Yam 9

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2.02

When Yam stepped into the cavern under his dorm, finally wearing proper clothes again, he felt a great weight fall from his shoulders. Walking through the threshold marked, in his mind, the end of his nightmare at the gymnasium.

He was pleased to see no signs that anyone had come to the underground retreat, but it had only been a few days. So he restrained his optimism and, with the ease of long practice, stretched a length of cord across the entrance of his hideaway. It was hung with detritus that would rattle loudly if jostled; a common practice for Len sleeping away from the Caravan. 

It filled him with a powerful surge of longing for his home; for a place where he could feel his people around him instead of standing isolated in a world that felt oddly thin and unreal. Like life without Presence was a dream that hadn’t included a sense of touch or smell.  

Yam sighed as he sprawled across the cavern floor, not even bothering to adjust his great wrap or cross his ankles. He missed his siblings. He missed knowing every expression of his favorite vendors as they haggled. He missed eating food that wasn’t dry or burnt, and he missed his father’s deep voice and calm Presence. Talking with him felt like lying in a slow river and letting it float you downstream. If he was here, Yam was certain he would already be feeling better. 

His father always knew about the history of a piece of architecture, the legend behind a beautiful flower and, even when he didn’t know either, his father had mastered the  profound trick of seeing every sunset as something new and worth losing himself in. Yam could barely imagine what the wonders of Istima would look like to him. 

And that was why he was not allowed to be tired. Not when his father, his family, and his entire caravan needed him.  

With bone-deep weariness, the young Len unwrapped the cloth bandage on his left bicep and saw that the fur he usually kept shaved had grown in enough to obscure his tattoo. It was the standard Ken Seeker design with small variations. Those subtle differences would let Len from most regions of the country figure out his caravan and family. But the practice was not universal. Which was why he was able to let the fur grow in without it seeming too strange. At least not to others. To him, it was strange to the point of discomfort. 

He had spent years of his childhood dreaming of the day he would shave his arm and be entrusted with carrying the reputation of his people on his skin. Though Len from certain other regions didn’t follow the practice, it always made their adults seem oddly juvenile to his eyes.  

Strange that he now had to thank those man-children for normalizing what he was doing. 

He discarded the rolled cloth and scowled. It burnt to hide his heritage and his family. To announce with his actions that they were a shame. But he had to do it if he wanted to gain enough power to make the world acknowledge their Virtue. 

It was confusing, and paradoxical and it made his heart hurt. But his discomfort meant little compared to the needs of his family. And his weariness meant even less.

He opened one of the small pouches on his belt and pulled out a pill. Brush marks were visible on its surface where the pill maker had applied the exterior coating, and the smell was unpleasantly pungent. It was large enough that he would need to chew it in more than one bite.

The medicine had the energetic and wakefulness effects of black tea, but it was far more potent. In most villages, it would guarantee any man a living. But in Istima these pills were common, maybe even trite. Especially since it was made from relatively common herbs that had been ground together and bound in a sticky paste without any application of magic. 

Yam threw it into his mouth and let his mind go as empty as the cavern around him. He was so exhausted after the physical training that he didn’t even have the energy to wince at the taste. 

He spent some undefinable amount of time underground. His fingertips hummed with borrowed vigor even as his heart felt exhausted to the point of numbness. Being underground meant the elemental energy of the earth was more abundant. He let those soothing flows lull him into a stupor as he worked through the stack of papers he had gotten from Thomnas, the Autumn Court representative.

Even with advice and privileged papers, it took hours of eye-achingly monotonous work to complete the forms. And he had made several mistakes that required him to messily cross out words and draw lines to the margins where he scrawled his corrections. 

~~~

He woke up underground, feeling wrung out and with a horrible headache. 

Though he had slept soundly in the safety of the cavern, he had slept shallowly and was not refreshed. His first thought was that the pills weren’t strong enough and that he would need to look for something more potent. Maybe he could go back to the side streets.  

Thoughts for a later day. For now, Yam hauled his body up the ladder and into his room. It was horrible. His aching muscles hung off a stiff back and rattling bones. When he finally shambled past a window he was surprised to see that it was dark outside. He had to have been in the cavern for more than seven hours. 

It was a testament to the day he had just been through that he didn’t even have the energy to be angry at the time he had wasted sleeping. Instead, he just rearranged his pack. 

A surly and exhausted Yam made it to the proper hall in the Autumn Court. Waited in a perfectly straight line and filled out the papers needed for him to deposit his papers. Which at first seemed ironic but quickly provided the benefit of stoking his rage enough that he had something to power his feet with it. 

Before that fire guttered he stalked to the Day Court and found the uncanny bench from his brief stay there.

Yam glared at the eternally present and eternally cheerful sun. He could not be stopped. If he slept through the day, he would find his own sun to labor under! One bright enough, and viewed from a seat discomforting enough, to prevent him from sleeping while he tried to figure out how to salvage this flaming chamber pot of a day. 

So Yam sat, but not wearily nor resignedly. No, he gingerly placed himself on the seat with the assistance of both quivering arms and cursed about his aching bones; like a rebel. 

He was indomitable. Sore and craving tea, but indomitable. 

He would have liked to write a list, but paper cost money and none would be coming from his family. Instead, he held his options in his mind. His first option was to memorize more of the content given to him by the bookkeeper. It was tedious, but he wanted to impress the bookkeeper so he had access to all of the knowledge of the Understacks. 

There were other options though. He had mixed feelings about returning to the Night Court. Being in the Presence of someone who could kill him with a sneeze was horrifying. Worse, there would be no way to pretend that he was in control of fate through some application of cunning or sublime planning. The Archmage would get exactly what he wanted, and Yam could do naught hope for scrap and pray to avoid drawing the being’s ire. 

But there was so much he could learn there…

Luckily, or perhaps not (he still hadn’t made up his mind about his conscription), returning to the Night Court wasn’t an option. He would receive a summons at the ancient mage’s leisure. 

Instead, maybe he should walk to the lower city? It would be easy to follow the signposts hidden in graffiti until they led him to stronger wakefulness medicines. Finding them at night might even be a good way of seeing what quality the product was; never trust a skinny chef or a sleepy man selling energy potions. His mother had never said that, but he was certain she would if given the chance.

There was also the option to practice control exercises for his osteomancy module. Osteomancy was a powerful tool and a great way to differentiate himself within the Vernal Court. 

In fact, he could go to any of his modules that had listed sessions during the night. There was no set schedule and, aside from stagnating as well as the possibility of losing admissions next year, there was no punishment for not attending modules. This was all to say he might get exclusive access to teachers by attending modules at night. 

Idly his hand reached into the pouch at his side and touched thick expensive paper. The exact paper he had seen passed off by the bookkeeper’s surly assistant. 

He had already sold everything else from Nathanael’s buyer: the fop who had been blinded. But the card, the invitation, had caught his eye. It was not ostentatious, but it was well made. It was sturdy and bore a subtle design in the margins so, when light hit the ink just so, one could make out the silhouette of capering beasts.

It was a conundrum.

Len had a certain reputation. Most humans feared what was different, and it was impossible to see someone living virtuously without having to confront their own deficiencies. That fear and desperate avoidance of their own moral weakness turned into anger. Anger and persecution aimed towards the Len. 

It was infuriating, but his elders said he should work to understand that it was just a reflex; just humans seeking justification that would not imperil their beliefs and dishonor the (false) lessons taught to them by their own elders. In a sad way, it was as noble as they knew how to be. 

So Len tried to be above it. They welcomed humans to their markets. Offered a game of words as they would for a trusted friend. Haggled earnestly, and treated them as though they were the informed and competent adults they wished to be perceived as. In short, they pulled no punches and modeled a life lived in pursuit of the great intangibles like wisdom, honesty, knowledge, and earnest self-improvement. 

If such lessons came at the cost of lost mere money or wounded pride, then it was a cheap price to pay.

But, despite their temperance and willingness to teach, if Len were not indispensable craftspeople, they would have been cast out violently. Instead, they were grudgingly accepted, silently resented, and used as scapegoats. 

Which was all to say, that it was impossible for caravans to travel without having the darker elements of a town reach out to them. Their false reputations ensured it. That reputation also made it all but impossible to survive the ostracization of legitimate businesses without occasionally accepting offers from their… less inhibited competitors. 

As such, even with his successful family and their pristine reputation, Yam still knew immediately what the paper was; an invitation to a fighting ring for exotic animals and magic beasts. The sort of place his parents had forbidden and that Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord, with his hundreds of treasured familiars, would have found repugnant. But it was also a place with powerful creatures he could bond with and a reservoir of first-hand knowledge fit to challenge any bestiary.

On the other hand, it would be a den of criminals who reveled in cruelty and bloodshed. It might give him knowledge, but it would certainly be dangerous. Worse, he didn’t know the city well enough to say how much more dangerous it would be for a Len. Would he be allowed in, even with a ticket? Would they force him into the ring because of his fur and teeth?

Yam took the mixed fear, excitement, and shame, and put it all to the side. He needed to think like a Ken Seeker. Especially when he was without guidance.

So what was the logic of this situation? His safety concerns were probably justified. It was an illegal venue glorifying violence. Such places would self-select for a certain type of patron. But he also refused to be someone who made their choices because of fear. That was a path that led to servitude and the sort of passivity that gave corruption tacit permission to grow. 

On the other hand, this would be a cruel place and anything he gained from it would taint his cultivation of virtue. That was no small thing for a properly raised young gentleman like himself to imperil. Virtue was what separated them from animals. 

He couldn’t say how long he sat, waging a silent war against the uncanny bench, but eventually, he came to a conclusion. The invitation was a small choice tangled with large questions he felt hesitant tackling at the moment. So, he made the most reasonable decision he could considering his goals: he should find out if there was a place he could gain guidance on his magical development and, if not, settle for doing what studying could be accomplished on his own. After all, he knew helping his family through learning and hard work was virtuous. He was a Ken Seeker after all. Literally a seeker of ken. 

Confident in his decision the young Len took out his notebook and skimmed through the cramped handwriting to see if any of his modules had night sessions. 

His body froze. There was one module that would be open: physical training.

No. 

He couldn’t. 

Yam’s lips twitched. His legs were still too tired. Surely, it would be a waste to go before he had recovered? And the clothes were scandalous. It wasn’t precisely impossible but… 

True, other students could go twice in quick succession. If they were able too he could as well, right? But he was a Ken Seeker! Not a fitness seeker! Plus with his long night and how hard things had been—

The excuses tumbled through his mind like water over a cliff. And the fact that he recognized them as excuses made it all the worse. This was cowardice. This was what a sick-bodied and weak-willed child would say to themselves. 

With a snarl, he threw himself to his feet, shoved his book back into the pack, and stalked away from the uncanny bench. Yam’s jaw was clenched so tight he felt his teeth groan under the pressure. Not caring who saw it, he reached into his pouch and ripped out the invitation for the Tooth and Claw.

To say he had a fully realized thought would be over-generous. However, if his thoughts could be characterized, they would be something along the lines of screaming ‘I’m not afraid of anything! Not even this!’ and, a much quieter train of thought, one hidden by the volume of the first, which was the mental equivalent of covering his eyes with his hands and saying, ‘Avoidance? Nope, I don’t see any avoidance here.’

~~~

As a mage, Yam’s mental fortitude and capacity for prolonged focus were exceptional. 

His single-minded focus carried him until bare moments before he walked into the Tooth and Claw. He was standing in line, waiting to show his pass to one of two Aketsi doormen, before the first doubt pierced his defense. Was he really going to do this? Was he really going to enter a room full of hard men and lawbreakers? Sure, once or twice, he had grabbed something left behind by an unwary shopper. And once his friends had even talked him into sneaking a pastry from a stall. There had also been the ferryman. But they were bigots and what he had done was more prank than theft. 

But this, this was an underground bloodsport! Though, apparently, even the underground animal fights in Istima were fancy. The sign above them was marble with glowing magic highlighting the name of the ‘covert’ establishment. The ticket men were also very polite, and, for Aketsi, they moved at a rapid pace. 

The extremely strange and aesthetically pleasing incongruities were probably the only reason he made it to the front of the line at all. If there had been a dirty alleyway or if dangerous thugs had manned the doors, he would have lost his nerve and fled. 

But everyone around him was wealthy. For people who didn’t have access to a Len master craftsman, they were the peak of class. Their poorly cut jewels were set inexpensive metals, and less than masterful embroidery stumbled across the rare material of their clothing. Their presence made it feel like he was in line for a play, and more than once, he checked his invitation.

Finally, he made it to the Aketsi feeling like his head was full of wool. The doorman took almost three seconds to smile and nod his head. Yam had never seen one move so quickly! At least when not chasing down a thief in the market. The doorman examined Yam’s pass without touching it and slowly waved him in, “EEnnjjooyy, ssiirr.”

It was startling. If he was looking for wakefulness pills, he may need to start here. Aketsi’s biology was made for standing and slow ceaseless labor in the same way that the Len were made for community and adaptation.

His lingering thoughts carried him through the door and into a large indoor stadium before he truly took in his surroundings. The Tooth and Claw had three rings of people set at three different elevations. The lowest was standing room only. The top tier, where he had entered, was full of comfortable chairs and wealthy clients. He naturally moved to the second tier. It was full of people who looked successful and cultured enough to be less accustomed to acting on drunken or violent impulses. Which made it better than the bottom floor. But it’s patrons were also not so wealthy as to have guards and family grudges against his people left over from negotiations that had been executed a bit too masterfully. Which made it better than the top floor.

So he sat on the wooden benches and spent an uncomfortable twenty minutes torn between being fascinated and repulsed by what he saw happening in the ring at the center of the stadium. Those poor creatures. 

