Cal 14

“She sounds dangerous.”

Cal looked up from her work. Alendra was sitting opposite her on the floor of the attic of Sable and Burr’s, surrounded by scrolls and tomes. They’d been studying in silence for over an hour since Cal had told her about Renna.

“She’s not that bad,” Cal said. “Plus, she taught me most of what I know. I’d have been dead in a gutter if it weren’t for her.”

“Well, ‘not that bad’ sounds like a ringing endorsement.”

Cal rolled her eyes. “Trust me, that’s better than most where I’m from.” She looked back down at her project. This week’s artificing challenge was to make something that could be used to defend yourself. So far, she was sitting around a pile of scraps and hastily scrawled notes.

“Do you want to take a break? I feel stuck.”

“Hold on a second,” Alendra stared intently at the page of a book. “Got it!” She jumped up and put her hands out in front of her, fingers splayed and tensed.

“Oh no,” Cal said, scrambling to her feet. “Not in my room!”

“Relax, I know what I’m doing.” The air began to tremor and smell of ozone as Alendra concentrated. Cal felt a pressure, emanating from an invisible point floating in the center of the room. The wood beneath the point creaked, and the papers and books scattered across the floor as though pushed by a wind that wasn’t there. The effect held for a few moments, but it disappeared just as quickly as it appeared. Alendra threw up her hands and scowled.

“Gah! What’s wrong with me? I’m doing exactly what the books said to do!”

Cal looked around at the room.“What just happened?”

“It was supposed to be an omni-directional non-terrestrial antigravitational effect spell,” Alendra muttered, regathering her displaced books.

“Allie, you’re doing that thing again? The one that we talked about?”

“Hmm?” She looked up from her book. “Sorry, what was that?”

“You went all… Fall Court on me.”

“Right. I was trying to make this stupid spell work. It’s supposed to create a point of anti-gravitational force—that is, pushing instead of pulling. That in and of itself is hard, but I can do it. The harder part is that the force isn’t in the direction of natural gravity, so you’re working to counteract that while also adding another direction of force at the same time. Third, it’s in all directions. That’s why everything moved away from the center of the room where I cast it.”

“Okay, I think I get it. But what’s the problem? You were doing it!”

“A few seconds that leaves me breathless is hardly ‘doing it’.” 

Cal tried and then failed to suppress a snicker. 

Alendra frowned. “What? What’s so—” She frowned as what she’d said dawned on her. “Oh, grow up, Cal!”

Cal let out a full laugh. A couple seconds later, Alendra joined in.

“So you want the spell to last more than a few seconds,” Cal said once they’d calmed down. “What’s the problem? Is it a… energy problem? Do you not have enough?”

“No, my reserves are fine. Plenty of sleep and I ate only a few hours ago. It just takes a lot of concentration. Basic spells are like training a muscle, but this is more like juggling.” She shook her head. “I think I’m getting too frustrated to think straight.”

“Whenever I get that way, I go back to basics.”

Alendra raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize I was speaking to an expert in advanced spells.”

“Didn’t say I was.” Cal grinned. “But sometimes picking an easy lock gives you the confidence to pick a hard one.”

“Right. I’m sure that’s totally transferable to gravitic magic.” She rolled her eyes. “So, what, I should just lift some books?”

“You could, or you could teach me to.”

“Really? You want to try?”

“Yeah, why not? That light spell you showed me has come in handy already.”

“Okay, just the basics then. Nothing that’s Autumn Court specific.” She crossed over to the makeshift bed and sat down, gesturing for Cal to sit across from her. “You’ve been practicing the light spell?”

Cal thought back to the alley, to when she’d thrown her hands over Jasten’s eyes. She remembered his screams of pain and the light seeping through her fingers. “Yeah… I’d say I have that one down.”

“Good. We start with the same process. Energy from your body being put out into the world. Except, unlike light, gravity isn’t technically a force of energy.”

“It’s not?”

Alendra smiled, leaning forward.

“No. It’s a part of the universe and exists within all things, though we can’t see its effects in nature except for on a huge scale, like Apaernore itself.” She was speaking fast now. “But, everything attracts everything else. The books on the ground are constantly pulling on each other. The papers, this bed, the floorboards. There’s attraction between them.”

“What about you and me?”

Alendra nodded. “Definitely. People have gravity. And unlike light, for example, it’s constant. A lamp may run out of oil, but it will always be pulling on everything else.”

“So how come things don’t just slam into each other? And what about the sun? Or the moons? Why don’t they just fall into us?”

“That’s for a variety of reasons. I can explain some of it, and tell you some of it is Autumn Court secrets. But the part you should be concerned about is that gravity is weak and gets stronger the closer or more massive two things are. The celestial bodies are very, very far from us. Again, this is a simplification. So far, so good?”

A million questions swum in Cal’s head, and she wasn’t sure any of them had a good answer. Plus, it unsettled her to think that the sun was constantly pulling on Apaernore. “I’m just going to say yes so we can get to the fun part.”

Alendra laughed. “A good theoretical knowledge makes for a good working knowledge. But fine, we can move on to the fun part.” She grabbed a book off the floor and held it in her hands. “And while making things float is fun, antigravity is harder. The first thing to learn is how to amplify gravity in the natural direction. I’ll hold this book and I want you to try and make the book pull on the ground more.”

Cal frowned. “Not the other way around? Doesn’t the world pull the book?”

“Do you know how far it is from here to Tumaan?”

“What? I don’t even know where that is.”

“It’s halfway around the globe. And the answer is far. Very, very far. My point is that Apaernore is incredibly large. If you want to be the first mage to successfully bind the entire planet to do a basic spell, be my guest.” She cocked her head to the side and smiled. “If not, let’s stick with the book.”

Cal sighed. “Fine, let’s use the book, I guess.”

“Good. Like I said, gravity isn’t a force of energy. If two objects are drawn to one another, but cannot move closer, the object holds that as potential energy. When the object can move closer, their potential energy becomes kinetic energy. To increase the book’s gravitational pull, you have to pour energy into it. Just be careful, because I don’t want you setting this thing on fire. Last time, I said to focus on the heat of your palms, this time, focus on the weight.”

“Got it.” Cal held her hands out over the book, hovering inches above the leather cover. She concentrated on feeling the weight. The weight took on a new meaning with Alendra’s lecture on gravity. It wasn’t just a heaviness, it was a pulling sensation. Something tugging her extended arms down, and pulling up on the world itself. A desire for closeness.

She looked down at the book. She imagined pushing the weight she felt in her hands into the book.

At first, nothing happened. There wasn’t a light, like her first spell, and it was hard to see if anything was happening. Then, Alendra smile.

“I can feel it, the book seems heavier.”

“Really?” Cal said, her eyes snapped up, concentration broken.

“Yeah! That was it!” Alendra tossed the book aside and broke into a grin. “That was amazing!”

Cal laughed. “Well, I’ve got a good teacher.” She felt great, and not even the sudden wave of exhaustion following magic could bring her down.

“And I’ve got a good student.” She sat back, picking up the book again. “You know what? I think that helped. I’m gonna give the spell another go.” She stood up, arms towards the center of the room. The air became charged, and Cal felt the hair on the back of her neck stand upright. As Alendra concentrated, Cal felt herself being pushed backward toward the wall. She recognized the tug of gravity, but this was sideways.

She held her breath as the seconds passed and the sensation grew stronger. Soon, every item not nailed to the floor was pushed against the walls. Finally, Alendra lowered her arms and the spell ended.

“Oh my gods, I did it!” She turned and beamed at Cal. “It worked!”

“Now that was amazing,” Cal said as she stood. She was momentarily thrown off balance as Alendra wrapped her arms around her.

“Thanks, Cal.” As she pulled away, she looked around. “Oh… sorry about—”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. This place was a mess anyways.”

“If you’re sure.” She looked out the window. It was pitch black outside. “Shit, what time is it?”

“You think I can afford a clock?”

“Given your classes, it’d probably be easier for you to make one.” Alendra grinned. She stared out at the street and furrowed her brow. “I really don’t feel like making the hike back to my place.”

“Then crash here,” Cal said. “I don’t mind.”

“Thanks,” Alendra said, flopping down on the bed. She yawned and looked up as Cal sat down on the floor in front of her artificing book. “You not gonna sleep yet?”

“Not yet. I think I’m close to something.”

“Alright,” she turned over, “just don’t wear yourself out, okay?”

“Mmm,” Cal said, narrowing her eyes at the page. Something to defend yourself with, right? Cal would recommend not being stupid enough to get into the situation in the first place. That and know how to climb the walls in an alley.

But that wasn’t exactly something she could present to Teagan.

She’d scribbled half a dozen bad ideas on the page. Alendra would’ve been horrified at her treatment of the book. Using the mechanism from her jumping boots to make a punching gauntlet? There wasn’t a proper energy source, and it would do just as much damage to your arm as to the other person. Light had worked well against Jasten, but that was point-blank into his eyes. Flame… Cal wasn’t going to test a flame weapon in her wood room.

Cal’s mind wandered to the ring she’d first used to fake the entrance exam. Out of fear that someone would realize what it was, she’d stashed it under some shattered pottery on the balcony outside her room. She quietly slipped onto the porch and took out the ring.

Jewelry had never interested Cal beyond what value it had once fenced. The ring itself was rather plain, and if she didn’t know about the runes covering the inside loop, it wouldn’t even have been worth stealing if she saw it on the street. Now that she’d had artificing classes, she could actually pick out enough of the runes to know that this was more impressive than any mundane, gem-encrusted jewelry. What had the salesman called it? A gravitic-mitigation device?

Cal’s eyes widened. Runes for gravity! Her classes certainly hadn’t covered that! She hurried back inside, clutching the ring tightly. She flipped to another page in the book and started to trace out the runes on the ring. She was careful not to draw the links that would complete the enchantment.

The work was difficult. The runes on the ring must’ve been made using a magnifying glass, as they were almost impossible to pick out. By the time Cal had them all down, her eyes hurt. She stared down at the jumble of lines on the page. Some she knew, others she didn’t. It was easy enough to pick out the anchors, inputs, outputs, and even some triggers. She circled what she recognized, leaving only the unknown glyphs.

She gave only a moment’s thought to trying trial by error. The wrong circuit could set the room on fire, or explode, or something else even worse. With irritation, Cal realized her only choice was to do what she hated most.

She had to do it the “right” way.

So, grabbing her quill, she started to take notes, charting out what each part of the ring’s circuit did. There was the system to activate the ring’s power, as well as the signs for various fixed values, but the energy channeling didn’t make any sense. According to her drawings, the ring only used the heat of the wearer’s hand. That wasn’t nearly enough to create the weight-canceling effect. There was something going on here she didn’t get. At least not yet.

She moved on. This was clearly high-level artificing. As her head began to ache, she finally arrived at a rune that she knew had to represent gravity.

Using high-level magic was sure to earn marks in her favor, but what could she do with it? She started sketching concepts, but none of them stuck. She turned to a new page and started again. Still nothing.

