Cal 5

Lessons continued the next day. Aside from runes and potions, the Summer Court required students to take a smattering of random subjects. Cal was surprised to find that most of them had nothing to do with magic at all. History, natural science, chemistry, and other dull subjects made the day drag on.

In Runes, after Teagan concluded her lesson, she took out the projects students had handed in for the first challenge. She plucked one from the pile and looked around. “Who did this?”

Rathana raised his hand. “I did,” he said.

“Congratulations,” Teagan said. “Let this be a lesson to everyone else in the room. When I said ‘impress me,’ I did not mean for you to remake what we did in class, nor did I mean for you make it brighter, nor did I mean this.” She held up one lamp. “To whichever jackass in this room decided to simply hand in their project with a small envelope containing some gold, you might as well leave Istima now before you embarrass yourself further.” She tossed the offending project on her desk, causing something to break.

“In comparison, your classmate here actually went above and beyond. Watch,” she touched the lamp and it changed in color, changing from blue to deep red. “This is a good first effort, and impresses me enough to earn a point for this challenge.” She set the lamp down.

Cal smiled as she saw the embarrassed and upset faces around the room, especially from the students who had left early in the last class. Jasten’s contorted features were especially amusing.

Before they were dismissed, Teagan gave them their second challenge: build a tool that could be worn. This time, when she walked out of the room, the students took the hint and left without being told.

Cal thought about congratulating Rathana, but saw a small crowd forming around him to ask about details of his design, so she left. Besides, there was no potions class today, and Alendra was free for lunch.

“Gods above, you’re court sounds more like a pack of ravenous dogs than a school!” Alendra said. Somehow the stacks of books and scrolls that surrounded her had doubled in size since Cal had seen her last. “I don’t know why anyone would pay to expose themselves to that level of cutthroat barbarism.”

 “I can make it work.” Cal shrugged. “It’s not like I plan to advance anyway.”

“Still keen on your ‘in-and-out’ plan, I see,” Alendra said.

“Yup,” Cal took a bite of her meal. “Actually, I got a job.”

Alendra looked up from her book. “You? A job? An honest job?”

“Of course not. It’s a dishonest job. Speaking of which, let me know if you need any rare or illegal ingredients. I know some guys.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. Just be safe.”

“I’m always—“ Cal stopped as someone stumbled through the door to the tavern. “Rathana?”

The Akatsi saw her and limped over.

“Callion,” he said, breathing hard. “How fortunate.” He leaned against their table and Cal saw that he was bleeding from a gash on his forehead.

“What happened?”

“I was set upon by some men,” he said.

“Gods, you were mugged?” Alendra said. “Did they steal anything?”

Rathana looked to her. “No, nothing was taken.”

“Strange,” Cal said. “Isn’t that the point of a mugging?”

“Not the time, Cal,” Alendra said, shooting her a glance.

“I believe they were put up to it.” The Akatsi touched his forehead and winced. “I had a disagreement earlier with a fellow student. Callion knows him, I believe. Lord Jasten from Runes?”

“Yeah, I know that asshole. What was it about?”

“He wanted to pay me to make something for the second challenge. I said no and he was angered. An hour later, men accosted me on my way to the Day Court.”

“That’s terrible! Surely you could tell the administration of the college?”

Rathana shook his head. “The rules of the Summer Court allow students to get away with anything that cannot be traced back to them. Unfortunately, his actions constitute fair play.”

“Like hell it does!” Alendra said. “That’s just… Cal, where are you going?”

Cal paused, she was out of her chair and putting on her cloak. “I’m going to go have a word with him.”

“Please, Callion, that’s hardly necessary—”

“By the way, I’d like you to meet my friend Allie. Why don’t you get to know each other while I’m out. It won’t take long.”

Before anyone could stop her, she left the tavern and headed west. She’d spent an afternoon following the stuck-up rich boy; where he frequented and where he lived. She hadn’t gotten around to robbing him yet, but that wasn’t on her mind right now.

It didn’t take long to find him. It was early evening and he was moseying down the street, probably from one bar to another. Cal followed him, watching from a distance until he disappeared down an alley.

In truth, she didn’t have a plan beyond this. She was a good thief, but that meant she hadn’t been caught enough to have to learn to fight well. Besides, he had magic and she barely had any.

Still, she went down the alley, creeping up close enough to smell the nauseating combination of perfumes he had doused himself in. She needed to do something quick before he noticed her. If she were Alendra, she could lift him into the air and terrorize him, but she couldn’t, all she had was the little light show parlor trick.

It would have to do.

She reached out and clamped her hands over Jasten’s eyes. As he tensed, she let the energy within her arc through her nerves and into her palms. Jasten screamed as searing white light filled his vision, leaking out between Cal’s fingers.

She let go and jumped back as he slumped to the ground, clutching his face. She reached down and grabbed his silk coin purse, ripping it from his belt.

The magic had drained her, but all the same, she ran back to the tavern. Alendra and Rathana turned as she burst through the door.

“Callion!” The Akatsi said. “You returned.”

“With money,” Alendra said, “wonder how that happened.”

“I had a small chat and I believe he, uh, saw the light.” She looked down at the bag. There was probably enough gold in it to sustain her for a month or two, but… she held it out to Rathana. “Here, as reparation.”

“I—thank you, Callion. That was very kind of you to do.”

“Yes,” Alendra said, eyebrow raised. “Yes, it was.”

“Don’t act so surprised,” Cal said, slumping into her chair. Her food was stone cold by now, not that she had an appetite anymore.

“Allow me to repay you,” Rathana said. He reached into his bag and retrieved a book. “Here, this book contains the runes I used in my project. Perhaps it can help you in this next challenge.”

“Don’t you need it?”

“I may not be of much worth in a fight, but I have a quick mind.” Rathana tapped his forehead. “Everything worth knowing is already in here. Had Jasten asked nicely, perhaps this book would be his. Alas, he did not.” He held out the book. “Take it. Please. If only so that no one less scrupulous may reach it.”

Alendra opened her mouth, closed it, and then shook her head. “Well, perhaps Cal can use this to further her studies, if she plans to stick around, that is.”

“You intend to leave?” Rathana said. Cal still couldn’t read the expressions of the Akatsi well, but she saw sadness in his big, watery eyes.

“Nothing was decided yet,” Cal said, glaring at Alendra. “For the moment, I’m still very much a student.”

“Excellent! Then I cannot wait to see what you create for the second challenge.”

“Yeah,” Cal hefted the book of runes in her hand, “neither can I.”

That night, in her quiet, little room above Sable and Burr’s shop, Cal cracked open Rathana’s book of runes. Reading had always come easy to her, Cal’s childhood had been filled with what she deemed ‘practical’ reading: street signs, notice boards, and price tags. Alendra talked about reading as a source of joy, of being transported to distant shores and impossible fantasies, but Cal much preferred numbers. When it came to joys, there were few things that could beat counting a stack of stolen coins.

But the book, entitled “A Wise Grammatist’s Guide to Runic Lore,” was unlike anything Cal had ever seen. The writing was in a dense, flowery script, full of archaic prose and inventive grammar. The saving grace was the large woodcut diagrams of different runes and their functions. The book even specified that it had used dotted lines to ensure that the runes wouldn’t accidentally activate or bind to the page.

The challenge Teagan had given the class was to make something wearable. Cal flipped through the book until she landed on a section entitled ‘Absorption and Redirection.” She saw a diagram of the first rune and smiled. She grabbed her boots and her knife and set to work.

A few hours later, Cal was standing in the hallway within the administrative tower of the Summer Court. It had taken time, and at least one bribe, but she’d reached her destination: Teagan’s office. She knocked on the door and, after a few moments, it swung open.