But gods help him if they weren’t magnificent. After seeing a gorgeous beast maimed, one that would strike terror into his enemies and be a suitable companion for Aehp himself, Yam found himself wanting an alcoholic beverage. 

He was already here, really what more did he have to lose from one bad decision? He spent nearly thirty minutes trying to find a beverage counter that was not staffed by a Len. It took a tremendous amount of attention for him to not constantly re-check how hidden his tattoo was. As a result, he accidentally waited in the wrong line. He was too ashamed to admit his ignorance when the man behind the counter asked for his bet. 

He placed a single dram on the wooden counter, but the employee looked at him strangely and he ended up putting down enough money for a restaurant-quality meal before he could subdue his pride. 

Afterward, he wandered until something caught his attention. It was ferocious, possessing a disquieting number of claws, and seemed to have venom leaking from its eyes in a lethal rain of tears; Yam loved it more than he had ever loved anything in his entire life. 

The young Len watched the beauty being carted around and saw how docilely it accepted affection from a wealthy merchant supervising its transport. He could already imagine frolicking together underneath the dormitory and him becoming rich selling its venom. They would be the best of friends and their foes would weep to see Aehp and his fell companion. 

The magnificent creature was carried behind a set of unobtrusive doors and the young Len held completely still; just savoring the paragon of terror and destruction he had the privilege to have witnessed. 

What. A. Beauty. 

Then, before his poor heart could recover, an even more horrifying eldritch monstrosity was carried from behind the doors.

Where he had only been able to watch the fights for twenty minutes before needing a drink, Yam found himself spending nearly an hour staring at the door as every third beast made his heart skip with intermingled terror and avarice. 

There was a great deal of ‘analysis’ and internal ‘debate’. But from the moment he saw a creature that appeared to shapeshift from a small dragon with wings of green fire into a scorpion with a hooded cobra for a tail, the decision was made. It was just a matter of how long it took him for him to consciously acknowledge the executive decision his heart had made. 

He snuck through the door. 

It was another horrible decision. 

Oh well.

According to reason, he should have been a bent double with the weight of fear and caution. Instead, his eyes opened wide and he rushed through the back room he was very much not supposed to be in and was carried from cage to cage like a child at a toy store. 

Finally, maybe ten minutes later, fate, which always guards the stupid and insane, ceased protecting him. It had never occurred to Yam to wonder why he hadn’t seen guards in the extensive hallways, or why no one cared when they heard the sound of his feet scampering from cage to cage. In truth, he had been too enrapt for such a coherent and reasonable thought.

When fate left him (that cold bitch) he was holding a thick and well-worn bestiary in one hand, a pamphlet with care instruction for Flesh Ants in another, and had tied two more books together with a piece of twine that he held in his mouth. That was when he had a horrible realization. 

“Owh noe,” he said, freezing in place, eyes wide. 

He had wandered away from the most impressive beasts and was now in an area mostly full of tools and cleaning equipment. He was also quite lost. And, even if he wasn’t, he all but collapsed when he realized that he couldn’t carry out all the animals he wanted, even if he gave up the books he had found. 

Those would have been poor realizations by themselves. What was worse was when he heard voices coming from down the hall and his magnificent display of dumb luck officially ended. Before he could think he stuffed the pamphlet into his belt and darted inside a closet. He had barely managed to hide and peek through a crack in the door before two large guards walked into view.

His hand fell to his pouch and he sensed the bones within. But the young Len hesitated. He was in no way trained in combat. His only experiences with fighting were exactly what one would expect from a too-smart, book-loving child who was too weak to flee his frequently unsupervised peers. 

He didn’t know how to fight at all, let alone with osteomancy. His racing mind raced as he searched for options. He had not yet learned any cants from the bookkeeper’s assignment, and his body was too weak to outrun anyone but an Aketsi. Which only left one tool in his arsenal: his natural ability for spatial magic. 

But, untrained as he was, he had sharp limits on its usage. Before he could think enough to stop himself, he took the twine from his mouth and set aside the two books. He barely even let himself breathe as he watched the two guards step past the closet where he hid.

The two of them passed by so closely that he could smell the sour scent of alcohol on their sweat. He was certain they would notice him too. 

But they didn’t pause. 

The large man and his even larger female comrade reached the intersection at the end of the hallway and stopped. Yam almost screamed when the two leaned their backs against the stone wall and began talking. Instead, he waited to a count of two hundred before finally accepting that the guards wouldn’t be moving any time soon. His ramble must have accidentally coincided with guards’ shift change 

It didn’t matter. 

He ducked back into the closet and slowed his breathing. He had played games of hide-and-seek where he had pulled off maneuvers just like he was about to do. There was even a piece of fortune on his side. The door to his cramped sanctuary opened inwards.

The young mage shook out his hands and went back to the doorway. A quick glance confirmed that the guards were still there. So he retreated into the closet as far as he could while still being able to reach the door. He didn’t want to create a visible silhouette. 

Over the course of a slow count to forty-five, he inched the door open to the exact breadth of his shoulders and then added a few fingers width to account for his clothes. After shimmying sideways there was a perfectly straight corridor of unoccupied space the width of his shoulders that stretched from where he stood to the intersection at the other end of the hallway.

Then the young mage reached out with his magic. It was hard to describe exactly what he did. Most of it happened without his conscious direction and, historically, the more he focused on what he was doing, the more often it failed. Just like how someone could walk on a strip of colored paving stones without any problem. But, if they stood on a raised beam of the same width and started consciously trying to keep their balance, they would twist and flail. 

Though he didn’t completely understand what the magic did, in some ways it was like folding a piece of paper. Put a dot on either end of the paper and then fold until both points were right next to each other. Done correctly, you could have the same amount of paper between the two points, but not the same amount of distance. 

What he did now was like that except he had a tube of paper, one big enough for him to fit through, and instead of just bending the paper he folded the whole tube until it compressed like an accordion.  

And of course, the other big difference was that he folded space itself, not paper. 

Yam picked a point at the far end of the hall, just at an intersection, and he crumpled the space between where he was and that spot. With a single step, he passed over the folded space. It was no more than a half-inch wide and was not something he could see with his eyes. His arcane senses had to tell him where the fold was. 

As he passed over and through what he imagined to be a standing loop of accordion ruffled fabric, there was a brief blurring of lights and Yam found himself standing at the end of the hallway.

He immediately stepped around the corner, hoping that neither of the guards had been looking. 

If the gods were kind—

“Hey! Anyone down there!”

He should have known. By the time he became a god he probably would have learned to stop being kind to strangers too. 

Fate knew he wouldn’t be here in the first place if he hadn’t tried to help that blinded fop with the ticket. 

Yam ran. The moment he had a line of sight down the hallway he crumpled space once again and zoomed ahead of his pursuers. As he fled, he turned towards the faint smell of animals and magic-ed himself forward in as many tiny hops and skips as he could. 

It worked. At first anyway. 

The sound of feet grew further and further away and his magic reserves easily handled the costs of his subtle working. In fact, it worked so well that he almost couldn’t believe it when he stepped into an intersection and ran face-first into a completely different guard who was wearing a hardened leather vest. 

The man barely moved when the rather scrawny young mage ran into him. But Yam landed on his butt and slid backward with the force of it. 

The guard blinked at the be-furred humanoid who had suddenly appeared next to him. 

“Wha—?”

“Look a Len!” Yam yelled, pointing his finger down the hallway, 

The moment the guard looked away Yam turned his head to look back the way he had come and crumpled space yet again. Awkwardly, he hopped his butt off the floor and an inch to the left. That was all it took to clear the spatial fold. He ended up at the other end of the hall with barely enough time to scramble onto all fours before the man started running towards him. 

The young mage forced himself to wait a single moment so the timing could line up. Then, when it was just right, he threw himself flat against the wall. For a brief instant, four-fifths of the hallway’s width was unoccupied down its entire length. 

But Yam needed to see both points he was manipulating. So, while he was still throwing himself against the stonework, Yam stretched his eyes wide and stared at the opposite wall. Both the guard and the floor just behind him were both in his peripheral vision for a moment. 

Faster than he ever had before, he reached out and crumpled the hallway. The guard stepped forward and found himself several steps behind Yam. With another burst of magic, which was just now starting to make his mind ache, the young Len sent himself as far away as he could. 

With a few more space bending leaps he lost his pursuer. But the yelling guards drew help, even as his impossible steps grew shorter and as more burly men and women poured into the hallways. 

Hallways that, he was just starting to realize, went below street level and extended the length of at least three warehouses. Maybe dozens.

He ran, but his legs were weak and turned so watery that he was forced to walk. When that happened he used his ability constantly to keep ahead of pursuit. The pace of his casting sent his head to aching. And, for all of Yam’s efforts, the net only grew tighter. 

The guards knew the layout better than he did and eventually formed a blockade that prevented him from even seeing the cages that held the fighting beasts. The ones that had first lured him into this labyrinth. And the ones that marked his most likely exit.

He was shambling through a massive three-story-tall space with his hand pressed against the stitching pain in his ribs. The middle of the large room was filled with rows of shelves that held crates, cages, and various small creatures. The wall on his other side was dotted by doorways leading to small rooms. Some were set up with fine tables and chairs. Often next to them were rooms with bloody surgeons’ tables or offices that housed ledgers and be-spectacled men dutifully ignoring the commotion beyond their desks. 

Yam darted into one of the table and chair rooms. He slammed the door shut even though all the others were open and he knew it would draw attention. For a frantic thirty seconds, Yam searched the door for a lock. There was none. 

He considered wedging a chair under the doorknob, but didn’t know if that actually worked. Storytellers mentioned it often, but he had grown up with a severe lack of extraneous chairs that he could try to wedge under the equally rare extraneous doors in his people’s minimalist nomadic caravan. 

The only other thing in the room was a small writing kit on the table and a knock-off porcelain tea set. 

He backed away from the door, heart thudding and temples feeling like spikes were being driven into them. Then his back fetched against a hanging tapestry and he felt something strange. 

In a whirl, the young mage spun around and pushed the tapestry to the side. Underneath the thick fabric was a door made of crossed iron rods that had been welded together, like the cross-hatched cage of a prison cell. 

On the other side of the metal was another tapestry. Yam barely managed to squeeze his hand through a gap and push the richly colored fabric aside. For a flash, he saw a short hallway, perhaps three to five paces long, that led to the highest tier of the viewing stands. Then the fabric fell back into place. 

He wasted almost a full minute trying to throw the tapestry up so that it would give him the light and line of sight he needed to work with. Then he remembered that he had other magics at his disposal. 

Using pure control without any fancy spell work, he sent three bone beads flying from his belt. They hit the fabric on the other side of the door and pushed until it was pinned to the ceiling. He held them steady with a thought and took his first clear look at the door. 

Like he had thought, the door was primarily made of crossed iron bars welded together. But, more importantly, there was a visible gap between the door’s edge and the metal frame that extended from the wall 

Yam moved to the keyhole and crouched until his head was lower than the lock. Then he grasped his magic and did something he hadn’t even told his parents about. 

They knew that he wasn’t limited to crumpling space. But they also knew that stretching space was far harder for him to do. The material of the world was inherently pliable, and it did not necessarily resist nor encourage change. It simply responded to the factors influencing it. And it did require some energy to combat the circumstances that held it in its current form. 

Compressing space was really folding and, when he did so, Yam let the world do almost all of the work for him. Like using a carrot to move a donkey rather than pushing it. Or like digging a down hill tench next to a boulder so that it would fall and move itself. 

To compress space he just had to nudge at a few circumstances; make a few points slippery, a few others sticky, and suddenly it was easier for space to fall into the shape he wanted than to stay the same.  Stretching, on the other hand, took more out of him. The movement was not fueled entirely by his own power, he didn’t think any mortal had the sheer amount of magic that would take, but it did require him to alter far more of the tiny influencing factors; the tiny circumstances that commanded the shape of space. In terms of effort and expense, it was rather like bribing twenty border agents instead of only having to charm five. 

His parents had seen him make it so no matter how hard they reached for him they could never pull sweats from his fingers. They had also seen him jump across a massive field with a tiny hop. But for some reason, they had always made the assumption that he only bent space by changing the distance one could walk: by bending the horizontal plane.

With the same trick he once had used to enter their locked wagon and pour honey on his sister’s pillow, he walked through the iron door. Specifically, he stretched the gap between the edge of the door and the edge of the iron frame. 

He had to crouch very low. The moment he entered the distorted space between door and frame the tiny sliver of the latch holding the door closed seemed to become an iron bar that spanned a gap several paces wide to either side of him. And, even crouched until his knees brushed his chin, it was uncomfortably close to the top of his head. 

But there was nothing to be done about it. To his knowledge, it was impossible to change space two ways at the same time. Just like it was impossible to manipulate a point not in his direct line of sight. Which was to say, his intuitive knack for spatial magic didn’t include how to overcome those particular boundaries. 

Which was fine. He could fit between any gap and he could raise the height of any ceiling Just not both at once. Similarly, he could move in a single direction as far as he could see, but if he would have to step off the straight line to avoid an obstacle, like a table, then his compression wouldn’t let him walk through that solid object any more than if he was moving through natural space. Even with those limitations, he felt like he had gotten the better end of whatever bargain gave him his abilities.

He made it under the Tooth and Claw’s iron door with an undignified amount of panting and duck-walking. The moment he was clear, he waved his hand and the bone beads holding up the tapestry whizzed through the air. In a flash they had looped back and pinned the thick fabric to the ground, stilling its motion so as not to betray his passage. 

Then Yam turned down the short hallway and saw the elbow of a servant peek past the edge of the doorway. More civilized and far better dressed, but a guard nonetheless. 

The door to the room behind the tapestries was thrown open with a shout. 