Cal scowled, ripping the page from the book, balling up the paper, and tossing it away from her.

As it impacted softly across the room, she had an idea.

Systems worked on energy transference, right? Heat to light, light to sound, sound to kinetic. But these worked in both directions. If something could be made hot, it could be made cold. If something had kinetic energy pushing it in one direction, it could be made to move in the reverse direction. What about gravity?

Alendra has said that if two things were far apart, gravity was weak. The further apart they were, the weaker they were. If their energy was expressed as a number, like it could be in artificing runes, then it stood to reason that eventually, two things would be so far apart that their energy was essentially zero. So could they be less than zero?

Cal was making her own head hurt. She flipped to a new page in the book and started to draw in the margins.

First, she drew two circles. Objects. Because of gravity, these objects had potential energy, and if the objects moved toward each other, it transferred from potential to kinetic, didn’t it? She drew two arrows pointing at each other, each with the kinetic rune. So the potential energy due to gravity was transformed into movement, and the kinetic energy left the object when it could get no closer. Where’d it go? Well, into whatever it hit. Cal had fallen off enough roofs to know that tended to go badly for all involved.

But Alendra had also said gravity wasn’t a form of energy. If it wasn’t, then what was it? It was… a thing. A thing everything had. Just like weight, or shape, or color. It was a quality. A property.

Cal’s eyes snapped back to the ring. That’s why the energy transference hadn’t made sense! The ring didn’t use heat to lift objects; it used heat to power itself and used runes—runes Cal didn’t understand—to change the target object’s relationship to gravity!

Cal stared at her notes and frowned. They looked like the scribblings of a madman. But theoretically… it was sound.

Time to make it real. In one corner of the room, she’d started accumulating scraps of wood and metal, junk that she could practice with. She grabbed some pieces and scratched the runes in place. She didn’t know how late it was, but when she was finished, she felt pride. Sure, it was literally a piece of splintered wood covered in runes, but it might actually work!

In the end, she’d stolen a lot of the ring’s design. The body of the device she had made was a little like a crossbow, with a handle to hold and aim with. This is where she’d place a set of runes to collect heat from her hand while she held it. Next was the hard part. While the ring used fixed integer glyphs to lower an object’s gravity by a percentage, Cal had to make a system which reversed an object’s gravity. Not only that, but since gravity was so weak, she’d have to amplify the effect at the same time. She decided to give the weapon an equivalent effect to negative thirty times the planet’s gravity on a linked object. She fashioned a crude trigger that completed the circuit when pulled, activating the mechanism.

But now she had a weapon without any ammunition. She found a metal rod and scratched new runes into it, linking it to the gravity system.

When all was said and done, Cal’s hands were cramping and there was sweat on her brow. It was time to test. She loaded the rod, aimed at a wall, and pulled the trigger—

The rod shot out, lodging itself in the wall. At the same time, Cal was pushed back, knocking her to the ground. She cried out and Alendra jolted upright.

“What? What happened?” She said, raising her hands and preparing to cast a spell. She looked over at Cal, who was shrieking with laughter, then back at the wall where the rod had impacted. A spiderweb of cracks had formed around it. “Was that, uh, on purpose?”

“I didn’t think it would work!” Cal said, standing up. “Sure, I forgot to account for the effect it would have on the launcher itself, but that can be designed out.” She held up the device. “I reversed gravity!”

“Really?” Alendra blinked. A smile spread across her face. “That’s amazing!” Then, staring back at the rod, she frowned. “And then you used it to make a weapon?”

“Yeah!” She saw Alendra’s expression. “But don’t worry! It’s for class.”

“I know, it’s just…”

“What’s the problem?”

Alendra hesitated.

“What?” Cal asked again.

“Have… have you ever killed anyone?”

Cal cocked her head to the side. It seemed like an odd question. “A good thief doesn’t have to.”

“Is that a no?”

“I’m a good thief, aren’t I?”

“But could you do it?”

Cal thought for a moment. “Hard to say. I’ve never been in a position I couldn’t get out of before. But, I guess. If it came down to them or me, yeah, I think I could do it.”

“What about Renna?”

“I think she could too.”

“No, I mean, has she killed before?”

“I… no.”

“You don’t know, do you?”

“It’s been years since I’ve seen her. I don’t know what’s happened since then. Why?”

Cal saw the concern in Alendra’s eyes. “Like I said, she seems dangerous.”

“And as I said,” Cal said, scowling, “I’d be dead a dozen times over if it hadn’t been for her.”

“Okay, fine, forget I said anything.” She sighed. “Just promise me you’ll be careful, alright?”

“Don’t worry,” Cal held up her new weapon. “I’ve got this thing under control.”

Alendra turned back over in bed. “I wasn’t talking about that.”

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Cal 13

“What’s the matter, Kid? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Renna smiled. “Come here!” She spread her arms wide and embraced Cal. When they let go, Renna slapped her hard on the back. “I haven’t seen heads or tails of you since Kalros.”

“I… that’s it?” Cal frowned. “I left you for dead!”

“And?” There wasn’t a hint of malice in her tone. It was as though Cal had said she was hungry, or that it was going to be cloudy tomorrow. All she did was flash her beautiful smile, and it only made Cal angrier. Why was she the only one upset by this?

“You should be furious with me!”

Renna shrugged. “It was the right move.”

“But how did you survive?”

Renna’s smile morphed into a scowl. “Cuolè,” she spat the name. “The bastard decided I’d suffer more if they kept me alive. He let me take the fall for the heist while he made off with the goods. Spent a few years in prison before I finally broke out.” She looked up and smiled again. “But, I’m more interested in how you got here.”

“It’s a long story.”

Renna lifted her mug. “My favorite kind.” She took a long swig. “Let’s start at the beginning. How’d you make it out of Kalros?

“When I went over the side of the roof, I was still holding an amulet from the loot. I left the city and sold the thing. After that, I fell in with a Len caravan for a bit. Then worked my way up the coast. Moving on whenever options ran dry.”

“Resourceful.” She nodded approvingly. Cal suppressed a smile from the praise. “So how’d you end up here?”

She explained the whole story. How she’d come across the rich girl in the tavern, how she’d found her body and the acceptance letter. Renna’s eyes got wider and wider as she went.

“Let me get this straight—you’re a student here?” She laughed. “That’s the funniest shit I’ve ever heard!”

“Keep it down!” Cal hissed. “You want everyone else to hear you?”

“Wow, since when have you been so uptight?”

“Look,” she said, her eyes swiveling around the room, “can we go somewhere else? Somewhere private?”

Renna smiled. “Your place or mine?”

Cal decided that bringing Renna back to Sable & Burr’s would be too conspicuous. Instead, she let Renna lead her out of the Falls District. They weaved their way through town until they were in an area Cal had never been, but recognized instantly. It hung in the air, and you could see it on the faces of everyone who she passed in the street. Every city had a place like this; where only the poorest and most desperate lived.

“Where are we?” Cal asked.

“The Toscan District. Locals call it The Stacks,” Renna said. The name rang a bell. Cal heard students who couldn’t even afford the Day Court’s accommodations ended up here.

The buildings were precariously tall and packed close together. It felt like the only thing holding them upright was that they had nowhere left to fall. It seemed like the streets had been cobbled once, but had long since been worn down and churned into a thin mud. Occasionally, someone would curse under their breath as their foot caught upon a stone hidden in the muck.

Cal frowned. The school actually let such squalor exist in the city?

Renna noticed her expression and laughed. “What,” she said, “you haven’t spent so much time up in the clouds that you forgot what living was like, did you?”

“I’m just surprised that, considering how big this place is, you choose to live here.”

“It’s a good place to get lost. And no one asks questions.” She led Cal down an alley. “And if you know where to look, you can carve out a nice little hideout.”

They climbed a set of rotting wooden stairs and entered a small, abandoned courtyard. The plants had long ago died, choked of sunlight by the tall buildings surrounding them. In the center, there was a dry, graffiti-covered fountain.

“Well,” Cal said. “I wouldn’t call it your usual home, but I suppose you could do worse.”

“Please, Cal, have some faith. This isn’t my place.” She pointed upwards, at a gaping hole in the side of one of the buildings. The edge of the hole was black with soot, as the wall had been blown outward. “That’s my place.”

Cal grinned. “That’s more like it.”

“You still climb, don’t you?”

“Better than you.”

“Oh?” Renna said. She took off running. Cal chased after her. They reached the wall and began to climb. The disintegrating mortar and uneven brickwork made for quick progress, and Cal reached the lip of the hole mere seconds before Renna.

“Well Kid,” Renna said as she hauled herself up, “at least playing the rich girl part hasn’t dulled your abilities.”

Inside of the hole, it was obvious to Cal that whatever had destroyed the wall was definitely magical. Some experiment or spell gone wrong. Rubble lay strewn across the floor of the ruined apartment, and the door which would have led further into the building was boarded up.

“Not too shabby,” Cal said. “I’ve definitely seen worse.”

“Yeah, it’s real homey in here.” Renna dusted off her hands and looked up at Cal. “Now, spill. You’re an honest-to-god student?”

“Yeah, I’m enrolled in classes and everything!” Cal laughed.

“Is this for some sort of job? Can you cut me in?”

“No job. Not yet. But, when else was I gonna get this kind of opportunity? I mean, there’s gold everywhere in this city!”

“I hear that. I’m just glad you aren’t actually a mage.”

Cal frowned. “Why’s that?”

“Cal, you serious?” Renna narrowed her eyes. “Did you forget what a mage did to us? To me?”

“No, I—”

“Good. Because I haven’t.”

Cal wanted to say something. After all, Alendra and Rathana weren’t like that. But… perhaps it was safer to leave that unsaid. She decided to change topics.

“What about you? Working on any jobs?”

“Oh, I’ve got a couple things lined up. Just need to get a crew together.” She raised an eyebrow. “You want in?”

“Definitely!”

“Good,” Renna said, relaxing her shoulders. She smiled again. “Frankly, I wasn’t sure you would. I’ve gotten you mixed up in some pretty hairbrained schemes before.”

“I’d follow you anywhere, Renna, you know that.”

“I knew that when you were younger. Back then, I couldn’t have gotten rid of you back in the day. Honestly,” she laughed, “I would’ve sworn you had a crush on me or something!”

Cal tried not to blush. “Actually, I do— well, I used to.”

Renna smiled again. “Used to? What, I’m not good enough anymore?”

“Well, thinking I betrayed you and left you to die horribly sort of puts a damper on things.”

“You always did get hung up on little things.”

Cal looked up at the darkening sky. “Shit. I better get back.”

“Aw, but you just got here!”

“I, uh, have to do some studying.”

Renna stared at her for a moment, as though unsure if Cal was being serious. “You sure you’re not becoming one of them?”

“Hey, I gotta play the part, don’t I?”

“Whatever you say,” Renna said.

“Night, Renna.”

“Night, Kid.”

