The creature had four little legs, but its fur was so fluffy and so dense that when it stood on the rear pair, you could barely see its paws.
It had a tail just long enough to poke out of its oval cloud of fluff and wag when he spoke to it.
“You are an abomination,” Yam whispered softly.
The little tail twitched.
“You disgust me.”
The tail moved faster, causing the beast’s round little belly to quake.
“You make me believe in genocide.”
The beast’s entire body wiggled, and its forelimbs pawed excitedly at the air.
“You are a crime against nature. Seeing you makes me hope there is no life after death so I won’t have to endure the sight of you in the the next life.”
That proved too much and the little creature dove at him. But rather than move in a baby blue blur of hidden claws and dripping fangs it made a waddling dash that only terminated when it tripped over Yam’s crossed legs. With a barely audible chirp, it hauled itself upright using the fabric of his wrap until it could lick at the corner of his jaw and rub its head against his face while whimpering for attention.
“This,” Yam rasped, eyes fixed blankly on the distance, “is my hell.”
The creature let out a concerned squeak and redoubled its efforts to get his attention.
“This is my hell and—” Yam’s voice hitched, “a-and there aren’t even demon beasts to torture me.”
He regained his composure. Eventually. In the meantime, he scooped up the distressed little creature and held it in his arms. He was disgusted to find that he ended up petting it and was even more disgusted when he couldn’t make himself stop. It was too soft.
He insulted it a few more times, but no matter what he said it never turned savage or tried to leave him. Finally, he set the abomination back on the floor of his cavern, the one under his dormitory, and tried to think rationally.
There was no point lingering over all the terrifying, lethal, and magnificently cruel beasts he had left behind. His heart already hurt too much.
Instead, he needed to marshal his wits and decide what to do next. Could he sell it?
Maybe, but he would need to learn what it was first.
Yam looked over to see it sniffing around the cavern. A fat oval of light blue fur, the occasional purple spot, and big round eyes. If it would not shame his mother, he would have given it away for free. Maybe even have paid someone to take it from him.
He stood up and stalked away, disgusted at the very thought. The creature let out a distressed cry, one that was muted and airy. It sprinted at him, which in this instance meant it made a slow and waddling gallop, so it could throw itself at his shins.
It felt like being hit with a goose-down pillow.
Yam slowly counted his breaths and waited until the creature had calmed down. It didn’t seem to like being alone.
He grit his teeth. Of course it didn’t.
If he was going to sell it (and by all the gods he had his pride and he was going to sell it) then he needed to do research so he could figure out a starting price.
Going to a shop would be too risky. Anyone trading in exotic beasts was likely to have a relationship with the Tooth and Claw. Which meant the most logical place to look would be in a library. But Yam knew that, if he was in a position of influence, he would monitor what was searched for in the libraries as closely as possible.
On the surface his answer was clear. He needed to return to the Understacks.
While exercising, Coach Combs had said that it was a place where backup copies, reference texts, and miscellaneous materials for the other libraries were stored. The only students who ever went to the Understacks were those heavily invested in research or history. Coach Combs, who was still doing his own research when he wasn’t teaching courses, personally loved the Understacks. He claimed that, if you knew the tricks, it was the best places in the entire school for literature reviews.
As he thought, Yam sat down by his pack and took out a small tool. It looked like a simple hand mirror: polished metal covered in a disk of glass. It was no larger than the palm of his hand. With some mental effort, he could cause small illusory lights to take shape in the glass. With some practice, he would be able to make those lines float out of the tool and weave themselves into minor illusions. Primarily it would allow him to add texture or colors to pre-existing items, provided they were no larger than a loaf of bread. But as his control grew the cant would become one of the foundations for true illusion magic.
He absently willed lines and shapes to form in the training tool and tried to be reasonable. Yam did not want to return to the Understacks until he could show the bookkeeper his initiative and value as an employee.
A job there could be incredibly important for his plans.
In large part because his parents were unlikely to send him any more money, and the only way to keep up with the demands of Istima was to convert gold into energy so he could keep practicing. Beyond that, Yam absolutely needed to learn magic from all of the courts if he was to become Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord. Provided he earned access, the Understacks would either let him directly access the knowledge needed or, at the very least, show him which tombs and materials he needed to steal.
That was why he had sacrificed some of his cash reserves for this training tool. After going through the books loaned to him by the bookkeeper he had realized that the glowing lines of light the ghost used were the illusionary interface of some sort of bibliomatic magic.
Yam had to pause for a moment. Just the phrase ‘bibliomatic magic’ was enough to make him salivate. Imagine the knowledge he could find…
But that wasn’t the issue at hand!
