Yam 5

1.05

  It would be fair to say that Yam retreated deeply into studying. It would also be fair to say he read for two and a half days straight and almost needed medical assistance when he finally came to a stopping point. 

The texts the bookkeeper had given him were very strange. Three of them dealt with the cultivation of a non-physical type of magical. They called it Soul’s Work, and the books went through exercises and potions that would help cultivate the ability to sense soul’s magic as well as control drills. There were no techniques mentioned. 

Though the graphs and equations were oddly beautiful if you squinted your eyes. So there was that at least. 

The bookkeeper had only told him to return once he had read the books.

He would prefer to return to the Understacks triumphantly. Able to show his dedication with mastery over new magic. That would be the best way to show his value as a potential employee. But to learn even two of the cants he had seen would be incredibly difficult and expensive.

Yam slapped his legs and leapt to his feet. Difficult was not an excuse! Difficult was an obstacle, a test. He just had to remember why he was here, and where the path he was on would lead.

First things first, he could go through the shopping district and see how much additional texts would cost. He would not be assigned classes until he joined his Court and so his only real time commitment were meetings with different Court representatives. That left plenty of time to study magic.

With every intention of making a dramatic exit Yam crawled from the thick bushes he had camped in. Then he realized he hadn’t put his wrap back on and was dead naked. 

His second attempt at an appropriately heroic exit ended when he forgot his bag of drams. The third attempt was delayed by him tripping. He did not trip on anything in particular; not unless one counted sleep deprivation or malnutrition as ‘anything in particular’. 

That was when he decided that no matter what, he had to push through with his plan! Nothing would stop him from executing his will on the world. 

First step, amend the plan so it included sleep. Second, eat. Third, continue with his first draft of the plan. Maybe bathe too. 

With a self-satisfied nod Yam tried to stand so he could execute his plan and begin chipping away at fate with the force of his will alone. However his legs were still weak and he fell again. 

But he narrowed his eyes in an expression of stoic determination.

Then, heroically, Yam barrel rolled himself back into the bushes so he could execute step one of his master plan, and fall asleep in his clothes.

~~~

When he checked in with the front desk of his dorm, he was given a folded piece of paper that only he could open. With a magical sensation the rough equivalent of chewing mint leaves, his student identification number settled into his mind so clearly it was like he had already spent a week memorizing it. 

Written at the bottom of the letter was a note from the Autumnal Court saying they had expedited his paperwork and sincerely looked forward to his meeting with their representative. 

Yam moved on and sat on the uncanny bench from his last trip out of the day court, still unwilling to lose to its inexplicable and uncomfortable presence. He re-read the letter several times. To him it spoke of power and bribery via favors. 

Which was a novel experience; he had always wanted to be bribed.

Though Yam was still tired, his mood soared. Though, when he left the eternal sunshine of the Claral Court, the young Len was unpleasantly surprised to learn that nearly three days had passed. The day for his meetings with the Autumn Court had already arrived. 

As always, more information, more time to study, would have been better. But there were ways to compensate for that ignorance. 

He hurried through the streets, trying to move with the sort of confidence that told muggers he belonged here and was not a potential victim. That aura, in its own kind of magic, caused the crowds to part around him. It also helped that he frequently met the eyes of people surrounding him while fingering the hilt of his not-for-eating knife. 

Finally, he stepped through the archways of a different court and stopped dead. A warm summer breeze stirred his fur and the smell of flower fields danced under the scent of coal and chemicals. Massive be-scaled smokestacks rose into the sky. The air around them rippled with magic and heat. The head of each stack was shaped into that the visage a mythic beast opening its mouth and shooting smoke into the perfectly blue sky.  

He eventually greeted his contact, a professor who reeked of brandy and spoke grandly of the treasures of the Estival Court. His fine vest and crisp shirt were marked by grease and, under the reek of a high functioning alcoholic, the Young Len could smell oil and burning metal. 

The man’s magic felt weak, but his liquor went down smoothly, so Yam treated him with courtesy. When he outlined his plan the representative of the Estival court snorted and immediately called over a secretary to see to the details. 

~~~

“I am Study Yam Hist. Based on your rich accommodations and apparent knowledge of the Len, I expect subtle bribery of a high caliber from you.”

“Of course, of course.” The woman across from him nodded, “I am a Master of the Autumnal Court of Istima.”

Yam’s eyes widened. The woman across from him was plump with permanently red cheeks. If any other human had said that, he would have doubted that they understood what they were saying. But her decorum had been perfect, following the rules of etiquette to the letter. 

For someone with knowledge of the Len to claim to be a Master… 

A true master of a craft was uncommon and renowned. But she clearly knew the rules, and this was the greatest university in the known world. 

He reexamined her perfect silky robes and glanced at her hat. It was unusually tall and very ornate, which seemed to mean a great deal in the Autumn Court. 

“Thank you for your time, M’am.” Yam said, dropping his eyes. “What craft are you a Master of?”

“Within the Autumn court my titles are many, and I am considered to be a great source regarding the non-physical magics. However, to one not in the Autumn court, my titles would be meaningless and would only serve to make you feel ignorant and uncomfortable.”

Yam nodded seriously. Finally, a taste of civilization.

“You are here to negotiate with the Autumn Court?” She asked.

“Yes. I desire the skills of your court. In fact, you are one of the earliest parties I have visited today.”

“Of course, and what other Courts have extended you offers?”

Yam smiled politely, “I am rather disappointed so far. The Winter Court tested my magic and found me wanting. However, they did offer tutoring at a discount.”

“So, they believe you have insufficient natural talent, but a small chance at building skills.”

“And they want to keep eyes on me so they can maintain control of anyone who could execute their magic in public. Yes, that was my assessment as well. Luckily, my magic is pure enough of elemental influence that the Summer Court made me a modest offer.”

Though the woman had obviously studied the Len, but she was only human. He put a very particular emphasis on ‘modest’ and saw the muscles of her face twitch with displeasure. He had not been as diligent in gathering information on the different Court relations as he should have been. However, his impression of the Summer court was of lawlessness. They spoke with a gallows humor; every student checked the shadows for thieves while watching any hands that came near their bags. 

In contrast, the Autumnal Court had paperwork for everything. Their robes were meticulous even when ink stained. They lived by the rules and for the rules. From his talk with Thomnas it seemed as though they had been saddled with running most of Istima’s gritty details. 

He had not confirmed it, but he was willing to bet that there was no love lost between the two factions; they felt like natural opposites. 

“And what exactly did the Estival Court offer?” The representative asked, her voice holding a nearly imperceptible hint of strain. 

“Please,” he said, brushing the question away with a flick of his fingers, “I am here to speak about the wonders of the Autumn Court. I would not want to be improper.”

“Ooh, of course. At least not before you hear my starting offer.”

Yam’s only reply was a smile. 

She snorted, “Well, before I can give you details, it would help for me to know what specifically interests you about us.”

Images of telekinesis and acts of power that would awe a crowd played behind his eyes, but his pride as a Len would not let him be baited so easily. 

“It seems to me that the Autumn Court excels not just magically, but in their overall consistency. When choosing a master, doesn’t it seem prudent to consider the environment as well?”

He described with a careful mixture of rhetorical questions and general statements how the Autumn Court was sane and stable. How they kept the school running. He asserted that almost every student would benefit from a systematic approach to learning and the backing of a cohesive organization. 

He avoided saying that he was not almost-every-student. Nor did he mention that he had every intention of learning from every single school, in every single way, no matter if they approved of his decision or not. 

But he didn’t say that wasn’t the case; which was all that really mattered. 

“—leads to a clear conclusion that the Autumn Court has put the most thoroughly systematized approach behind their goals.”

The representative’s hand drifted to a book that was so tall that the spine had to be enforced with brass bands, “That is true. Our first semester curriculum has taken every contingency into account. But,” she said, pulling her hand away from the book with obvious reluctance, “What other aspects of our court are you interested in?”

“Aside from the organizational aspect? I am also intrigued by the creation of a familiar bond, telekinesis, mental magics, and the uses of souls magic.”

“Well,” the master said, a genuine smile coming to her face, “You have come to the right place. As I said earlier, I am considered to be an authority on many of the non-physical magics.”

Which was why he had not mentioned firing invisible missiles, summoning beasts, teleporting, or any of his other interests. 

