“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?”
“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?”
“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.
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.