Yam didn’t move. He leaned forward, eyes narrowed and, just as he saw the protruding stomach of a nobleman peek past the edge of the hallway’s entrance, he reached out with his magic and stepped. 

If the doormen had been looking forward, they would have seen him appear, as if out of thin air, an instant before his slight frame was eclipsed by the girth of the passing nobleman. 

For Yam’s part, he spun on his heel and kept pace with the large man. Letting silk-clad girth  screen him from the servant’s view. He painted boredom across his expression and began walking slowly. Like he was just another patron unimpressed with the area’s spectacle and looking for libation. 

Or at least that’s what he hoped he was doing. In truth, his heart was hammering and his skin was sweaty enough that he felt certain everyone in the room had noticed. 

But no one called out after him. 

Just before he stepped into the stairwell leading to the exit of Tooth and Claw, the young mage glanced over his shoulder. He glimpsed a servant craning their head down the short hallway they were stationed in front of. Their expression was puzzled. Possibly wondering why there were guards in the client conference room cursing.

Yam turned around and began moving away only slightly faster than proprietary would have otherwise dictated. Heart in his throat,  legs barely able to hold him up, he made his way to the establishment’s door. As he moved down the stairs, he barely remembered to flip his stolen book so the title was invisible and so it obscured the pamphlet he had stuffed in his belt. 

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Interlude: Alendra

Alendra woke quickly to the shrill sound of her alarm, she slapped the off switch and got up, her feet hitting the floor before her mind could argue. It was a trick she’d learned from her father. He’d always said it was harder to fall back asleep if you were already standing by the time you opened your eyes.

She looked around and frowned at the clutter. Given the amount of books the court required her to read, it was hardly any wonder that she had to pile them in pillars around her bed, her desk, and on any available surface. But there was still an hour before she was due at the clerk’s office, plenty of time to clean the place up.

Focusing her senses, Alendra summoned her powers, stretching her arm out towards the books. As she raised her hand, the books were gently lifted into the air. She felt only the briefest tug of weight in her hands as they hovered around her, softly tumbling as she directed them back onto the already overflowing shelves at the foot of her bed. Once they were in place, she breathed out. The mental strain felt good, like exercise. She was tired, but no longer sleep-weary. She stretched upwards and jumped in shock as her second alarm began to blare.

She turned it off and went over to the closet. The area inside was divided in two; to the left was for her personal clothes, to the right for school robes.

The everyday robes of the Autumnal Court were crisp and sleek. Deep blue, with a satin lining the shade of deep orange, like fall leaves. The court’s motto was embroidered in a subtle script in a band around the collar. Through order comes knowledge. Alendra buttoned up the double-breasted front and glanced in the mirror. Everything had to be spotless. Some of the professors had already made a point to verbally thrash any student who failed to meet their exacting specifications.

Her parents had rented her a room at Madam Horatia’s Boarding House for Young Ladies. It was a pleasant little building on the corner of two main thoroughfares of the Founder’s District, and just outside of the Autumnal Court’s gates. Alendra grabbed a piece of bread from the communal dining room of the house and stepped out onto the street.

It was less than five minutes until she’d reached the gate. Passing through the threshold, she was met with a pleasant fall breeze and the scent of dried leaves as the temperature shifted downward to cool, but not biting. She pulled her cloak around her as she hurried towards the east tower. Inside, she crossed the marble floor and took the enchanted elevator up to the fifteenth floor.

“Good morning, Ma’am,” Alendra said as she entered the Hall of Records and Processing.

“Initiate Kaestellus,” said the stern-faced woman behind the main desk. “You have crumbs on your robes.”

“My apologies, Ma’am,” Alendra said, looking down and plucking the stray bits of bread from her clothes.

“Hmm,” the woman’s sharp gaze returned to her work, “next time, do try to appear more professional, understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. You may go.”

Alendra bowed slightly and headed in.

The Hall of Records and Processing was no ordinary office. It was the beating heart of the Autumnal Court’s administration, and by extension, the entire city. Every student of the court, no matter how advanced, was required to work at least a few hours a week as a clerk for the court. As such, the space was over-engineered to perfection.

A long, suspended bridge ran the full length of the hall. Every ten feet, on both sides of the walkway, was a spiral staircase of wrought iron. The staircases led either up or down three levels each. At each level, a walkway extended out, giving students access to a row of wooden cubicles. The cubicles were stacked on top of each other, making the hall look like an oversized row of bookshelves.

Alendra made her way down the walkway to row K. As she walked, the silence was occasionally punctuated by a low chunk and a soft hiss as the pneumatic tube system delivered records to waiting clerks.

She reached her row and walked down two flights of stairs, then took the walkway to the seventh cubicle. A message container was already waiting in the metal tube by her desk. She sat down and pulled out the papers.

As a first year, she didn’t have many responsibilities. Most of the papers were the records of new students that needed to be processed into the school’s extensive filing system. Working quickly, she could get through seven or eight forms in an hour. From a special pocket in her robe, she pulled out a leather case and withdrew ink and a pen. Then she set to work.

By the fifth record, her hand was beginning to cramp. She flexed her fingers as she read the name on the next page and froze.

Student Name: Lady Callion Augurellia

She scanned through the page. It listed everything the school knew about Callion; physical description, aptitude tests, application essay scores, even known personal relations. Alendra allowed herself a brief smile when she saw she’d gotten higher marks on that last item.

But there was a problem. This record detailed the life of the real Callion. The one who had died before she ever made it to Istima. Any clerk who spent five minutes looking at this page could spot Cal as an impostor.

Alendra stared at the page and frowned.

She had promised to help Cal maintain her cover story and, now that the opportunity presented itself, she was hesitating. What were the consequences of forgery? She’d seen students severely reprimanded for mistakes before, so what would be done about deliberate falsehoods? She considered just forgetting the whole thing. After all, the chances of someone going through Cal’s application paperwork and spotting the issue was small, practically zero really.

But, Alendra thought with a sigh, a promise was a promise. And more than that, Cal had become her friend. She was also a thief, a liar, and most assuredly a miscreant, and her friend. There must be a logical way to determine the best course of action.

As her father had taught her, there was certainty in order, rules, and logic. She just had to find the order: define friendship and determine where it sat on the hierarchy of her obligations.

If she was to define friendship, she would say that it’s a bond between two people who, while not contractually obligated to assist one another, were bound by duty and love to help, even if that involved personal risk. Alendra shook her head. The very definition was illogical.

But surely, some responsibilities superseded the duties of friendship? Romantic love, ethics, and law, to name a few. Yet, as she sat there, pen dripping ink as it hovered over the page, Alendra couldn’t find the will to go against her friend.

She pulled out a fresh page and began to write a new record. She copied over the relevant information, but subtlety changed what was needed to seamlessly integrate the new Callion with the old. The physical description of Cal was close to the original, but it wouldn’t pass under strict scrutiny. Alendra copied the handwriting of the original document as she made the answers more vague. For hair, she put medium and brown. For her eyes, she put dark. For height… how tall was Cal? Shorter than she was, probably due to a lack of proper nutrition. Alendra settled on the meaningless answer of ‘approx. 5 ½ feet.’

She did this with the rest of the answers. The Autumn Court’s paperwork was thorough, and in some places, Alendra strained to find a response that wouldn’t arouse suspicion. When she was done, she looked at the page and froze. There was a blank spot in the bottom right corner where she was supposed to mark her work with a personal seal. That mark would permanently tie this paper with her. Whoever saw it, were the forgery detected, could link the document back to her. And the punishment for falsifying information in the Autumn Court was severe—as  close to treason as one could get.

But she thought back to her own definition of friendship. If Cal was truly her friend, then by her own admission, she was bound by duty and love to help her—even though that involved a great personal risk. She pulled out the small signet ring given to her by the court, pressed it into a small ink pad, and pressed it into the page. When removed, it left a small black circle, inside of which was a picture of a single oak leaf—the rank of Initiate—and a seven digit code assigned to her.

The only thing left to do was shuffle the pages into a neat stack, being sure to place Cal’s somewhere in the middle, and place the forms back into the tube. She held her breath as she inserted the tube into the pipe, as though the system would somehow notice her forgery. But nothing happened. The tube slotted in with a soft chunk and was whisked away.

Alendra stuffed the pens back into her bag, promising herself she’d clean the nibs later. Right now, all she wanted to do was get out of here. She climbed back up to the walkway and made her way toward the front desk.

“Have a good day, Ma’am,” Alendra said, summoning the last remains of her cheerfulness as she passed the desk.

“Initiate Kaestellus,” the woman called. Alendra froze in place, then slowly turned around.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“You took approximately seven minutes longer than your weekly average to complete your work. Explain yourself.”

“Oh… apologies, Ma’am. Er— one of the applicants had filled out a form incorrectly. I had to make sure their errors weren’t carried over into the records.”

Her heart was in her throat as the woman studied her. Could she tell she was lying? She was terrible at it. Usually, her face would start to go red and hot. Oh gods, she wasn’t saying anything—

“Hmph,” the woman scowled, as though she’d tasted something bitter. “Repulsive. That alone should have been grounds for the rejection of their application. Very well, you may go.”

“Thank you, Ma’am. Good day, Ma’am.” Alendra gave a short bow and did everything in her power to remain calm while walking to the elevator.

When the doors had safely closed behind her, she slumped against the wall and sighed deeply.

Gods, how did Cal do this all day? Wasn’t it exhausting?

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Cal 8

The next morning, Cal was awoken by a shrill whining.

“Gah!” She winced in pain. Opening her eyes didn’t help as the bright light hit her eyes, amplifying her pounding headache. Beside her, Alendra had a similar reaction as she fell out of the bed and reached desperately for her bag.

“What the hell is that?” Cal said, covering her ears.

“Just a second!” Alendra opened her bag and pulled out a small contraption. She flipped a switch and the noise stopped. “There. That’s better.”

“Seriously, what is that?”

“It’s an alarm I got so I don’t sleep late.” Alendra put the device away and rubbed her temples.

“Allie, it’s the weekend.”

“And I’ve got things I need to do.”

“You work too hard.”

“Thanks.” She ran a hand through her hair and frowned. “I don’t suppose there’s a potion to deal with hangovers, is there?”

“I intend to find out,” Cal said, slumping back on her bed.

“Let me know when you do.” Alendra stood and walked to the door. “And don’t forget, you promised to get your hands checked!”

“Right,” Cal raised a lazy hand to wave goodbye and then turned over to groan into her pillow. When she finally worked up the energy to get up, she regretted it instantly. If sleeping on the make-shift bed alone was uncomfortable, trying to share it with someone else was nigh impossible. Cal sat up and winced, slowly stretching her neck and feeling her muscles protest.

Her clothes were rumpled and unkempt, to the point where even the street urchin in her was unhappy, but the only other clean outfit she had was Callion’s velvet dress, and there was no way she was putting on a corset again. She gripped the handrail of the stairs and grimaced as pain shot through her hand. She let go and leaned on the wall, sliding down as she descended.

“Morning, dear,” Sable called from within the kitchen. “Late night?”

“Something like that.”

“I didn’t even hear you come in.” He lifted a mug of steaming tea to his lips. “Though I saw your friend leave.”

Even in her bleary state, Cal caught his meaning. “She’s just a friend.”

“Oh, to be sure.” Sable said, sipping his tea. “Anyways, you look terrible.”

“Thanks. You wouldn’t happen to know of any hangover cures, would you?”

“A shop down the street sells some that work well.”

“Really?”

“Though I doubt you could afford their prices.”

Cal winced. “Figures.”

“Next best option is one of the wading pools. Nothing like cold water to clear the head.”

“Point me there?”

“Left out of the shop and past the bridge.”

Cal nodded and left, stumbling down the second staircase and then out the front door.

The morning sunlight did nothing to help her headache, and she blinked until her eyes adjusted. It was early still, and the usual hustle and bustle of the Falls had yet to pick up. She followed Sable’s directions, going left until she crossed over the bridge and saw a small path between two buildings.

Unlike most of the alleys, the stones slanted downward, towards the waterline of the canals. At the end of the path, it opened into a sort of miniature bay. 

The cobblestones formed a semicircle around a shallow body of turquoise water, like a little tide pool. A net was stretched over the entryway, presumably to keep out detritus.

She’d used public baths before. In some cities they were the only way to get clean. Cal looked back up the path and, once reasonably sure she wouldn’t be disturbed, began to undress. She got down to her smallclothes and dove in. The cold water was a shock to her system, and she surfaced gasping for air. She wiped the hair out of her eyes and floated on her back for a while. She didn’t know if the water had some sort of magic placed upon it, but it felt as though it was seeping all her aches away.

She allowed herself a few minutes of luxuriating before cleaning herself. Without soap, she just had to scrub as best as she could. Soon, her skin was pink and raw, but clean. She stepped out and wished she knew some sort of spell for removing water. As it was, she donned her clothes while still damp and left the pool.

Next, if only to keep Alendra from hounding her, Cal wandered around in search of a healer. It didn’t take her long to find a shop. She stepped inside and was greeted by the strong scent of antiseptic and incense. A man with a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard looked up from the counter.

“Welcome! Does something ail you, young lady?”

“Hi, uh, I cut my hands.” She held out her palms.

“That’s all?” The man looked at her incredulously. “Young lady, I deal in serious medicine. My clients trust me to reattach limbs, save them from incurable poisons, and bring them back from the brink of death.”

“Then this should be easy for you.”

“It’s a waste of my time. Come back if you lose an arm.” He looked back to the pages on his counter.

Cal frowned. “What, that’s it? What kind of doctor are you?”

The man scowled as though she had spat in his face. “I’m not a doctor, I’m a mage. If you want someone to deal with your paper cuts, try Blood Alley. That’s where all the Spring Court hopefuls go to practice.”