“Truly?” he asked, his eyes going wide in apparent awe

The representative’s spine straightened, and her smile grew brighter. “Honest word. Though, I would be fascinated to discover how someone without a court had already learned about soul’s magic. But first, let me tell you how our court would help you learn those skills.”

She took out a sheet of parchment and levitated a quill to her hand from across the room. “First, we would give you accommodations close to the center of the court as well as a stipend. Then—”

“Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I am still fresh from the caravans and I am a Ken Seeker. Material comforts mean little to me.”

Rather than being flustered, the master gave him the exact same serene Len smile that he himself wore. “True, but you have not heard why those ‘material comforts’ are necessary. Though we do not have the ability to throw drams at every problem until it goes away, like other courts do, we have a system for building our students’ magic reserves. With our facilities you can spend far more time casting and learning.”

Yam caught himself leaning forward and quickly hid the motion by adjusting the back of his wrap.

“As you noted,” she continued, ”the Autumn Court is the life blood of Istima. And we could not run the school if we needed to burn drams for every spell. Barring the Winter Court and its unusual circumstances, you will hardly find a student outside of the Autumn Court that can match our magic reserves.”

Yam did not drool. He also did not grab her by her robe and shake her until her secrets fell out. Instead he replied in a calm and measured voice. “Truly? And how would you expand my reserves?”

“I am sorry young Study”, she smiled, ”but I shouldn’t say. Our training regime is rigorous, and one of our Court’s greatest assets.”

“That is a shame.” Yam sighed, pulling out the folded piece of paper he had gotten at the Summer Court and pinning it to the desk with a single finger. “Because I may have access to considerable funds in the future, and I find it difficult to believe I could not achieve similar results if I was willing to throw enough drams at it.”

His opponent’s eyes flickered to the very visible Estival seal on his paper and her mouth tightened. With a practiced economy she wet her quill and began writing out a list. 

“I cannot share the details, but some of the underlying principles are safe to discuss.”

Yam smiled as she made several columns on the paper. They were titled: Body, Phagic Regeneration, Auric Regeneration/Strain, Harmonic Regeneration, and Efficiency.

“These are the only ways to re-fill and advance the size of your magic reserve.” The representative said, posture perfect and handwriting a soulless, small, but easily readable script. “Obviously, you can just wait for age to naturally increase your reserve, but we have timetables to meet.”

“It begins with the body.” She said, ”The stronger your body, the more energy you can produce, channel, and the faster you will recuperate. Our Court has once weekly physical training to that end. But we are wizards, not laborers. So, we have other methods to speed recovery and enhance the reserve.”

She placed small dots next to Phagic Regeneration and Auric Regeneration. “We will routinely serve meals that are nutritionally, calorically, and magically dense. Either meat from magical creatures, fruits that naturally hold more life force or, on rare occasions, foods from ancient sources that have aged their own reserves to formidable heights. This will cause your power to recover faster and, if already full, some research suggests the strain will slowly expand your capacity.” 

He responded in a dry voice,  “So you will provide me with exercise and rich foods?”

“We will provide you with Fall Bear steak, fruit from Ancestral Magma Trees and,” she added, tapping at Auric recovery, “gold.”

Despite himself Yam’s eyes widened. He tried to reassemble his bargaining face as quickly as possible, but he could tell that she had seen his slip.

“Finally, we will teach you Harmonic recovery techniques. It is a slow unrewarding process similar to meditation, but you can speed how quickly you are able to recover magic from the ambient energy. Which is key for the final point; efficiency. Both in spell casting, in spell formulation, and in your bodies’ channels. Each time you go about our training, you will become more efficient in how you cast. A great wizard is able to split a bounder with the same energy it would take a student to levitate a single person.”

She spoke of a few more points but none of them changed the meat of her offer. And, despite how tempting the program sounded, the Young Len forced himself to think before responding. 

This woman was a master, or at least thought of herself as one. Even to Len there was a spectrum of mastery, and he doubted she was near the top end. Thomnas had surely intervened on his behalf, but she was still speaking to a novice who had yet to pick a court. That was not how the powerful and influential spent their time.  Which meant she was speaking with game in her words, and likely resided near the lower levels of mastery.

If that was true, and she was giving this information to one not yet in her court, then it might not be as valuable as she presented it to be. Which seemed impossible. It boggled the mind to consider that dense packet of secrets to not be worth a fortune. 

At the height of his family’s success they had hired a tutor from one of the lesser magic schools. That man had taught him simple control exercises and meditation, or harmonic recovery as he should start calling it, like they were the royal family’s own secrets. 

But this was the Istima. Brilliance was as common as dirt here. Maybe this information was only valuable to common people. 

There was no way to tell. So, he did the only thing he could: he checked his instincts and pushed on.

“Honored master, what you describe sounds wonderful but via… sources let’s say, I have heard of some of these principles already. And, while I’m sure your expertise would help the process, I still fail to see how exercise, good food, some gold, and a dedicated perusal of the library would not give me the same results you promise.”

With a smirk the woman turned over her paper and began doing sums. As she added the cost of various equipment, tutors, and the material costs of food, not even counting the research needed to determine which foods would work most efficiently or the risk of dying from improper cooking, and the expense quickly became staggering. 

If what she was saying was correct, then each and every mage walking through the Autumn Court could buy a horse just with what it cost to feed them.

The numbers only rose from there and she stared him in the eyes with a look of triumph. 

The rebuttal was well made, but rather than lowering his gaze, Yam raised a single eyebrow and slid the Summer Court’s offer across the desk to her. 

He felt her magic lick against the seal of the court and her expression dimmed. It was authentic. She opened the letter and read through it quickly. The look on her face when she saw the number at the bottom was a work of art. 

Before her hands could clench in rage, Yam plucked the letter from her grasp. 

“Ma’am, as I said before, I am of the Ken Seekers, material wealth meant little to me when I arrived. And now,” he tapped his finger against the letter, “it means even less. So, please help me. I want everything you have to offer. But how can I justify to myself, to my family, that I chose the Autumnal Court over all the other opportunities I’ve been given?”

From across the desk the master’s mouth tightened, and Yam laughed silently from ebhind the serene smile affixed to his bargaining face. 

~~~

He left negotiations after approximately two hours had passed. He would have stayed longer and gotten a second meal out of them, but his host had developed a small twitch in her left eye at around an hour and a half. 

In his experience that was a symptom of imminent pitch forks. Which usually meant little to him, but he couldn’t pack the caravan and leave Istima. As such, he made a graceful exit. Even if it stung his pride to let her off with the light treatment. 

His time hadn’t been fruitless though. Around the second or third time she had almost ended their negotiations, he had subtly guided her towards offering to give him common control exercises. 

Of course she thought it had been her own idea. Which made it even more impressive when he ‘miraculously’ mastered them in under a minute. Almost as if he had been doing those exact exercises for two hours a day, every day, since his family had first discovered his potential and bought a tutor. 

That had renewed her interest. Which was just enough negotiating power for him to get a book of cants as well as primers covering the theory of souls magic and familiars.

To a regular student those books would barely be useful at all. But, to a Len who planned on working in the Understacks, they could prove invaluable if they were well cited. 

Aside from the books he had also been given paperwork so he could request a limited number of tutoring sessions with a pre-set group of teachers in the Autumn Court. 

Those he had fought particularly hard for. 

Because, for all of his talk, he did not expect to make a second appointment with that woman. She was tight fisted with her resources and, ultimately, held all the power in their negotiation. 

Plus, he already knew which court he would join. 

At the thought his hand fell to his side where he now carried two very generous offer letters. Anything else, any bribes he would be able to cash in on, were just a bonus. The letters were what really mattered. 

No matter how much going easy on the representative hurt his pride, this was just preamble for the true negotiation, and he was going to take the Spring Court for all it was worth. 

~~~

Yam had hardly left the Autumn court when something sent a prickle through his fur. He kept walking while casting a covert eye to his surroundings.

The anomaly stood out immediately. 

Most figures left the Autumn court’s brisk air and dropped their hoods or opened their robes. But one figure had kept their hood high and, to make things even more interesting, Yam recognized the face hidden inside the hood. 

Nathanael, the library assistant, was not far behind him and he was keeping pace. 

The situation reminded him of something his mother used to say after returning from fruitful negotiations. Something he had heard since he was a toddler: one day they might realize what she had done, and one day they might be fast enough to lynch her for it, but that day was not today. 