“Yes?” Teagan said. She was wearing her usual apron, and her hair was in a tight braid. Cal couldn’t tell if the mess in her office was from some project or if that was its usual state.

“I’m handing in my project,” she said.

“Ah. Callion, I was wondering if you were going to skip out on this one challenge too.”

“You, uh, noticed that?”

“I did. So, where is your project?”

“I’m wearing it.” She lifted a boot.

“Alright,” Teagan crossed her arms, “show me.”

Cal stomped around a couple of times. Teagan raised an eyebrow.

“Is something supposed to be happening?”

“Actually, no,” Cal said. “In fact, they don’t make any noise at all.” She stomped again and the boots made no sound as the heel hit the stone floor. “The energy is stored and, when you click the heels together, released all at once to—”

“Jump to great heights, I see.” She nodded. “Let me see them.” Cal slipped off the boots and handed them over. The professor studied them closely, pouring over the runes. “Interesting. Vibrational energy is often overlooked, and the runes for it are uncommon. I don’t see any limiter on the release of the energy.”

Cal gave her a blank look.

“You have no way to control the jump. If you walked all day and then released it all at once… well, we’d probably have to scrape you off the cobblestones.”

“Oh.”

“A good mistake. You should learn from it. I’ll see you in class.” As she began to close the door, she paused. “Actually, there is one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“Did you blind another student?”

Cal kept her expression level as she shrugged. “From what I have heard, it was temporary, though I don’t know much about the situation.”

Teagan blinked. “Well, I commend whoever did it. Goodnight, Callion.”

Only when the door closed did Cal realize she’d just given over her only boots.

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Cal 4

That night, Cal knew that her classmates would be slaving away on their projects, but not her. Instead, she was in Washpenny Lane, one of Istima’s countless market streets. Perhaps, more accurately, she was atop one of the roofs of Washpenny Lane.

She’d been here a few times now, picking pockets and cutting purses, but the real money was inside the shops. The one Cal was watching right now was a clothing shop called Sable and Burr’s Garment Emporium. It was a tall and thin building, with each level jutting further and further out from the first, which gave the structure the unsettling appearance that it was about to tip over onto the street below.

Most towns Cal had ever been to closed down at sunset, but Istima was different. The magic lamps and ever-burning fires meant that it was well into the night before the market closed. When it finally did, she made her way across the roofs until she was atop the building beside her target. It was only when she was about to make the jump that she noticed something odd.

Something glittered on the roof of the shop, like a million tiny diamonds in the moonlight. She peered closer and raised an eyebrow. Someone had stuck shards of glass all across the edge of the roof, anyone trying to grab on from another building would end up slicing their hand to ribbons. Either the shopkeeper was paranoid, or they had something valuable to protect.

Usually, Cal preferred to work barehanded, but she carried leather gloves in the small bag strapped to her back. Once they were on, she backed up a few paces and, with a running start, leapt for the other roof. 

She heard glass crunch in her hands as she grabbed onto the tiles, and she quickly clambered up before anyone on the street below happened to look up. She wiped the shards from her gloves and surveyed the situation.

The building was four stories tall, the highest level had a balcony on the backside, facing a canal. That would be her entrance. Looking down, she saw it was empty, and there were no lights coming from inside. Satisfied, she hopped down, the running water from the canal masking the sound of her movement.

She went to try the doorknob and saw that it was covered in little runes. Damn, she thought, maybe I should’ve paid more attention to that lesson. She recognized an anchor rune, but the other symbols were unknown to her. There was a chance it was nothing dangerous, but that sort of thinking ended the careers of many would-be thieves.

Instead, she got out her knife and wedged it into the frame of the window beside the door. It took a little convincing, but eventually, she was rewarded with the soft click of the lock giving way. The window opened noiselessly and Cal clambered through. Her feet hit the ground inside and that’s when things went wrong.

Cal’s feet slipped out from under her as she was hurled upwards. She shielded her face as the ceiling rapidly approached and… then nothing. She opened her eyes and saw that she was hanging in the middle of the air.

She heard voices from somewhere in another room and then the sound of a door opening. She cursed, then cursed again when she saw her knife floating just out of her reach.

“Well, would you look at that,” a voice said beneath her. “It appears we have something caught in our flytrap.”

“Quite,” said another voice said. “Should we get her down?”

“One moment—I say, you there! Are you injured?” Was he speaking to her? “Come now, I know you can hear me! Are you injured?”

“I’m fine,” Cal said.

“Wonderful! Sable, if you would?”

Cal heard a click and gravity returned. She crashed to the ground, landing on a surprisingly plush rug. She groaned and rolled over, looking up at the ceiling. Two men appeared in her vision, one holding an elegant blade to her throat.

“I have several questions and I assure you it would be in your best interest to answer, agreed?” Cal nodded, feeling the steel of the blade at her neck. “First, how did you manage to get this far? Most thieves get caught by the first two traps, why not you?”

“Got lucky.”

“No such thing, darling,” the other man said with a smile. “In this city, that’s known as skill. But, we’ll have time enough to discuss that. Next question, what were you hoping to find in here?”

“What do most thieves come to find?”

“Clever answer,” said the first man. “Though you did just admit to being a thief. Points off for that. Final question, are you available for hire?”

“What?”

“What my colleague here means to say is that we are impressed with your abilities. If you are not previously engaged, we have a proposition to make.”

“Oh, Burr, we’ve confused the poor girl.” He pulled the knife back and slid it into a scabbard hidden in the lining of his jacket.

Cal sat up and got a better look at the two men. They were both thin, middle-aged, and incredibly well dressed. The man with the knife wore a white suit while his counterpart wore black.

“Perhaps we should start with introductions,” said the man in white. “I am Burr, and this is my partner Sable.”

“A pleasure,” said Sable, giving Cal a warm smile.

“And you are?”

“Cal.”

“Wonderful. You are sure you aren’t injured? You did fall from quite a ways up.”

“I’m fine. What’s going on exactly?”

“It’s actually rather simple, really. We are two businessmen looking to hire someone of your talents.”

“To do what?”

“Robbery, theft, and general skullduggery,” said Sable.

“But… why? This is a tailor’s shop.”

“It is,” Burr said with a nod. “Some would say the best in the city. But, we have other enterprises too. Enterprises which rely on discretion and a certain amount of moral flexibility.”

“And you’re offering me a job?” Cal’s head was still spinning.

“I do believe she’s got it, Sable!” Burr smiled. “Yes, a job is exactly the idea. Are you interested?”

“I… need to know the details.”

“Yes, yes,” he waved a hand. “All in good time. But first, would you care for something to drink?”

And so, Cal found herself sitting in the small apartment behind the shop she had intended to rob, waiting as the two men bustled about the kitchen.

“Sugar?” Sable asked, bringing her a cup of steaming tea. Cal shook her head, taking the drink from him. Burr followed close behind with a plate of small biscuits. The two men sat down across from her and watched intently.

“So… this business of yours,” Cal said, taking a biscuit, “what is it exactly?”

“We are suppliers,” Burr said. “The mages need all sorts of ingredients and materials for their various projects, but not all are easy to come by.”

“Or even legal,” Sable added.

“Quite right. We discretely provide customers with what they need and they pay us handsomely for it.”

“And where do I come into all this?”

“As I said, not all the things we acquire are strictly legal. In fact, some of them are carefully guarded by certain factions of the college. We need someone to retrieve items and make deliveries. You will, of course, be paid.”

“And why should I trust you?”

“Would you prefer we turn you over to the guard?” Burr shook his head. “It is a calculated risk for you to trust us, just as it is for us to hire a thief. But, this has the potential to be lucrative for both of us, don’t you agree?”

Cal hated to admit it, but she agreed. She was in the city as a thief anyway, so she might as well get paid a wage for it. “I’ll accept, but on one condition.”