Cal sighed and turned to leave. On her way out, she made a mental note of the lack of magical wards on the mage’s windows.

She’d been piecing together a mental map of the Falls District since she’d arrived, but she hadn’t seen any signs for a ‘Blood Alley.’ She asked around and found out that it was a nickname for a place called Hotspur Row.

The street was lined with small alchemical shops and stalls. Anatomical charts and ingredients hung in the windows and the cobblestones were covered in poorly-washed bloodstains. Even now, in the early hours of the day, the street was crowded. There seemed to be two groups of people; the first was the ill, sickly and destitute. It was clear that they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else, not if the established healers were anything like the one Cal had seen.

The second group were the students. They hung out in pairs or small clusters, whispering between each other and watching those who passed by with eager eyes. Cal shrugged off their gazes as she wandered through the crowd.

“Need healin’ there, miss?” One called out to her. “Five drams and I’ll check you out.”

“I’ll do you for three!” His friend shouted as he stepped in her path, causing the small group of students to let loose in cackles.

“Fuck off,” Cal said as she pushed past him. She kept walking, clutching his coin purse in her fist. She needed to find someone discreet. It was possible someone in the Spring Court knew Callion. Towards the end of the street, she saw a lone figure perched awkwardly on the stoop of a closed shop. Fur, large eyes, and the familiar musty smell confirmed it was a Len.

Ah! Cal smiled. Good. Plenty of Len had passed through the squatter camps Cal had called home at one time or another. Once you knew how to speak to them, it was pretty easy to get what you wanted. That, and they tended to be far less nosy than humans.

This Len had his head buried in a book. Cal approached and waited for him to notice.

It took a few minutes.

Finally, the sun was high enough that her shadow began to touch the edge of the Len’s book. He wrinkled his nose and then looked up.

“Oh!” He snapped his book shut. “You require medical assistance?”

Cal opened her mouth to respond and remembered that this was a Len. Conversation was meant to be a game—the stakes of which was usually money. She held out her hands.

“I have a few small cuts, hardly worth the effort.”

The Len smiled. “Then perhaps even one as unskilled as I can help.” He reached forward for her hands and then stopped. His smile dropped. “I will have to touch you in order to help.”

“I expect so.”

The Len raised an eyebrow, but carefully turned her hands over, looking at the wounds.

“These are more serious than you say,” he said. “You may need advanced care. It could be very costly.”

“I don’t wish to trouble a… Heal? Is that what you’d call them?”

“So you come to a Study? You are a strange human.”

“If this is too challenging, I understand entirely. I’ll find someone competent—”

“Wait!” The Len clutched her palms tightly and closed his eyes. Suddenly, there was a bright light and misty lines began to form in a web pattern around his hands. Her limbs felt strange, like being jabbed with pins and needles. Cal wanted to pull away, but watched with amazement as the ragged cuts began to shrink, the skin repairing itself. When the Len was done, the wounds had become nothing more than small, silver scars. Cal stared in wonder at the magic.

“Not bad,” she muttered.

“It is average. That will be five drams.” The Len held out a hand expectantly. “Unless you want me to do something about the scars of course.”

Cal smiled. “Study, you really should discuss payment before rendering services.”

Somewhere beneath all the fur, she could swear she saw him blushing.

“I… that is theft.”

“Theft is taking something with a price tag. How was I to know you would charge for your healing?”

The Len stared at her with what was either fury or amusement. She never could tell with Len.

“Who are you?” He finally said.

“I am a customer.”

“Do you have a name?”

“Of course, don’t you?”

The Len was wary, but Cal saw him try to hide a smile, “Doesn’t everyone?”

Cal sighed. “Well, this has been entertaining, but I must be off.” She turned to leave, then paused and looked back to the Len. “Actually, I’ve always wanted to try this. I’d like your name. What’s the phrase you use? Honest truth? Honest word?”

The Len’s face fell, “You were doing so well. Almost as well as a Len. A little more time and you could’ve won.”

Cal shrugged. “Losing only matters if you want to win the game. Now, you’re name?”

“Study Yam Hist. And you?”

Cal wagged a finger. “Now that would be telling.” She reached into the coin purse she’d taken from the other student and fished out a clump of gold, definitely at least five drams. She tossed the nugget to Yam. “Thanks for playing.”

She turned and left, leaving the Len to stare down at the money in his hands while he opened and closed his mouth like a surprised fish.

As she exited the street, she took a left towards home, smiling as she went. Something in one of the windows of a store caught her eye. Something rather familiar. She stopped, cupping her hands to block out the light as she peered through the glass.

Inside, for a price tag of fifty drams, she saw her boots. The ones she had enchanted for Teagan’s class. 

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Lyssana 7

Chapter 7: Forbidden knowledge

Lyssana awoke from a dreamless sleep. Moonlight filtered into her room through a crack in the heavy curtains and she stared at the light in silence. The Corpegara were not awake yet, so she rolled over to look up at the stars. An unfamiliar feeling of melancholy washed through her, as they were so different from the night lights she had used to navigate the islands. Then she remembered the pain of her stay and it fell away with the crash of reality. 

Sunrise was a few hours off yet and she tried to fall back asleep, but her mind was racing over what knowledge  Cavit could possibly know and why he was willing to share it with her. What would be his price? Instead of sleeping she got out of bed to start her morning. A few hours of meditation would  give her the ability to collect herself before the meeting. 

Centered was her being and balanced was the energy that flowed within her. Her mind was blank and free of all worries. She was the magma that flowed through the veins of the earth. She was the lightning that crackled in the sky. She was one with the energy inside her body and with the air around her. 

She could feel the warmth of the sun before it had even begun rising over the horizon and when she opened her eyes, the sky was only a shade lighter than hours before. She rose from her kneeling position and stretched her arms over head to open the wardrobe. Clothed in an orange silk dress, she opened the doors of her room and started her day. 

Cavit was waiting for her when she arrived behind the courthouse, despite it being a half hour to full sunrise. “You’re early.” She stated, mildly irritated she was not the first to arrive.  

“I always am.” His voice was as steady as her own, though he threw in a smile to warm it up. “I hope this place you told me about is as secure as possible, we’re going to need to keep everything I tell you today a secret. You need to swear you won’t tell a soul.” 

“I swear it.” 

They walked in silence as she led him through the outskirts of Istima, navigating through the rocky alcoves of the floating island. The static energy of the Storm Sea grew more erratic as they drew close and she could tell Cavit was growing more nervous. “Don’t worry, we aren’t going into the clouds, only just to the edge of them.” 

“I’m not worried, just curious as to how you found this place?” His voice rose slightly and she pursed her lips at the tone. 

“I stumbled upon it my first week here.” It was not a lie, and it was all the answer he would get until she got some answers of her own. The energy in the air vibrated as she began to descend the steps to the cave below, and the chill grey clouds enveloped her as she scaled the stair. Once her foot hit the platform to the cave entrance she stepped aside to let Cavit join her, though she had to pull him into the alcove as he must not have seen it and nearly continued past her to gloomy oblivion. “This is it.” She stated flatly, leading him into the darkening fog. 

“What is this place?” His voice was little more than a whisper as they continued forward and she offered him a shrug. 

“Istima is full of hidden places to study and practice. You just have to know where to look.” The sun could have been completely overhead and they would have never known, as the light penetrating through the clouds quickly dimmed until Lyssana had to produce a bright flame to light the tunnel. Cavit quickly followed suit and strained his eyes to look ahead, almost eagerly. 

She offered a smile as he looked around with wide eyes. She let her flame wink out of existence and gestured to him to follow suit. They stood in complete darkness before the pinprick lights along the ceiling began to glow like an underground constellation. 

The table Neal had made during their previous visit was still in the middle of the floor at the edge of the pool and she placed her satchel on the ground beside it, eager to begin learning. “So what knowledge is so secret that we had to go to the underground heart of Istima to discuss?”

Cavit took a deep breath and sat on the ground in front of her, pulling out notebooks from his own satchel and placing them in a pile. “This is going to be complex, so I’ll need you to let me know if I lose you at any point along the way, okay.” She nodded and he continued, handing her a notebook that looked ancient. The pages were yellowed with age and a flowing script labeled an illustration of a vague humanoid outline and what looked like two reflections of that outline slightly overlayed. Each layer was labeled as follows: 

Layer One: The innermost layer of an elemental magical being, the Acrocor, is the most primal base of magical energy. This energy defines the individual from birth, resonating with the elements around them from the moment they enter the world. It is the base of their identity and cannot be altered. 

Layer Two: The second layer is the physical body. This is the protective layer to keep the Acrocor safe from elemental damage as the mage grows and matures. The physical body can be altered, as it can manifest from the energy of the Acrocor. 

Layer Three: The outermost layer is the Aura. The Aura is a reflection of the Acrocor, seen as the energy passes through the body. Many mages see only a mirage of an Aura, as it appears to be a nimbus of color surrounding an individual. The intensity of the Aura is directly related to the energy capacity of the Acrocor. 

She took all the information in, eyes scanning over the image and rereading the notes over until the knowledge was ingrained in her mind before handing it back. “Why have I never heard these terms before? If these are notes related to elemental mages, shouldn’t it be common knowledge?” She was more confused now that she had been when she knew nothing. 

“I agree with you, the basics of this drawing should be common knowledge to elementalists, and there are some that speak of the glowing nimbus of color they see around others when they are at their most powerful, but there’s a reason this knowledge is forbidden. Apparently, it is possible to remove the Acrocor from another mage and take it for yourself.” He paused to let the words sink in before continuing. “Now, if the Acrocor is the origin of elemental magic, then this means the mage that steals the Acrocor from another can now have access and be proficient in multiple elements. It also means the mage that had their Acrocor stolen can no longer manipulate any element.” 

She listened intently and felt her face reflect the horror growing in her stomach. “So you’re saying it’s possible to steal another elementalists magic. Against their will? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Is this a joke you’re playing because you think it’s funny to make fun of the new student?” Anger flared in her chest and she glared at him, fists clenching at her side. 

“No, I swear this is the truth!” Cavit put his hands up defensively and his eyes pleaded for her to listen. “That’s the reason this knowledge is forbidden, because stealing another’s Acrocor is beyond illegal, it’s barbaric. To strip a  mage of everything that makes them who they are, it would take a monster to do that. Don’t you see? If anyone had the knowledge to identify and steal an Acrocor, they would be unstoppable.” 

She allowed herself to calm down at his rise of emotion, but the pit of horror in her stomach did not subside. “But…wouldn’t the body have a limit to the amount of energy it could hold before it just…burned up?” She was at a loss for how to explain her thoughts in an eloquent manner, but Cavit didn’t seem to mind. 

“And that’s what a lot of ancient mages believed was Ascension. One’s very soul becoming so powerful it could only exist on the plane of energy. They would shed their bodies and exist at a higher level. Of course it was at the cost of countless lives, but they didn’t care.” 

They stared at each other in silence while Lyssana processed everything. To kill countless beings for the personal hope of living as energy was something she could not even fathom. “Is all this in these notebooks?” She would want to read them all several times. 

“Yes. This is what I’ve been able to gather in all my time at Istima. This is what I came to this school to learn about. I know there are mages out there with this ability and I want to know how to stop them.” 

For the first time, she looked into his eyes and saw conviction, and she believed him. How easy it would be to lie about the use of this knowledge. He could have been wanting to learn so he could collect the Acrocors himself, but in that moment she did not think he was lying. 

“I think I will help you gather more knowledge.” She spoke slowly, her words precise as she watched his reaction. “This issue is bigger than us, bigger than Istima. It’s something that could affect mages all over the world if it got out. We can be keepers of this knowledge and hopefully find a way to keep it out of the wrong hands.” Cavit looked like he was about to cry. 

“You have no idea the relief I feel to hear you say that. I knew you would be the person I could trust to help me with this. Here,” he handed her the stack of books at his feet. “You’ll need to study everything here before we can continue. Just make sure no one ever sees the content of these books, or we may both die for simply possessing the knowledge. It’s been stripped from the libraries. Every time I got close to finding something about it, the pages would be missing from a book, or the book wouldn’t exist at all. This knowledge is being covered up and I don’t think I want to find out what would happen if we got caught.” 