Within a few minutes the canny Len was able to turn a corner, run to an open shop and dive inside before Nathanael could re-establish his line of sight. 

With brisk, efficient motions Yam hid himself behind a tapestry display and peered through the store’s eerily unblemished windowpane, until Nathanial came into view. He watched the other student and the smirk slowly left his face. 

Nathanael did not look up. He did not balk, and his head did not swivel. He continued trudging forward, face hidden. He only paused once to glance very furtively over his shoulder. 

Which was when the young Ken Seeker’s curiosity began to kindle. What could Nathanael be hiding? A shopkeeper was saying something to Yam and he let his mouth run on without checking what it said. 

There were very few Len in the area around the courts. They tended to frequent the more exterior portions of the city.  That would make it difficult to follow Nathanael without being noted. Worse, covert street surveillance was not one of his skills. Some people could follow a man into the very bed chambers of his mistress without ever being noticed. It was a good business, but that had never been Yam’s job. 

He had no training, and he did not know how violent the other boy could be if he spotted Yam. Overall it seemed like a poorly thought out and potentially dangerous idea. 

But, he wanted to know. So he did it anyway. 

As it turned out Nathanael’s incompetence just slightly outperformed Yam’s own. The cowled student always checked over the same shoulder and he grew progressively more comfortable as they came closer to the Summer Court. Finally, he came to an ally and waited just inside its mouth. 

Yam moved into a nearby parchment store and placed himself at a display with a view of the ally. It was not long before a young man wearing fine clothes, an entitled smirk, and the self-assured superiority of an easy mark stepped joined Nathanael. 

He immediately cuffed the cowled boy’s head and tossed the hood off. He berated him, presumably for lurking in a shadowed ally in the most suspicious manner possible. It was a very long, and very thorough browbeating.

Finally, Nathanael produced a slip of paper from inside his robes. His rich friend snatched it away and, after peeking inside of the brown paper wrapping, he patted Nathanael on the shoulder. The robed boy’s entire demeanor changed. He was all but quivered with happiness, like a dog finally being let inside. 

The other student quickly lost interest. They exchanged parting words and went their separate ways. Yam stepped outside and idly followed the rich prat. Within minutes the other student went into a store full of fruits and came out grimacing. As he walked, he placed berries from the store into his mouth, one at a time, and swallowed without chewing. 

Yam would bet his wrap that it was some of the magical fruit the Autumn court had been talking about. He kept following, hoping he would find similar stores, maybe a butcher of magic creatures even. 

There was no such luck. For the next half hour, the most interesting thing to happen was the boy dropping a kernel of mildly explosive magic into the cup of a beggar. His quarry walked away laughing and Yam made sure to drop a few day’s worth of money onto the beggar’s lap as he passed by.

After the long walk Yam was rapidly losing his interest. Then, even as he considered returning to his books, something fascinating happened. The rich prat turned into a street at the edge of two courts.

And a young woman materialized. 

It was not an act of magic. She could have been standing next to him the entire walk from the Autumn Court without him noticing. Something about her, the rhythm of her steps, the slouch of her shoulders, the expression of absolute soul-crushing indifference, was so perfectly in tune with the feel of the street that she was functionally invisible. 

Then, in a moment everything about her bearing changed, and the fur on spine stood on end. She seemed suddenly distinct, sharp-eyed, and entirely fixated. A half second later, like the girl had been looking to rich prat’s mind, he turned down the ally like street.

Yam was across the street and had actually lost track of the perfectly coiffed sadist for most of a block. But he was perfectly placed to see the girl step out of the flow of traffic, accelerate smoothly, and ghost her way after the boy. 

If anyone without street sense had been there, if Yam hadn’t been recently put on high alert by the thought of lynching, no one would have noticed a single thing. But he had just enough warning to run across the street and see a flash of light from the alley mouth. By the time he turned into the space between buildings the girl was already gone, and the rich boy was curled on the ground, screaming with his hands pressed against his eyes.

Yam ran over and tried to help him stand, “Are you alright?”

The boy started to respond, but when his hand met the young Len’s shoulder, he recoiled like he had been burnt. 

“Don’t touch me!”

“I’m sorry! Are you hurt—”

“Keep your baby-stealing paws off of me!” 

 There was a stutter in Yam’s chest. 

He felt his mouth move to say something along the lines of ‘that’s a myth’. But there was no air in his lungs. 

Just rage. 

Even in Istima. 

Even in the most educated place in the entire world. 

With a snarl he kicked the boy’s shin and shoved him to the ground. There was no money-purse on his belt but, out of sheer spite. Yam ripped the bag from the boy’s shoulder.

He made it several streets away before his anger cooled enough for him to realize what a dilemma he was in. 

He had just stolen something from another student. 

A rich student. A rich student with influence. One who already hated the Len. 

An awful sensation started to build in his stomach. He was only a few streets away. If he really had to, he could go back.

Keep your baby-stealing paws off of me! ’ a phantom voice rang in his head. Yam’s hands tightened on the thick canvas bag and he began walking towards a familiar piece of graffiti.

He turned away from the main street and looked for the next splash of color that would lead him to a sympathetic pawn shop. With one hand he rummaged through the bag until he pulled out a small parcel full of berries. They had a pleasantly bitter taste and as he chewed, he wondered what sort of tracking spells a spoiled prat might put into his luggage. 

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Yam 4

1.04

It was with a weary body that Yam left the Wandering Len. He made sure to tip the staff generously.

While meandering down the dimmed but never dark streets, he was mulled over what he had learned. Or at least he tried. He was jarred from his thoughts when he stepped across the border of the Day Court and was greeted with an abrupt transition from a slightly chill night to a bright and balmy day. 

The brightness made his heart try to jump, but he was too tired. His building fatigue was like grease gradually thickening in his veins. The best he could do was stumble, rub at his eyes and string together a nonsensical collection of words that were delivered in a tone that made it clear he was trying to curse, though the results were mixed. 

He forced his legs to keep going. As he walked a few oddities began tickling at his mind. For instance, try as he might he never was able to spot the sun. It always seemed to be hiding behind a building while, somehow, still heating his face. 

That would not have been a problem if he didn’t find himself trying to check the time or his direction only to notice that the shadows had changed while he wasn’t looking. That the sun was behind a different building or, once, that it was behind more than one building at the same time. 

For all the wonders he had seen at Istima over the last few days the Claral Court felt somehow off. Something about the wearing of the roads. The slant of the different roofs, and something just a bit too-much about the plants.

He just couldn;t figure out exactly what it was. In general, the Claral Court was a place of stately buildings and cobbled roads. Everything was from different architectural styles, but somehow came together with little slices of green grass and inviting trees in a manner that felt exactly like a university should. 

Except for the sensation that there was a sound just below his threshold of hearing.

At one point Yam found himself examining a bench for almost half an hour, absolutely certain there was something strange about it, but unable to figure out what it was. In a fit of petty rebellion he decided to fight back and sat on the bench. The nagging sensation persisted but Yam leaned back, being as pugnaciously comfortable as possible: just out of spite.

The feeling did not leave. So Yam stayed sitting. 

While he fought his invisible war with the uncanny bench he slowly tuned in to the people around him. They all seemed like regular students. Books in their arms or floating behind them. Some swished by in the ink flecked robes of the Autumnal court, others, wearing the bright colors of the Hibernal Court, floated on cushions of air.

He spotted a few non-human students. Each one he spotted gave him a sense of vindication that he chose not to examine too closely. For several minutes he did nothing but watch everyone going about their business; talking in small clusters, sitting under a tree set to the side of the path, or covertly dipping their hands in a fountain and scrubbing at stains off their clothes.

It became increasingly obvious that everyone else was comfortable in the omnidirectional sun. Yam sighed and rubbed at his temples.  He must have spent too long trying to read the convoluted strings of influence, game, and motivation. For the entire day, he had been trying to notice something out of place and was suffering the hangover from it. 

As far as Yam could see the only strange thing was a set of stones, just slightly less worn than the cobbles around him that people always stepped or hopped over. Also a doorway set partially up a wall. No one looked at the door and even students with faces buried in books leapt over the skipping stone. 

Feeling somewhat foolish, Yam stood from the uncanny bench and went to his new student lodgings.

It took him longer than absolutely necessary to find them, but he managed to do so without pulling out a map and making himself look like a lost tourist or naive new student. It was an impulse that did not make any particular sense. But he decided not to look at it too closely. 