He did not want to return to the bookkeeper, or the understacks, without having mastered this tool. He would learn everything from the books he had been loaned and would show insight as well as initiative by recognizing the illusion magic then taking it on himself to learn it.
Yam would only return when it was a guarantee that he would be hired.
So, what were his options? He didn’t think he had enough to pay for discrete information gathering. He also didn’t want to just walk up and down the main streets of the city screaming to the sky that he needed information on an exotic creature he had ’come across mysteriously’.
With a glare, he turned back to the source of all his troubles just in time to see the abomination tilt its head back and, with difficulty, swallow a rough-edged stone that looked too large to plausibly go down its throat. Despite that, the rock disappeared with a few bird-like motions.
Yam’s mouth fell open.
The creature’s brows furrowed. It came onto its hind feet and pressed both paws against the pale fur of its belly. It looked up at Yam. That tiny little stump of a tail twitched weakly as it began to whimper, paws still pressed to its stomach.
“Move or die!” He bellowed as he ran. Though, in reality, it ended up coming out as more of a wheeze.
He crashed through the front doors of the Understacks and didn’t bother trying to talk to whoever was manning the desk. He dipped to the side where there were several chairs were set against the wall. Still sprinting he leaped, planted a foot on one of the chairs, and threw himself into the air. While he was in flight, he pulled his legs up above the level of the small wooden gate next to the entrance desk.
Yam fixed his eyes on a point across the room and twisted space savagely. There was a moment of blurring colors, and then his feet hit the floor at the opposite end of the room.
He stumbled but kept running, slipping across the smooth floor as he took corners and navigated himself deeper into the Understacks.
The young Len came upon a door and used one hand to hammer at it, the other clutching the little creature to his chest desperately “Bookkeeper! Bookkeeper!”
A chill in the air was all the warning Yam got before the bookkeeper flickered into existence several long strides from him.
“Please!” Yam held the creature in front of him, both arms extended.” I don’t know what it is but I think it needs help!”
“Oh,” the ghost blinked, “my.”
“And what is her name?”
The bookkeeper chuckled, drifting in an invisible breeze as they stood in a small and cluttered office. “She is quite fearsome, I’m sure.”
“No. Just hideous.”
If anything, that made the bookkeeper’s smile widen, “For someone who claims to hate this creature so much, you seemed quite distraught.”
Yam opened his mouth, paused, and frowned. It was an animal. And it might have been sick. Somethings just were.
Plus, he had fond memories of the caravan’s animals back from when he was younger and sickly. Before he had been old enough to take the mammalian path and get a body that was more hearty, he couldn’t always go out to play with the other children. But he had rarely been too ill to bring a handful of grass to the horses, to brush the hounds, or use a string and feather to play with one of the cats.
But this wasn’t a cat that kept mice from their stores or a horse that carried them town to town.
“I don’t understand how something like that could ever survive in the real world,” Yam muttered, turning his head to glare at a stack of books, ”It doesn’t belong in Istima and it’s an affront to nature.”
“Ahh, yes, of course,” The bookkeeper nodded.“That makes total sense and doesn’t seem at all like a disproportionate reaction. Certainly not towards a creature you just went through extreme inconvenience for.”
There was nothing to say to that. So the young Len settled for a sullen silence.
“Why didn’t you go to the Spring Court?” asked the bookkeeper.
Yam dropped his eyes and worried at the arms of his chair. “I panicked. And I had already been thinking of coming here to learn what it was.”
“You don’t know what it is?” The ghost lifted an eyebrow, causing a small distortion and translucence to move through his face.
Yam shrugged, keeping his eyes down, “Its cage was on the ground in an alley.”
“So you picked up a completely unknown creature on the streets of Istima?”
The young Len’s mind went blank. Had he just showed his potential employer how impulsive and short-sighted he was?
His heartbeat suddenly went into overdrive. Before he could think of a response the bookkeepers started laughing.
“What? Why are you laughing?”
The ghost sighed and grinned at him even as Yam’s eyes narrowed and his fists started to clench.
“You are a kind young man,” the bookkeeper finally said. Which did not answer his question at all. Luckily, the old ghost kept talking before Yam could say anything inadvisable. ”You named it Abomination?”
He shrugged, still scowling.
“Did you name it before looking in its cage?”
“No. It‘s an unnaturally weak and repulsive creature. Also—” Yam paused, his voice dropping to more of a mumble, “I was hoping to find something else.”
“A wizard should have a suitably fearsome familiar.”