As Cal traced her way back to the Falls District, she couldn’t help but feel confused. She should be glad! After all, Renna was back. But, something about her was different… darker. It would’ve been naive to assume that she would’ve stayed the same after all these years, and she herself had learned a lot since Kalros. From the Len, the streets, other urchins, but there was something in Renna’s eyes whenever mages got brought up. Like a wolf ready to strike. And she hadn’t said anything about what she’d done since she’d escape prison. Had she been hiding something?

Cal shook her head. This was Renna! She’d been with Cal through thick and thin. Whatever had happened, it didn’t change anything. Now that she was back in Cal’s life, things could only go up.

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Cal 12

Years ago…

It was just after dawn in the city of Kalros, and the heat was already enough to bake the rotting trash that filled the streets. The putrid smell on top of the sweltering humidity was normally enough to keep people inside til sunset, when the city cooled to a manageable warmth.

But today was not a normal day. Today, from every corner of the city there were bells and shouts as parades shuffled their way up and down the many stairs of the city of a million steps. Ribbons, bright bits of paper, and brilliant explosions of dyed powder filled the air, creating a storm of color that rained down upon the crowd. Thousands of voices mixed with every sort of instrument, combining their sounds into a cacophonous and constant song that echoed across the hilly cityscape.

High above, from the rooftop of a public bath, Cal watched the sea of bodies. The thought of being pressed in the throng made her feel claustrophobic. But, a part of her, the hungry street-rat, saw all the unguarded pockets to pick.

The only reason she wasn’t down there was because Renna had told her to come here. She said she had something big. Something better than anything she’d ever seen. Cal had never seen Renna so excited.

She heard someone land softly on the roof. She looked over her shoulder and saw a girl a few years older than her. She had sharp eyes and a wicked grin, with brown hair so dark, it was almost black. She was wearing loose linen robes lashed at the wrists and ankles with leather cording to keep it out of her way.

“Watching the party, Kid?” Renna said, squatting down next to her. “It’s quite a racket.”

“What are they celebrating?”

“It’s the Day of Martyrs. Biggest day of the year for the Ankari Church. They’ll be singing and drinking till well after sundown, even the priests.” She pointed to a pair of men in pressed white robes, already red-faced and drunk. “And since they’re all here, guess where they aren’t?”

“The temple!” Cal smiled. “That’s the job? We’re robbing the church, cause they’re all out?”

“Got it in one, Kid.” Renna winked. Cal beamed. “Come on, lemme introduce you to the crew.”

“Why can’t it just be you and me? We do fine on our own.”

“Not on something this big. We need the help to do it right.”

Cal frowned. “Can we trust them?”

“Of course not. But you trust me, right?” 

“Well, if you say so.”

“I do. Now let’s go.” She stood and took a running jump to the next rooftop.

Cal leapt up and followed the older girl. Her feet clattered across the clay tiles as she sprinted to keep Renna’s pace. She knew from experience that the older thief wouldn’t wait for her if she fell behind. Cal smiled as she ran, knowing that the revelers on the street below were completely unaware of the chase occurring above them.

Finally, breathless and sweaty, Cal caught up to her. Renna stood with her hands on her hips on the roof of a cafe.

“Thought I might’ve lost you there,” she said. “You’re getting faster.”

“Or you’re getting slower.”

“Not a chance.” She gestured at a group of three men. “These are the guys.” There was one old, one skinny, and one fat. “Cuolè, Shab, and Jau.”

“There ain’t much to her, is there?” Said the fat man, eying her.

“Well, there’s more than enough of you, isn’t there?” Cal shot back.

“She’s got bark!” The man chortled. “But we’ll see if she’s got bite.”

“Shut it, Jau.” Renna said, dropping her usual smile. “I said I’d vouch for her. And she might not have much muscle, but she’s slippery. Besides, I don’t imagine you’ll fit through the bars.”

“Hey, take a joke, will ya?”

“Can we get to business, please?” The old man said.

“Lets.” Renna said. She turned and her smile was back. She swept her arms out to the crew theatrically. “Gentlemen—and Cal—Today, we are robbing the Ankari Grand Temple. On our own, an impossible task, but together, only quite difficult. Now according to our info, we know that the best stuff is kept in a central chamber at the heart of the temple. To get there, we need to distract the guards, cross the rooftop, pick some locks, and get out the way we came without being seen. Sound good?”

“How can we trust this information?” Jau asked. “What’s your source?”

“One of the church’s own priests.”

“Horseshit!” The skinny man said. His pockmarked skin was covered in messy tattoos. “No way one of them would spill their guts. Where’s your proof?”

“You’re up, Cuolè.”

“Right,” the old man said, stepping forward. “I am the priest.” He rolled up his long sleeves to reveal the sacred brands signifying him as a third-rank priest of the Ankari Church.

“And you have no problem with us robbing your temple?”

Cuolè’s face scrunched up in disgust. “It’s not my temple. It belongs to heretics!”

“Our friend here is from another part of the church,” Renna said. “What was it again? A little disagreement over a mistranslation?”

“The Great Schism was hardly a ‘little disagreement,’ you impudent child!” Cuolè spat. “These disagreements go back generations—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Still don’t care. Anyway, Cuolè here was able to slip into the temple and scout the place out, even the parts the public can’t access. His intel is legit.”

“But, we’re stealing relics, right?” Jau asked. “Isn’t that a problem for you?”

Cuolè sniffed. “Yes. But, I was promised that my pick of the spoils, which I will return to a temple of the true faith. I’d rather the rest end up in the hands of you gutter-trash than remain with the heretics.”

“Good enough for you, Shab?” Renna asked. The skinny man spat on the ground, and nodded. “Great. Cuolè’s already done his part, so the rest is up to us. Jau will go down to street level and cause a commotion at the front of the temple. With so many drunks out, a brawl wouldn’t be unusual. That should draw the attention of the guards long enough for Cal, Shab, and me to get across to the temple. Shab is our lockpicker, so he’ll handle any doors we can’t get through. If there’s anyone inside, I’ll deal with them.”

“And what about her” Shab pointed a bony finger at Cal. “If she gets a cut, she better earn it.”

“The relics are kept in a room deep in the temple, where the public can’t get to them. The room is permanently sealed by iron bars, and the only way in is between them. We don’t have time to cut the bars and Cal here, as you can see, is about as thick as a blade of grass. So she’ll be the one to get the relics out of the room.”

Cal’s heart skipped a beat. This was big. Bigger than anything she’d done before. Did Renna really trust her that much? She was only fourteen, and she could fleece pockets, clip coins, and outrun any guard in the city, but this seemed different.

“Right. Any questions?”

“What about magic?” Shab said. “We don’t got no way past that.”

“The heretics view magic as an abomination,” Cuolè said, “so they rely solely upon conventional defenses.”

“Give me some credit here, Shab,” Renna said, smiling. “I’ve got this thing figured out.” She turned to the others. “No other questions? Alright, let’s go!”

As the crew split up to get ready, Cal went over to the older girl. Renna noticed her concerned look.

“Nervous? Don’t be.”

“But what if we come across someone inside the temple?”

“I’ll take care of them.”

“You’re gonna kill them?”

“No. Remember, a good thief doesn’t have to kill.”

“Okay. If you’re sure.”

“I’m always sure, Kid. Trust me, by day’s end, we’ll finally be out of this stinking city, sipping fine wine on a boat on the way to a beach somewhere exotic.” She winked. “I was thinking Hrovati. Sound good to you?” Cal smiled and gave her a nod. “Good, then let’s get to that temple. We’ll meet Shab there.”

They made their way across the city, scaling walls and jumping over the narrow chasms between buildings, the crowd flowing like a slow river beneath them. Soon, they were staring at a building so big and ostentatious, it could only be a church.

The Grand Temple was a pentagonal building, with tall minarets that seemed to scrape the clouds themselves. The walls at street-level were brown and dirty from the hands of thousands of pilgrims, but as they rose, the bricks glittered gold in the sunlight. Shab stepped out of the shadows.

“Jau’s down there,” he said.

Down on the street, Cal could barely make out the large man pushing his way through the crowd. When he made it to the edge closest to the gates of the temple, he looked up and smiled at Renna. She gave him a nod and the big man decked the closest reveler, then the next. He turned and punched someone else. Soon, the whole street was engulfed in a massive shoving match. The temple guards on the walls above left their posts, running down to break up the fighting.

“That was quick,” Renna said. “We’re up.” She ran across the roof until she reached a string of flags that ran from the building to one of the minarets. She grabbed hold, swinging her feet up and onto the line. Then, hand over hand, pulled herself over. Cal followed her movements, albeit somewhat clumsier. Shab was third, crawling like a spider until he reached them. They landed on top of the high wall, next to one of the minarets.

“We’ve got a lock here,” Renna gestured to the tower door.

“On it,” he said. He knelt down and pulled out small metal tools. Within a few seconds, there was a click and the door swung open. They slipped through and into the temple.

Inside, it was blissfully cool. The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in beautiful colored tiles, repeating in swirling geometric patterns. Small fountains were recessed in the walls, burbling water and sending droplets splattering across the ground.

“We go straight here,” Renna said, guiding them. She took the lead and jogged down the hall. Cal and Shab followed as she then went left, then right, then down a flight of stairs. Along the way, Shab had to get through two more doors. Soon, Cal was all twisted around. But Renna was as confident as ever. Eventually, they came to a stop in front of a barred archway. Beyond, Cal saw a room full of glittering objects.

“This is it,” Renna said, turning to her. “You’re up, Kid.”

Cal stepped forward and put her hand on one of the cold metal bars. She turned herself sideways and pushed herself through, breathing out to make herself as thin as she could. With a final squeeze, she popped out the other side.

She looked around the room. It was small, and pentagonal like the temple itself. Shelves lined the walls, Displaying a trove of useless looking baubles covered in a thick layer of dust. Gold boxes holding bits of burnt wood, a row of gem-encrusted crowns, and so much more.

“Pass through anything that shines,” Renna said, pulling out a burlap sack. “Hurry!”

Cal grabbed everything she could, passing through jewels and gold holy symbols, fine silk robes and strings of pearls. Anything of any value was handed over and stuffed in the bag.

“Alright, that’s all we can get! Let’s move!” Cal squeezed back through and Renna led them back up through the maze of corridors until they were back on the roof. On the street below, the temple guards were beating back the crowd with leather cudgels.

“Is Jau gonna be okay?” Cal asked.

“If he’s smart, yeah. Let’s go!”

They scurried back across the rope and landed on the other side. From there, it was simple enough to get back to where they’d started, the sack of treasures as it clattered and jangled against Renna’s back as she ran.

When they made it back, they were greeted by Cuolè and Jau, who was sporting a black eye and a grin missing two front teeth.

“Are we happy?” Jau asked.

“Oh, we’re happy,” Renna said. She tilted the bag out onto the roof. Jewels and gold shone fiercely in the sunlight.

Cal whistled as she reached down and picked up an amulet. “This is pretty!”