The building was a few stories tall, devoid of the decorations and ornate facades of other structures in the Claral court. Though, it was made of the same gray, flecked stone that seemed to be the primary material of all the surrounding buildings. 

Sitting at a small, folding table in the lobby was a person in the robes of the Autumnal court. His clothes were distinctly thinner, and his hat was noticeably less pointy than Thomnas’s. The student still managed to guide Yam through several stacks of paper work without ever making eye contact. Once the papers were finished he held them out and fed the sheaf to what the Len could only describe as a mouth made of bent and twisted space. 

The heat mirage-fun-house-mirror mouth chewed the papers and spat out a solid brass key. 

Yam went to his room on the second floor with his mind completely enraptured with the idea of having a familiar that existed by twisting the fabric of whatever space it happened to be moving through. Like a specter that made an impression of itself from underneath a long stretch of cloth, but was completely invisible and without physical substance underneath the fabric.

It was almost maddeningly exciting. Yam would either need to befriend that student, or see if he could bribe away the creature with more papers. 

Of course that was assuming it was a separate and sentient entity. And that he wouldn’t like the other student and not feel guilty about taking his pet. Or that he couldn’t find a more impressive one on his own. 

Following that twisted train of half formed thoughts, Yam stepped into his own small room and let habit guide his limbs while his thoughts were occupied. He formed a bundle of pillows under the blanket so it looked like a sleeping Len, stuck hairs across all the openings of his drawers, dresser, and closet to determine if they were tampered with. Then he opened the window, grabbed a drainage pipe and shimmied down to a set of bushes wondering what sort of exotic pet stores were in Istima.

The space under his window was set in between three walls, the two on either side pushed out from the main building and housed bedrooms. All the windows were covered by thick black cloth, presumably to block the sourceless sunlight, and looked over thick, untended bushes set behind a massive oak tree.

It was perfect. Yam took out his not-for-eating knife and hacked a small hollow into the bushes. Once inside he took the pin from his shoulder and undid his wrap. He refolded it and set it on the ground. Bed made, he pulled a wax paper wrapped bundle of rat jerky from his backpack and took out his for-eating knife. 

While he chewed Yam closed his eyes and let his other senses rove around him. The stone walls were dead to his perceptions in a way that spoke of potent magic protections. But the ground beneath him was not. Below him were some sunken cobbles, some foundation, but the greatest measure of the building’s weight was placed on porous stone that looked like a bee hive. In some sections the gaps were so small and tight that the naked eye would never see the holes. In other places they were so large that several men could walk shoulder to shoulder.

Connected to the earth as he was, the young Len took the time to sink into his own body and feel the resonance of the earth and bone. He relaxed his mind and let it slowly travel through those materials into the greater whole they were part of. 

In a far off way Yam felt, through the bones in his own body and the rat bones in his pack, all the bones in the world. Each and everyone connected to one pervasive flow of elemental power and meaning. Similarly he sunk into the earth, and through it, into the energy that made all matter know it was stone. 

Though he could feel that power, the deep profound currents of magic that were moving through the calcium frame of his own body, it felt untouchably far away. 

Instead of fighting that sensation Yam relaxed and let the feeling of such profound energy flow past him. 

The covetous parts of his mind wanted to grab that power. To pull it through his channels and command the forces of nature. But with an iron will he crushed that impulse and focused his whole mind towards moving close enough to feel the energy more clearly. 

That was the key. The difference between sensing that cataclysmic power and trying to take it was the difference between feeling the impact of a falling star through the ground instead of trying to catch it with a butterfly net.

He studied the flows, and focused on the faint aura around the torrents of power. Like mist from a crashing waterfall. With great care he let those wisps float across the paradoxical distance between himself and the main force. Then he took that aura into himself. 

That was the other key. One could get wet by jumping in a waterfall and being drown or simply by waiting in the mist of a waterfall.

Thanks to years of practice, the diffuse energy flowed through him calmly, and left behind trickles of itself. He took hold of those trace remains, the equivalent of droplets caught in his fur from a waterfall mist. Then he  distilled and progressively filtered those trace remains until only clean magic was being deposited into his reserves.

Yam was not patient, and this was only slightly faster than his natural recovery rate. Still, he pushed through. He had learned that this struggle was one where you had to play the long game. It was a battle of patience more than of will and force. 

You could not fight the earth. 

He let the sounds of brushing leaves, chattering students, and buzzing insects fall away and focused all of himself on making the magic inside of as pure as possible. On inching slowly closer to that limitless torrent of power his magic senses spied on through the peepholes that the stones under his legs and the bones of his own body had become. 

For now it was a bare trickle of power that reached him. 

For now his magic was of middling quality and only slowly settling into a more refined state, one drop of clarified power at a time. 

That should have frustrated him, made him seek power through easier methods and expensive solutions like most mages did.

But he stayed silent and smiled. Because, even though he was only able to touch a trickle of power for now. He was also only a mortal. 

For now.

~~~

Yam was shocked to find that, after a nap, when he stepped out of the Claral court it was after dawn for the rest of the world. That shock was balanced by the relief of seeing the moon and finally having something he could orientate himself with. 

He had vague plans for finding food and exploring the other courts but, exactly seven steps past the border of the Claral Court, Yam saw a stone building. It seemed partially grey, particularly thick, and particularly academic. As soon as he noticed the students walking from the building with books in their hands he lost his train of thought.

Without recalling the steps that led him there Yam found himself slowly moving through the line. The inside of the building was just as grey as the exterior. Tapestries on the wall were faded, Yam’s nose smelled dust and must, and the ceilings were arched in a manner that left their peaks always shrouded in shadows. 

None of that mattered. 

There were books. 

The shelves were at least eight feet tall and stuffed with a variety of leather, treated skins, and cloth bindings. He did not to salivate; but it was close. 

At first glance the entire library appeared to fit in a space the size of a large ballroom. But students were continually moving in from the outskirts of the room and stepping from behind stacks. It quickly became clear that there were even more rooms full of books. 

It was almost too much to bear. Books were heavy and expensive and required careful maintenance to protect them from the environment. His entire tribe had enough books to fill perhaps two of these shelves. If you needed more you might have been able to buy something for the journey between towns. But, for the sake of space, they were always re-sold as soon as possible. So come the next town that particular book was gone and you were left hoping that you never forgot what those pages held.

But this! Even a quarter of this room must hold more information that could fit into an elder’s mind. And there were more rooms. The raw concentration of knowledge, of wisdom, of power in this one building. 

When Yam reached the front of the line the student manning the desk had to repeat himself twice before he was able to peel his eyes off the shelves. 

“I don’t have a student number,” he said, “I was only admitted yesterday.”

“Then you’ll need to come back when you have one.”

 “I’m sorry what?”

The student behind the desk was wearing a grey robe with leather pads sewn onto the elbows. He wore the sort of tall hat Yam was already coming to associate with the Autumnal Court. The material of his robe was not impressive and the decorations on his hat, while glittering and ostentatious, were clearly made of inferior materials. 

The student underneath the robe was young with baby fat in his cheeks and massive bags under his glaring eyes.

“I said,” repeated the baby faced boy, “that you need to come back when you have been given a student identification number”

“How long will that take?”

The human turned his eyes away from Yam.  “That’s not my department.” 

“Wait!,” Yam started fumbling with a belt pouch, “Just give me a moment and I will show you that I am a student. I just need—”

“No number, no entry.”

Yam finally pulled a fresh rat skull out, “Just watch, I’m sure there will be no doubt left-”

The baby-faced student came to his feet and slammed his hands against the table so hard his hat tipped to the side, “I said, no number no entry. I am not the admissions council, and I am not making an exception. For all I know, you’re just another cur off the streets.”

The nervous smile on Yam’s face flickered for a moment before reasserting itself. But this time a bit too sharp and showing slightly too much tooth. 

“I,” He said slowly and with a treacherous softness, “am no dog. I have told you I am a student. Are you saying that I would speak a lie?”

“I,” the other boy mimicked, “am saying that you do not belong here. And that I will not let a stray past my desk unless given incontestable proof that I must.”

A pressure grew in the air and the library’s greyness seemed to grow darker as Yam felt his mind sinking into his reserve of power.

The dimness lightened and a hand flickering with witches fire and dreamy colors fell on the desk between them. 

“Return to your duties, Nathanael. I will escort this honored guest through our stacks.”

The student, Nathanael, looked up at the figure floating next to him. The man was older, his wispy hair just going grey. Holding still he appeared absolutely normal. Except for his eyes, which had a quality that was not humanly possible. They were blue and not particularly striking nor rare. They were simply a blue so laced with magic that the color became tinged with something else. Something from another place. 

Nathanael looked up at the man and the contempt on his face grew until it imploded in on itself and the baby faced student’s expression was completely devoid of any emotion.

“As you say bookkeeper”

Nathanial took his seat and ignored their existence all together. 