She nodded agreement before stashing the notes in her bag. “I’ll read these this week and we can meet here again next weekend to figure out how to move forward.” He agreed and they went their separate ways. Cavit left the cave first and she gave him to the count of one hundred before following to avoid any possible suspicion of them being seen exiting the cloud line together. Not that she believed anyone would be looking at the cloud line, but paranoia settled heavily over rationality. 


~~~

A quiet knock at the door drew her attention from the kitchen and she greeted Abby and Neal with a welcoming gesture. They entered apprehensively, eyes wide as they tried to take everything in at once. “I feel like you’ve been holding out on us.” Neal whispered as his hands ran over the silk pillows in the foyer. He threw himself into one of the large chairs facing the fireplace and grinned in awe. “Okay, I could get used to this!” 

“Please make yourself at home. Dinner will be ready shortly.” She stepped back into the kitchen and could hear hushed conversation from around the corner. She remembered her first impression of the room and chuckled at the look of shock that had been across their faces. A few minutes later they shuffled into the kitchen and Abby screamed as Sarpia lifted her head to the newcomers. 

“What is that thing?!” Her hand pointed to the corner where Halvard now stood at alert, awoken by the scream. “Oh my, there’s two of them!” 

“Didn’t you know it’s rude to yell at your hosts’ pets?” Lyssana murmured dryly, whistling the Corpegara to her and handing them each a large bone. They chirped happily and ran past her guests to their favorite spot on the balcony. “They are Corpegara and they protect my home when I’m away. The smaller is Sarpia and the larger is Halvard. They are completely harmless. To you at least.” She did not look up from her final food preparations as she spoke, but she could see the look of fear on Abby’s face turn to curiosity and back to an apprehension. 

“Okay, it’s settled. I want to live here so bad.” Neal was watching the two creatures gnaw on their treats and shook his head in acceptance. “I’ve never heard of them, where do you buy them? A little extra security sounds like a pretty good idea.” 

“They just followed me home one day.” Lyssana shrugged as she laid the fish she had been preparing in the center of the dining table built against the low joining wall of the kitchen and living area. Plates had already been set out and a bowl of leafy green vegetables mixed with a type of pasta cooled in it. “What would you both like to drink? I have water, wine and mead.” 

“Wine for me please.” Abby gave one more glance at the Corpegara before turning back to the kitchen. 

“I’ll be bold for once and go for the mead.” Neal threw Lyssana a charming grin that she pointedly ignored.

Abby snorted, “For once? You’re over the top all the time!” Neal threw her a faux look of hurt and she stuck her tongue out at him. Lyssana rolled her eyes while her back was turned, almost regretting the decision to offer them alcohol. 

Lyssana put the glasses next to settings at the table and gestured for her guests to sit and serve themselves. She allowed them to dish their food first before serving herself. Neal laughed at the disgusted look on Abby’s face as she tried the wine and he offered her a sip of his mead, which she seemed to like better and got up to pour herself a glass. She passed the wine to Lyssana who enjoyed the robust red and chuckled at Abby’s look of dismay. “On the islands where I grew up, we made a drink from the Panat fruit, which has a very strong flavor, so I guess I enjoy full bodied wines.” 

“Damn,” Neal chuckled, “I think that’s the most you’ve opened up since we’ve known you! My turn!” He drained his glass and slammed it down dramatically. “Hi everyone, my name is Neal and I’m just really down to earth. I just feel like I have a pretty grounded spirit. The ladies say I’m rock-hard.” He stopped abruptly, staring at the table in embarrassment. Abby spit out some of her mead in shock.

 “Okay, that was too far and I apologize.” 

Lyssana laughed, which brought looks of shock to her guests faces. “We should all get together and have mead more often!” Neal beamed, his transgression already forgotten. 

Lyssana watched as her guests conversed and she chimed in when the conversation allowed her to be polite. The mead did not affect her as it did the other two; her tolerance to fermented beverages was higher as it had been an integral part of the Saakaran lifestyle.

 This was not as bad as she had imagined it would be – having guests in her home and conversing with them. The Corpegara joined shortly after the three humans had finished eating and Lyssana gave them the remainder of the fish she had cooked, as she had no ice for the icebox to save the leftovers. 

“So, what do your Corporegies eat other than fish and bones? And where do they poop if you live on the top floor of the tower?” 

Abby laughed at his pronunciation attempt and took another swig of mead before tentatively reaching down to pet the closest to her. Sarpia was happy to receive the affection and nuzzled the hand offered. 

“The Corpegara convert their food directly to energy with very little waste. Sometimes there will be calcified nuggets around the apartment if they’ve over eaten, but generally they are so efficient at converting energy that there is nothing to clean up after. And they eat just about anything, but the bones are their favorite and seem to be the best for them, so I make sure that is the majority of their diet.” She recited, remembering the book she had read nights prior. 

“So what exactly are they? I’ve never seen anything like them!” Abby was now on the floor with Sarpia and Halvard both vying for her attention. 

“Unfortunately there is such little known about them that I cannot give you an exact answer. There is speculation that they are simply a form of golem that evolved after they were abandoned. Or there is the theory that they were once animals that had the misfortune of being experimented on by a mage. I was able to find only one book about them and it was very little fact and more so primary speculation.” 

At this point Neal had joined Abby on the floor and they each had a creature sprawled across their laps. Neal traced some of the runes along Halvard’s wing and the small Corpegara hummed in contentment. “Well whatever they are, they seem to be good company. No one should be alone at Istima, even you Lyssana. I’m sure you’ve made some enemies at the school already and it would be a shame to go unprotected.” 

“Not that you can’t protect yourself!” Abby added quickly behind his words. “But I agree that they seem good companions.” 

Lyssana chuckled for a second time that night and turned to look at the four beings on her floor. “A companion was most welcome and they seem to enjoy it here, so we coexist peacefully. I am glad they like you both.” 

“Me too, can we do this more often so we can see them again? I think I’m starting to love them!” Abby pleaded with flushed cheeks. 

“No, I think that’s just the mead talking, but then again you do love animals, so it may be both things!” Neal’s words were beginning to slur and Lyssana handed them both glasses of water in place of the mead. 

“I do not mind a visit, but I’d rather you sober up enough to get home without being murdered in the street.” 

“I think the Winter Court is probably the safest court at Istima. I haven’t heard of a mugging or murder happen yet.” Abby suddenly looked concerned and downed her glass of water.

“I saw a mugging in the Summer Court a few nights ago and wouldn’t put it past someone to bring that behavior to our Court. We may not have such open hostility, but I fear our mages are just as dangerous and deceitful. They may just be sneakier about it. You need to watch each other’s backs.” 

“Wait, you saw a mugging? Why were you in the Summer Court?” Neal suddenly seemed skeptical and she gave him a hard look. 

“Why I was there is none of your concern, just acknowledge that the danger is very real here.” Hopefully throwing him into a wall had alienated him from her and the people looking to go after Lyssana would leave the other two alone, but there was never any guarantee. “I’ve already had threats against me and I’m sure as we progress in our classes they will only get worse.” 

Her tone must have been sobering because the two people on the floor looked up at her with wide eyes and Abby gulped. “Don’t worry Lyssana, we all have each other to look out for us, right?” She turned to Neal and he wrapped an arm around her shoulder in comfort. 

“I don’t think either of you could get rid of me. It’s already too late to make new friends.” He smiled drunkenly at them both and Lyssana rolled her eyes. 

“It’s only been two weeks. I’m sure neither of you would have any difficulty finding new companions.” She would not use the word friend. “However, I will do what I can when I am around to ensure your safety.” Abby smiled up at her and Neal looked like he was about to cry from drunken joy. “I need you for group projects and don’t want to talk to other people.” The joy fell from their faces and Abby grimaced. Neal still smiled slightly and watched her carefully.

“You pretend not to like us, but I’m pretty sure you’re going to call us your friends by the time this year comes to an end!” He beamed at her and Abby, his face flushed. 

Lyssana only scoffed and rolled her eyes. 

The rest of the evening passed without incident and her two companions drank another glass of mead while she was indisposed in her bathroom. She ended up giving them blankets so they could spend the night in the living room and the Corpegara snuggled between the two warm bodies on the floor. She sighed in slight irritation before going to bed and closing her door

Still, she made a mental note to buy a plush carpet and more pillows at her next trip to market in case they needed to sleep at her apartment in the future. But they were not her friends.

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Cal 7

Cal nearly missed class the next day. She didn’t have the money to afford a clock, magical or otherwise. Instead, she relied on the noise of the street to wake her up. But after the job last night, she was so exhausted that she only woke up when the sun was high enough to hit her eyes. She stuffed her things into her satchel and ran, wincing as the new boots rubbed against her heels.

Breathless, she reached class. Teagan was mid-lecture, and didn’t even pause as Cal took a seat. She did, however, give her a look that could melt glass.

“—and that should explain why you can’t make organic matter with runes, Yaxley. Perhaps next time, you will employ critical thinking before you speak and save us all five minutes.” She lifted a canvas sack. “Now that that’s settled, let’s move on to your projects. It pleases me to see that most of you took this more seriously. As you have no doubt learned, only your best effort is good enough for the Summer Court. But only one of you can win a point for this assignment.” She rummaged through the sack and pulled out what looked like a bracelet. “A device worn on the wrist in order to tell time. Practical, if unoriginal.” She pulled out another unwieldy item, held together by leather straps and bent nails. “I fail to see how this is to be worn, so it is disqualified. The rest falls somewhere in between those two. With the noticeable exception of these.”

Cal’s heart skipped a beat as Teagan pulled a pair of worn leather boots out from the bag. Her boots.

“This device, while flawed, shows promise. Combining sound-dampening and kinetic redistribution in one. For her technical ingenuity, Callion wins this challenge.”

There were whispers and jealous eyes fell upon Cal, and she was more aware than ever that she looked like she’d just rolled out of bed.

“That will be all for today. No challenge for the next class. Use this time to prepare and study. Dismissed.”

The class began to disperse, and Cal stood slowly, feeling her legs cramp from running all the way to class. She grabbed her bag and Rathana appeared beside her.

“Congratulations, Callion!” He said. “I would have loved to win two in a row, but it pleases me that if anyone else was to win, it was you.”

“Thanks. That book of yours was a big help.”

“Then let us celebrate. There is an Aketsi bar I frequent, care to join me after class?”

“Sure, sounds good.”

“Excellent! The bar itself is located in the Aketsi Ward of the Falls District. I’ll be there from sundown onward. Please, invite Lady Alendra if you desire.”

“I’ll see if she’s free.” Cal turned and saw Teagan shoveling the projects back into the burlap sack. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to ask Teagan something.”

When she approached the central pedestal, the professor didn’t look up.

“Was there something you needed?”

“I, uh, just wanted to see if could get my boots back?”

“No,” Teagan said, continuing to pack up. “Anything else?”

“Why?”

“I’ll take it that means there’s nothing else.” She stood, hoisting the sack over her shoulder with a grunt. A stray lock of gray and brown hair fell out of her tight ponytail and into her face. “If you didn’t want to lose something, you shouldn’t have turned it in. Let that be a lesson.” She blew the hair out of her face. “Besides, someone of your… status can surely afford boots, yes?” She turned and left the room.

Later that night, Cal found the bar Rathana had mentioned. The Aketsi Ward was a cluster of buildings piled into a large block of the Falls District. The entrance was tucked in an alley, and led down a flight of stairs to a beaded curtain. She stepped through and was hit with a wave of oppressive heat. The air within the bar was hazy with sweet-smelling smoke and steam. Rune lights glowed dimly from sconces on the walls, mimicking the sun at dusk. The space was roughly divided into two sections; to the left was a cluster of tall tables, and to the right was a large pool of water tinted green by algae.

“Callion!” A voice called. Cal looked over and saw Rathana standing in a pool. He waded towards the steps, pushing through floating lily pads and climbed out. “Thank you for meeting me here.” 

“Thanks for the invite,” Cal said, looking around. “Is this what your land is like?” 

“Enough to make an Aketsi less homesick.” He grabbed a towel and wiped the moisture from his bare legs. “Few establishments in Istima do as well as Diang Kam Hcho.” 

“Uh, Dang kam hachoo?” Cal’s mouth contorted around the strange vowels. 

Rathana smiled. “A good attempt for a human. Give it a decade and you could be fluent.” 

“Pass.” Another Aketsi approached Rathana and began to speak in the clipped and tongue-twisting language. Rathana responded and the man left. “What was that about?” 

“That was Chirrum. The owner. He wanted me to tell you that he doesn’t make human food.” 

“Is it that different from what you eat?”

“No, but he does not get many outsiders in his bar. Follow me.” He led Cal to one of the small standing tables on the other side of the room. “Will Lady Alendra be joining us?”

“She said she’d try and make some time. The Fall Court’s got her all running ragged.”

“I apologize for the lack of seating.” 

“Standing is fine.” Chirrum returned, carrying a dish filled with steaming green bundles. “What are those?” 

“Mho. I suppose you could call it a comfort food. Fish, rice, and vegetables mixed with chutney, wrapped in saltfrond leaves, and then steamed.” 

“Huh,” Cal said, looking down at the little wrappings. She picked one up and took a bite. To her surprise, it was not only palatable, but good. Salty, savory, and just a little sweet. She wolfed down the remainder and grabbed another. 

“You enjoy the food?”

“S’ good,” Cal said between bites.

“I am glad. Most humans I have met do not wish to try our food. One even told me “leaves belong on trees, not on a plate.”

“Humans eat pig’s feet,” Cal said, grabbing her fourth Mho.

Rathana gave a little trill, something close to a laugh. “You would make a good Aketsi.”

They kept eating. Chirrum brought over tea and more dishes, each with a name more unpronounceable than the last. The Aketsi in the bar watched her with wary interest, perhaps bemused as Cal tucked away another full plate of Mho.

When they were done, Chirrum came back and exchanged more words with Rathana, pointing at Cal.

“He wants to know if you enjoyed his food,” Rathana said.

“It was amazing.” Cal poured the last of the tea from the pot. “Do you mind asking him if I can come back again?”

Rathana relayed the message and the barman made the trilling noise as he replied. “He says anyone who eats like you is a welcome customer.”

Cal looked down at the empty plates and her smile faded. “Shit. Hey, what do I owe you?”

“Please,” Rathana held up a hand. “I will pay. I still owe you for your help with Jasten.”

“Fine. But this is the last thing okay? I don’t like debts.”