“Hey, just remember, I promised Cuolè first dibs.” She turned to the priest. “Well, what’ll it be?”

Cuolè hummed to himself as he picked through the pile, nodding approvingly. 

“I just can’t decide,” he finally said. Then he looked up with a vicious grin. “I think I’ll take them all.”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Renna said, hand on the hilt of her knife.

“The deal’s changed!” Cuolè snapped his fingers and something hit Cal in the side. The force pushed her off her feet and carried her to the edge of the roof. Cal slid over the edge, and just barely grabbed the lip of the roof. She struggled to pull herself up as a dark figure emerged from behind a tall chimney, arms outstretched.

“Cal!” Renna shouted. Jau roared and charged, but the figure twitched a hand and the man was pulled up into the air. With his other hand, the figure made a gesture, and Jau’s battlecry turned into a scream of pain. He clawed at his chest, which was beginning to smoke and sizzle. The smell of burning flesh filled the air as Shab pulled out a dagger and threw it at Cuolè. It too stopped in midair with a gesture from the figure.

“Get up, Kid!” Renna said. Cal tried to pull herself up, but she couldn’t. Her arms shook and refused to work. She watched in terror as Shab’s knife reversed course, spun, and lodged itself between the lockpicker’s eyes. Cuolè cackled madly as he scooped up the bag.

“Stop dallying and finish them off!” He looked over at Cal, his eyes hard and flat. “The little one too.”

In that moment, Cal’s arms finally gave out. Her hands let go of the ledge and she fell. Her fall was broken by an awning, which she rolled off of and then onto people on the street below. She pushed herself off the ground and then shoved through the crowd, tears streaming from her eyes. She bounced off the bodies of the parading priests and stumbled from street to street, trying to put as much distance between her and the rooftop as possible.

She didn’t stop until she’d reached the outskirts of the city. Her legs gave out as she fell into a pile of trash piled in an alleyway, her arms bruised and scratched from shielding herself as she was bumped and jostled by the crowd.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled to herself. “I’m sorry, Renna. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She looked down at her hand and saw the little amulet she’d taken from the bag. It was all that was left of the haul. She’d need to fence it and use the money to get as far from here as possible.

The guilt of leaving Renna flooded Cal. But she knew there was no point in going back. That man was a mage. There was nothing she could do. Even if she did go back, there was no way Renna was still alive. Her friend was dead.

Cal wiped her tears. What would Renna tell her to do? Keep moving, of course. She stood up, forcing her legs to work as she took a shaky step, then another. That was how she’d make it. She’d keep moving forward.

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Cal 11

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I want to give my thanks to one of our patreon subscribers for asking if Cal had a physical description yet. Looking through my chapters, I realized that the only one is a brief description in the Alendra Interlude chapter. With that in mind, I’ve added one to this chapter as well. Thanks again!

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To be fair, Jasten seemed just as surprised to see Cal in the store as she was to see him.

“Ah, Lady Callion,” he said, presenting her with a flourishing bow. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Nor I you, Lord Jasten,” Cal said, smiling through gritted teeth and curtsying.

“What brings you to this part of town.”

“Shopping around for clothes.”

“I see. And… is your current selection a new item, my lady?”

 She looked down at her outfit and cursed silently. She was in her thieving clothes. Dark cloth, padded leather boots, a small knife on her hip, and all of it covered in dust and mud from her recent escapade. None of it was very ladylike.

“Oh, this? No! Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be caught dead in such rags, but this isn’t a friendly part of town after all. I believe you yourself had an unfortunate run-in with a brigand, did you not, my lord?

“Ah yes, that business. There were several of them, actually. I nearly had them, but I was ambushed from behind. Lucky for them, or I’d have their hides!”

“I’m sure,” Cal said coolly. “Have you recovered from your injuries yet?”

“There is some lingering pain,” Jasten said.

Good, Cal thought.

“But nothing I can’t handle.”

“So, what brings you here?” She asked.

He looked past her to Sable. “I, uh, have come to pick up an item.”

“Oh? What’s that?” She smiled sweetly.

“It’s… I, ah—”

“Buttons,” Sable offered, holding up a small envelope. He must’ve put the ticket in there while she’d been talking to the noble nitwit.

“Right! Buttons for my suit.” He reached for the envelope and Sable pulled it away.

“First, let’s discuss payment,” he said. He set a scale on the counter and began putting weights onto one of the two dishes. He set small led weights down one at a time, each one landing in the dish with a small, dull clink. The dish sank lower and lower, until it touched the counter.

Then he added a few more.

There was only the slightest crack in the mask of Jasten’s face as he watched. He turned to Cal. “I didn’t mean to hold you, my lady. I’m sure you have somewhere else to be?”

“I’m still looking around,” Cal said, “please, ignore my presence.”

“Ah, of course.” He turned back to the counter as Sable finally stopped. “Oh, come now, you can’t be serious!” He gave Cal a glance through the corner of his eye, then slicked back his hair and spoke again. “Surely, there must be some mistake here—”

“They are excellent buttons, m’lord.” Sable said with a smile. “Very rare, and acquired with great speed and at no small effort.” His smile disappeared. “But, if you are no longer interested—”

“No! Damn it all.” Jasten reached into his pocket and pulled out a bar of gold the size of his hand. He put the whole thing onto the scale and, very slowly, the weight began to measure out. “There, are we even?”

“Just a moment,” Sable got down on one knee, eyes level with the scale as it see-sawed back and forth. “It has to settle.”

“Goodness, Jasten, those must be some beautiful buttons to be worth so much. I would love to see them—”

“No!” He snapped. Then he froze and composed himself. “Ah, I can’t right now, my lady. But perhaps I could show you over drinks later?”

“Sorry, my lord, but my schedule is full up at the moment. You know how it is, I’m sure.”

He nodded. “That I do. Perhaps another time then.”

“Perhaps.”

“Now, are we even?” He shot a glare at Sable.

“It appears you’ve given me just a little to much, it you can shave down the bar—”

“I don’t have time, just take the damn thing!” He snarled, snatching the envelope from the counter and turning to leave. He paused at the door and gave Cal a brief bow before ducking out.

Cal counted to five before bursting out in laughter. Sable gave her a chiding look, but beneath it she saw him smiling too.

“Lady Callion?” He asked. “Oh dear, what have you gotten yourself into?”

“Something profitable, I hope,” she replied

“And you know that… miserable little man?”

“You have the honor of knowing Lord Jasten Forthale, son of Count Who-Gives-A-Shit. A classmate of mine.”

“They just let anyone into Istima nowadays, then?”

“As long as they’ve got money.”

“So it seems,” Sable said, grunting as he lifted the brick of gold. “A job well done, my dear. He took a small knife and shaved off a small portion. “Your cut, as promised.”

Cal looked at it. Compared to the brick, it seemed minuscule. “That’s it?”

“Minus rent, of course. Thirty drams this time.”

She sighed and grabbed the meager shavings, scooping them into a bottle with the rest of her money. Before she got here, it would’ve seemed like a fortune. In Istima, it was worth a few weeks of food and drink. It jangled against the glass as she shook it. She’d have to stuff some cotton in there to keep it from making noise while she worked. But that was a problem for another time. Right now, she needed a drink.

But first she went upstairs. Her bathroom had only a small, cracked mirror, but it was more than she was used to. It was surprising, Cal thought, how well she was able to pull off the look of a nobleman’s daughter. All her life, she’d done the best she could to avoid drawing attention to herself. Yet recently, she’d found it necessary to do just that in her newfound role. Her face was thin and angular, with large, chestnut eyes and thick, dark hair — in the right light the features certainly looked noble, perhaps even regal. She knew she should’ve cleaned up and made herself into a presentable young lady, but she was too tired and the bar was calling. Instead, she settled for wiping off her face and getting the straw off the bottoms of her boots.

When she’d finished, she headed over to Madam Horatia’s Boarding House for Young Ladies, where Alendra’s room was. The place sounded like a prison.

When she got there, she found a stern-looking woman—Madam Horatia, presumably. She was squat, had a face like brick, and was sweeping hard enough to scratch the floorboards.

“If you’re looking for a room, we’re full up. Better luck next year.”

“No, I’m looking for someone. A friend who lives here.”

The woman looked up from her broom. “Is that so?”

“Her name’s Alendra Kaestellus. She just started renting—”

“She’s not in at the moment.” The woman went back to sweeping, as though that this was a sufficient place to end the conversation.

“How can you be so sure?” Cal frowned. “Can’t I at least go check?”

“I keep close eyes on my girls. And even if she were here, I wouldn’t allow you up.”

“Why?”

Madam Horatia scowled. “Because this is a respectable house, young miss! And I won’t have you trampling your filth in here!”

Cal fought back the urge to deck the red-faced hag. If she’d shown up in Callion’s clothes, she probably would’ve been welcomed with open arms. But in her current state, she was looked at like a stray found in the gutter. But she didn’t need to attract that sort of attention, especially not here. If this place was good enough for Alendra’s parents, who knows who else might be here? So she swallowed her pride and headed back out into the dim light of the setting sun.

With nowhere else to go, Cal wandered back to the Falls District. She didn’t know where Rathana was staying, otherwise she might try and find him and go back to that Aketsi place he’d shown her—the one with the good food. As it stood, she settled for the first bar she could find. In a city like this, it didn’t take long. Practically every other building sold some sort of booze.

The place she found was called ‘The Golden Goose,’ and was the dingiest, most rundown establishment Cal had ever seen. It must’ve been nearby to a tannery, because the smell was enough to make her gag. Fortunately, the bar was located in a basement, which blocked some of the odor. There were windows near the ceiling that peeked out at the street, providing an excellent view of everyone’s ankles as they passed by on the search for somewhere better. Cal descended the uneven stone steps and pushed open the door.

The inside of the Golden Goose wasn’t better. Small, jaundice-yellow candles flickered and trailed oily, black smoke into the air. It was hard to see, but what Cal could see wasn’t good looking. The clientele was made up entirely out of people who could be found in dark alleys late at night. Everyone was missing teeth, eyes, fingers, or some combination of the three.

Cal approached the bar and a grizzled-looking old man came up.

“Drink,” she said, pulling out one of the larger shavings of gold. “However much this’ll get.”

The man snatched the shaving and bit it. He nodded and set a wooden tankard of dark, lukewarm ale in front of her.

It tasted like ashes and week-old bread. She drank about half of it before setting it back down on the bar which, for reasons she couldn’t understand, was very sticky.

She smiled.

She’d never had a home, but just about every town she’d been run out of had a place like this. It wasn’t good, or wholesome, or honest, but it was reliable and straightforward. Hell, for old time’s sake, she could hustle a game or two of cards or darts—

“Now what is a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?”

Cal scowled, placing a hand on the hilt of her knife and turning to look at whoever had spoken. But she froze when she saw a face she knew. A face she hadn’t seen in a very long time. The face of someone she’d left for dead.