“That is?”

“The room above the store, the one I broke into, I want to stay in it.”

“Stay? We aren’t a boarding house.”

“It’s not like you’re using it,” she said. “Think of me as your fourth alarm, should anyone else try and break in. Besides, it beats the Summer Court dormitory.”

“The Summer— hold it, you’re a student?” Burr looked to his partner. “No wonder she made it through the first two traps. Well then, as long as Sable is okay with it?” The man in the black suit nodded. “Then we are agreed! The room and wages in exchange for your services. We will, of course, deduct rent from your earnings.”

“Hang on a minute—“

“The deal is good, my dear, I would take it if I were you.” Sable smiled.

“Fine,” Cal said, crossing her arms.

“Excellent! Go ahead and get settled in, we’ll have something for you soon.”

Moving into her new room didn’t take much time. All of Cal’s belongings fit into the small trunk she’d brought with her to Istima. It was midnight by the time she got back to the shop, and the room was completely dark.

She cursed, wishing she’d asked Sable or Burr for a lamp. They probably had a spare magical lantern or something—it seemed everyone in the damned city did. If Alendra was here, she’d probably be able to do that glowing thing with her hands and—

Cal paused. Technically, she could do that. She looked at her hands and concentrated, then on the space above her hand. Like someone sparking flint, a small spark appeared. She poured in more energy and a small white flame burst into the air, illuminating the room with pale light.

It only lasted a few seconds before Cal felt a wave of fatigue, but it was longer than her last attempt. She smirked, it was a nice parlor trick, but it wouldn’t do.

Then another thought occurred to her. She opened up her pack and took out the small slate tablet she’d gotten in class. She began writing runes, trying to recall the lesson. What was it Teagan had said? Anchor and link, she drew the symbols. She hoped she was remembering the energy transfer system correctly.

The slate began to glow. A smile spread across her face, but faded when she felt the tablet get hot.

“Damn!” She said. Something was wrong. It was heating rapidly, Cal dropped the slate and backed up. She rummaged through her bag for her gloves as the rug beneath the tablet began to smoke and sizzle.

Putting on the gloves, she snatched the tablet back up and wiped away the transfer runes. The light disappeared, but so did the heat. I forgot the channeling. She drew the symbols again, this time, adding in the runes to funnel all the energy in the system into light. This time, when the slate glowed, it was brighter and remained cool to the touch.

It was a little victory, but now she could get a good look at her new room.

It was unfinished, with wood scraps and nails dotting the floor. On one side, below the window to the balcony, was the large rug she’d landed on earlier that night. On the other side of the room, beneath a sheet, she found a small table and two chairs. A thick layer of dust coated every surface.

Overlooking the lack of a bed, it was serviceable, especially compared to the rooms of the Day Court. She borrowed a broom from the shop downstairs and cleaned the debris off the floor, piling it in the far corner. With the floor clear, Cal took the rug and folded it on top of itself, then she covered it with the sheet she’d pulled off the table. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable sleep in the world, but it beat the floor.

She made a mental note to examine the traps on the doorknob and the floor beneath the window, but not tonight. Instead she fell onto her makeshift bed, and was asleep before she hit the blanket.

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Cal 3

Cal awoke early on the first day of class. With the constant sunlight, it was hard to sleep in the Day Court at the best of times, but the thin walls did nothing to dampen the sound of hundreds of new students preparing for their days.

Her stomach growled as she walked through the gate into the Summer Court, but she ignored it. Instead, she focused on her surroundings. It was the usual sweep; looking for guards, weapons, fat coin-purses, and so forth. Yet all her knowledge was useless here. There were no guards, the students carried no weapons, and she couldn’t see anything through the elaborate robes that passed as fashionable in the city.

But she did see a familiar face. The Akatsi from the day before. She made her way through the crowd until she caught his attention.

“Rathana, isn’t it?” She said.

“Callion,” he nodded.

“You, uh, wouldn’t happen to know where class is?”

“A question I myself was hoping you could answer.” He frowned. “None of the new arrivals know and none of the older students will tell us. I believe it is a form of test.”

“And the bullshit begins,” Cal muttered.

“Lady Callion?” A voice called. She turned and saw a boy with an angular face, high cheekbones, and fine red robes. He was oddly familiar, but she couldn’t figure out how she knew him. 

“Yes?”

“Lord Jasten Forthale? From the orientation test?” Cal remembered him now. He was the annoying one who she’d greatly wanted to punch. He smiled and eyed her up and down. “I see you too chose to pursue the Estival Court.”

“Yes, though they aren’t making it easy. I still haven’t figured out where the class is supposed to be.”

“How fortunate, I’m on my way there right now. I can show you.”

Cal raised an eyebrow. If that was true, it was almost enough to make her not want to hit him. “You know where class is? How’d you find that out?”

“It wasn’t easy, but for the right price, anything is possible.” The urge to punch the young lord was growing again.

She faked a smile. “Lead the way.”

The classroom wasn’t easy to find. Cal and Rathana followed Jasten around the side of one of the towers and down a small stairway. The stairway hugged the exterior of the tower as it descended, giving Cal a spectacular—yet terrifying—view of the city. Only a thin guardrail separated her from plunging several hundred feet down.

The stairs curved all the way around the tower, until it ended at a doorway placing them somewhere under the courtyard. The corridors within were lit not by dim torches, but strange blue lamps which cast an unwavering light across the cold stones.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” Cal said. She hated being underground. It was far too cramped and cold.

“It’s just a bit further,” Jasten said, walking down the hall. After about fifty feet, he turned left and the tunnel opened into a circular room.

The room was a bowl, with rings of benches around a central stage. More blue torches cast strange shadows on the walls, but Cal was glad to see sunlight streaming in from a small skylight above. Students, no more than thirty, dotted the benches.

“Should we find a spot?” She asked, looking to Rathana.

“I will stand,” he said. “Sitting is… problematic.”

Cal nodded slowly and found herself a seat. As she did, an older woman walked in.

When she pictured professors—or any academic for that matter—she envisioned stuffy little men with thin glasses and beards so long they tripped over them as they walked. She’d never suffered from an abundance of schooling. Numbers and letters were picked up as she went, learning from the other children or the occasional well-meaning priest.

But the woman that walked into the lecture room seemed out of place. She was wearing a black leather smock over fitted robes. Her hands were covered in soot stains and her brown hair was just beginning to show streaks of gray. She stepped into the center stage and looked around with a sigh.

“Gods above, I swear you first years are getting younger and younger,” she said. “My name is Hasham Teagan. While the pedants in the Autumnal Court may wish for you to address me as professor, or artificer, I forbid you from using it. Teagan will do fine. And you!” She snapped at one of the boys in the front rows. “Stop writing down everything I say, I can hear you scribbling from here and I have a splitting hangover as is.”

“I am here to introduce you to rune-based magic, artificing, and to the Estival Court as a whole. We will start with basic runes—” A hand shot up. It was Jasten. Teagan raised an eyebrow and nodded to the young lord. “You have a question?”

“Prof—sorry, Teagan, I think I speak for some of us here when I say that we already have a grasp of runes. Would it be possible to gear our efforts towards something more advanced?”

“A fair point. Tell me, does anyone else here feel this way?” Several other hands went up. “Alright, then you are excused from this lesson. We will meet again next class for a more a more advanced take on runework.”

The students grabbed their things and filed out the door, smiles on their faces. Once they had gone, Teagan shook her head.

“Happens every fucking year. For those of you who have chosen to stay, congratulations, you’ve made a wise decision. Hopefully it won’t be your last.” She crossed over to the large stone table at the center of the room. “Honestly, it’ll take far too long to train that lot out of all the bad habits they’ve learned from their tutors.”