~~~

The bookkeeper motioned to Yam and drifted away. The moment he moved the cloak of normalcy crumbled. Every piece of him in motion gained a faint translucence and glittered with the subtle throb of witches fire. Like individual strands of it had been spun and then woven into shape of the bookkeeper.

He was a ghost, and clearly a powerful one. 

Yam followed after him allowing none of his shock and as little curiosity as possible show on his face. 

The bookkeeper glanced back at him and began patting his jacket and pants.

“Are you looking for something sir?”

“I’m just wondering if there was a steak falling out of one of the pockets. Perhaps that would explain the way you’re staring.”

Under his fur, the young Len’s skin heated. Before he could apologize the Bookkeeper burst into a peal of friendly laughter. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I couldn’t help myself. Have you never met a ghost before?”

Yam raised his eyes and saw the smile crinkling the Bookkeeper’s eyes, “Very few, sir.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“How many books can I check out at a time? How long can I keep them? is there a limit to how long I can stay in the library? How is everything sorted?howdoIfindabestiary,andabookontelekinesiandillusionsandshapeshiftingand—”

The bookkeeper’s eyebrows lifted higher and higher until finally the ghost  lifted a hand and interrupted, “I had meant questions about ghosts. I thought you would find that more interesting, little one.”

“Sorry, sir,” the young Len flushed, “There is just so much to learn here.”

A small grin spread across the bookkeeper’s face, the motion making patches of his skin become briefly translucent, ”Well, I suppose that is a reasonable reaction for one such as yourself.”

“Yes sir, my parents were committed members of the Ken Seekers.”

The two began moving again as the bookkeeper spoke, “The first thing to note, is that this is not technically a library. These are the Understacks. We hold duplicates, reference books, scrolls that have been transcribed, overflow, and copies of previous students’ dissertations.”

“How many books are in the Understacks?”

The bookkeeper held out his hand and a tangled clump of magic formed. It was tightly controlled, but still leaking into the visible spectrum at the edges. Yam looked into the glow and felt something foreign trace against the edges of his mind until a number seemed to float up to the top of his consciousness of its own accord.

He stared deeper but the number didn’t change. 

The fur along his spine stiffen and stand up. “How can so many fit in here?” He whispered.

“The Understack wanders more deeply than the average building.”

“Can I live here?”

“No little one, there are better ways to die and you should enjoy the sun while you can.”

The two of them stood in silence, Yam’s eyes tracing the spines of books that surrounded him and stretching up to the ceiling. 

The air all but thrummed with the weight of knowledge. 

“How does a student check out a book?” He asked.

“It depends on the student.”

When Yam’s face twisted into clear confusion the bookkeeper opened his hand and another flicker of magic flew away from them. It formed an illusory length of string that looked as though small lightening bugs were glittering along its length. 

Without speaking the bookkeeper floated forward, following the trail of magic until it terminated in a particularly dark side room.

“These are the common access introductory tombs.” The ancient ghost said, ”They hold brief primers needed to understand how each school’s magic works. Very little is usable beyond some basic cants. As such, any student may access these books. There is no fear that you will steal an artificer’s business because you have learned how to write a floating light command.”

Another line of magic appeared and they followed it deeper into the library, moving through small doors, a few side passages and, after almost five minutes of walking, into an area where the air was cooler, dryer, and the building’s decorations seemed subtly more antiquated. 

They finally came upon another shelf of books. The wood it had been constructed from was completely different from the shelves from the entrance to the Understacks. 

“These are teaching tomes discussing the various methods of creating familiars and specifically the Autumnal Court’s method of binding.”

Yam’s hands shot towards the shelves.

And, in a literal flash, they were knocked back. 

Something between a whine of pain and a growl came from his throat and the young Len tried again. Pushing his hand forward with a wave of mental power backing up the motion.

After perhaps thirty seconds of Yam trying to physically and magically punch his way through, the bookkeeper cleared his throat, or at least made the sounds a corporeal being in possession of a throat would make should they decide to clear it. 

“Ahem. As you may have noted, this information is restricted to students registered with the Autumnal court.”

Without any effort the bookkeeper reached past Yam’s clawed hands to adjust the tomes so that all of their spines were even and the bookend was more snug. “Should you wish to check out a book you would need to wait for your admissions to be processed, then for that information to reach the libraries, and then for your court to grant you access to whatever level of information they deemed you entitled to.”

With a feeling of horror Yam recalled library access being offered to the most prized first day students during the admissions. 

“They will try to limit how much I can learn!”

“Of course. Knowledge is the currency, power, prize, and punishment at Istima. Would you expect every student who can float a coin to immediately access books with a Catastrophe Curse or the exact manner of breaking through the school’s defensive wards?”

The bookkeeper’s magic line sparkled again and the pair followed it back to where they started. 

The rage in Yam cooled into a sort of resigned numbness. Of course getting into the school would not be the end of his journey. They would try to pull more out of him. More money, more work, and more debt. Why wouldn’t they? They had the power, and they controlled access to a vital resource. Given that sort of sublime bargaining position, who wouldn’t use it for all it was worth? 

Almost in spite of himself he pointed a claw towards the glittering thread of power they were following, “Is that some sort of bibliomantic librarian magic?”

“No. I am just a bookkeeper, not a librarian. This is simple organizational and bookkeeping magic.”

“You’re not a librarian?”

“The Understacks are not a library. And,” he added with a significant look at his flickering insubstantial body, “to be a librarian is a position of great power and prestige.” 

“Ahh, of course. A ghost cannot be safely oppressed or reviled without first limiting its ability to resist and grow.”

The bookkeeper flickered, “Pardon?”

“I believe you implied by your body language that you were discriminated against due to your species.”

“Well, that is rather blunt.”

 Yam smiled at the compliment and the bookkeeper continued, “But essentially correct.”

“Discrimination is a part of life.”

“I am sorry that you had to learn that so early”, the ancient ghost looked at him with his more than mortal eyes, ”You are of the Ken Seeker tribe?”

“I am a Study of the Ken Seekers.”

“And what is it you are seeking in Istima?”

“I am Study Yam Hist, my aspirations go beyond the heavens, but at this moment I want to know if I can work in the Understacks and have you teach me your book magic.”

“You want to work in the Understacks?”

“Yes.”

“You realize working in the Understacks can be seen as a mark of shame, that people will assume you were not trusted to work in your own court’s facilities?”

“I presume that due to my species that they wouldn’t trust me to work in a library.”

The ghost conceded the point with a wave of his hand. “It is beyond my abilities to teach you true library magic.”

“Mr. Bookkeeper, sir, I do not care if you have me plugging leaks with my fingers or tie me to the ceiling so I can clean the top of the shelves; is there anyway I could help with these books?”

Yam, noticed that he was staring into the bookkeepers eyes and forced himself to drop his gaze deferentially. Even so the determined set of his jaw remained unchanged and the way he balled his fist did not escape the ancient Ghost’s notice. 

“It isn’t possible for me to hire you until I have confirmation you are a student.”

“I understand, do you need other errands run or-“

“But,” the bookkeeper interrupted, “I will give you a task. If you would like to work for me, I will loan you a few books from my personal collection. As soon as you have read them all you may return here to me and we will see where you stand.”

“You are going to make me read books?”

“Will that be a problem?”

Yam blinked several times to hide the avarice in his eyes, “It is not the easiest task…. but I am in your debt.”

A grandfatherly smile sent a wave of translucent thought through the bookkeepers face. “Think nothing of it little one. Those in situations like ours need to look after each other.”

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Yam 3

1.03

At first The Wandering Len hadn’t let him in. But, once the representatives arrived, Yam was quickly able to secure himself a room. 

A private room. 

With a view. 

And snacks. 

He was very conscientious about not smirking at the bigot behind the counter. 

