Nathanael’s incompetence just slightly outperformed Yam’s own. The cowled student always checked over the same shoulder and he grew progressively more comfortable as they came closer to the Summer Court. Finally, he came to an ally and waited just inside its mouth.
Yam moved into a nearby parchment store and placed himself at a display with a view of the ally. It was not long before a young man wearing fine clothes, an entitled smirk, and the self-assured superiority of an easy mark stepped joined Nathanael.
He immediately cuffed the cowled boy’s head and tossed the hood off. He berated him, presumably for lurking in a shadowed ally in the most suspicious manner possible. It was a very long, and very thorough browbeating.
Finally, Nathanael produced a slip of paper from inside his robes. His rich friend snatched it away and, after peeking inside of the brown paper wrapping, he patted Nathanael on the shoulder. The robed boy’s entire demeanor changed. He was all but quivered with happiness, like a dog finally being let inside.
The other student quickly lost interest. They exchanged parting words and went their separate ways. Yam stepped outside and idly followed the rich prat. Within minutes the other student went into a store full of fruits and came out grimacing. As he walked, he placed berries from the store into his mouth, one at a time, and swallowed without chewing.
Yam would bet his wrap that it was some of the magical fruit the Autumn court had been talking about. He kept following, hoping he would find similar stores, maybe a butcher of magic creatures even.
There was no such luck. For the next half hour, the most interesting thing to happen was the boy dropping a kernel of mildly explosive magic into the cup of a beggar. His quarry walked away laughing and Yam made sure to drop a few day’s worth of money onto the beggar’s lap as he passed by.
After the long walk Yam was rapidly losing his interest. Then, even as he considered returning to his books, something fascinating happened. The rich prat turned into a street at the edge of two courts.
And a young woman materialized.
It was not an act of magic. She could have been standing next to him the entire walk from the Autumn Court without him noticing. Something about her, the rhythm of her steps, the slouch of her shoulders, the expression of absolute soul-crushing indifference, was so perfectly in tune with the feel of the street that she was functionally invisible.
Then, in a moment everything about her bearing changed, and the fur on spine stood on end. She seemed suddenly distinct, sharp-eyed, and entirely fixated. A half second later, like the girl had been looking to rich prat’s mind, he turned down the ally like street.
Yam was across the street and had actually lost track of the perfectly coiffed sadist for most of a block. But he was perfectly placed to see the girl step out of the flow of traffic, accelerate smoothly, and ghost her way after the boy.
If anyone without street sense had been there, if Yam hadn’t been recently put on high alert by the thought of lynching, no one would have noticed a single thing. But he had just enough warning to run across the street and see a flash of light from the alley mouth. By the time he turned into the space between buildings the girl was already gone, and the rich boy was curled on the ground, screaming with his hands pressed against his eyes.
Yam ran over and tried to help him stand, “Are you alright?”
The boy started to respond, but when his hand met the young Len’s shoulder, he recoiled like he had been burnt.
“Don’t touch me!”
“I’m sorry! Are you hurt—”
“Keep your baby-stealing paws off of me!”
There was a stutter in Yam’s chest.
He felt his mouth move to say something along the lines of ‘that’s a myth’. But there was no air in his lungs.
Even in Istima.
Even in the most educated place in the entire world.
With a snarl he kicked the boy’s shin and shoved him to the ground. There was no money-purse on his belt but, out of sheer spite. Yam ripped the bag from the boy’s shoulder.
He made it several streets away before his anger cooled enough for him to realize what a dilemma he was in.
He had just stolen something from another student.
A rich student. A rich student with influence. One who already hated the Len.
An awful sensation started to build in his stomach. He was only a few streets away. If he really had to, he could go back.
‘Keep your baby-stealing paws off of me! ’ a phantom voice rang in his head. Yam’s hands tightened on the thick canvas bag and he began walking towards a familiar piece of graffiti.
He turned away from the main street and looked for the next splash of color that would lead him to a sympathetic pawn shop. With one hand he rummaged through the bag until he pulled out a small parcel full of berries. They had a pleasantly bitter taste and as he chewed, he wondered what sort of tracking spells a spoiled prat might put into his luggage.