“You are here to learn runes,” she continued, holding up a leather bag. “Each of you will be given a slate tablet. This piece of rock is your new best friend. It is on this canvas that you will learn the basics of practical magic. Not the fanciful casting of elementalism, nor the effete and wilted powers of the Autumn Court, but real magic. The kind which the modern world is built upon.” She spilled the slates out of her bag and onto the table. “Come get one, they’re all the same, so it doesn’t matter which one you choose.”

Cal joined the rest of the students as they made their way down into the center of the bowl and grabbed a rock tablet. It was a little larger than her hand, rough at the edges, and cool to the touch. As she retook her seat, Teagan began to speak.

“Grab a rock, a quill, or whatever else you have on hand and draw a line like this.” Teagan made a small line on her own slate. Looking around, Cal found a pebble by her feet and quickly copied the line. “Now one like this. Then this. Well done, you’ve just drawn your first rune.”

Cal squinted at the small jumble of squiggles she had scratched into rock. It wasn’t glowing, and it certainly didn’t seem magical.

“This is an anchor rune around which other runes can be drawn. It is simple, but necessary, so get used to drawing it. Without an anchor, your spell has no target, and is liable to affect anything in the nearby area. Not so bad, unless you are trying to do something useful. If the ever-burning torches in here didn’t have anchor runes, this entire room would become a massive arcane fireball.” Cal glanced around the room. The pale blue light suddenly seemed much more ominous.

“Now,” Teagan smiled, “let’s learn how to make one.”

An hour later, and the rock slate glowed slightly in Cal’s hands. Her head hurt from everything Teagan had thrown at them. Anchors, targets, values, energy conversion statements, and all the others she couldn’t remember. And yet, she’d done it. So had most of the other students.

“Excellent,” Teagan said, tossing her slate onto the table with a thunk. “You’ve taken your first steps off the path of idiocy.” She leaned back against the desk and folded her arms. “As I said, I will be teaching you not just runes, but the basics of the Summer Court. Unlike the other schools, we do not have grades.” Some of the students spoke in excited whispers at this, but Teagan silenced them with a hand. “Instead we use a system of points. Points are awarded to winners of challenges set forth by your teachers. The only way to advance out of your first year is to have enough points to do so. Keep in mind, there will not be enough challenges for everyone to do so.” She smiled. “As I said, it was wise of you all to stay, as I am going to assign your first challenge now: to take what you have learned and recreate the rune-lights we have made today, but improve upon the design somehow. A point will be given to the most impressive design. Good luck.” With that, she grabbed her satchel bag and walked out of the room.

No one moved for a moment, then Teagan’s head appeared in the doorway once more. She rolled her eyes. “Gods above, you’re dismissed! Leave!”

 Without Jasten to guide them, Cal and Rathana had to find the next class alone. Fortunately, the other students in Teagan’s class had some ideas, and it only took a few false starts for the group to find the right room. It was located up a winding staircase within the tower, high above the courtyard.

The room was about halfway up the tower, in a bartizan—one of the turrets which sprouted off from the main cylinder of the structure like a branch off a tree trunk. As she stepped through the door, Cal was hit by a wave of heat and bright light. As her eyes adjusted she gasped. The roof, the walls, and the floor was almost entirely glass. Verdant plants were hung in pots, ivy coiled and draped along desks and railings, and hissing pipes spray water mist across most of the surfaces. In the center of the room was a small clearing with stone tables and strange equipment.

Standing in the center of the mess was an Akatsi. Female, Cal thought, though taller than Rathana, and older. Her skin was a gray-green, and flecked with spots of gold. Around her neck hung a strange glowing pendant. The woman turned and spotted the students.

“Ah, you’ve found me. Have a seat, if you need.” She waved at some stools. Cal took a spot while Rathana stood beside her.

The professor shifted her legs beneath her robes, bringing the second set down and raising the first. She wiped her hands on her smock and looked at them.

“I am professor-artificer Sita Mach. I have been assigned to teach you about potions.” She grabbed several small bottles, each filled with a thick brown liquid, and set them on the table. “In front of me, I have placed samples of several potions. One heals stomach ulcers, one helps maintain body heat, and one is a deadly poison.” She held up one of the potions. “Can anyone tell which one this is?”

The room was silent.

“Excellent. No answer is better than the wrong answer. Especially when mistakes can cost lives. Now, this class will be a combination of biology, physiology, and a smattering of other disciplines. Some of you might question the necessity of this, but if you ever wish to make a potion, and not simply copy the recipe from a book, then you will need to understand what you’re working with. Let’s begin with the basics.”

For the next hour, Professor Mach went around the room describing plants. It was mind-numbingly dull, and Cal struggled to keep up. Finally, she circled back to the central table.

“This is a lot to take in, but with time you will learn,” she said. “Any questions?”

Someone raised a hand. “What about that fourth bottle, professor?” He pointed at a fourth bottle of brown liquid sitting on the table. “You talked about the other three, but what does the last potion do?”

“What, this?” Professor Mach lifted the bottle. “It’s perhaps my favorite potion, known for both causing and relieving headaches.” She uncorked it, and took a swig. “It is commonly known as brandy, child.” She set the bottle down. “Dismissed.”

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Cal 2

The orientation building was at the edge of the docks, where the roads began to slope upward. The hall was built like a cathedral, with grand arches and stained glass windows. Cal could swear she saw the colored panels moving as she walked, creating scenes of swirling stars and planets in the light.

“Ah, you’ve arrived,” the man in black said. His voice echoed through the hall. He was standing with a small group of overly-dressed young men and women. “Come and meet some of your future classmates.”

“If we get in, that is,” one of the boys said.

“Oh, posh, Jasten,” a girl tittered, “we both know this whole thing is a charade. With your connections, I’m surprised they’re making you test at all.”

“Perhaps they merely wish to be impressed.” The one named Jasten raised a hand and a flame erupted in his palm, turning from red to blue to green. With a flick of his wrist, the fire was launched upwards before exploding into sparks.

The girl giggled and flashed her long lashes at Jasten. Cal struggled not to roll her eyes.

“But, we are being rude,” Jasten turned to her. “I am Lord Jasten Forthale, son of the Count of Ritania. And you are?”

“Lady Callion Augurellia, daughter of the Duke of Wystenvane.”

The young lord made a sweeping bow. “I didn’t realize you would be here, my lady. Our fathers would be glad to know we’ve been properly acquainted.”

“They would?” Cal felt a growing worry in her stomach. Her disguise had fooled commoners, but they never questioned authority anyway. Now she was among the elite, and they would pick her apart like a pack of wolves.

“Yes, after all, Istima is the birthplace of many fruitful… relations.” Behind him, some of the other boys snickered. The girl he’d spoken to earlier pouted.

“And rotten apples, apparently,” Cal muttered. 

“Pardon?” The boy asked. Before she could respond, an old man approached. He wore robes of deep purple and carried a staff of red lacquered wood.

“Attention, prospective students!” He said through his thick white beard. “Welcome to Istima. I am Garren, one of the deans of the university. Might I congratulate you on getting this far. But there is one test remaining!” He held up a single knobbed finger. “It is the most important of all: a chance to demonstrate your skill to representatives of the five courts. Do well, and you will be given opportunities few could dream of. I would also like to thank all of you for your generous donations which afforded you advanced test placement. In a moment, I will call your name and you will pass through these doors over there.” He held up a scroll and read from the list. “First up, Callion Augurellia!”

Damn. Cal had hoped for a little longer to come up with a plan. Instead, she found herself marching toward the impressively large wooden doors at the end of the hall.

The room beyond was an amphitheater, with five people sitting in chairs in a semicircle opposite her. She noticed each was seated beneath a stained glass window representing their court. In the middle of the room was a small table with a brass tube on it.

