Cal nearly missed class the next day. She didn’t have the money to afford a clock, magical or otherwise. Instead, she relied on the noise of the street to wake her up. But after the job last night, she was so exhausted that she only woke up when the sun was high enough to hit her eyes. She stuffed her things into her satchel and ran, wincing as the new boots rubbed against her heels.
Breathless, she reached class. Teagan was mid-lecture, and didn’t even pause as Cal took a seat. She did, however, give her a look that could melt glass.
“—and that should explain why you can’t make organic matter with runes, Yaxley. Perhaps next time, you will employ critical thinking before you speak and save us all five minutes.” She lifted a canvas sack. “Now that that’s settled, let’s move on to your projects. It pleases me to see that most of you took this more seriously. As you have no doubt learned, only your best effort is good enough for the Summer Court. But only one of you can win a point for this assignment.” She rummaged through the sack and pulled out what looked like a bracelet. “A device worn on the wrist in order to tell time. Practical, if unoriginal.” She pulled out another unwieldy item, held together by leather straps and bent nails. “I fail to see how this is to be worn, so it is disqualified. The rest falls somewhere in between those two. With the noticeable exception of these.”
Cal’s heart skipped a beat as Teagan pulled a pair of worn leather boots out from the bag. Her boots.
“This device, while flawed, shows promise. Combining sound-dampening and kinetic redistribution in one. For her technical ingenuity, Callion wins this challenge.”
There were whispers and jealous eyes fell upon Cal, and she was more aware than ever that she looked like she’d just rolled out of bed.
“That will be all for today. No challenge for the next class. Use this time to prepare and study. Dismissed.”
The class began to disperse, and Cal stood slowly, feeling her legs cramp from running all the way to class. She grabbed her bag and Rathana appeared beside her.
“Congratulations, Callion!” He said. “I would have loved to win two in a row, but it pleases me that if anyone else was to win, it was you.”
“Thanks. That book of yours was a big help.”
“Then let us celebrate. There is an Aketsi bar I frequent, care to join me after class?”
“Sure, sounds good.”
“Excellent! The bar itself is located in the Aketsi Ward of the Falls District. I’ll be there from sundown onward. Please, invite Lady Alendra if you desire.”
“I’ll see if she’s free.” Cal turned and saw Teagan shoveling the projects back into the burlap sack. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to ask Teagan something.”
When she approached the central pedestal, the professor didn’t look up.
“Was there something you needed?”
“I, uh, just wanted to see if could get my boots back?”
“No,” Teagan said, continuing to pack up. “Anything else?”
“I’ll take it that means there’s nothing else.” She stood, hoisting the sack over her shoulder with a grunt. A stray lock of gray and brown hair fell out of her tight ponytail and into her face. “If you didn’t want to lose something, you shouldn’t have turned it in. Let that be a lesson.” She blew the hair out of her face. “Besides, someone of your… status can surely afford boots, yes?” She turned and left the room.
Later that night, Cal found the bar Rathana had mentioned. The Aketsi Ward was a cluster of buildings piled into a large block of the Falls District. The entrance was tucked in an alley, and led down a flight of stairs to a beaded curtain. She stepped through and was hit with a wave of oppressive heat. The air within the bar was hazy with sweet-smelling smoke and steam. Rune lights glowed dimly from sconces on the walls, mimicking the sun at dusk. The space was roughly divided into two sections; to the left was a cluster of tall tables, and to the right was a large pool of water tinted green by algae.
“Callion!” A voice called. Cal looked over and saw Rathana standing in a pool. He waded towards the steps, pushing through floating lily pads and climbed out. “Thank you for meeting me here.”
“Thanks for the invite,” Cal said, looking around. “Is this what your land is like?”
“Enough to make an Aketsi less homesick.” He grabbed a towel and wiped the moisture from his bare legs. “Few establishments in Istima do as well as Diang Kam Hcho.”
“Uh, Dang kam hachoo?” Cal’s mouth contorted around the strange vowels.
Rathana smiled. “A good attempt for a human. Give it a decade and you could be fluent.”
“Pass.” Another Aketsi approached Rathana and began to speak in the clipped and tongue-twisting language. Rathana responded and the man left. “What was that about?”
“That was Chirrum. The owner. He wanted me to tell you that he doesn’t make human food.”
“Is it that different from what you eat?”
“No, but he does not get many outsiders in his bar. Follow me.” He led Cal to one of the small standing tables on the other side of the room. “Will Lady Alendra be joining us?”
