Cal 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, but I’m good. Just be safe.”

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

The Akatsi saw her and limped over.

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would have to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you need it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You, uh, noticed that?”

“I did. So, where is your project?”

“I’m wearing it.” She lifted a boot.

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

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

“Is something supposed to be happening?”

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

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

Cal gave her a blank look.

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

“Oh.”

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

“Yes?”

“Did you blind another student?”

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Cal 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And rotten apples, apparently,” Cal muttered. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Naturally,” Cal said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gravitic mitigation,” she said.

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

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

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

“I… I’m sorry?”

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

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

“Words!” The woman said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Summer Court,” Cal said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me who you are.”

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

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

“Because I wanted to get back at her—“

“With a knife?”

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

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

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

“Dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I have no assurance of that.”

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

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

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

“I could throw my knife,” Cal mused.

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

“I could shout for help.”

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

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

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

“I’m all ears.”

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

“That’s rather trusting.”

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

“And what do you get in return?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This place is…”

“Old?” Alendra finished.

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

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

“How so?”

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

“What’s wrong with this place?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure know a lot about this place.”

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

“Oh, I can’t do magic.”

Alendra stopped spinning and stared bug-eyed at her.

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

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

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

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

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

 — 

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

“Sounds reasonable enough.”

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

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

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

“Just tell me what to do.”

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

“Barely any.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cal extended her empty hands and shrugged.

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

“Any rule can be broken.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you actually planning on reading all those?”

“I want to get a head start.”

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

“Where’re you going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am Akatsi,” he said.

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

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

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

“You are a student?” Cal asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cal 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Callion,

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

Warmly,

Duke Alton Augurellia

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

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

“The gold? It’s 300 drams.”

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

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

“Seems overly complicated.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” He mumbled. “What d’you want?”

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

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

“Where are the richest magicians?”

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

“Sumer court?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And everyone else?”

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

“You sure do know a lot about this.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What does this one do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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