“Lady Augurellia,” said the woman beneath the snowflake. “Your family legacy precedes you. I was a classmate of your father’s. I trust he is well.”

“Naturally,” Cal said.

The woman gave a small smile. “Good. I am Professor Turin of the Winter Court. My colleagues and I are here today to judge you. Now, to the matter at hand. Please, show us what you can do.”

Walking up to the table, Cal felt for the ring on her finger. She angled her hand away so that it remained hidden from view as she grabbed hold of the table and lifted. Her audience muttered amongst themselves, some taking notes.

“Impressive, my lady,” Professor Turin spoke again. “I see that you continue the family trend of spurning the Winter Court.” The men and women laughed politely. “Perhaps some of my colleagues would like to comment?”

“Yes,” said the man beneath the stained glass picture of a leaf. “This was certainly a great demonstration of power—and without even touching the battery! I’m willing to make an offer based on that alone.”

“Hold on, Rasmus,” said a man beneath the picture of a flame. “Let the rest of us have a go at her first.” He turned to her. “You gripped the table as opposed to lifting it from range, why?”

Cal could feel the eyes on her now. These people were clearly expecting some kind of educated answer, but she had none. What was it the woman said when she bought the ring?

“Gravitic mitigation,” she said.

The man raised an eyebrow, but nodded, accepting the answer. “Bold of you to attempt such a thing. It’s more advanced and, arguably, less impressive to the casual observer.”

“I would argue that the people in this room are not casual observers, professor,” Cal shot back. The man laughed.

“A question!” Cal turned to the woman beneath the symbol of the moon. “Why did you assume the table was real?”

“I… I’m sorry?”

“Bah!” The woman threw her hands up, “have at her, dogs. The Umbral Court has no need of someone so… grounded.”

“You mean sane, Theodosia,” grumbled the man under the sun.

“Words!” The woman said.

“Pay her no mind, my dear,” the man smiled. “Now comes the time for us to make our offers. On behalf of the Summer Court, I extend an invitation.”

“On behalf of the Fall Court, I extend an invitation.”

Professor Turin smiled softly. “On behalf of the Winter Court, I feel your talents would be wasted here. No invitation.”

“On behalf of the Spring Court, I extend an invitation.”

“The Umbral Court shall not take you!” The woman beneath the moon jumped to her feet, pointing an accusatory finger. She stood for a moment, lowered her arm, and proceeded to walk out of the room.

“Somebody please fetch her,” Professor Turin sighed. “In any event, you have three offers to consider, my lady. Do you have a preference?”

“The Summer Court,” Cal said.

“Really?” Turin arched an eyebrow. “Are you certain? The path of the Summer Court is not easy by any means. With all due respect to my fellow professor,” she nodded to the man under the sun, “that school tends to attract the worst sort of miscreants, scoundrels, and cheats imaginable.”

The man beneath the flame grunted. “I’ve heard worse from better people.”

Miscreants, scoundrels, and cheats. In other words, I’ll fit right in, Cal thought. “I’m certain, professor.”

“Well then, I must congratulate you on your acceptance. Welcome to Istima.”

Half an hour later and Cal was waltzing down the street, class schedule and paperwork in her hand. It’d stung more than she’d like to admit to have had to pay the tuition fee—almost all of her remaining gold—but the promise of opportunity hung in the air. After all, she thought, spend money to make money, right?

After her test, a kindly old administrator had walked her through the process and gave her directions through the city towards her dormitory. The notion of having a bed to call her own was a strange feeling, but not an unwelcome one.

Checking the schedule, she saw that classes weren’t set to begin until two weeks after all of the admissions testing had been completed. That left her with a week to settle in and scout out—

The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Someone was following her, she was certain. She made a hard right and entered an alley.

From inside her boot, Cal drew out a knife. It was small, and the metal was pitted and stained, but sharpened to a razor edge. She hid in an alcove and waited.

A moment later, a figure passed by her and she leapt out. The figure cried out in a surprisingly high-pitched voice and Cal saw the flash of a blade. She quickly grabbed the figure’s wrist and twisted until the knife clattered to the cobblestones. The hooded figure struggled as she pushed them against the wall. Only when her own knife was pressed against the throat of her assailant did the fighting stop.

“I yield!” The figure cried. Cal ripped the hood back to reveal a woman, no older than her. Thick blonde hair fell in loose curls around a pale face. “You can put the knife down.”

She kept the blade at the girl’s neck. “Who are you?”

“Is that a joke? Gods, I know you can’t be that… hang on.” The girl narrowed her eyes. “You’re not Callion.”

“Tell me who you are.”

“My name is Alendra Kaestellus, which you would know if you were Callion, seeing as we’ve known each other since childhood.”

“If that was the case, then why would you attack me in an alley?”

“Because I wanted to get back at her—“

“With a knife?”

“It was just for show! I’d never actually hurt her, but I figured it’d give her a scare.”

“You hate her?” Cal lowered the knife a fraction of an inch. This girl didn’t seem like much of a threat.

“Gods yes. Callion made my life a living hell. She once locked me in the cellar during my own birthday party. It took hours for anyone to notice.” She shook her head. “But, you aren’t her, so who are you? And where is she?”

“Dead.”

The color drained from Alendra’s face. “You killed her?”

“No, but I found her body. One thing led to another and…” she gestured to herself. “Here I am.”

“I never liked her—I mean I really hated her—but I didn’t want her dead!”

“Well then it’s a good thing you didn’t kill her.” Cal shook her head. “Now focus on the here and now. This is a place of learning, so consider this your first test: you just found out I’m an impersonator and I’m holding a knife to your throat, what are you going to do?”

“I’m not going to tell anyone, if that’s your concern.”

“I have no assurance of that.”

“How about this?” Her hand shot up and Cal’s world turned sideways as she was lifted off the ground.

Being levitated was, as Cal found out, extremely unpleasant. The pull of gravity was all wrong, and there was nothing to grab onto for support. It took significant effort not to throw up as she was lifted ten, then fifteen feet up.

“I’m not helpless you know,” Alendra said. “So now I have a test for you: the girl you were threatening has lifted you in the air and could throw you to the ground at any time. What are you going to do?

“I could throw my knife,” Cal mused.

“If I lose concentration, you’ll fall.”

“I could shout for help.”

“I’d claim self-defense. After all, I just uncovered an imposter.”

“Your word against mine.” She swung her arms, reorienting herself towards the ground. To her surprise, Alendra was smiling.

“Then we are at an impasse.” She lowered Cal to just a few feet above the ground. “So I have a proposal.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Let’s work together. This place is dangerous, and it’d be nice to have an ally.”

“That’s rather trusting.”

Alendra shrugged, the slight movement caused Cal to bob in the air. “The way I see it, you’re going to need help to pull off this disguise of yours. No one knows Callion as well as I do.”

“And what do you get in return?”

“Who knows? But it’s the game of the nobility to collect favors. Who knows what I might need?”

Cal thought for a moment before nodding. “Alright.” Slowly, she was lowered all the way to the ground. As soon as she touched down, Alendra bent over, gasping for breath.

“Sorry, that took a lot out of me. Another minute of negotiation and I might’ve dropped you.” She wiped her brow and stood up, sticking out a hand. “Let’s start again. I’m Alendra, and you are?”

“Fen Calton.” She reached out and shook. “But my friends call me Cal.”

After another half-hour of walking, Cal made it up the various tiers of the city toward the center of the city. At this altitude, the air was noticeably chilly, and the lungs had to reach for every full breath.

The highest level of Istima was devoted to the six courts; one for each of the schools and another for student housing and the odd classroom. The gates to each were laid out in a large courtyard in the center. Cal noted the location of the Summer Court—Estival—the professors had called it. But for now, she needed to settle in. Nearby, she found the Day Court. Unlike the others, the gate to the Day Court wasn’t maintained. The few stones that weren’t covered in ivy were stained and pitted. The statues guarding its entrance were crumbling and disfigured, more than one looked like it had been vandalized.