“Hello again, Kid.” She said with a vicious smile. “Buy me a drink?”

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Cal 10

In any other city, an establishment like The Tooth and Claw would’ve been found in some scummy alley, guarded by two enormous thugs with necks like tree trunks. But in Istima, things were a little different. There was a street entrance where two Aketsi were checking tickets. The door was framed by marble columns and a sign reading “The Tooth and Claw” hung overhead, glowing with magical light.  Burr was right, the only rule here was “don’t get caught,” and the owners of the club had clearly realized that the easiest way to do that was simply to pay off the guards.

But Cal couldn’t just stroll through the front entrance. So she waited and watched. It didn’t take long to observe that there was more than one way in. Those who went through the front all had something in common—they screamed wealth. Dresses and gowns, gems sparkling on their necks and in their hair. If she had the time, Cal could’ve gotten Callion’s dress and done her hair to pass as one of the patrons, but she still wouldn’t have a ticket.

Fortunately, a place like this would need another entrance. Once that would allow the riff-raff to enter without sullying the view for the blue-bloods. Cal found that entrance on the side of the building, down a flight of stairs. There were Aketsi standing at this entrance too, but they didn’t notice her slip past in the crowd. She made her way inside, and was hit by the smell of stale beer and body odor.

The place was massive, three rings of balconies looked down upon a ring of sand thirty feet wide. Inside the pit were workers, raking sand over several pools of fresh blood. On the first floor, it was standing room only, with a bar on one wall and some sort of stall for taking bets on the other. Peering up to the second floor, Cal saw rows of wooden benches; and on the third, seats so elaborate they might as well have been called thrones.

She brought her attention back to the first floor. There was a crush of bodies standing at the railing of the arena, as well as a crowd around the bar and the betting booth. Humans, Aketsi, even some Saakarans. There were only a few Len, and most of those that she saw were working behind the counter. But this was just one floor.

As Cal looked for a way up to the second balcony, she spotted something that gave her pause. It was a lone Len, who despite his best efforts, looked incredibly out of place. There was a certain aura you had to put off in these sorts of places. You had to act like you belonged here, like you’d always been here, and that if anyone tried to question you about it that they’d end up hurt. Cal could fake it pretty well, but it was obvious this Len couldn’t.

It was also pretty clear that he was the one who had treated her hands only the day before. He had the same skinny body, same wolf-like face, and even the same travel worn clothes.

As the next fight was announced, Cal watched him try to shuffle his way towards the railing. He was boxed out by the crowd, and had to contend with standing behind them and craning his neck.

“Laaaaadies and gentlemeeeen,” a voice called out. Whoever was speaking was using magic to project their voice, but Cal looked up and saw a man on the third balcony in robes of purple trimmed in gold. “You’ve had a snack, but who’s ready for the main course?” He spread his arms wide.

The crowd roared.

“In one corner, from way down south, hailing from the swamps of Aketsan, we’ve got a stinging stygiopede!” A heavy iron gate was lifted on one side of the area, and a long, flat, bug-like creature came crawling out. It was at least four feet long, and covered in shiny, black plates. It twitched its antennae and flexed a set of horribly sharp serrated mandibles.

“And in the other corner, a hometown hero, from the forest floor beneath the city itself, the fearsome karagor!” The second gate was lifted to reveal a hideous thing of fur and claws, its face a writhing mass of fleshy tendrils. Even from this distance, Cal could see its ribs poking out along its belly. It let out a howl and the audience went wild.

The handlers prodded their animals toward the center of the ring. When they came close enough, they seemed to notice each other and began to circle. In a flash, they set upon one another. The stygiopede slashing with black claws and the karagor rising up on its hind legs to try and pin its opponent down.

The fight was evenly matched. The stygiopede couldn’t easily pierce the matted fur of the karagor, and the karagor couldn’t easily crack the hard shell of the stygiopede. They grappled and broke off, circling again. All the while, the crowd jeered and screamed. Cal never did get blood sports. And not just because gambling was a waste of hard-stolen money either.

She looked over at the Len and saw that he was entranced, but not like the rest of the crowd. While everyone else was hungry for violence, the Len appeared to be… studying the animals. Cal also saw what looked like horror on his face. He winced each time the animals attacked.

“And there it is!” The announcer shouted. Cal turned back and saw that the karagor had managed to find a gap in the massive bug’s armor. It sunk its teeth in, releasing a disgusting spray of green fluid. The stygiopede squirmed and struggled, but it was over. “We have a winner!”

The crowd began to split; half heading to the betting booth to collect their winnings, and half heading to the bar to drown their losses. The Len took this moment to head for a side door. Cal followed him.

Past the door, the noise of the arena died down, echoing softly through the rough stone hallways. Cal stayed back, tailing the Len as he headed deeper in. It was clear he didn’t know where he was going, but he was looking for something. Occasionally, he’d peer down passages or into rooms before continuing on. Eventually, he seemed to find what he was looking for. He headed inside a room and Cal ducked in after him.

Inside were row after row of cages. Some were empty, but most held some manner of strange beast. The cages were spaced so that none of them could attack each other, or whoever was walking between them. Still, Cal saw spots of blood and claw marks on the floor.

The Len looked around, as though he was at a market. He’d pause occasionally, observing an animal before shaking his head and continuing. Eventually, he stopped in front of one long enough that Cal decided to make her move.

“Didn’t expect to see you here,” she said. The Len jumped, wheeling around to face her and raising his hands in some sort of vaguely defensive stance.

“I can expla—” he stopped, peering at her in the dim light. “Wait, it’s you! The one with the hands!”

Cal raised an eyebrow and looked at her palms. “Guilty.”

“What’re you doing here? Do you work at the arena?”

Cal laughed. “No. But I am working at the moment. I was hired to track down a stolen ticket… Know anything about that?”

“I know about lots of things,” the Len said reproachfully.

“Oh, cut it out! Just answer the stupid question.”

“I have a ticket, and I may have gotten it from someone.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Cal sighed. “Look, just hand it over and I’ll go away.”

“No!” The Len said. “I need it to come back.”

“Well I’m not leaving without it.”

From somewhere near the front of the room, above the noises of the animals, Cal heard footsteps. The Len heard it too. Cal looked around, but saw no other exit.

“Who’s there?” Said the approaching stranger. “I know someone’s in here!”

Cal ducked down. She turned to bring the Len down to hide with her but noted with approval that he had already joined her behind one of the empty cages.

“What’re we going to do?” The Len whispered.

“Oh, it’s we now, is it?” Cal shot back. “I don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly capable of making it out of here on my own.”

“Then you won’t get the ticket.”

Cal cursed under her breath. He had a point. And she couldn’t go back empty-handed.

“Fine. But you’re not off the hook.” The footsteps were getting louder now. They didn’t have much time. She looked around. Most of the cages in this area were empty. Not that releasing anything kept down here was a particularly good idea. Then she saw the cage nearest to them was not only empty, but the gate was open. The footsteps were nearly upon them. “Alright, I’ve got an idea.” She looked at the wide-eyed Len. “The security in this place isn’t great. And operations like this can’t have dead ends, in case the owners need to get out in a hurry. We have a chance of getting out of here if you follow my lead.”

“Okay, what do I do?”

“This.”

Cal shoved the Len out into the open.

“Hey!” A voice said. “Who the hell are you? How’d you get down here?”

“I… uh, er, that is—”

“Shut up!” The man said, drawing a knife. “Now, you’re coming with—”

Cal stepped up behind the man. She gave him a kick to the back of his knees and he folded over, dropping his torch. Unable to see her, it was easy for Cal to then shove the crumpled man into the open cage and shut the latch.

“Come on!” She grabbed the Len’s hand and ran, dragging him along.

“Wait! I came here for a creature!”

“No time!”  She pulled him through the door. There were more voices down the hall from where they had come. The only choice was to head further in. They ran down the corridor, away from the noise. The tunnel ended at a winding staircase. She followed it up, hoping this was some back way to the surface. 

“I need a familiar,” the Len sulked. She ignored him and kept climbing. After a few more flights, Cal tried one of the doors. Inside was a small, round room filled with small cages.

“If it’ll shut you up, take one of these.”

“But they’re so small!”

“Yeah… but they’re harder for anyone to reach, so maybe they’re more dangerous? Or more valuable?”

The Len cocked his head.

“Come on, come on!” She growled. “Make up your mind!”

“Okay!” He made a quick turn around the room. He lingered upon one cage, examining the creature within, then moved on to another. He pulled one out and looked inside. “It’s so hard to choose. Fate help me, it has so many fangs”

Cal heard shouts from down below. A group of people were charging up the stairs.

“That’s the one!” Cal said, pulling him out of the room. Together, cage tucked under his arm. they headed up further. The stairs terminated in a large wooden door. Cal burst through it and found herself on the top balcony.

The room was filled with well-dressed patrons sitting in the elaborate thrones. With her dark leathers and the Len’s rumpled clothes, they looked extremely out of place. Fortunately, another fight was taking place, and no one paid them any attention.

“Come on,” she hissed as they made theirway past the seats.

“Excuse me!” A voice called out. Cal looked and saw an elderly woman. She was wearing a rather large green dress and a thick layer of white makeup. “Do you work here?”

“We don’t—” Cal kicked the Len in the shins.

“I order my drink five minutes ago, and it still isn’t here. Won’t you be dears and take care of that?”

“Absolutely, ma’am,” Cal said, curtsying slightly.

“Good.” The woman turned back to the match.

Cal breathed out in relief and looked around. They must’ve come through a service entrance. The large entrance she’d first seen on her way in must be around here somewhere. She spotted it on the far side of the balcony. She nudged the young Len and pointed. He nodded, clutching the cage to his chest.

With the match going, people barely noticed as they made their way over. Soon, they were through the entrance. The guards didn’t give them much notice. After all, they were paid to keep people out, not in. After a few blocks, Cal pulled the Len into an alley.

“There!” She sighed.. “That was easy.”

The Len looked like he wanted to double over, but he didn’t refused to set down the cage in his hands. The burlap covering inside the wooden frame kept her from seeing what sort of creature, if any, was inside.

“What was your name again? Tum? Past?”

“Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers.”

“Great. I’ll try and remember that.”

“I am in your debt. If you want the ticket, it’s yours.”

“Well, about that,” Cal reached into her pocket and fished out the ticket. “I already have it. Guess you’ll just have to owe me.”

“Thief!” Yam hissed.

“Oh, please! I just happen to be better at it than you.” She pocketed the ticket. “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll need patching up sooner or later. Then we’ll be even. Besides, you got what you came for.”

“I suppose so.” He clutched the cage tightly. “Will you tell me your name?”

“Cal.”

“Of?”

“Nobody. Just Cal.”

“I see.” Yam frowned.

“Great. Well, try not to get in any more trouble.” She nodded and walked off in the direction of the Falls District.

As she left, Cal shook her head. Why had she even helped him? That wasn’t part of the job, after all. She could’ve taken the ticket and ran. The guards would’ve been so preoccupied with him that they wouldn’t have even noticed her slipping out.