“She said she’d try and make some time. The Fall Court’s got her all running ragged.”
“I apologize for the lack of seating.”
“Standing is fine.” Chirrum returned, carrying a dish filled with steaming green bundles. “What are those?”
“Mho. I suppose you could call it a comfort food. Fish, rice, and vegetables mixed with chutney, wrapped in saltfrond leaves, and then steamed.”
“Huh,” Cal said, looking down at the little wrappings. She picked one up and took a bite. To her surprise, it was not only palatable, but good. Salty, savory, and just a little sweet. She wolfed down the remainder and grabbed another.
“You enjoy the food?”
“S’ good,” Cal said between bites.
“I am glad. Most humans I have met do not wish to try our food. One even told me “leaves belong on trees, not on a plate.”
“Humans eat pig’s feet,” Cal said, grabbing her fourth Mho.
Rathana gave a little trill, something close to a laugh. “You would make a good Aketsi.”
They kept eating. Chirrum brought over tea and more dishes, each with a name more unpronounceable than the last. The Aketsi in the bar watched her with wary interest, perhaps bemused as Cal tucked away another full plate of Mho.
When they were done, Chirrum came back and exchanged more words with Rathana, pointing at Cal.
“He wants to know if you enjoyed his food,” Rathana said.
“It was amazing.” Cal poured the last of the tea from the pot. “Do you mind asking him if I can come back again?”
Rathana relayed the message and the barman made the trilling noise as he replied. “He says anyone who eats like you is a welcome customer.”
Cal looked down at the empty plates and her smile faded. “Shit. Hey, what do I owe you?”
“Please,” Rathana held up a hand. “I will pay. I still owe you for your help with Jasten.”
“Fine. But this is the last thing okay? I don’t like debts.”
“Very well.” The barman pulled out a small scale and placed the money-weights on it. It was a surprisingly small amount, maybe only five or six drams.
“That’s it?” She asked.
“Yes,” Rathana said, balancing the scales with gold shavings from a bottle. “Our food is filling, but simple.”
“I can get behind that.”
Just then, the beaded curtain parted. Alendra walked in, pausing as her eyes adjusted to the dim light within the bar. She caught sight of Cal and made her way over.
“Sorry for being late,” she said, lifting her bag off her shoulder. It fell to the floor with a wooden thud. “I’m trying to get required courses out of the way early, so I’m taking seven classes.”
“Seven?” Rathana said. “Remarkable, Lady Alendra. You must tell us more. Did you have a hard time finding the bar?”
“Not particularly. The Autumn Court keeps an up-to-date map of the university. Well, at least the top layers of the city.” She looked around the bar. “Diang Kam Hcho? Am I saying that right?”
“Your pronunciation is excellent!”
“”Oh good. I haven’t practiced Aketsi since I left home. And I was only really ever able to grasp the Quah-Tcho dialect.”
“I am native to the Nah-Vhang, but many in Istima are from Quah-Tcho. I have had to pick up phrases in order to find lodging and food within the Aketsi Ward. Here is a useful one—” He looked over to Chirrum and shouted for something. The barman nodded and began pulling cups out of a drawer.
“That was… bring drinks please?”
“Very good, Lady Alendra.”
An hour or two passed. It was hard for Cal to tell after the fourth glass. Whatever was in Aketsi liquor, it was strong stuff. The bar was beginning to fill up, and the volume of conversation grew as the sun set. Alendra knocked back her drink, wincing as she swallowed, and slammed her glass down.
“Applied Kinetics,” she raised a finger, “Theory of Energy, Administrative Logistics—”
“That’s not even magic!” Cal said.
“Shh,” Alendra said, “still important. Now…” she slowly put up three fingers. “Four more. Gravitokinesis, Introductory Sympathy, Magic and Economic Forces, and Practical Audiomancy.” She held up seven fingers and wiggled them back and forth.
“Bah!” Cal poured herself another drink. “And I thought potions sounded boring.”
“Well I like it.” She stared at her cup, then shook her head. “So who won the challenge this time?”
“Cal did,” Rathana said. If the alcohol had any effect on him, he wasn’t allowing it to show, though Cal saw he was blinking very slowly, as though he had just woken up.
“What!” Allie said. She turned to Cal and punched her in the arm.
“That’s for not telling me! Here I was worried you’d drop out, and now you’re leading the class.” She paused, then started rubbing her hand. “Also, gods above, that hurt!”