“Very well.” The barman pulled out a small scale and placed the money-weights on it. It was a surprisingly small amount, maybe only five or six drams.

“That’s it?” She asked.

“Yes,” Rathana said, balancing the scales with gold shavings from a bottle. “Our food is filling, but simple.”

“I can get behind that.”

Just then, the beaded curtain parted. Alendra walked in, pausing as her eyes adjusted to the dim light within the bar. She caught sight of Cal and made her way over.

“Sorry for being late,” she said, lifting her bag off her shoulder. It fell to the floor with a wooden thud. “I’m trying to get required courses out of the way early, so I’m taking seven classes.”

“Seven?” Rathana said. “Remarkable, Lady Alendra. You must tell us more. Did you have a hard time finding the bar?”

“Not particularly. The Autumn Court keeps an up-to-date map of the university. Well, at least the top layers of the city.” She looked around the bar. “Diang Kam Hcho? Am I saying that right?”

“Your pronunciation is excellent!”

“”Oh good. I haven’t practiced Aketsi since I left home. And I was only really ever able to grasp the Quah-Tcho dialect.”

“I am native to the Nah-Vhang, but many in Istima are from Quah-Tcho. I have had to pick up phrases in order to find lodging and food within the Aketsi Ward. Here is a useful one—” He looked over to Chirrum and shouted for something. The barman nodded and began pulling cups out of a drawer.

“That was… bring drinks please?”

“Very good, Lady Alendra.”

An hour or two passed. It was hard for Cal to tell after the fourth glass. Whatever was in Aketsi liquor, it was strong stuff. The bar was beginning to fill up, and the volume of conversation grew as the sun set. Alendra knocked back her drink, wincing as she swallowed, and slammed her glass down.

“Applied Kinetics,” she raised a finger, “Theory of Energy, Administrative Logistics—”

“That’s not even magic!” Cal said.

“Shh,” Alendra said, “still important. Now…” she slowly put up three fingers. “Four more. Gravitokinesis, Introductory Sympathy, Magic and Economic Forces, and Practical Audiomancy.” She held up seven fingers and wiggled them back and forth.

“Bah!” Cal poured herself another drink. “And I thought potions sounded boring.”

“Well I like it.” She stared at her cup, then shook her head. “So who won the challenge this time?”

“Cal did,” Rathana said. If the alcohol had any effect on him, he wasn’t allowing it to show, though Cal saw he was blinking very slowly, as though he had just woken up.

“What!” Allie said. She turned to Cal and punched her in the arm.

“Ow!”

“That’s for not telling me! Here I was worried you’d drop out, and now you’re leading the class.” She paused, then started rubbing her hand. “Also, gods above, that hurt!”

“Ha! Your fancy tutors never taught you how to punch, did they?”

“Yours did, Cal?” Rathana asked. Cal froze, she’d let the mask slip.

“I, uh, got some self-defense training.” She pushed her glass away.

“Intriguing. Aketsi don’t have tutors.”

“Ugh,” Alendra said. “They’re the worst. I swear, I’ve learned more in a week here than I did in years back home.”

“Well I am glad we are all here now, Lady Alendra.”

“Allie. Just say Allie.”

“I did not wish to presume familiarity.”

“Rathana, we got drunk together. We can assume familiarity.”

“Speaking of which,” Cal said, shifting her weight. “It’s probably time to call it a night.”

“Yeah,” Alendra said. “I can’t feel my legs.”

“You would make terrible Aketsi,” Rathana said, making the little trill-laugh. “Can you make it home safely?”

“We’ll manage. Here.” Alendra pulled a tab of gold out of her pocket. “This should cover things, right?” Rathana nodded. “Thanks for inviting me. See you around.” She slung her arm over Cal’s shoulder. “C’mon, walk me home.” Leaning against each other, they made it out of the bar, only bumping into two other tables as they did.

After summiting the stairs, Cal looked up at the night sky. The crisp air helped to clear her mind, and as she breathed out, she saw her breath form a cloud.

“Gods, I think I live… that way?” Alendra said, slowly lifting a hand and pointing east.

“Think?”

“Shut up.”

“I live close by. You can stay with me.” Cal turned, half-stumbling across the street as she traced her way back to Sable and Burr’s.

“Y’know what’s crazy?” Alendra said. “I’ve never been drinking. I mean, wine doesn’t count.” She furrowed her brow. “I hate wine.”

“You’re babbling.”

“I’ve never been drinking. Never had anyone to drink with either, y’know? So thanks for that.”

“Anytime.” They had reached Sable and Burr’s. She reached for the handle and it was locked. “Shit.”

“What?” Alendra whispered.

“Forgot my keys.” She looked up at the roof. “I’ll have to get in through a window.”

“Hah. You really are a thief.” Alendra’s eyes widened. “I can help!”

“What?”

“Gravity magic. Remember? I’ve done it before!” She widened her stance and held up her hands.

“Allie, you’re drunk.”

“Not that drunk. C’mon, lemme help.”

Cal looked back at the building. The walls of the first two levels were smooth. When she first broke in, she’d been on the roof of another building. “Fine, just go slow, okay?”

“Got it.” Alendra tensed, concentrating.

For a moment, there was nothing. Then, Cal began to levitate. Alendra slowly raised her up past the first floor, then the second.

“Nearly there,” Cal said. She reached out, ready to grab the window sill.

“Wait…” she heard Alendra say from down below. “Wait, no!”

And then the weightlessness stopped. In a split second, Cal found herself falling. She cried out, grabbing wildly for anything… and she found purchase on a wooden beam covered in rusted nails.

“Cal!”

“I’m fine,” she said through gritted teeth. She felt heat and pain as the iron dug into the flesh of her palm. The window sill was only a few feet above her. With a grunt, she lifted herself up and through the window, falling onto the floor of her room with a thud. She rested for a moment, then brought herself upright and headed down to let Alendra in.

When she opened the door, Alendra flung her arms around her and sobbed.

“I’m so sorry! I don’t know what happened.”

“It’s fine, see? We’re inside.” Cal stepped back and gestured to the store.

“Gods, your hands…”

Cal looked down and saw they were slick with blood, oozing out of several ragged cuts where she’d grabbed onto the nails.

“Shit.”

A few minutes later, they were sitting on Cal’s makeshift bed.

“You should still see a healer,” Alendra said. She’d torn strips of fabric from the dust cover on the table and had begun wrapping them around Cal’s hands. “These are bad cuts. Between the dirt and grime, not to mention the possibility of infection—”

“If I promise to go, will you stop apologizing?” She winced as Alendra tied the bandage tight.

“Fine,” she fell back onto the bed. “Gods, you sleep on this?”

“Yup. Now quit complaining. We can’t all have feather beds and silk sheets.”

“Hmph. Well, next time this happens, we’re staying at my place.”

“Next time we get drunk you mean?”

Alendra laughed. “Yeah.”

Cal leaned back, suddenly feeling her eyelids get very heavy. Admittedly, this isn’t where she had expected to be when she first decided to come to Istima. She had hoped to get rich quick, not find friends and do well in classes, but as she closed her eyes, Cal had to admit, it didn’t feel half bad.

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Lyssana 6

Chapter 6: Playing with Fire

The sun was hidden behind large flurries that swirled in the chill breeze. Despite the intruder from the previous day, Lyssana had left the balcony doors open. She would not allow her enemies to believe they had scared her, though in truth she was frightened; but it meant she awoke to a stunning view of the school as it sprawled over the floating island The Storm Sea flashed with its ominous light. It was a stunning sight-and a fitting one. So much mystery permeated Istima, undercurrents of deceit behind smiling faces. Only two  weeks of classes had passed and already she had seen this side of the Winter Court  and if the stories she heard about the other Courts were true, then they were far worse.

The mugging she had witnessed the night before stuck with her as she readied for her day. It had seemed as though three separate parties had all converged without notice, and for some reason she could not shake this feeling of curiosity that came over her. She would visit the Summer Court again when the week ended and look around. 

The peace of her morning vanished with the grating whispers of her classmates as she walked to class. If people had moved from her path before, they now jumped out of her way. Word of what happened with Neal must have reached everyone by now and she groaned internally. At least that little stunt should make some of the students reconsider attempting to drag her down in rank. 

As she approached her desk, an image formed on its surface that appeared to be a crudely drawn depiction of a human male genitalia. Everyone watched to see her reaction, and so she gave none. She took her seat, refusing to notice the new decoration and pulled out her notebook. A huff of disappointment came from the far side of the room and then she did let the smile pull the corner of her lips. From her peripheral she noted their faces, ingraining them in her memory for later retaliation.

Neal took the seat to her right and scoffed at the display on her desk with a snort. “Practicing your artwork?” The disappointment from the corner quickly turned into snickers and Neal turned around to glare at the two young men. “That’s pretty rude. If you want a lady to know you’re interested in her, you’re supposed to give a compliment, not display your inferior sex parts!” 

The entire class erupted into laughter and shock spread over the reddening faces of the two men. It was increasingly difficult to keep only the slight smile on her face, as she wanted nothing more than to punch Neal in the arm for interfering. 

Professor Hurst walked in then and the room faded once again to silence. His eyes fell to the art on her desk as he walked by, but his face remained blank as he continued to the front of the room. “Alright class, we have a lot to cover today, and human anatomy is not on the agenda.” A final round of stifled laughter made its way around the room before he began his lesson. “We’ve been discussing the different frequencies of each elemental ability and how they relate to each mage and their capacity to control their elements.” Lyssana flipped back through her notes to read along as he summarized, noting the elemental frequencies and the numerical system they had assigned to each. “Earth has the lowest frequency and fire the highest. The frequencies are directly related to how much baseline energy each element contains in its resting state. Earth by itself has very little energy, while the other elements are all high energy and more easily manipulated.” 

She turned to a blank page as he took up his chalk and began writing on the board. “Because Earth has the lowest base energy, we associate the numbers 1-3.9 with this element. 4-6.9 numerals are associated with water, 7-9.9 with air, and 10-12.9 with fire. Now, within these tiers, each elemental mage can fall anywhere within the range of their element. For example: Abby resonates at a frequency of 5.4 according to yesterday’s homework assignment. Her frequency is near the median of the water scale, which means her strength is water in solid form as this is the lowest energy, but she can also easily manipulate water in liquid form. Gaseous water is not something she will be able to manipulate easily, but if she could, then her resonance would be closer to 6.9. So you see, the first number in each category corresponds to the element in its lowest energy state, then the second number is the common rest state, and the 3rd is the most energetic state. Obviously each numeral can be accompanied by an infinite number of decimal places, but for the sake of simplicity each of you found your frequency to a whole number and a decimal.” 

He took a stack of papers and began handing back the assignments they had turned in and she stared at the  12.8 in her simple, bolded script. Neal proudly brandished his 3.5 with a crooked grin. “I can control all the earth things!” He wiggled his eyebrows and the black lines embedded in her desk wavered and lifted from the gross shape to twirl in the air and land in the shape of a flower on Abby’s desk. 

Professor Hurst murmured something about “defacing school property” as he handed the last paper to Abby and let the students discuss and compare their frequencies. 

A few minutes of muted chatter followed as the professor began writing notes on the front board for the second part of class, and a few people continued to snicker at the two boys who now hid their faces in shame. Perhaps Neal calling them out had been better revenge than Lyssana could have planned. 

Neal looked over his shoulder then and smirked. “Should have known you were a high frequency elementalist, not many people can heat metal the way you did the other day. So what else can you do besides throw people into walls?” The chuckle that followed his words let her know he wasn’t angry with her over their altercation yesterday, but the glare on Abby’s face said Lyssana was far from forgiven. Then again, Lyssana did not need forgiveness. Neal had known he was pushing her and the consequences of his actions did not leave her at fault. She would not apologize. 

“Pest control was always a specialty of mine.” A smirk took over the corner of her lips as she spoke and a grin broke across his face.

“I knew you had a sense of humor hiding under that tough girl facade!” Robust laughter erupted from him and the professor turned back to the class to signal for silence. 

“It’s not a facade…” Abby growled, her glare turning into a glower as Hurst turned to her and motioned again for silence. 

“Alright class, now that you all know your frequency proficiency, we can move on to bigger concepts. There are some elemental mages who can only manipulate a single frequency within an element – like a hydromancer who can only work with ice – and those that can work with two elements to concentrate on a more specific ability. Take Osteomancy for example: the use of water and earth are both required for mending bones, so many of those specific double elementalists are your healers.”

A curly haired woman at the back of the class raised her hand before asking “How does a mage know if they can be proficient in more than one element?” 

“Some people can go their entire lives not knowing they have a secondary proficiency, but our classes next week will help you all discover if you’re able to work with multiple elements. Some of you may have been tested by a Winter Court Admissions Officer upon your arrival at Istima, in which you were given an array of items to try and manipulate. Our class next week will be a lot like that, but it will be more closely tailored to specific tasks.” 

Lyssana spent the rest of class copying the notes on the board, knowing that the next class was going to be hands on and experimental, but she would have two days from the weekend to prepare. The Sakaarans had mages that were proficient in specific elemental abilities – usually the healers – but Lyssana had not paid much attention to these skills. Her focus had always been on the raw power that was fire. It would be interesting to learn of these more detailed, lesser abilities. 

As the students filed out, Neal shimmied beside her – with Abby on his other side – and grinned. “So do you have any plans for your rest days? Because we should all hang out and get to know each other better!” 

“I have to study for my advanced pyromancy class this weekend.” Her voice was blunt, though she tried to make it sound light and friendly. Abby snorted. 

“You have to study for the next two days? Entirely? With no food or anything? Lyssana it’s only the second week of school…”

It was her turn to shoot a glare at him and Abby added a jab with her elbow. For some reason that irked Lyssana and her eyes narrowed. “You’re right, food is important. We should all get together and eat at my place and just relax for a bit.” Her smile was plastered in a mockery of open friendliness, but Neal jumped at her offer. 

“That would be amazing! Abby and I will be there tomorrow evening! I’ll bring something sweet to eat after dinner.” He caught the sharp jab directed toward his stomach and smiled at Abby with pleading eyes. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, Abs, and we can finally see more into Lyssana’s mysterious life.” He wiggled his eyebrows.

“Okay, tomorrow evening works for me and I’ll bring refreshments.” Abby sounded dejected, but Neal gave her a charming smile and she brightened up. 

Lyssana muttered under her breath, but it would be good for the Corpegara to interact with more people, so at least there was a silver lining. “Very well. My rooms are on the top floor of the West Tower, you can’t miss them.” 

“Wait…rooms? As in more than one?”