Maybe she’d gotten soft. Or maybe Istima was already so cutthroat that it felt wrong to leave someone so clearly out of their element alone in there. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something she would’ve done even a month ago.

It took her the better part of an hour to get back to Sable and Burr’s. She took it slow, her legs hurt from sprinting up all those stairs. She also routinely doubled back to make sure she wasn’t followed. Finally, she made it to the front door. Sable and Burr were waiting inside.

“Ah, welcome back, darling,” Sable said, looking up from a half-finished tunic. “I trust you had a good evening?”

“Good? I wouldn’t say that. Successful, though.” She handed him the ticket.

“That will have to do I suppose.” A bell chimed, striking the hour. “And just in time. Our client should be here shortly.”

No sooner had he spoken then the door opened. Cal turned and went pale as she saw Jasten walk in.

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Cal 9

Anger propelled Cal across the ancient stones of the Summer Court. Her legs protested, she’d come all the way up from the Fall’s District without a break and a thin sheen of sweat covered her brow, but she didn’t care. She slammed open the door to the professor’s wing, startling a student carrying a bundle of scrolls, causing them to fall all over the floor.

She made her way to Teagan’s door and reached for the handle, then paused. Even in a rage, the cautious street-dweller in her came through above the noise. What were the chances someone like Teagan would trap their door against intruders?

Cal took a deep breath and pounded a fist against the door with a solid, oaken thud.

After a minute, she heard footsteps. The door opened to reveal Teagan.

“It’s the weekend, Callion,” she said. “Don’t you have some expensive wine to be drinking?”

“We need to talk.”

“I have no need to talk. But, judging from your appearance, you need to talk to me.” She opened the door wider and walked back to her desk. “Come in then.”

Cal stepped inside. She wasn’t sure if magic was affecting the dimensions of the space, but the room was more spacious then she would’ve guessed.

In the center of the room was Teagan’s rather impressive desk. The thing was eight feet wide and four feet deep and made of dark wood and wrought iron. It looked as though it had been through battle; covered in burn marks and deep gouges in the polished surface. Various half-finished projects were strewn across the wide expanse of wood.

Behind Teagan was a large window, with an impressive view of the city below. Bookshelves lined the rest of the walls, overflowing with musty tomes and yellowed scrolls.

“Now,” Teagan said, picking up a small metal cube on her desk. what is it you so desperately needed to talk to me about?”

“The project I won,” Cal said. “I asked for it back and you wouldn’t give it to me.”

“I hope you didn’t come all this way to ask me if I had changed my mind.”

“No. Especially since I saw that my boots were on sale in the market.”

“Indeed,” Teagan nodded. “Was there anything else?” 

Cal scowled. “That’s all you have to say?”

“What were you hoping for? A formal apology? My expulsion from university grounds? You’ll get neither.” She picked up a stylus and began carving a rune into the metal with quick, precise cuts. 

“Do you steal work from all your students?” 

“Only if it’s worth stealing.” She tilted her head as her runes began to curve into a tight spiral. “I see no one told you about the Bank.” 

“The what?” 

“The Bank. It’s what we call the Office of Patents. Any idea or invention you submit there is safe, and not even I can steal it.” 

“Why are you telling me this?” Cal folded her arms. “Why not keep stealing from me?” 

“Because I hardly need to steal from first years. You had one clever idea, that doesn’t make you a savant. I’m telling you this because I am your teacher, and this is a valuable lesson.” 

Cal rolled her eyes. “Oh, sure, very valuable.” 

“Don’t throw away knowledge!” Teagan hissed, slapping down her stylus. “Especially when freely given, for that is most rare in this place. Think—I have stolen from you, yes, but you are just as free to steal from me, or anyone else. Only the Bank is safe. Do you honestly think that students here advance just by coming up with the best ideas? Perhaps once in a while, yes, but to be truly successful you must learn to take every advantage.”

She shook her head. “I swore to only ever be honest with my students, so I will let you know this. We both know you don’t belong here.”

The words  felt like a slap across the face. Cal forced her emotions to deaden, refusing to betray anything. No one here knew who she truly was after all, right?

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that you’re a stuck-up nobleman’s daughter.”

What should’ve been an insult caused Cal to feel a flood of relief. But still, she had to play her part.

“I beg your pardon?” Cal said, trying to summon the indignant tone nobles loved to use.

“The Summer Court was founded because not everyone can be born into the position that you are so fortunate to occupy. Most people have to scrape by, and even that isn’t enough. Whenever you sit in my class, you are taking a space that would better serve someone else. So if you insist on staying, I’ll make damn sure you deserve it. Now, kindly get the fuck out of my office.”

Cal resisted the urge to fight back. On the streets, letting such an insult go unchallenged was a sign of weakness. But here, she had to play pretend. She left without a word.

Usually, Cal would meander on her walks home; trying new routes, doubling back on her path, or just exploring. But this time she took the most direct path, not even bothering to cut the occasional purse on her way.

She threw open the door to the Emporium and beelined for the stairs, but Sable appeared in her path.

“Ah, Cal, a moment of your—”

“Not now.” She went to move past him, but was blocked.

“We have a job for you.”

“Look, it’s been a long day and I just want to go up stairs.”

“I sympathize with you, but unfortunately, our agreement doesn’t mention making exceptions for long days.”

“That, and it’s only noon,” said Burr from behind her.

Cal jumped, letting out a small shout.

“Gods damn it, how did you get there?” She asked.

Burr shrugged. “Quiet shoes? Anyhow, about that job…”

Cal pinched the bridge of her nose. Her hangover wasn’t getting any better. “Fine, fine. I’ll do it. What do you need? More ingredients?”

“Fortunately, this task is something more exotic,” said Sable. “We were approached by a client who seems to have misplaced something quite valuable.”

“And by ‘misplaced’ you mean—”

“He was robbed. And before you ask, the ‘something valuable’ was a ticket to the Tooth and Claw.”

Cal looked from Sable to Burr and back to Sable. “Guys, new student, remember?”

“Right. It’s a… club of sorts. A fighting ring for exotic and dangerous beasts.”

Cal frowned. “That’s legal?”

Burr smiled. “It’s Istima, darling. The only true law is ‘don’t get caught.’”

“Fine, so who stole the ticket?”

“While the client used many colorful and inventive words to describe the thief, the only real lead we have is that he was a Len.”

“Guys, I’m good, I know, but this city is full of Len. Plus, they don’t all look the same. Did this one have scales or fur?”

“The client didn’t make that particular detail known to us. But, it’s likely that the thief will use the ticket to get into the Tooth and Claw. All you have to do is get in and find him.”

“Great. So you have a ticket?”

Sable and Burr shared a meaningful look, grinning viciously.

“Guys?”

The two laughed.

Cal sighed. “Oh, fuck both of you.”

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Interlude: Alendra

Alendra woke quickly to the shrill sound of her alarm, she slapped the off switch and got up, her feet hitting the floor before her mind could argue. It was a trick she’d learned from her father. He’d always said it was harder to fall back asleep if you were already standing by the time you opened your eyes.

She looked around and frowned at the clutter. Given the amount of books the court required her to read, it was hardly any wonder that she had to pile them in pillars around her bed, her desk, and on any available surface. But there was still an hour before she was due at the clerk’s office, plenty of time to clean the place up.

Focusing her senses, Alendra summoned her powers, stretching her arm out towards the books. As she raised her hand, the books were gently lifted into the air. She felt only the briefest tug of weight in her hands as they hovered around her, softly tumbling as she directed them back onto the already overflowing shelves at the foot of her bed. Once they were in place, she breathed out. The mental strain felt good, like exercise. She was tired, but no longer sleep-weary. She stretched upwards and jumped in shock as her second alarm began to blare.

She turned it off and went over to the closet. The area inside was divided in two; to the left was for her personal clothes, to the right for school robes.

The everyday robes of the Autumnal Court were crisp and sleek. Deep blue, with a satin lining the shade of deep orange, like fall leaves. The court’s motto was embroidered in a subtle script in a band around the collar. Through order comes knowledge. Alendra buttoned up the double-breasted front and glanced in the mirror. Everything had to be spotless. Some of the professors had already made a point to verbally thrash any student who failed to meet their exacting specifications.

Her parents had rented her a room at Madam Horatia’s Boarding House for Young Ladies. It was a pleasant little building on the corner of two main thoroughfares of the Founder’s District, and just outside of the Autumnal Court’s gates. Alendra grabbed a piece of bread from the communal dining room of the house and stepped out onto the street.

It was less than five minutes until she’d reached the gate. Passing through the threshold, she was met with a pleasant fall breeze and the scent of dried leaves as the temperature shifted downward to cool, but not biting. She pulled her cloak around her as she hurried towards the east tower. Inside, she crossed the marble floor and took the enchanted elevator up to the fifteenth floor.

“Good morning, Ma’am,” Alendra said as she entered the Hall of Records and Processing.

“Initiate Kaestellus,” said the stern-faced woman behind the main desk. “You have crumbs on your robes.”

“My apologies, Ma’am,” Alendra said, looking down and plucking the stray bits of bread from her clothes.

“Hmm,” the woman’s sharp gaze returned to her work, “next time, do try to appear more professional, understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. You may go.”

Alendra bowed slightly and headed in.

The Hall of Records and Processing was no ordinary office. It was the beating heart of the Autumnal Court’s administration, and by extension, the entire city. Every student of the court, no matter how advanced, was required to work at least a few hours a week as a clerk for the court. As such, the space was over-engineered to perfection.

A long, suspended bridge ran the full length of the hall. Every ten feet, on both sides of the walkway, was a spiral staircase of wrought iron. The staircases led either up or down three levels each. At each level, a walkway extended out, giving students access to a row of wooden cubicles. The cubicles were stacked on top of each other, making the hall look like an oversized row of bookshelves.

Alendra made her way down the walkway to row K. As she walked, the silence was occasionally punctuated by a low chunk and a soft hiss as the pneumatic tube system delivered records to waiting clerks.

She reached her row and walked down two flights of stairs, then took the walkway to the seventh cubicle. A message container was already waiting in the metal tube by her desk. She sat down and pulled out the papers.

As a first year, she didn’t have many responsibilities. Most of the papers were the records of new students that needed to be processed into the school’s extensive filing system. Working quickly, she could get through seven or eight forms in an hour. From a special pocket in her robe, she pulled out a leather case and withdrew ink and a pen. Then she set to work.

By the fifth record, her hand was beginning to cramp. She flexed her fingers as she read the name on the next page and froze.

Student Name: Lady Callion Augurellia

She scanned through the page. It listed everything the school knew about Callion; physical description, aptitude tests, application essay scores, even known personal relations. Alendra allowed herself a brief smile when she saw she’d gotten higher marks on that last item.

But there was a problem. This record detailed the life of the real Callion. The one who had died before she ever made it to Istima. Any clerk who spent five minutes looking at this page could spot Cal as an impostor.