Passing through the gates, Cal was surprised by a sudden wave of warmth. The skies above were azure and cloudless. She walked backwards out of the Day Court and the cold returned. When she looked up, the sky was thick with clouds.

“Confusing, isn’t it?” Alendra said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”

“But…” Cal slowly raised a finger at the bright skies through the gate. “Huh?”

“Eloquently put.” Alendra walked through the gate and turned back to her. “Are you coming?”

Cal shook her head and followed. Once inside, she took her eyes off the sky long enough to take stock of her surroundings. The courtyard was circular, with three large towers on the perimeter, each showing signs of repeated repairs.

“This place is…”

“Old?” Alendra finished.

“I was going to say ‘a dump,’ but yes, old too. And empty.”

“That’s just because this is only the first day of admissions. By the end of the week, it’ll be packed. Not that it matters to us, though.”

“How so?”

“Well, you’re not planning on actually staying here, are you?” She raised an eyebrow. “Please tell me you found somewhere else to stay.”

“What’s wrong with this place?”

“Gods, just wait and you’ll find out.” She shook her head. “Why not use some of Callion’s money to get lodgings?”

“Her parents decided she needed to be independent. So they’ve cut ‘me’ off.”

Alendra laughed. “I would have paid good money to see her face when she found that out. In the meantime, we can at least get you settled.” She turned to towers. “To the left is the women’s dormitory, to the right is men’s, and the middle is purportedly used for meals. I doubt whatever slop the university is willing to give out is going to be edible though.”

“Considering how much it costs to go here, it better be,” Cal mumbled.

“The administration is of the opinion that if you don’t like it, you can just pay to get better somewhere else in the city.”

“You sure know a lot about this place.”

“I’ve only dreamed of coming here since I first learnt magic.” She spun around, taking it all in. “Speaking of which, I never did ask, how did you learn magic?”

“Oh, I can’t do magic.”

Alendra stopped spinning and stared bug-eyed at her.

“You can’t do what? Gods above and below, Cal, this is a damned school of magic! How did you even get in?”

Cal held up her hand and wiggled the finger with the ring on it. “I may have cheated.”

“That’s… actually rather impressive. But still, how do you intend on keeping up your disguise? Sooner or later you’ll have to prove you can do something.” She shook her head. “That won’t do.” She turned and began walking towards the women’s dormitory tower.

“Where are you going?” Cal called after her.

“We’re going to get you a room, and then we’re going to teach you magic.”

 — 

“Okay, everyone always tells you to clear your mind and focus on the action of magic.”

“Sounds reasonable enough.”

“It’s bullshit.” Alendra held out her hand and a small white flame appeared on her palm. “I wasted weeks trying to empty my thoughts because my tutor told me to. He only told me that because he was ancient and it sounds nice.”

“Then what should I do?” Cal shifted in her seat. “Do we know if I can even do magic?”

“Anyone can do magic.” She paused. “Okay, technically, anyone can do magic. Just like how anyone can technically be a master musician, or a great swordsman. But only a fraction of people even have the time and energy it takes to get good at it.”

“Just tell me what to do.”

“Hold out your hand.” Alendra did the action as she spoke. “Now, how much do you know about science?”

“Barely any.”

“Alright, then let’s start at the basics. Your body contains and uses energy. For now, let’s use your body heat. You can feel when this drops because you get cold. With me so far?”

“Yeah.”

“Good, because here’s where it gets tricky. That same heat you hold is the same energy needed for a fire, but it could also be the energy to make light, or sound, or gravity. All we do with magic is funnel your energy in different ways. So, I want you to feel the heat of your own palm.”

“Okay, I’m thinking about it.” Cal held out her hand and stared at it. It felt silly, but she really was trying.

“Now, try and make your palm warmer. Finally, here’s where it all comes together. Think about the air above your palm. It’s there, even if you can’t see it. I want you to try and transfer the heat in your hand to the air above it.”

Cal narrowed her eyes and, for the slightest of moments, she felt her hand go cold. More than that, it felt like the heat was being siphoned out of her. A small flicker appeared in the air, nothing more than a spark.

“That’s it!” She said, clapping her hands together. “Well done!”

The light died and Cal breathed out, suddenly very tired. Her hand was shaking, and the tips of her fingers were numb.

“Why do I feel like I’ve got a hangover?” She asked.

“That’s the drawback. Magic can’t make energy out of nothing, so it takes effort to do anything impressive. When I first started practicing, I fainted constantly. It gets easier, I promise. In the meantime, practice making that little flame whenever you can. Once you have that, we can work on more complex transfers.”

There was a week before classes. It was both agonizingly long and way too short of a time for Cal to prepare. It didn’t help that she didn’t even know how to prepare. Alendra kept her word and helped her practice, but she wasn’t going to be studying in the Summer Court.

“It’s not boring!” Alendra said, stirring the steaming bowl of broth.

“You just said your entire school is based around rules, Allie.” Cal shook her head and tore a piece of bread, dunking the pieces into her own soup.

“Well, yes, but it’s not like I’m one of those elementalists shooting fire out of my hands, now is it? If I don’t know what I’m doing when I levitate something, it could go flying off into the air, or send me flying in the other direction. You’re lucky I’m so good at it, or our first meeting could’ve been very different.”

“I guess, but still…” Cal looked at the towers of books heaped around her. “You sure all of these are required?”

“They gave me a list.” Alendra pulled out a small booklet. “Texts, supplies, schedules, it’s been rather helpful. Didn’t the Summer Court give you anything?”

Cal extended her empty hands and shrugged.

“Figures,” Alendra sat back, leafing through the booklet. “The only rules they care about are the ones they can break.”

“Any rule can be broken.”

She smirked. “If you think that, they’re not going to teach you anything new.”

“I don’t need them to,” Cal said between bites, “I just need them to drop their guard long enough to show me where they keep their valuables.” She saw Alendra frown. “What?”

“Listen, I’m not going to bore you with some lecture, but you did manage to get in to the most prestigious institution of learning in the world. Most people in your shoes would want to take advantage of that.”

“Oh, I plan to take advantage of everyone I find.”

“You know what I mean, Cal!” She was trying to be stern, but it was hard between the laughs. “I’m not going to lecture you, but keep it in mind.” She picked up a book and flipped to her bookmark.

“Are you actually planning on reading all those?”

“I want to get a head start.”

“Fine, be boring,” Cal sighed. She stood up and grabbed her coat.

“Where’re you going?”

“They didn’t give me any books, so I’ll have to prepare on my own.”

“Based on how vague and threatening that statement was, I refuse to ask any more questions.” She shook her head. “Go, enjoy… whatever it is you’re planning.”

Half an hour later and Cal was sitting on a rooftop. She’d ditched the uncomfortable clothes of nobility for something more plain and functional. It was hard to climb in a dress.

She’d been exploring in an increasingly large territory around the center of the city. It was beginning to be familiar, but there was just so much of it. As far as she could tell, Istima wasn’t built on a mountain, it was built on itself. If you went down, you just found more city. If you went down far enough, you stopped seeing people altogether. Maze-like corridors extended in every direction, vegetation and rot crept in and made the air fetid and damp. Cal shivered at the thought. She’d stuck to the upper levels since then.

She watched the entrance to the Summer Court. She had yet to explore beyond the strange gate, covered in strange, glowing runes. At the top of the stone archway, a golden sun hung, it seemed to emit a soft light, probably another pointless enchantment.

Cal slipped off the roof and walked across the central courtyard toward the gate. Despite the dreary, overcast skies around her, through the door, she saw a warm summer day. As she walked through, she felt the chill leave her bones and looked up to see clear skies.