“Ha! Your fancy tutors never taught you how to punch, did they?”
“Yours did, Cal?” Rathana asked. Cal froze, she’d let the mask slip.
“I, uh, got some self-defense training.” She pushed her glass away.
“Intriguing. Aketsi don’t have tutors.”
“Ugh,” Alendra said. “They’re the worst. I swear, I’ve learned more in a week here than I did in years back home.”
“Well I am glad we are all here now, Lady Alendra.”
“Allie. Just say Allie.”
“I did not wish to presume familiarity.”
“Rathana, we got drunk together. We can assume familiarity.”
“Speaking of which,” Cal said, shifting her weight. “It’s probably time to call it a night.”
“Yeah,” Alendra said. “I can’t feel my legs.”
“You would make terrible Aketsi,” Rathana said, making the little trill-laugh. “Can you make it home safely?”
“We’ll manage. Here.” Alendra pulled a tab of gold out of her pocket. “This should cover things, right?” Rathana nodded. “Thanks for inviting me. See you around.” She slung her arm over Cal’s shoulder. “C’mon, walk me home.” Leaning against each other, they made it out of the bar, only bumping into two other tables as they did.
After summiting the stairs, Cal looked up at the night sky. The crisp air helped to clear her mind, and as she breathed out, she saw her breath form a cloud.
“Gods, I think I live… that way?” Alendra said, slowly lifting a hand and pointing east.
“I live close by. You can stay with me.” Cal turned, half-stumbling across the street as she traced her way back to Sable and Burr’s.
“Y’know what’s crazy?” Alendra said. “I’ve never been drinking. I mean, wine doesn’t count.” She furrowed her brow. “I hate wine.”
“I’ve never been drinking. Never had anyone to drink with either, y’know? So thanks for that.”
“Anytime.” They had reached Sable and Burr’s. She reached for the handle and it was locked. “Shit.”
“What?” Alendra whispered.
“Forgot my keys.” She looked up at the roof. “I’ll have to get in through a window.”
“Hah. You really are a thief.” Alendra’s eyes widened. “I can help!”
“Gravity magic. Remember? I’ve done it before!” She widened her stance and held up her hands.
“Allie, you’re drunk.”
“Not that drunk. C’mon, lemme help.”
Cal looked back at the building. The walls of the first two levels were smooth. When she first broke in, she’d been on the roof of another building. “Fine, just go slow, okay?”
“Got it.” Alendra tensed, concentrating.
For a moment, there was nothing. Then, Cal began to levitate. Alendra slowly raised her up past the first floor, then the second.
“Nearly there,” Cal said. She reached out, ready to grab the window sill.
“Wait…” she heard Alendra say from down below. “Wait, no!”
And then the weightlessness stopped. In a split second, Cal found herself falling. She cried out, grabbing wildly for anything… and she found purchase on a wooden beam covered in rusted nails.
“I’m fine,” she said through gritted teeth. She felt heat and pain as the iron dug into the flesh of her palm. The window sill was only a few feet above her. With a grunt, she lifted herself up and through the window, falling onto the floor of her room with a thud. She rested for a moment, then brought herself upright and headed down to let Alendra in.
When she opened the door, Alendra flung her arms around her and sobbed.
“I’m so sorry! I don’t know what happened.”
“It’s fine, see? We’re inside.” Cal stepped back and gestured to the store.
“Gods, your hands…”
Cal looked down and saw they were slick with blood, oozing out of several ragged cuts where she’d grabbed onto the nails.
A few minutes later, they were sitting on Cal’s makeshift bed.
“You should still see a healer,” Alendra said. She’d torn strips of fabric from the dust cover on the table and had begun wrapping them around Cal’s hands. “These are bad cuts. Between the dirt and grime, not to mention the possibility of infection—”
“If I promise to go, will you stop apologizing?” She winced as Alendra tied the bandage tight.
“Fine,” she fell back onto the bed. “Gods, you sleep on this?”
“Yup. Now quit complaining. We can’t all have feather beds and silk sheets.”
“Hmph. Well, next time this happens, we’re staying at my place.”
“Next time we get drunk you mean?”
Alendra laughed. “Yeah.”
Cal leaned back, suddenly feeling her eyelids get very heavy. Admittedly, this isn’t where she had expected to be when she first decided to come to Istima. She had hoped to get rich quick, not find friends and do well in classes, but as she closed her eyes, Cal had to admit, it didn’t feel half bad.