“Ahhh,” the bookkeep managed to keep the corners of his mouth from turning upwards. ”I’m beginning to see the whole picture now. It is horrifically cute, isn’t it? Not exactly the sort of fel and fearsome familiar a young man daydreams about, right?”
The young man in question scowled, glancing at the tiny sleeping creature. He forced himself to look away from its adorably boneless sprawl and focused on breathing slowly through his nose. Anything to keep his metaphorical and literal bile from rising.
“I’m glad you were willing to look past its appearance and help,” the bookkeeper said. ”But, tell me little one, how have you progressed through the books I loaned you?”
“I finished them some time ago.”
Rather than turning around, the ancient ghost simply flickered and was suddenly reclined on a nearby desk. He didn’t say anything but there was a question on his face.
Yam took the small training device into his hand and willed illusory lines into being that were as close to what he had seen the ghost’s spell produce as he was capable of. “I am grateful for your generosity and still wish to work here,” he said, struggling to switch to a more formal and respectful address now that they were discussing business. ”But I thought that actions would speak louder than words.”
The bookkeeper lifted his there-again-gone-again eyes to Yam and stared like it was the first time he had ever really seen him.
“You are a very strange young man, who reads very quickly.”
“Thank you, sir. You are an oddly kind older being who uses insulting descriptors as affectionate nicknames.”
Once again the bookkeeper laughed, and once again Yam was puzzled.
How could no one in Istima of all places, have been schooled in the rules of formal discourse?
You demonstrated a virtue, like honesty, and then you didn’t laugh. It wasn’t that hard.
“Young sir,” said the bookkeeper, ”I think I like you. Let’s attend to the matter at hand and then we can move onto the question of employment.”
Some of his tension may have shown because the ghost winked, “Don’t be anxious. For some inexplicable reason, I suspect your odds of getting a position here will be good.” Then he turned to the little baby blue bundle sleeping in the chair next to Yam.
“This creature,” said the bookkeeper, ”is called a Qupee and is from another continent. They have recently become a very fashionable luxury pet, though not one you see very often.”
“Why is that? I’m certain that some other people would find it quite cute.”
“Well, other people certainly do. I don’t know all of the reasons but, aside from the cost of shipping, I’ve read that locals from that region of the world kill these creatures on sight. The papers speculate that they are regional vermin associated with bad luck in the native folklore.”
“Ahh,” Yam said, silently agreeing with the foreigners, and trying to think of a polite way of asking how much he should sell the beast off for, “and what makes them worth the high cost of shipping?”
The bookkeeper flickered over to his desk and rested his hand on several books stacked there. “I imagine it’s because they are adorable, rare, and don’t grow much beyond what you see. Also, aside from serving as a status symbol, they are incredibly affectionate and bonded to their owners.”
“Can they bond with more than one person?” Yam asked, surprised to find that his hand had started petting the sleeping Abomination without him being aware of it.
“Interesting question. They are quite stupid from what I understand. Remarkably so. They will trust anyone that gives them food. However, they will also unerringly return to their first and strongest bond. Or, more accurately, they will try and usually be hit by a carriage in the attempt.”
It took Yam several moments before the full implication of those words hit him, “Does that mean that she can’t go to a new owner?”
“Correct!” the bookkeeper beamed. ”They have very little resale value once they have fixated on a caregiver. Though they can be cared for by other members of the household for some stretch of time before attempting escape.”
With a wave of his transparent hands, the bookkeeper sent four small books floating over to Yam.
“Look on the bright side young man, I’m sure she will make you quite popular. And,” he added, his eyes twinkling, “they can eat almost anything. Though I would be cautious if I were you. Despite their life not being endangered by most foods, or minerals in our case, it can still be uncomfortable for them to process. And, to put it plainly, the effect on their stomachs can be pungent.”
Yam looked down at the books. All were brightly colored with titles that had been made with such a fanciful, curling script that they were nearly illegible. Even so, he froze when his eyes found the third book. It was titled ‘How to love and raise your Qupee: A Flourishing of the Fluff’. The book was covered in bright pink leather.
And pink dyed fur.
And a crust of garishly cut glass.
To his side, Abomination the Qupee’s stomach let out an ominous rumbling.
“Good luck,” The bookkeeper smiled, “They hate being left alone, so I’m certain that your classmates will come to love her. I know that I’m certainly impressed by a young man barely starting classes who is still willing to make such a selfless commitment. It speaks well of your character and reliability.”
“Yes,” Yam’s left eye began to twitch, as he looked at his potential new employer, “of course I am going to take accountability, sir. What else could I do?”