As far as she’d seen, the courts all had the same basic architecture, but each had their own peculiarities, such as the giant floating orb in the Autumn Court. As Cal looked around, she saw that, aside from the three large towers, there was a series of smaller buildings clustered at the rim of the circular court. But in the center, there was a spectacular construction unlike anything she’d ever seen.

It was like a blacksmith’s forge, but bigger, much bigger. A great fire roared in the center of a central burner, smokestacks coiled like snakes around the center, and students worked with tools she could barely understand.

But, perhaps because this was Istima, the design wasn’t just impressive, but beautiful. On closer inspection, Cal saw that the smokestacks were covered in small iron scales, and the ends shaped into the mouths of great beasts, spitting black smoke into the air. The burner was covered in small runes, shifting from red to yellow to orange. The entire thing was functional, yet decorative.

“First time?” Cal leapt back and saw a tall, skinny man looking at her. “Apologies. I have startled you.”

“What?” She asked, looking him up and down. As she did, she saw he wasn’t human. At first glance, it was hard to tell, but beneath the broad hood, his skin was gray and mottled. His eyes were large and yellow, reminding Cal of a frog.

“You were admiring the forge. Most do. I did.” He stuck out a hand. “This is how you greet, yes?”

Cal took the hand numbly. The not-quite-human’s skin was cool to the touch, and his grip was weak as he shook her hand.

“I am Akatsi,” he said.

“Callion Augurellia,” she said, eying him up and down.

“Ah, no, Rathana On is my name, Akatsi is what I am.” He paused for a moment. “You seemed uncertain of my origin.”

Cal nodded. She remembered hearing about the strange swamp-folk of the south. They weren’t common like the Len, or spectacular like the Saakarans, they were just… strange.

“You are a student?” Cal asked.

“I will be. Two days until classes begin. Are you to study in the Estival Court as well?”

“I am.” She bit her tongue. She shouldn’t be sharing this much! She was supposed to go unseen and unheard. The Akatsi had caught her off-guard.

“Then we will see more of each other soon. I will leave you to wander, Callion.” He turned to walk away and Cal called out.

“Wait!” Curiosity got the better of her. “Is it true what they say about you? About your, uh, legs?”

Rathana gave a half smile, as though expecting the question. He reached down and lifted the bottom of his loose robes. Beneath, Cal saw a set of two bare feet. Then, the Akatsi shifted, there was movement beneath the robe and two more legs unfolded, descending until the feet touched the ground. When they did, the first pair of legs lifted and disappeared into the fabric. Then he lowered the robe.

“I hope this answers your question, Callion.” He bowed slightly and walked off, leaving Cal to stare mouth agape as he did.

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Cal 1

It was windier than she imagined. Standing on the observation deck of the gondola, the valley below was a churning maelstrom, with clouds ebbing and flowing like waves on rough seas. Even as the gondola pilot steered the vessel inwards and upwards, Cal saw something move on the forest floor below. It was like a deer, but larger, with black horns curling outwards in tight spirals.

“Marvelous, isn’t it?” Said the man in the tailored black robes. “Why, I remember my first time crossing over the valley. I wasn’t much older than you, my lady.”

“Fascinating,” Cal muttered, not looking up as the deer-creature disappeared behind a passing cloud.

“We’re nearly there, we should make our way towards the front if we wish to avoid the rush.”

She allowed the man to lead her through the crowded interior of the gondola. As the city came into view, Cal wasn’t the only one who gasped at the sight.

The floating structure was diamond-shaped. The bottom half was hewn of rough stone, like an upside-down mountain. Above it, the upper half was covered in countless structures and towers.

The crowd pressed against the front railing, clamoring for a better look and for the chance to be the first off when they arrived. Cal found herself struggling to breathe as the gondola touched down.

The port itself was abuzz with merchants and travelers. Cal had never seen so many people in one place before. As she stepped onto the dock, she knew that this was the perfect school for Lady Callion Augurellia, firstborn daughter of the Duke of Wystenvane.

She only hoped that no one realized it was all a lie.

Her real name was Fen Calton, or Cal to anyone who knew her. The real Lady Augurellia had died a week before, asphyxiating on her own bile while she slept. It was by sheer luck that Cal had been the first to happen upon her. Granted, it was because she’d been trying to rob the rich girl in the middle of the night.

Cal had been desperate. The luck she’d had when she first came to the two-bit town was quickly wearing off. The guards were starting to remember her face and the bar tabs were piling up. Even the local priests were beginning to doubt her poor orphan story, and the pieces of bread they gave her were getting smaller and smaller. She’d hoped the finely-dressed woman sitting in the inn would be her ticket out.

And, in a way, she’d been right. Among the girl’s possessions, Cal found the acceptance letter to the University. In a flowery script, the letter touted Lady Augurellia’s magical ability, familial legacy, and high application scores. The plan had formed in her mind and when morning came, the new Lady Augurellia had taken the waiting carriage out of town.

It wasn’t completely ridiculous. In the right light, the two of them could have passed for sisters—or at least cousins. Cal found the velvet dresses a little tight, but gave her the right look and kept anyone from asking too many questions.

The man in the black robes tapped her on the shoulder, stirring her from her musings. “We have an hour or two before the official orientation begins. Might I offer you a tour, my lady?”

“That’s alright,” she said, wishing she remembered his name. “If it’s alright with you, I think I’d like to wander by myself for a while. I can find my way to the orientation afterwards.”

“As you wish,” the man bowed. He departed and, in moments, was swallowed by the crowd. Instantly, Cal sighed in relief. It was hard to think straight when she was constantly being watched.

The University! She could hardly believe it. She’d heard tales of it since before she was a young cutpurse. And while the towers weren’t literally made of gold—a detail she’d always been cynical about—the city was full of rich merchants, powerful nobles, and other unsuspecting targets.

She felt in her pocket for her first goal. A small, cream-colored piece of paper she’d long since committed to memory: Property of Lady Callion Augurellia. Redeem at the House of Bergan and Sons.

It didn’t take her long to find the right place. The ostentatious building clashed with the more utilitarian look of the docks. Cal passed through the gilded doorway and found herself in a small reception room. The thin man behind the desk peered at her through small glasses teetered precariously on the end of his nose. Behind him, the back wall was lined with small metal boxes, each with a complex-looking lock.

Without a word, she walked to him and slid the paper across the desk. The man glanced down and read the slip quickly before looking back up and studying her face. For a moment, Cal froze. Had he seen through her disguise? Damn, she wished she’d checked for guards before she entered.

But then he smiled at her. “We’ve been expecting you, my lady.” He stood and walked to one of the boxes and unlocked it. From within, he drew out a parcel and a letter. He placed both before her and bowed. “Thank you for your patronage.”

Cal furrowed her brow. She really wished people would stop bowing to her. It was unnerving. She nodded to the man and went to pick up the parcel, only to find it to be much heavier than she expected. It was barely the size of her palm, but it felt like a brick. Peeling back the brown paper wrapping, she had to stifle a gasp. Inside were three small bars of gold.

“Is something the matter, my lady?” The clerk asked. “Were you expecting more?”

“No, no, this is definitely adequate,” Cal said, rewrapping the bars and stuck them in her pocket. She grabbed the letter next. It had an ornate wax seal of two herons beneath the word ‘Augurellia.’ She tore it open and poured over the words within.

Dear Callion,

Your mother and I feel that this sum should suffice for your needs for the year. I know you talked about wanting more independence and responsibility and, while I have my reservations, I’ve decided to acquiesce. This will be the only funds you receive from us, try to budget wisely. If you should find yourself out of money, I recommend you find a means of income. If that is too distasteful, then perhaps school isn’t for you. Should that happen, simply write home and I shall arrange for your return.