His first visitor, the Summer Court, had not seemed terribly interested in him as a student due to the purity of his magic. But, with more game than was necessary, they implied rewards if he was willing to give them information on whichever court he chose to participate in.

After showing them to the door the young Len was finally given enough time to breathe. Slowly he walked towards the table, bent at the waist and pressed his entire upper body against the tabletop.

He groaned. The cool of the wood slowly oozed through his fur and helped his fevered skin. With no one to observe him let the shakes run their course. His magic reserves ached, his legs felt like he had run for miles, and he would punch a Rock Orc for some sleep.

Still even as his muscles quivered a smile spread across his face. He had never been able to burn so much gold before. Only small pieces at a time for practicing. Without doubt his channels would feel raw and stretched the next day, but it had been worth it. Not just the feeling of so much power running through him, like lightning being born in his veins, but seeing what he could do with that power. 

The warm memory was interrupted by the sound of a set of sentient avalanches mating. 

Before his stomach could voice itself further the young Len vaulted over the table and began assaulting the platter of complimentary finger food. He inhaled it, barely noting the taste. Immediately the faintest trickles of power being dribbling back into his reserves. The warmth in his channels did him good and the shaking in his hands decreased. Once done, he spent just enough time to brush aside the chunks of food that had fallen onto his chest and took an additional minute to comb his fur. When he was finished, he had a small ball of stress-shedding in his hand.

It was a surreal moment. 

Standing in the private room of a tavern in the Istima, trying to play all the courts against each other, stomach full of snacks he had bluffed out of an angry shopkeeper, and barely any magic left in his reserves.

 Yam looked at the ball of hair.

“Fortune help me, I hope I don’t go bald in this place”

He stuffed the fur ball under a cushion and opened the door to the main tavern with his bartering face firmly in place.

The bartender was massive, thick-knuckled, and had almost as much wiry hair on his arms as a mammalian Len. He spotted Yam exiting the private room. The man’s spine straightened and he looked left and right. As the young Len approached the bartender seemed to realize that there were no members of the Estival Court watching. His back slouched and a scowl bloomed. And that was the only word for his expression, it did not blossom like a flower, it bloomed like a mold. 

The man was serving him, but did appear older. So he did not drop his eyes, but he did keep his words polite,“Excuse me, sir, would you mind sending in more food?”

The bartender locked gazes with him and something ugly stirred behind his moldy scowl. 

A quiet voice came from next to them, “Yes, that would be nice”

Both the massive bartender and the slender Len turned to see two students on the verge of adulthood. They wore a combination of worn linen, well used leather, and overstuffed side pouches. They accessorized with strange tools, dangling monocles, and faintly visible scars. One of them, a short woman, had picked darker colored fabric and had a roll of tools strapped to her belt. The bags under her eyes were dark enough that it made Yam wonder if she had been in a fistfight.

The other student, a tall, pallid young man with flaxen hair was standing with his back to the bar. He was fiddling with a pair of leather gloves and staring at the stairwell, “We just came from a practicum. So, if you wouldn’t mind…”

With some reluctance the pallid young man turned from the stairwell and faced the bartender. His eyes were dead and small flecks of blood showed on his lighter clothes. 

“You have such lovely capillaries,” his companion muttered to the bartender. 

Yam watched in silence as the hirsute man went pale. Which caused the young woman to frown at his veins shrinking back from the surface of his skin. In a whirlwind of condolences, and wrung hands Yam was ushered back into the private room with three plates full of nuts, cheeses, thinly sliced apples, and other miscellaneous foods.

The two students barely sat before attacking the platter in front of them.  Had Yam not recognized the style of the Spring Court he would have sworn that the two students wore their leather aprons for no reason other than the way they ate. 

But he did know better. It brought a new set of shakes to his hands and forced him to keep a tight grip on his bartering face. 

The male student spoke without lifting his eyes from the plate, “You’re an osteomancer”

“Yes”

“We could use more of those.”

“Truely?”

“Yeah”

That, it turned out, was the most conversation he was able to pull from either student. He tried to offer food, accommodations, information, Yam even hinted at favors, but nothing stuck. It became quickly apparent that neither student completely trusted the other. No matter how he spoke he could tell they were always tracking each other out of the corner of their eyes. 

They ate every scrap of food available and handed him a parcel inviting him to speak with a professor in the near future. As soon as he had the message in his hands, they recovered the envelope with the wax seal of the professor and set it on fire. 

Once both of them were independently certain that Yam knew where to go, that the professor’s seal had been completely immolated, and that there wasn’t a scrap of food left in the room, the duo made their exit.

Next was the Autumn Court. Immediately Yam felt a connection to them. Partially because of their simple name, the Autumn Court, actually sounded similar to their proper name, the Autumnal Court. 

Much easier to remember. 

He was also in favor of their garb. Flowing robes, pointed hats with various decorations, and ink stained hands. They looked like wizards, and the robes were close to the great wraps civilized people wore. 

The representative he spoke to was named Thomnas and he was one of the people who had sat near a person of real power during testing. Yam had noted him  for his overly expressive face, and for being trusted with papers but little else. He seemed the sort of easy to read person who would be handling information above his station.

Given a drink, Thomnas seemed willing to share much of what he knew. The problem became coherency. Thomnas was the Underviser to the Grand Siren of the 12th enclave in the 3rd branch of Admissions and Sanitation.

The young Len chose not to inquire how the two duties overlapped. At least not yet. After much plying with drinks, sympathetic conversation, and complaints about how hard it was to be a young man in an old system, the Len was left with a massively thick set of instructions and papers. Only some of it was directions to the Autumnal Courts office of admissions. 

He filled out five forms and was guaranteed a meeting in a few business days. Apparently a wait of less than one week was very difficult to come by. By the time Thomnas left Yam had absolutely no idea what his job was or who he worked for. But his new friend had also very covertly conjured up even more paperwork.

Papers that usually took months for a member of the Autumnal Court to request, but were absolutely trivial to someone who was an Underviser he was informed with a drunken wink and puffed chest.

Yam could bludgeon a Wraith Rider with the stack of forms. Still, he stored them carefully, taking special care with the pages where Thomnas had written advice on what answers to put in certain sections so he was more likely to gain library access. 

The final visitor was the Night Court since the Winter Court had refused to do more than have a letter sent to him. The Night Court representative spoke quickly and after confirming Yam’s skills provided vague instruction for how to meet with someone higher up in the court. When the young Len asked for directions that did not include phrases like, “turn away from the feeling of falling and towards the sound of yellow”, the man stared at him for close to a full minute before carefully saying he would understand once he was there. 

Throughout that entire conversation Yam kept his mouth in check and his eyes down turned. The Night Court representative did not have a true Presence like a Len, but he exuded a palpable presence none the less. A near tangible sense of authority and force of will. 

When Yam stood to show him to the door the man had just nodded to him and very calmly walked through the wall of the building like it was a heat mirage. There was a muffled curse as several massive dogs began barking from outside the tavern. The wall rippled in a disturbing fashion as the representative sprinted back inside the buildings, and made his way around the corner without stepping outside of the usually solid matter and risking attack by dogs. 

The Young Len kept his face blank and his eyes down, hands folded in front of his waist until the sense of power was far, far, away. Only then did he make his way to the door.

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Yam 2

1.02

Yam walked the entire way to the school with his teeth grit. It took all of his effort to keep his eyes on the ground and his posture submissive. He kept to the edges of the road and ensured that he never passed so close to a stand or street vendor that they could suspect  him of stealing. 

The street he walked on was clean and well maintained. Deceitfully so. 

He quickly found that if one spent even fifteen minutes walking away from the central street that the entire feeling of the city could change. There were pockets of people who would stop talking and stare whenever a stranger walked down their road. In those neighborhoods the piles of trash grew large before being removed, the walls weren’t scrubbed as often, and the truth was laid bare: this was a town of wealth and appearances. 

He followed the half hidden symbols and coded phrases painted onto the walls. Though he avoided Len signs, and detoured whenever he sensed a Presence, he did follow the more common symbols. The marks shared by wanders, hitchhikers, and the pursued. They led him to the town’s other face. These pockets of squalor were not as frequent as in some large cities. Istima moved too much gold and brought too many desperate tourists. Still the men and women who cleaned the mansions had to live somewhere. More importantly the failed students with their suspiciously covered windows, whispered promises of exam answers, pre-made potions, and low tier magic; they clung to the city like hungry Cape Beasts. 