“I thought the West Tower was reserved for higher level…rich… students?” 

Their voices spoke over each other and Lyssana hid an irritated smirk at their confusion. “See you both tomorrow.” She veered to the side of the courtyard, leaving them standing dumbfounded in the walkway as the crowd parted around in irritation. 

She entered her next class with a hint of apprehension, worrying over her conversation with Cavit the day prior. He made eye contact and gave her a small smile as she entered, but she gave him only a slight nod in return before taking her seat near the back of the room. Professor Lena entered shortly after and the room fell silent. 

Lena stopped at the front of the class and produced a flame in her palm about the size of a hand span. She handed it to the first student before speaking. “Today we will practice restraint and balance. Pass the flame to the student next to you, but be sure the fire does not waiver of change in size. The first student to let the flame waiver will be dismissed from today’s class.” 

Shocked murmurs were quickly hushed as concentration took over each student who accepted the flame from their peer. The fire passed across the front row of the classroom without a flicker, but the student accepting it on the second row had shaking hands and nearly let the flame dissipate before he caught it. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead and he all but threw the flame at his classmate. The professor shook her head and he let out a dejected sigh before collecting his things and walking out the door. 

Three more students in the next two rows failed to pass the test, but they were not required to leave as the first one had. Instead they were asked to stand at the front of the classroom and observe the students who passed it along correctly. The row Lyssana sat in came next and she watched as the flame came closer. She observed the heat at which it burned and her mind focused on the shape of the flame. As it was handed to her she seamlessly slipped a filament of her own energy into the fire as it touched her hand.. She felt her mind become one with the flame as she turned to pass it along to the woman beside her. As soon as she felt the additional energy from the other woman, she let hers go. It flickered as soon as it hit the other woman’s hand and she cursed under her breath, throwing a glare at Lyssana as though to blame her. Professor Lena tapped the students shoulder and she moved to the front of the room after passing the fire to the final row behind them. 

One more student faltered, making a total of six students that failed of the eighteen that attended the class. The professor  pursed her lips as she eyed the students at the front of the room and her eyes squinted. “Now that you’ve had a chance to observe the successful students, I’ll give you five another chance to pass the flame without letting it flicker.” She produced a yellow flame, hotter and larger than the last and Lyssana felt a twang of sympathy for the students. 

The first one to pass the flame let it cool as she took it, causing the color to darken and a slight flicker at the top betrayed her. The second was able to grow the flame again and bring it to stillness as he passed and was allowed his seat in the class again. The woman that sat beside Lyssana failed again to pass the flame correctly, but the woman she passed it to was able to hold it together. Only two of the five successfully passed their second chance and were allowed to sit again. 

“You three need to leave. I’ll see you next week once you’ve decided to put effort into this class.” Her voice was cool, but Lyssana caught a look of regret as the students filed out. “The purpose of this class is to hone your skills as a pyromancer. This means you need to have a pre-existing degree of control before you can expand your talents. You should be practicing daily on these basic exercises in order to succeed. Istima is not for the faint of heart or the weak, so you need to be stronger. Now, pair up.” Her voice grew harder with the last command and Lyssana found herself looking toward Cavit before she had time to realize what she was doing. He rose from his chair and took the empty seat beside her with a smile.

“Congratulations on passing that pop quiz,” he chuckled. “I’m surprised so many failed, but I suppose weeding out the weaker links is what Istima is all about.” 

“And to you,” she murmured, “your control is pristine and admirable.” 

“Such cold words from a lady of fury.” 

Her head whipped around to stare at him and her brows furrowed. “What do you mean?” She asked hesitantly. 

“Your name, did I translate incorrectly? Does it not mean ‘The Fury of the Sun?’”

A breath caught in her throat hearing the common tongue translation and she could only nod. So few knew the language of the Saakarans and she found herself wondering just who this Cavit truly was. “Forgive me,” she pulled her gaze away from his brown eyes and took a steadying breath. “Not many on the mainland are versed in the Saakaran language.” 

“Knowledge is power, and I like to know as much as I’m able. Not to brag, but I am versed in quite a few forgotten and sparse languages, as well as a few limited and forbidden subjects.” It sounded like an invitation for her questions, but she resisted and focused on Professor Lena as she began to speak.  

“Class, today you are going to be perfecting a skill that will help you with control. You and your  partner are going to take turns creating flames while the other mimics the flame you’ve created. You can have fun practicing with shapes, heat, color; make them as complex or simple as you like. Make note of features you have difficulty controlling so you know where you need to practice this weekend.” 

“I’ll begin.” Lyssana spoke as she held her palm toward Cavit, a brilliant blue flame swirling in the center. She could feel the heat of the flame on her face as she watched  him produce one of his own, the swirling of his fire mirroring hers. 

“Not bad, but now it’s my turn.” He grinned as a flaming silhouette of a horse pranced across his palms. The blue heat faded to match the orange of the figurine until a mirror image moved between her palms. A slow dance began with the horses as they circled each other, and Lyssana was sure to focus on the precise movements of each flame. 

“Complex, but how about this one?” Her eyes narrowed as she pushed the limits of her concentration. Three circling flames, each perfectly round and varying levels of heat to produce yellow, orange and red colors that she began to throw into the air and catch with her other hand. As Cavit created his own circles, she added three more in shades of blue. They must look like an odd pair, juggling an array of flames and staring in concentration. After a few more moments, she let them fade one by one until none remained. 

An echo of clapping surrounded them and she looked up to see every student staring. Cavit chuckled and gave a seated bow to the professor before turning back to Lyssana. “I’d say we certainly made an impression with the class. That’s not going to go well for you I imagine.” 

“What do you mean?” She asked sharply. 

“Well, I saw the way that girl glared at you when she was kicked out earlier, and with that stunt, I’d say you have a target on your back. Istima isn’t a good place to single yourself out.” 

“I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thank you. I am aware of the competition here at Istima and I am  fully prepared to do whatever I must to succeed.” 

“Perfect. That’s the attitude befitting the sun’s fury. You’ll need that.” He hesitated, stopping with his mouth open before abruptly shutting it and beginning to form a new flame in his hand. 

“If you’ve something else to say, speak it.” 

Again there was hesitation and the fire lingered in his hands. “If you really mean what you said about doing anything to survive here, I have something that may help.” His voice dropped significantly, and he watched the closer students from the corner of his eyes. “It’s not exactly on Istima’s curriculum, so it needs to be kept quiet, but I could use your help.”

She couldn’t stop the rising curiosity that flooded through her and she too made her voice quiet. “How much does this helpful thing differ from the curriculum?”

“A lot. As in it may or may not actually be forbidden…” 

She thought for a moment as she mimicked the scene of a tiny forest that came to life in his palms. Knowledge was power, he had said so himself, and if Cavit had access to secret knowledge that could help them both advance, then Lyssana needed to take advantage of it. She had been sent here to succeed, no matter the cost. “We can speak more about this tomorrow morning if you’d like? I know a place where words can fly freely with no fear of another listening.” 

He nodded and let the fire fade. “I can meet you behind the Courthouse at sunrise.” 

She opened her mouth to protest that there was no need to meet in plain sight, but the professor began to speak. 

“Very good class. I like the control I’m seeing from everyone, but most of you have significant room for improvement. Be sure to practice because there will be more competitive classes in the future.” 

They were dismissed shortly after, professor Lena saving their lesson for the new week since so many more had failed than she expected. It was a nice change of pace, getting out of class early and having more free time in her evening, and she planned a warm soak to ease the stress from the week. 

“Would you like to get dinner with me?” She had been so excited for the early release that she forgot Cavit was still beside her. He had gathered his things and was instantly keeping pace with her in the hallway as they spoke. 

“I’d rather avoid the dining hall, but I thank you for your offer.” 

“I know of a good tavern close by if you’d prefer?” 

She sighed before nodding and allowing him to lead the way. “I don’t drink alcohol, so I hope this tavern isn’t know only for their inhibiting concoctions.” She meant it as a joke, but clearly her humor was misread because Cavit frowned. 

“Why don’t you drink? Isn’t that what all of us upper class citizens do to handle the stress of heightened performance?”

It was her turn to frown at him. Was he joking in response to her? It was difficult to read this man. “I prefer meditation to handle my stress.” And throwing fire at the wall, but he didn’t need to know about that. “Purposefully impairing oneself is only asking for trouble. Especially here, where crime seems to go unpunished more often than not.” 

Cavit let out a snort and she whipped her head around to look at him. “You think anyone would dare attack us? We are two powerful fire mages that could handle anything thrown at us, impaired or not.” 

“That’s presumptuous.” She muttered. Under normal circumstances, he was likely correct, but she had people watching her every move with motives she was unsure of. Being caught intoxicated would likely not go well. “Worried about that target on your back?” He smirked over his shoulder at her and she shot him a confused look. “I understand your hesitation and respect your choices, I just don’t think you give yourself enough credit. You’re a powerful mage and you should own it.” 

She mulled over his words as they walked out of the pyromancer building of the court, two eternal flames beckoning students at the entryway. She made a mental note to study that, as she had half heartedly done every time the fires came across her path. “Perhaps another time when I do not have plans the following morning.” He seemed to accept this as a compromise and bid her goodnight. She sighed in relief, feeling like she had dodged a regrettable social interaction.

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Cal 6

The walk back to Sable & Burr’s wasn’t entirely unpleasant. A lack of shoes was something Cal had grown used to during her childhood, though she had to admit it had been some time since she’d last felt the touch of stone under her feet. She left the warm night air of the Summer Court and stepped through the gate into the cold fog that enveloped the rest of the city.

Despite the chill, Cal liked the feeling of walking down the damp streets. The smooth stone bricks of the courts gave way to rough cobblestone as she made her way back home. Soon, the sound of rushing water and creaking waterwheels filled her ears as she entered the district known as The Falls.

Even this late into the night, the sound of hammers on anvils could be heard from the dozens of workshops that lined the canals. Cal saw a cobbler’s shop and thought about buying a new pair of shoes, but her coin purse was lighter than she’d have liked already. She pressed on, crossing a wooden bridge, and entered a bustling night market. Merchants sold fruit, candied nuts, and exotic meats under the unwavering light of enchanted lamps.

If this were any other city, this would’ve been a great opportunity for her to pickpocket. But the dram bars people carried were harder to get than coins would’ve been. Not to mention that most of them had magical protections against such casual thievery. Still, by the time she exited out of the other side, Cal had managed to snag an apple, a wedge of cheese, and a wineskin. She ate as she walked, crossing yet another bridge and turned onto Washpenny Lane.

She pulled open the door to Sable & Burr’s, causing a little bell to jangle.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” Sable said without looking up from his book.

“I live here,” Cal said.

“Yes,” Burr said, appearing from behind her and smiling. “But I’m afraid we have a strict policy about shirts and shoes.”

“Oh, good heavens, yes, where are your boots?” Sable said.

Cal shrugged. “They were my homework.”

“You’ve lost me entirely, my dear.”

“No matter,” Burr cut in. “We have a job for you.” He crossed over to the counter, reached behind, and pulled out a small cloth bundle. He tossed it to Cal. “Go ahead and open it up.”

Cal untied the drawstring and unwrapped a bottle full of brown powder. “What is this?” She asked.

“More importantly, what is it not?” Sable said. “To answer, it is not crushed Rudavian beetlewood, an ingredient both exceedingly rare and expensive.”

Cal uncorked the bottle and waved it in front of her nose. “Is that… cinnamon?”

“Yes. Almost identical in color and texture. Which is why we would like for you to switch it with the real beetlewood powder.”

“Why not simply have me steal the real stuff? Why go to the extra effort of making a fake?”

“Because in our business, reputation is everything,” Burr said. “When our competitor sells the fake, it won’t work, and buyers will be less likely to go to them instead of us in the future. Make sense?”

“Fair enough,” Cal said, rewrapping the bottle and stuffing it into her satchel. “Where do I need to go?”

“There’s a shop not far from here. We can provide a map.”

“And what if the shop is guarded?” Cal asked. “Or trapped?”

“Well then I suppose it’s a good thing Sable and I hired a thief with knowledge in those subjects,” Burr said with a smile.

It didn’t take long to find her target. It would’ve taken perhaps only twenty minutes using the roads, but Cal managed to cut that time in half by sticking to the rooftops. She stepped out onto the balcony outside her room and worked her way up onto the roof. Almost all the buildings in The Falls were built next to one another, making traveling across their tiled roofs easy as long as you didn’t lose your footing.

Catching her breath, Cal knelt down and sized up her target. It was an unassuming shop, so narrow that it looked as though it had been built in an alley between the two larger stores that surrounded it. Still, Cal had learned not to judge so quickly in Istima.

No light came from within the store, and Cal doubted that there was enough space for the owner to live there full time. She crossed over and used a drainpipe to slide down close to the second story window. There, upon the sill, she spotted small runes carved into the wood.

She cursed. What did the people in this stupid city have against normal, easy-to-pick, metal locks? Everything here had to be magic. As she looked over the runes, she surprised herself by recognizing at least half of them. It looked like the runes were written across the frame so that when the window was lifted… something would happen. That was as far as her knowledge went.

She shifted her weight and pulled out her knife. If what she knew was correct, than she could change some of the runes to bypass the trap. She carved out messy lines in the wood, chipping out several key runes. When she was finished, larges swathes of writing had been ruined, severing whatever link that had existed.

Cal tested the window and found that it wasn’t even locked. She opened it up and slipped inside. The building was even smaller-looking inside. The walls couldn’t have been more than eight feet apart, and musty, wooden crates that had been piled haphazardly up to the ceiling. The only path was a claustrophobic gap in the crates that Cal could barely squeeze through.