Warmly,

Duke Alton Augurellia

Damned again! She’d been planning to milk her new “parents” for more funds, but apparently, she wouldn’t have that luck. She lifted the gold again, hefting the weight in her hand.

“How much is this?” Cal asked the clerk.

“The gold? It’s 300 drams.”

“Drams?” She cocked an eyebrow. She’d heard of thalers, shims, and a dozen other coins, but this was new. The clerk seemed to notice her confusion.

“You are a new student?” He pointed at the bars. “Each of those is one hundred drams. The university plays host to dozens of nations and, to avoid appearing biased, has chosen to adopt a more… universal currency. In this city, we pay by weight.” He pulled out a scale, a small knife, and a glass jar. “Shops will place the price of an item on one side of the scale and you pay with an equal amount of gold on the other.” He demonstrated by placing several tiny weights on the scale. From within his clothes, he withdrew a small rod of gold and, using the knife, shaved small curls of gold onto the other side. Slowly, the scale balanced. 

“Seems overly complicated.”

“Perhaps, yes,” the clerk said, sweeping the gold flakes into the glass jar. “But, it has its merits, as I’m sure you’ll find, my lady.” He handed her the knife and another jar.

Cal nodded her thanks and turned to leave, more confused than before. As she stepped back out into the sunlight, she had to keep herself from feeling for the gold in her pocket. It was more than she’d ever held in her lifetime. If she hopped on a gondola and left the city right now, she could live comfortably for at least a few years.

But that wasn’t satisfying enough. If they were willing to hand her 300 ‘drams’ just like that, there were certainly more to be found.

Cal remembered her guide mentioning an orientation. Glancing at a clock tower, she saw she still had a few hours to go. More than enough time for her to get some information. She took a detour off the main thoroughfare and ducked into an alley. Here, where the air reeked of stale beer, urine, and desperation, it didn’t take long to find what she was after.

A man was slumped over against a brick wall. He was young, perhaps no older than she was, but years of hard living had clearly taken their toll. She nudged him with her boot.

“Huh?” He mumbled. “What d’you want?”

“Information,” Cal knelt down by him, “and I’m willing to pay.” At this, the man cracked open an eye, like a dog smelling food. She shaved off a bit of gold and handed it to the beggar, who snatched it hungrily in his grubby fingers. “Tell me about the university.”

“What do you want to know?” The man said, studying the gold in his hands.

“Where are the richest magicians?”

“They’re all loaded, but none near as much as the ploughin’ summer court.” He shifted, bringing his threadbare cloak around his shoulder. 

“Sumer court?”

“Them’s the ones who enchant and brew potions. Fuckers, the lot of them.” 

“Focus,” Cal said, proffering another small sliver of gold. “Next question, what do you know about orientation?”

“Worst time of the year. Kids get walked in front of professors like livestock. If they like you, you’re in. If not, you’re gonna need to pay to get anywhere.”

Cal chewed her lip. She’d hoped that her letter of acceptance would be enough. “And what do they like?”

“Fancy magic. The more powerful, the better. A few kids a year might even get in free.”

“And everyone else?”

“Gotta pay to study. Not a problem for someone rich like you.” 

“You sure do know a lot about this.”

“I was a student once. This place chews you up and leaves you broken.” He spat on the ground. “Now I’ve answered your questions. Pay more, or piss off.”

Cal put away her gold and left the alley, breathing deep as she reentered the sunlight. There was still some time before the orientation, but she couldn’t relax. She had to find some way to get into the school. The beggar had said the Summer Court was rich, so that would be her target.

She wandered the market, studying the signs of the various shops. While there were a variety of mundane stores to be found, the area was dominated by the sale of magical items. Color-changing clothes, ever-burning lanterns, hundreds of kinds of potions. The stores and their selections ranged from humble to grandiose, with prices that made Cal’s eyes boggle. But perhaps, one of these items could be of use in her orientation.

The store she picked to finally enter had large bay windows filled with enchanted gear. Inside, it smelled of cloves and citrus, and a finely-dressed woman stood at the counter. The shop attendant glanced up briefly at her entrance before returning to her book.

The store was set up in a series of small alcoves, each seeming to contain multiple small displays and a single device displayed on a central pillar. The first alcove Cal looked into held a glove-like instrument on the pedestal. She held it up in the light, studying the runes etched into the metal bands along the palm. She turned to the attendant.

“What does this one do?”

“An impressive and delicate device,” said the attendant, setting down her book. She hurried over and snatched the glove from Cal. “It’s used for energy redirection. While a normal energetic battery may be quite costly, the one used by this device is only capable of storing kinetic energy, reducing the price dramatically.” Cal nodded along, not understanding a word. She gingerly put it on over his sleeve and flipped a small switch. The device hummed to life. “The controls allow you to store energy or release it.” 

The attendant flipped the switch to collection and struck the wall several times. There wasn’t even a noise as her hand impacted the surface. Then, flipping the switch again, she hit the wall again. While her fist hadn’t been moving with any real speed, the stones cracked and splintered at her touch, sending dust flying.

Cal flinched as she was pelted with small bits of rock. “You destroy your wall often?”

The attendant shrugged. “I’ll have a geomancer fix it. Now, are you interested in purchasing this device for only three hundred and fifty drams?”

“Three hundred—I mean, that is, perhaps a bit cumbersome for my purposes. Do you have anything a bit more compact?” She turned to one of the smaller displays in the alcove. “What about that ring?”

“Ah, that’s a gravitic-mitigation device, capable of offsetting weight by ninety percent.” Cal gave her a blank stare. “It helps you lift heavy things.” The attendant grabbed the ring, slipped it on, and placed her hand on the edge of the stone display pillar. The pillar lifted off the ground like it was weightless.

The effect was impressive, Cal had to admit, and the ring was small enough that she could easily cover it up. There was just the matter of price…

“How much?”

“That is one hundred and twenty drams,” the woman clicked politely.

Cal winced. It would set her back, but she had to keep the thought of future gold in mind.  “I’ll take it.”

If the attendant was surprised, she showed no signs of it. Instead, she merely walked to the counter, placed weights one side of a scale, and waited for Cal.

Pulling her gold out, Cal placed one of the bars down and then grabbed another bar to shave off the rest of the weight. The attendant waited patiently, leaning over to watch the scales slowly level out. When she was satisfied, she straightened back up and nodded. “Let me just remove the alarm.”

“The what?” Cal leaned in, watching as the attendant moved her hands over the ring.

“Well, you didn’t think we’d just leave something like this lying out did you? We add a magical alarm as a theft deterrent.”

“I see,” Cal said, suddenly very glad she hadn’t tried to pocket the ring. If all the stores were like this, she’d have to rethink some of her usual strategies.

When the attendant was done, Cal took the ring and left. She slipped it on and… felt disappointed. She’d expected to feel some sort of surge of power, but all she felt was the cold silver band on her finger. But she still needed to test it.

She found a rain-barrel in a nearby alley and tried to lift it. It was impossibly heavy. For a moment, Cal felt panic creep into her mind. She had spent a third of her gold on this thing, and it wasn’t even working!

But she shook the thought from her mind. She tried again and, as soon as the ring touched the barrel, the weight was gone. It was still heavy, but not enough to keep her from raising it above her head. A laugh escaped from her lips as she looked up at the ridiculous sight.

While she set the barrel back down, her grip slipped. As soon as the ring wasn’t touching it, the weight returned and she had to jump out of the way as the barrel crashed to the ground. It splintered and the water it held exploded out.

Despite getting soaked, Cal couldn’t stop laughing. She wiped water from her face and rung out her hair. In the distance, a bell chimed. It was time for orientation. She looked down at the ring, the runes glowing faintly. It was time.

                                                                                                                               Next Chapter