With a sigh the young Len squared his shoulders and made his way back to the bright streets of the city. In many ways the less shining ally’s felt comfortable. There were dark corners, shouted slurs, and poor decisions. Yet it was all known. No one tried to pretend they did not live where they were; how they were. Though the thin man on the side of the street spoke with a game in his words, offering mem potions and ‘contusion curses’ for students wrecking a test’s curve. He did not pretend to be other than what he was. Or, at least, if a customer came who’s boots looked too clean, and who’s words were pronounced just a bit too forced, he pretended with such blatant absurdity that his deception turned into a joke. 

The main thoroughfare was different. Hawkers called out impossible claims with honest faces. He saw a man claiming to have handmade all the cloth in his stand. A quick glance showed fabric from three countries, patterns from two Len tribes, and levels of skill from entirely different decades of practice. 

The final straw was when he had climbed to the university proper, tried to buy himself a drink, and was kicked out of a pub named The Wandering Len. After that he was blind to the sights of the university. Even the most gorgeous, impossible things, felt like a lie. 

At least that was how he felt for much of the first day. He tried very hard to stay angry but, slowly, Istima wore him down. 

There were wonders that, in any other city, would draw pilgrims and make the city known. Dancing statues, holes that showed the the back of the person looking through them, and walls that you could walk through like water. The stuff of legends was everywhere.

And they were largely ignored. 

Though Yam still felt the weight of observation, and the battered pride of being lied to by every hawker, he ended up in the first-day test hall grinning and hungry for knowledge. 

The building was different from the one he would go to himself. His family was successful, but he couldn’t afford the first or second day of placement. That didn’t mean there wasn’t value in observing them though. 

It became quickly apparent that there were senses available to the committee that were not available to him. The most obvious was that whenever a representative of the Elementalists showed interest the people from the Summer Court would stop paying attention. Neither Yam, nor most of the others, could tell who would catch the Winter court’s attention. 

The fact that there were subtle games at play was good. It meant he could trade effort for advantage.

 What was not good was that he could only figure out a few levels of the games that were going on. Obviously there were admitances being made solely due to wealth. The courts did not have unlimited slots for students, but almost without exception those who could afford to audition the first day were offered a place. Even those who had obviously never exercised their magic enough to build a suitable reservoir. 

Occasionally during the offering process there was a back and forth between different courts. They offered library access, mentors, and competed on which level of which tower the student would live.

That was where he lost sight of the current. Many times offers were made that made no sense to him. Or offers increased abruptly for no discernable reason. Maybe personal reputation, magical power, or reputation was influencing going on in these bidding wars but Yam wasn’t ever able to pierce the issue. 

The offers happened after the candidate put on a performance for the counsel of representatives. Some did little other than say their name and produce a few witch fires. Others would put on complex demonstrations with the aid of the magic battery provided to each candidate.

It was good that Yam had arrived early. He spent much of the first day staring white knuckled at those feats of magic and trying to find talkative members of the audience to explain how and why all these things were being done.

The second day he was more composed and watched the reactions of those determining admissions and financial support. That day the competition did not include as many offers of mentorship. Library access was rarely mentioned. There were more offers of  access to batteries and a gold stipend started to be used as a bargaining chip.

He also observed that almost no strong elementalists showed up. Which was odd. 

Come the third day access to batteries became more difficult to earn. The lodgings offered were  in dormitories and not in towers. Stipends were more common, and there was rarely mention of tuition forgiveness. What really caught his attention were the occasions when tutoring and library access were mentioned. That was only for the most impressive and well connected candidates. Less impressive prospects were put on the waiting lists for different courts. 

He was watching the trials, trying to find those representatives most willing to bribe high, and learning the faces of the impressionable assistants who were seated near the people in power. They would be the soft targets. Just like new employees at a bazaar, they would have a great deal to prove and not enough experience to be wary. 

 While marking these people’s faces in his mind  he was summoned from the stands and to the waiting room. 

Other candidates paced. They muttered to themselves and practiced their routines. The young Len stayed silent and watched them all with half lidded eyes.

 He was screaming inside, obviously. But that was normal. 

Enough students were offered scholarships that he thought he knew what was being looked for. Still, three more days could have given him a more full understanding of all the factors at play. He should have accounted for the ferrymen when he left.

He let out a slow breath and kept his bargaining face in place. 

More time would have been ideal, but he hadn’t been raised to expect the ideal, just to pursue it. He was a Ken Seeker. And he had been told since his earliest days that knowledge the best tool for fighting fear.

What he knew was simple. The courts wanted gold so they could cast more magic. Wealth was important. They also needed skill. Those with large magic reserves and natural proclivities for certain Courts were offered entry quickly. Talent was also important. The more you already knew, the more work you had put in on your basics, the more likely you were of learning to be competent. Which was the least reliable way of bringing big knowledge, prestige, and money back to your Court; nothing compared to wealth and prodigy. 

The other factor he had noted was the courts themselves. Those who had proclivities for more than one court were fought for. Sometimes, even if their proclivity was weak, a court would fight just to deprive their rivals of talent. 

When he was finally summoned his bargaining face was well in place and his nerves were close to invisible. Just as his mother had taught him. 

He did not stride into the room, but he walked confidently, choosing not to comment on the callers mistake when they only announced him by his personal names. Surrounded by the spectators the space seemed much larger. It felt like he was being abandoned on a coliseum’s floor. 

Yam fought that feeling of helplessness by reminding himself that he already knew what the admittance board wanted. He only needed to show wealth, natural skill, learned talent, and proclivity for more than one court. If he did that then he would place himself in a prime position. 

He could not afford to ruin this opportunity with simple nerves if he was to make himself into a god. So he banished his fears with a final piece of knowledge; The Courts were fighting for students. Which meant they were competing for resources.

By definition, if they were competing for resources they were bargaining. 

Yam may not know the specifics of this exact market, but everyone knew what they said about bargaining with a Len.

When he came to the center of the room the smile on his face was just as genuine as the shaking in his hands. A few eyebrows were raised when they took in his sleek fur coat and the lupine cast of his features. Yam let them look before he began his piece. 

First he manifested a small ball of light. So simple as to barely be a spell. It was noted and quickly ignored. Yam sent the small ball of light to circle around his head. Now he would capitalize on the counsel’s lack of attention. 

In the wake of that weak start he  launched into one of the most difficult parts of his plan. He pointed a finger, split his focus, and caused a small rock, rubble from an earlier student, to raise into the air. 

Again his technical skill was noted and largely ignored. 

Perfect. Quickly, but without letting himself seem to rush, he pulled out the skull of a rat he had cooked the night before and held it up in his palm. With a surge of power the skull shuddered before collapsing in on itself. 

The crowd murmured. With a thought he sent the sphere of bone up to join the stone and the light circling his head. Still moving calmly he stepped over to the magic battery and turned to the faces judging him. 

The healers of the Spring court had leaned forward to stare at the osteomancy and the members of the Winter court were frowning with interest at his control over earth. Who knew what they were seeing with their hidden senses, but at least now they might misattribute his ongoing struggle with the pure earth element to multitasking. 

Yam had their attention. He had shown inborn skill for earth magic, and his hard earned talent via multitasking. Then he had created competition between two courts by displaying his Osteomancy. So, very deliberately, he pulled a hefty sum of gold from his pouch and held it up. Standing directly next to the magic battery he burnt through all of the gold in a moment.

The power hidden in the metal surged into him and an absolutely massive block of granite surged out of the floor and launched itself several feet into the air. It was large enough that someone could hollow it out and comfortably camp inside with a friend or two. A true elementalist could have done the same with no effort and much less magic. Yam was barely able to hold it in the air with the massive hunk of wealth he had sacrificed.

With the three sphere’s still circling he glanced at the massive cube of earth and deployed his secret weapon. He turned his eyes away and cut off all elemental magic to the block of stone. Not looking Yam wiped the black amd dusty remains of converted gold off his hands. 

He took a moment to appreciate the fine inscriptions on the magic battery before turning to the counsel.

“I am Seek Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers. However” he said, glancing to the granite block that was slowly floating back to the floor, “I suspect that I will soon be Study Yam Hist”

Everyone’s eyes followed his. The block floated delicately through the final inches, came to almost rest against the floor, and in the last half an inch accelerated so suddenly that it sent an impossibly massive  roar through the stadium. The entire building shook and a spray of chipped rock erupted from the floor.