Alendra stared at the page and frowned.

She had promised to help Cal maintain her cover story and, now that the opportunity presented itself, she was hesitating. What were the consequences of forgery? She’d seen students severely reprimanded for mistakes before, so what would be done about deliberate falsehoods? She considered just forgetting the whole thing. After all, the chances of someone going through Cal’s application paperwork and spotting the issue was small, practically zero really.

But, Alendra thought with a sigh, a promise was a promise. And more than that, Cal had become her friend. She was also a thief, a liar, and most assuredly a miscreant, and her friend. There must be a logical way to determine the best course of action.

As her father had taught her, there was certainty in order, rules, and logic. She just had to find the order: define friendship and determine where it sat on the hierarchy of her obligations.

If she was to define friendship, she would say that it’s a bond between two people who, while not contractually obligated to assist one another, were bound by duty and love to help, even if that involved personal risk. Alendra shook her head. The very definition was illogical.

But surely, some responsibilities superseded the duties of friendship? Romantic love, ethics, and law, to name a few. Yet, as she sat there, pen dripping ink as it hovered over the page, Alendra couldn’t find the will to go against her friend.

She pulled out a fresh page and began to write a new record. She copied over the relevant information, but subtlety changed what was needed to seamlessly integrate the new Callion with the old. The physical description of Cal was close to the original, but it wouldn’t pass under strict scrutiny. Alendra copied the handwriting of the original document as she made the answers more vague. For hair, she put medium and brown. For her eyes, she put dark. For height… how tall was Cal? Shorter than she was, probably due to a lack of proper nutrition. Alendra settled on the meaningless answer of ‘approx. 5 ½ feet.’

She did this with the rest of the answers. The Autumn Court’s paperwork was thorough, and in some places, Alendra strained to find a response that wouldn’t arouse suspicion. When she was done, she looked at the page and froze. There was a blank spot in the bottom right corner where she was supposed to mark her work with a personal seal. That mark would permanently tie this paper with her. Whoever saw it, were the forgery detected, could link the document back to her. And the punishment for falsifying information in the Autumn Court was severe—as  close to treason as one could get.

But she thought back to her own definition of friendship. If Cal was truly her friend, then by her own admission, she was bound by duty and love to help her—even though that involved a great personal risk. She pulled out the small signet ring given to her by the court, pressed it into a small ink pad, and pressed it into the page. When removed, it left a small black circle, inside of which was a picture of a single oak leaf—the rank of Initiate—and a seven digit code assigned to her.

The only thing left to do was shuffle the pages into a neat stack, being sure to place Cal’s somewhere in the middle, and place the forms back into the tube. She held her breath as she inserted the tube into the pipe, as though the system would somehow notice her forgery. But nothing happened. The tube slotted in with a soft chunk and was whisked away.

Alendra stuffed the pens back into her bag, promising herself she’d clean the nibs later. Right now, all she wanted to do was get out of here. She climbed back up to the walkway and made her way toward the front desk.

“Have a good day, Ma’am,” Alendra said, summoning the last remains of her cheerfulness as she passed the desk.

“Initiate Kaestellus,” the woman called. Alendra froze in place, then slowly turned around.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“You took approximately seven minutes longer than your weekly average to complete your work. Explain yourself.”

“Oh… apologies, Ma’am. Er— one of the applicants had filled out a form incorrectly. I had to make sure their errors weren’t carried over into the records.”

Her heart was in her throat as the woman studied her. Could she tell she was lying? She was terrible at it. Usually, her face would start to go red and hot. Oh gods, she wasn’t saying anything—

“Hmph,” the woman scowled, as though she’d tasted something bitter. “Repulsive. That alone should have been grounds for the rejection of their application. Very well, you may go.”

“Thank you, Ma’am. Good day, Ma’am.” Alendra gave a short bow and did everything in her power to remain calm while walking to the elevator.

When the doors had safely closed behind her, she slumped against the wall and sighed deeply.

Gods, how did Cal do this all day? Wasn’t it exhausting?

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Cal 8

The next morning, Cal was awoken by a shrill whining.

“Gah!” She winced in pain. Opening her eyes didn’t help as the bright light hit her eyes, amplifying her pounding headache. Beside her, Alendra had a similar reaction as she fell out of the bed and reached desperately for her bag.

“What the hell is that?” Cal said, covering her ears.

“Just a second!” Alendra opened her bag and pulled out a small contraption. She flipped a switch and the noise stopped. “There. That’s better.”

“Seriously, what is that?”

“It’s an alarm I got so I don’t sleep late.” Alendra put the device away and rubbed her temples.

“Allie, it’s the weekend.”

“And I’ve got things I need to do.”

“You work too hard.”

“Thanks.” She ran a hand through her hair and frowned. “I don’t suppose there’s a potion to deal with hangovers, is there?”

“I intend to find out,” Cal said, slumping back on her bed.

“Let me know when you do.” Alendra stood and walked to the door. “And don’t forget, you promised to get your hands checked!”

“Right,” Cal raised a lazy hand to wave goodbye and then turned over to groan into her pillow. When she finally worked up the energy to get up, she regretted it instantly. If sleeping on the make-shift bed alone was uncomfortable, trying to share it with someone else was nigh impossible. Cal sat up and winced, slowly stretching her neck and feeling her muscles protest.

Her clothes were rumpled and unkempt, to the point where even the street urchin in her was unhappy, but the only other clean outfit she had was Callion’s velvet dress, and there was no way she was putting on a corset again. She gripped the handrail of the stairs and grimaced as pain shot through her hand. She let go and leaned on the wall, sliding down as she descended.

“Morning, dear,” Sable called from within the kitchen. “Late night?”

“Something like that.”

“I didn’t even hear you come in.” He lifted a mug of steaming tea to his lips. “Though I saw your friend leave.”

Even in her bleary state, Cal caught his meaning. “She’s just a friend.”

“Oh, to be sure.” Sable said, sipping his tea. “Anyways, you look terrible.”

“Thanks. You wouldn’t happen to know of any hangover cures, would you?”

“A shop down the street sells some that work well.”

“Really?”

“Though I doubt you could afford their prices.”

Cal winced. “Figures.”

“Next best option is one of the wading pools. Nothing like cold water to clear the head.”

“Point me there?”

“Left out of the shop and past the bridge.”

Cal nodded and left, stumbling down the second staircase and then out the front door.

The morning sunlight did nothing to help her headache, and she blinked until her eyes adjusted. It was early still, and the usual hustle and bustle of the Falls had yet to pick up. She followed Sable’s directions, going left until she crossed over the bridge and saw a small path between two buildings.

Unlike most of the alleys, the stones slanted downward, towards the waterline of the canals. At the end of the path, it opened into a sort of miniature bay. 

The cobblestones formed a semicircle around a shallow body of turquoise water, like a little tide pool. A net was stretched over the entryway, presumably to keep out detritus.

She’d used public baths before. In some cities they were the only way to get clean. Cal looked back up the path and, once reasonably sure she wouldn’t be disturbed, began to undress. She got down to her smallclothes and dove in. The cold water was a shock to her system, and she surfaced gasping for air. She wiped the hair out of her eyes and floated on her back for a while. She didn’t know if the water had some sort of magic placed upon it, but it felt as though it was seeping all her aches away.

She allowed herself a few minutes of luxuriating before cleaning herself. Without soap, she just had to scrub as best as she could. Soon, her skin was pink and raw, but clean. She stepped out and wished she knew some sort of spell for removing water. As it was, she donned her clothes while still damp and left the pool.

Next, if only to keep Alendra from hounding her, Cal wandered around in search of a healer. It didn’t take her long to find a shop. She stepped inside and was greeted by the strong scent of antiseptic and incense. A man with a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard looked up from the counter.

“Welcome! Does something ail you, young lady?”

“Hi, uh, I cut my hands.” She held out her palms.

“That’s all?” The man looked at her incredulously. “Young lady, I deal in serious medicine. My clients trust me to reattach limbs, save them from incurable poisons, and bring them back from the brink of death.”

“Then this should be easy for you.”

“It’s a waste of my time. Come back if you lose an arm.” He looked back to the pages on his counter.

Cal frowned. “What, that’s it? What kind of doctor are you?”

The man scowled as though she had spat in his face. “I’m not a doctor, I’m a mage. If you want someone to deal with your paper cuts, try Blood Alley. That’s where all the Spring Court hopefuls go to practice.”

Cal sighed and turned to leave. On her way out, she made a mental note of the lack of magical wards on the mage’s windows.

She’d been piecing together a mental map of the Falls District since she’d arrived, but she hadn’t seen any signs for a ‘Blood Alley.’ She asked around and found out that it was a nickname for a place called Hotspur Row.

The street was lined with small alchemical shops and stalls. Anatomical charts and ingredients hung in the windows and the cobblestones were covered in poorly-washed bloodstains. Even now, in the early hours of the day, the street was crowded. There seemed to be two groups of people; the first was the ill, sickly and destitute. It was clear that they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else, not if the established healers were anything like the one Cal had seen.

The second group were the students. They hung out in pairs or small clusters, whispering between each other and watching those who passed by with eager eyes. Cal shrugged off their gazes as she wandered through the crowd.

“Need healin’ there, miss?” One called out to her. “Five drams and I’ll check you out.”

“I’ll do you for three!” His friend shouted as he stepped in her path, causing the small group of students to let loose in cackles.

“Fuck off,” Cal said as she pushed past him. She kept walking, clutching his coin purse in her fist. She needed to find someone discreet. It was possible someone in the Spring Court knew Callion. Towards the end of the street, she saw a lone figure perched awkwardly on the stoop of a closed shop. Fur, large eyes, and the familiar musty smell confirmed it was a Len.

Ah! Cal smiled. Good. Plenty of Len had passed through the squatter camps Cal had called home at one time or another. Once you knew how to speak to them, it was pretty easy to get what you wanted. That, and they tended to be far less nosy than humans.

This Len had his head buried in a book. Cal approached and waited for him to notice.

It took a few minutes.

Finally, the sun was high enough that her shadow began to touch the edge of the Len’s book. He wrinkled his nose and then looked up.

“Oh!” He snapped his book shut. “You require medical assistance?”

Cal opened her mouth to respond and remembered that this was a Len. Conversation was meant to be a game—the stakes of which was usually money. She held out her hands.

“I have a few small cuts, hardly worth the effort.”

The Len smiled. “Then perhaps even one as unskilled as I can help.” He reached forward for her hands and then stopped. His smile dropped. “I will have to touch you in order to help.”

“I expect so.”

The Len raised an eyebrow, but carefully turned her hands over, looking at the wounds.

“These are more serious than you say,” he said. “You may need advanced care. It could be very costly.”

“I don’t wish to trouble a… Heal? Is that what you’d call them?”

“So you come to a Study? You are a strange human.”

