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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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 Aketsi 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 Aketsi 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 Aketsi 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 Aketsi 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 Aketsi 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 Aketsi. 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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