Yam kept his bargaining face in place, knowing they wouldn’t have been able to sense even the faintest whisper of magic from in those last moments before impact. As soon as the air was clear he turned to the exit on the other side of the room, “You will find me at The Wandering Len

He took a single step and, without seeming to have crossed the space in-between, he appeared at the exit and called over his shoulder, “I’ll be happy to speak to each of you about your offers one-on-one in a more… discrete setting.”

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Yam 1

He made six days’ travel in three. There should have been plenty of time to explore the academy, set camp, seek the currents of the place. Once he knew what everyone was pursuing he would be armed. When one was armed with knowledge there were few negotiations that could be lost and even fewer doors they couldn’t be opened.

            But when one was unarmed it was three days work just to find a ferryman who would carry a Len to the school.

             At first the prices were too high. When he found no better offers he could use to haggle with, he agreed to pay. Then the seats were too full. When he came late in the night, when seats should have been open, the ferrymen said they had an urgent appointment to attend to. 

            He walked away and watched them from afar. For two hours they chatted and took a single human across for a fifth the price he had been told was standard.

            The shame of being lied to was too much to bear. He came back yelling and finally, finally, one of them had the integrity to speak his mind.

            “Ain’t letting no fuckin’ Len on my boat just so he can piss on the floor and steal my sail”

            “All Len are not thieves! We are

            “Fucking savages!”

            “My people are not thieves and not savages!”

            That night he stole all the man’s money and relieved himself in his boat. 

He ran to the next cluster of ferrymen and used his new funds to bribe his way across the storm sea.

            The moon was full and when the clouds cleared there was just enough light to look over the side of the air ferry into the writhing sea of black clouds. In those moments of light he swore that he saw tentacles move through the mist. Once he even peered down just in time for lightning to crack across the clouds below him. From the depths three bloodshot, glowing, red eyes set in a perfect line stared up at the boat. A foreign magic brushed against him.  The sheer might of it was crushing. It felt like having his blood freeze into thousands of vibrating needles that pierced his flesh. 

            He whooped with joy. But, even after several fruitless minutes of throwing hunks of bread into the cloud, he came away without even seeing a hint of hungry teeth or  a single murderous roar. 

Still he sat back with a broad grin on his face.

            The ferryman saw the look on his expression and shook his head.

            That just made him smile bigger, “You must have seen some amazing things down there.

            “There are beasts that are beyond imagination.

            “Really?”

            “Son, the things I’ve seen would chill a man’s heart and haunt his dreams.

            The young Len kept his face straight and his tone honest, “Wow. Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t you ever frightened that they’ll come for your boat.

            Even from behind he could tell the ferryman was smiling. With a carefully studied nonchalance he turned his face to the side and purses his lips, “We’ve lost good men to the Storm Sea. A lot of good men.,” the ferryman paused to wipe at a phantom tear before glancing at him from the corner of his eye, ”But…”

            “But?”

            “But real ferrymen have secrets; techniques to scare away the smaller monsters, and magic to make our ships invisible to the real terrors. Or, “he paused, staring into the mist with what he must have imagined a haunted stare would look like, ”at least some of them”

            “You must have very strong magic if even the students need to pay you for crossing.

            “Not just the students! Even teachers need our services. Have you ever heard of the Storm Strider?”

            “No”

            “Well boy let me tell you,” the Ferryman broke his dramatic vigil and spun around sporting the eager grin of a storyteller with a captive audience . Then, when he saw the not quite human leaning almost off the edge of his seat, the ferryman’s smile faded and a hand dropped instinctively to his coin purse.

            His passenger saw the motion. They locked eyes, and it was clear that the ferryman had seen him notice the reaction, and they were stuck watching each other being watched. Still, it was something any Len, especially one who had traveled, grew accustomed to. The younger man forced the smile to stay on his face and tried to revive the conversation, “The Stormstrider? It must have a terrifying history.

The invitation hung in the air. A small struggle played out across his guides face. 

“It’s bad enough,” the Ferryman finally said  shrugging his shoulders. 

            The boy waited, but the silence endured until his own eyes fell.

“Not all of my people are thieves,” he murmured.

            “Doesn’t mean you aren’t one.”

            The ferryman almost jumped out of his skin when his passenger started laughing. 

            “Well caught! You have good ears! ”

            For some reason this made the ferryman even more tense, “Quiet your barking. Didn’t I tell you about the dangers out there”

            Immediately his passenger spotted the game and leaned forward with a glowing smile, “Ahh, you did mention the dangers, but you never mentioned the dangers of speaking.

            “Just shut it”

            Still smiling the Len pulled a small book from his backpack and closed the cover with a snap, “Yes sir! So what about the Stormstrider. Is it

            “Shut your damn mouth, won’t you?”

            “What?”          

            “I said to shut your mouth before I find a muzzle for you”

            The Len’s smile slowly faded, his hands twitching towards his fur. He tilted his head to the side and examined his companions’ words, trying to find the game in them. 

Slowly the boy’s face shifted. There was a flash of confusion, maybe even hurt, but it passed too quickly to be seen. Almost immediately his brows furrowed, his lips twitched back and he shoved his book into his pack with more force than necessary. 

            When they finally arrived he stood to his feet, dusted off his wrap and turned to the ferryman, “Thank you for your services, I am glad you carried me here”

            The ferryman just grunted and held out his hand. 

            It was abrupt and a bit intimate, but the man was his elder, so the young Len leaned forward to clasp wrists.

“No!” the ferryman pulled his hand away like a snake was lunging for it, “the tip.” 

            The Len started, “A tip?”

            “Its custom provide extra money when a service is done well”

            “I know what a tip is. You did not do well en

            Before things could go any further a large scaled hand clamped onto his shoulder, and dragged him away.

            He wanted to jerk his shoulder free of the grip. To go back and speak his mind. Maybe even yell his mind, but the sense of Presence exuded by the other person was too great. Not intense or particularly awe-inspiring, but it still outclassed his own Presence. Feeling that he grit his teeth and allowed the other Len haul him away.

            When they had passed the dock he was spun around. The Len who had grabbed him was taller and slender. He had followed a different branch and a smooth coat of scales covered his body. They were a dull brown and accentuated the flatter features of someone who had taken the reptile path. 

            “Please,” the older Len said, “think before you speak. What one does affects us all.”

            The younger Len tore his eyes away from his companion’s scales and stuffed his envy away, not allowing himself to brush at his own fur, “I was not going to attack him. I was only going to tell him that he was an ignorant bigot who had already been paid three times an unfair fee. Also, that his boat was ugly”

            “Yes, but you aren’t in civilization anymore. These people do not value honesty. To them a harsh truth is an attack.”

             “But How?”

            The other Len shrugged, “We must take the higher path and not expect too much from them. But we are both being rude. I am an Employ from the Grace Seekers.”

            Immediately upon hearing the title ‘Employ’ the shorter Len dropped his eyes and assumed a more respectful posture, “Your craft?”

            “I am Employ Yut Good, a woodworker of middling talent and little drive,” he said with the well polished intonation of ritual, ”And you?”

            “I am a Seek of the Ken Seekers, soon to be a Study.”

            “And what knowledge are you pursuing?”

            “I will be a student of magic here. Not all from the caravan believe in my ability to succeed, though I am certain I will.”

Yut looked at him for several moments, noting the omission of his persona names before the standard demonstration of candor. 

That thoughts visibly cascaded through the older Len’s face as he tried to figure out who in the Ken Seekers could afford the tuition for Istima University. Finally, after looking for distinguishing patterns on his wrap, Yut’s eyes fell to the cloth bandage wrapped around the smaller Len’s bicep. 

To his credit Yut spoke immediately and without tempering his words, “The Ken Seekers have had their reputation shit upon by a Teach who spread lies for his own benefit”

Yam did not respond.

Yut’s posture grew less welcoming, “Who are you?”

Again the smaller Len chose not to speak.

“Tell me who you are, and what you are doing here. Give me an honest word”

Like an echo, the phrase, ‘honest word’ hung in the air. The young man’s neutral silence transitioned from shock to insult, to smoldering resentment. The silence stretched impossibly long, even though it would only seem like a few moments to the casual observer. 

Finally, the shorter Len spoke through his own grit teeth. “I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers,” he said, shrugging off Yut’s greater Presence and staring at the older Len directly in the eyes, “and I am here to become a god.”

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