“If this is too challenging, I understand entirely. I’ll find someone competent—”

“Wait!” The Len clutched her palms tightly and closed his eyes. Suddenly, there was a bright light and misty lines began to form in a web pattern around his hands. Her limbs felt strange, like being jabbed with pins and needles. Cal wanted to pull away, but watched with amazement as the ragged cuts began to shrink, the skin repairing itself. When the Len was done, the wounds had become nothing more than small, silver scars. Cal stared in wonder at the magic.

“Not bad,” she muttered.

“It is average. That will be five drams.” The Len held out a hand expectantly. “Unless you want me to do something about the scars of course.”

Cal smiled. “Study, you really should discuss payment before rendering services.”

Somewhere beneath all the fur, she could swear she saw him blushing.

“I… that is theft.”

“Theft is taking something with a price tag. How was I to know you would charge for your healing?”

The Len stared at her with what was either fury or amusement. She never could tell with Len.

“Who are you?” He finally said.

“I am a customer.”

“Do you have a name?”

“Of course, don’t you?”

The Len was wary, but Cal saw him try to hide a smile, “Doesn’t everyone?”

Cal sighed. “Well, this has been entertaining, but I must be off.” She turned to leave, then paused and looked back to the Len. “Actually, I’ve always wanted to try this. I’d like your name. What’s the phrase you use? Honest truth? Honest word?”

The Len’s face fell, “You were doing so well. Almost as well as a Len. A little more time and you could’ve won.”

Cal shrugged. “Losing only matters if you want to win the game. Now, you’re name?”

“Study Yam Hist. And you?”

Cal wagged a finger. “Now that would be telling.” She reached into the coin purse she’d taken from the other student and fished out a clump of gold, definitely at least five drams. She tossed the nugget to Yam. “Thanks for playing.”

She turned and left, leaving the Len to stare down at the money in his hands while he opened and closed his mouth like a surprised fish.

As she exited the street, she took a left towards home, smiling as she went. Something in one of the windows of a store caught her eye. Something rather familiar. She stopped, cupping her hands to block out the light as she peered through the glass.

Inside, for a price tag of fifty drams, she saw her boots. The ones she had enchanted for Teagan’s class. 

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Cal 7

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?”

“Why?”

“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.

“Ow!”

“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.

“Think?”

“Shut up.”

“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.”

“You’re babbling.”

“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!”

“What?”

“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.

“Cal!”

“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.

“Shit.”

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.

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Cal 6

The walk back to Sable & Burr’s wasn’t entirely unpleasant. A lack of shoes was something Cal had grown used to during her childhood, though she had to admit it had been some time since she’d last felt the touch of stone under her feet. She left the warm night air of the Summer Court and stepped through the gate into the cold fog that enveloped the rest of the city.

Despite the chill, Cal liked the feeling of walking down the damp streets. The smooth stone bricks of the courts gave way to rough cobblestone as she made her way back home. Soon, the sound of rushing water and creaking waterwheels filled her ears as she entered the district known as The Falls.

Even this late into the night, the sound of hammers on anvils could be heard from the dozens of workshops that lined the canals. Cal saw a cobbler’s shop and thought about buying a new pair of shoes, but her coin purse was lighter than she’d have liked already. She pressed on, crossing a wooden bridge, and entered a bustling night market. Merchants sold fruit, candied nuts, and exotic meats under the unwavering light of enchanted lamps.

If this were any other city, this would’ve been a great opportunity for her to pickpocket. But the dram bars people carried were harder to get than coins would’ve been. Not to mention that most of them had magical protections against such casual thievery. Still, by the time she exited out of the other side, Cal had managed to snag an apple, a wedge of cheese, and a wineskin. She ate as she walked, crossing yet another bridge and turned onto Washpenny Lane.

She pulled open the door to Sable & Burr’s, causing a little bell to jangle.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” Sable said without looking up from his book.

“I live here,” Cal said.

“Yes,” Burr said, appearing from behind her and smiling. “But I’m afraid we have a strict policy about shirts and shoes.”

“Oh, good heavens, yes, where are your boots?” Sable said.

Cal shrugged. “They were my homework.”

“You’ve lost me entirely, my dear.”

“No matter,” Burr cut in. “We have a job for you.” He crossed over to the counter, reached behind, and pulled out a small cloth bundle. He tossed it to Cal. “Go ahead and open it up.”

Cal untied the drawstring and unwrapped a bottle full of brown powder. “What is this?” She asked.

“More importantly, what is it not?” Sable said. “To answer, it is not crushed Rudavian beetlewood, an ingredient both exceedingly rare and expensive.”

Cal uncorked the bottle and waved it in front of her nose. “Is that… cinnamon?”

“Yes. Almost identical in color and texture. Which is why we would like for you to switch it with the real beetlewood powder.”

“Why not simply have me steal the real stuff? Why go to the extra effort of making a fake?”

“Because in our business, reputation is everything,” Burr said. “When our competitor sells the fake, it won’t work, and buyers will be less likely to go to them instead of us in the future. Make sense?”

“Fair enough,” Cal said, rewrapping the bottle and stuffing it into her satchel. “Where do I need to go?”

“There’s a shop not far from here. We can provide a map.”

“And what if the shop is guarded?” Cal asked. “Or trapped?”

“Well then I suppose it’s a good thing Sable and I hired a thief with knowledge in those subjects,” Burr said with a smile.

It didn’t take long to find her target. It would’ve taken perhaps only twenty minutes using the roads, but Cal managed to cut that time in half by sticking to the rooftops. She stepped out onto the balcony outside her room and worked her way up onto the roof. Almost all the buildings in The Falls were built next to one another, making traveling across their tiled roofs easy as long as you didn’t lose your footing.

Catching her breath, Cal knelt down and sized up her target. It was an unassuming shop, so narrow that it looked as though it had been built in an alley between the two larger stores that surrounded it. Still, Cal had learned not to judge so quickly in Istima.

No light came from within the store, and Cal doubted that there was enough space for the owner to live there full time. She crossed over and used a drainpipe to slide down close to the second story window. There, upon the sill, she spotted small runes carved into the wood.

She cursed. What did the people in this stupid city have against normal, easy-to-pick, metal locks? Everything here had to be magic. As she looked over the runes, she surprised herself by recognizing at least half of them. It looked like the runes were written across the frame so that when the window was lifted… something would happen. That was as far as her knowledge went.

She shifted her weight and pulled out her knife. If what she knew was correct, than she could change some of the runes to bypass the trap. She carved out messy lines in the wood, chipping out several key runes. When she was finished, larges swathes of writing had been ruined, severing whatever link that had existed.

Cal tested the window and found that it wasn’t even locked. She opened it up and slipped inside. The building was even smaller-looking inside. The walls couldn’t have been more than eight feet apart, and musty, wooden crates that had been piled haphazardly up to the ceiling. The only path was a claustrophobic gap in the crates that Cal could barely squeeze through.

On the other side, the room opened up into a small sitting area. Two cracked, leather chairs flanked a wooden end table, atop of which was a tea set. Cal picked up one of the cups and looked it over. Despite the tarnish, it was real silver. She didn’t know if silver was valuable in Istima like it was everywhere else, but it was worth a shot. She stuffed the cups and the platter into her bag and pulled out the wrapped jar of cinnamon, and descended the ladder down to the ground floor.

She stepped off the ladder and looked around. At the far end of the room was the locked front door. Both walls were lined with small shelves filled with jars full of ingredients. She read the labels on the jars, searching for the one she was supposed to replace, but found nothing.

Cal frowned. Sable had said the beetlewood was rare. Perhaps rare enough to keep somewhere safe? She went behind the counter and felt around in the dark. Eventually, her hand settled on a small bottle. She pulled it out and saw that it was filled with fine, brown powder. This had to be it. She swapped the jars, carefully wrapping the real one back up and sticking it in her satchel. Somehow, Sable and Burr had managed to procure a bottle and label for their fake that matched the real one. Cal smirked. The two seemed rather silly, but clearly they knew what they were doing.

When she was done, she looked back to the ladder and stopped. She’d done the job, but who would notice if she picked up some stuff for herself? She turned back and searched. Most shops like this had some sort of cash box or—

A safe! She spotted the small, metal box sitting on a low shelf behind the counter. She knelt in front of it and reached for her lockpicks. But the safe had no keyhole. It didn’t have a handle either. As far as she could tell, it didn’t even have any runes. If it was magic, it had some sort of key that she didn’t understand.

Cal sighed, put away her tools, and went back up the ladder. Immediately, she smelled smoke. She sniffed the air. It smelled like burning wood. She looked over to the window and saw that the frame was smoldering.

“Shit!” She hissed, shimmying back through the path in the crates. The runes on the sill, the ones she hadn’t cut out, were burning like coals. It was still getting energy from somewhere. She pulled her knife back out and jammed it into the wood. Right before she began to break more of the runes, she stopped. Some part of her told her to stop and think.

Though she didn’t recognize the runes, Cal knew that it was still getting power from somewhere. Power that was currently leaking out and burning the wood. But if she wasn’t careful, if she broke the wrong runes, the energy would be released all in one burst.

In an explosion.

Cal slowly pulled her knife back, her thoughts raced. Working quickly, she carved new runes. A new anchor, a new link—she grabbed a wooden plank from one of the crates and scratched in  another anchor, an energy conversion system, and an output. If she was right, it would transfer energy into light. She then carved the second link and for a second, the room was flooded with a bright flash of light, then it faded. Cal blinked away the spots in her vision and looked back to the window sill. The runes were no longer glowing, their energy expended.

Cal sighed, dropping the plank of wood. She really wished she’d gone into one of the other schools, even if she wasn’t good at making people levitate like Alendra, or commanding water like a hydromancer, at least there was less chance of blowing herself up if she made a typo.

But she found a silver lining when she looked down at the crate she’d pulled the plank of wood from. The thin moonlight from the window was enough for her to see the shine of leather coming from within. She reached in and pulled out a set of boots. When she held them up to her bare feet, they looked too large, but it was better than nothing. She pulled them on, stepped through the window, and disappeared into the night.

“Do you have it?”

“Hello to you too, Sable,” Cal said as she entered the room.

“Yes. Good evening, dear,” Burr said. “Now, do you have it?”

“Did you doubt me?” Cal opened her bag, pulled out the jar, and handed it to Sable. The man opened it and held it under his nose. He grimaced, as though he’d tasted lemon.

“Yeah, that’s certainly beetlewood.” He coughed, handing the container to Burr, who gave it a sniff for himself before making a similar face.

“Goodness me, why is it that the more powerful the ingredient, the worse the smell?” He looked at Cal. “You’re a student, do you know?”

“Don’t look at me,” Cal said, holding up her hands. “I just started.”

“Well something tells me you’d go far if you made a potion of garlic, skunk juice, and Sable’s cooking.” He smiled. “In any event, you’ve done well.” He pulled out a small slice of gold an inch and a half long. “Here is your payment, 25 drams—minus rent, of course.”

“Of course.” Cal took the strip and bit it lightly, feeling the familiar give of pure gold. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

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