On the other side, the room opened up into a small sitting area. Two cracked, leather chairs flanked a wooden end table, atop of which was a tea set. Cal picked up one of the cups and looked it over. Despite the tarnish, it was real silver. She didn’t know if silver was valuable in Istima like it was everywhere else, but it was worth a shot. She stuffed the cups and the platter into her bag and pulled out the wrapped jar of cinnamon, and descended the ladder down to the ground floor.

She stepped off the ladder and looked around. At the far end of the room was the locked front door. Both walls were lined with small shelves filled with jars full of ingredients. She read the labels on the jars, searching for the one she was supposed to replace, but found nothing.

Cal frowned. Sable had said the beetlewood was rare. Perhaps rare enough to keep somewhere safe? She went behind the counter and felt around in the dark. Eventually, her hand settled on a small bottle. She pulled it out and saw that it was filled with fine, brown powder. This had to be it. She swapped the jars, carefully wrapping the real one back up and sticking it in her satchel. Somehow, Sable and Burr had managed to procure a bottle and label for their fake that matched the real one. Cal smirked. The two seemed rather silly, but clearly they knew what they were doing.

When she was done, she looked back to the ladder and stopped. She’d done the job, but who would notice if she picked up some stuff for herself? She turned back and searched. Most shops like this had some sort of cash box or—

A safe! She spotted the small, metal box sitting on a low shelf behind the counter. She knelt in front of it and reached for her lockpicks. But the safe had no keyhole. It didn’t have a handle either. As far as she could tell, it didn’t even have any runes. If it was magic, it had some sort of key that she didn’t understand.

Cal sighed, put away her tools, and went back up the ladder. Immediately, she smelled smoke. She sniffed the air. It smelled like burning wood. She looked over to the window and saw that the frame was smoldering.

“Shit!” She hissed, shimmying back through the path in the crates. The runes on the sill, the ones she hadn’t cut out, were burning like coals. It was still getting energy from somewhere. She pulled her knife back out and jammed it into the wood. Right before she began to break more of the runes, she stopped. Some part of her told her to stop and think.

Though she didn’t recognize the runes, Cal knew that it was still getting power from somewhere. Power that was currently leaking out and burning the wood. But if she wasn’t careful, if she broke the wrong runes, the energy would be released all in one burst.

In an explosion.

Cal slowly pulled her knife back, her thoughts raced. Working quickly, she carved new runes. A new anchor, a new link—she grabbed a wooden plank from one of the crates and scratched in  another anchor, an energy conversion system, and an output. If she was right, it would transfer energy into light. She then carved the second link and for a second, the room was flooded with a bright flash of light, then it faded. Cal blinked away the spots in her vision and looked back to the window sill. The runes were no longer glowing, their energy expended.

Cal sighed, dropping the plank of wood. She really wished she’d gone into one of the other schools, even if she wasn’t good at making people levitate like Alendra, or commanding water like a hydromancer, at least there was less chance of blowing herself up if she made a typo.

But she found a silver lining when she looked down at the crate she’d pulled the plank of wood from. The thin moonlight from the window was enough for her to see the shine of leather coming from within. She reached in and pulled out a set of boots. When she held them up to her bare feet, they looked too large, but it was better than nothing. She pulled them on, stepped through the window, and disappeared into the night.

“Do you have it?”

“Hello to you too, Sable,” Cal said as she entered the room.

“Yes. Good evening, dear,” Burr said. “Now, do you have it?”

“Did you doubt me?” Cal opened her bag, pulled out the jar, and handed it to Sable. The man opened it and held it under his nose. He grimaced, as though he’d tasted lemon.

“Yeah, that’s certainly beetlewood.” He coughed, handing the container to Burr, who gave it a sniff for himself before making a similar face.

“Goodness me, why is it that the more powerful the ingredient, the worse the smell?” He looked at Cal. “You’re a student, do you know?”

“Don’t look at me,” Cal said, holding up her hands. “I just started.”

“Well something tells me you’d go far if you made a potion of garlic, skunk juice, and Sable’s cooking.” He smiled. “In any event, you’ve done well.” He pulled out a small slice of gold an inch and a half long. “Here is your payment, 25 drams—minus rent, of course.”

“Of course.” Cal took the strip and bit it lightly, feeling the familiar give of pure gold. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

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Lyssana 5

Chapter 5: The Shadows Revealed 

A low growl pulled Lyssana from a dreamless slumber and she rose cautiously from the bed, instantly alert as her hand felt the  knife on the bed stand. A second growl echoed and she slid the bedroom door open quietly. Both Corpegara were outside the bedroom door facing the balcony with wings spread wide and low. The sheer curtains that were usually tied up now flowed in the snowy breeze. Beyond them the darkness shifted. Lyssana dare not risk throwing her knife lest she miss the target and fly into the night, so a flame as tall as her person was conjured to life from each of the torches beside where the darkness had moved. The figure did not flinch as the darkness under their hood was suddenly illuminated. 

Air fled her lungs as she caught sight of cracked gray skin and brilliant orange eyes before her flames were extinguished. She would know the face of a Saakaran anywhere. Were they the true spies following her all over the city? Did that mean her family wasn’t watching at all? Questions continued to manifest as she slowly approached the fluttering curtains. The torches along the rail came to life once more, casting the floor in a brilliant orange light. 

The words scrawled in the Saakaran Runes along the floor stopped her heart cold and she sank to her knees in terror. 

 “Are you worthy?”

She hadn’t slept at all the rest of that night, instead staying up to scrub the ashen words from the marble floor. Worthiness. That had been what the chieftain of her tribe demanded as payment for their brutal hospitality. She had thought they had released their hold on her when she left the island, but the realization that one prison had only been exchanged for another stole the breath from her lungs. 

No. She would be strong. She was trained from childhood to handle any situation thrown at her. She was the first outsider to be recognized by the tribe as a Saakaran and she had earned every rune carved down her spine, and every drop of blood that had resulted. With a final sigh she heaved herself from the cold stone floor and began to draw a plan. 

Sarpia and Halvard followed her pacing with their eyes, heads low and still on guard from the intruder. Every time she realized she was pacing, she forced her feet to stop, but the moment her mind continued the train of thought, so too did her feet. It was nearly time for her first class before she realized her morning had been overall unproductive in constructing a plan to figure out why she was being followed. Was this another test or were they making sure their efforts in teaching her were being brought to fruition? Very few at Istima knew she was raised on the Isles of Hrovati, but how high in the system were the ones who did know; and were they in contact with the Saakarans? Again she stopped her pacing with an irritated grunt and hurled a misshapen flame into the empty fireplace. It fizzled into black smoke that disappeared up the chimney, and she looked down to see one of the tasseled pillows beside her was now black with soot. She would be strong. 

The prior release of energy had helped to calm her enough as she walked to class, but she could still feel her emotions boiling below the surface of her skin. She was sure her eyes glowed specks of amber since any unsuspecting person who fell prey to their glance had hastily jumped out of her way. Still, she was trying to calm down, but the interrupted sleep did not help her mood any. 

“Good morning, princess!” Neal’s voice grated from somewhere behind her and she turned to him with a glare. “Woah! You look like you’ve been through hell. I’m guessing you didn’t sleep well?” The fact that he had immediately guessed her situation further boiled the energy in her veins, but she smoothed her face with an effort and turned back toward the classroom. 

“No, I did not sleep well, but I am fine. Thank you for asking.” A bit of snarkiness crept into her voice and she grimaced at the lack of control over her emotions. She needed to meditate.

 Or set something on fire. 

“I’m sorry to hear that.” His voice sounded genuine and she turned to him in startlement before catching herself and continuing forward. She could almost feel the smirk on his face at catching her off guard and she hated it. 

Neal was silent for the rest of the walk to class, staying just far enough behind her to take advantage of the parting crowd. Abby joined them right before they reached the classroom and started whispering quietly with the water mage. Lyssana only picked up a muffled “tired” and “cranky” from Neal before she stopped listening and took her seat. 

Professor Hurst walked in, sunny disposition clashing with her own stormy mood, and the class went quiet in anticipation. “Good morning, class! I assume you all had a productive day after we went our separate ways?” A sea of nodding heads and murmured “yes” echoed his words before silence fell once more. “Excellent, then I need you to gather into your groups and I’ll walk around as you show me what you’ve made.” The shuffling of metal chair legs grated against a rising headache and Lyssana grit her teeth into what she thought was a semblance of a smile. That is until the person sitting to her left gasped and quickly moved to a seat further away as their face drained of color. Lyssana cursed. This day could not end soon enough. 

The professor made his way around the room, listening to the students explain their projects. He seemed to be nodding with approval more often than not, which was a good sign, though he did grimace slightly at a wilted flower that was held up despairingly by a water and earth elemental pair. “We tried to grow it from a seed last night and this happened. We didn’t have time to do anything else. Sorry, professor.” The soft spoken boy looked like he was about to cry, but Professor Hurst gave him a fatherly grin. 

“Don’t fret, Dalain. This was only the first assignment, and I’m sure you’ve learned a valuable lesson about being sure to have enough energy to follow through with a task!” The boy nodded sheepishly and grinned before sighing with relief as the teacher turned his back to move on to the final table. “Now, what have we here?” Stopping before the group of three has leaned down to inspect the tangled mess of metal on the desk. 

“It’s a blacksmith puzzle.” Neal spoke confidently as he looked at the project proudly. He then lifted the mass from the table and handed it to Mister Hurst for a closer look. “Do you think you can solve it?” Lyssana raised a brow at him, but he pointedly ignored it, an arrogant grin plastered to his face. 

“Well, I do enjoy a good challenge!” The professor plucked the puzzle from Neal’s hand and stared at it for a moment before his hands began to deftly work the loops and rods. “The craftsmanship certainly is sturdy. If I didn’t know better, I would think this came right out of the forge.” He definitely had a glint in his eye as he moved the final loop, scattering the pieces over the desk. “Well done, students! Your use of the three elements certainly made a practical tool that could be sold for entertainment! I’m giving you each one point toward your ranking.” Silence. 

“Um, our what, Sir?” Abby asked quietly, voicing the thought that held all still. Still only silence answered. 

The professor turned to the class with a mischievous grin. “Come now, you’ve all been here for at least a full day and no one has explained the ranking to you?” Confusion and worry met his stare. “I bet at least one of you knows. Come! Speak!” His grin grew wider. 

Lyssana sighed. “Every student in the Winter Court is ranked against the other students. I’m unsure of the specifics, but I believe the ranking has to do with what level each student is in their classes. We are first level students since this is a first level class.” That was all she had managed to put together from the man in the library and the few pieces of conversation from her uncle. Evidently all knew about the ranks, but very few spoke of them. 

“You are very close, Lyssana, well done! However, I am afraid I must correct you on one point. Everyone in this class is a level one ranking with the exception of yourself. I do believe you have a second level class on your schedule, do you not?” He paused for her to nod, “That gives you a level two ranking, congratulations!” 

She could feel the eyes on her back, but refused to acknowledge them. 

“Now, Miss Terasu here is a special case that can lead to some ranking confusion. You see-” he turned to her and whispered “- you don’t mind if I use you as an example do you?” She didn’t really see any option to say no, so a curt nod was given as an answer. He winked and turned back to the class. “You see, each and every student within the Winter Court is given a class rank. Your exact ranking is known only to the Court Council Leaders, who continually watch and record your progress. Since you are all first level students – the ranking is given by class level and not year, as many students in our court cannot progress to the next level in a year.” 

Shocked gasps echoed from every desk save one, and Abby turned to look at her with furrowed brows. “Did you already know this?” Lyssana nodded and thought she saw hurt in the pale blue eyes, but their attention was drawn to the front of the room before she could speak again.

“Now now, no need to fret, students!” The professor’s hands went up in a soothing gesture as he tried to ease the distressed class. “You all knew when you signed up for orientation that Istima is the most prestigious university. There are some of you that will not excel to the degree that you hope. Only the most prestigious will make it to the top of the class. This does not mean those of you who do not make the top ranks are failures! Everyone learns at their own pace, and as you go up in level and rank, that pace will try and challenge every part of you to be the best that you can possibly be.” His words did nothing to sooth the air of the room, and panicked whispers erupted almost immediately. 

“What happens to those that don’t make the next level?” 

“How do we know our rank?” 

“I heard a student died last year trying to test for the next level!” 

Questions bombarded the man at the front of the room and he took a step back in surprise as they grew in volume. “Alright, quiet down! If you’ll let me finish the lesson, then all of your questions will be answered!” The students slowly quieted to silence and gave him their attention once more. “Okay, let’s start at the most basic level. New students arriving each year are given their rank based on their performance in orientation. That’s why the Head Master allows the students to do as they wish, so their talents and strengths can be showcased. Once all students have gone through orientation, the ranking begins. Now, this initial ranking within our court  is determined by the Lead Council, as is the final ranking at the end of each year. Throughout the year, the Court Council can add to your rank based on your class performance. They have eyes and ears everywhere, so your actions are always being watched and evaluated. You must achieve a certain ranking before you are allowed to advance to a higher level class. None but the Council knows what this rank you must achieve is, so you cannot know until you are awarded.”

“That means you’re on the Council!” Neal spoke up, eyes bright in the knowledge he had put the pieces together before anyone else. “You said you’d give us a point, but then you said only the Court Council can award points, so that puts you on the Council.” 

“Very clever, but I’m afraid I am not worthy enough to be on the Court Council.” 

“Wait, so if you’re not on the Council, then how are you allowed to give rank points?” The same meek boy as before, Dalain, spoke up with a hand partially raised. 

“Good question! Well, you’ll be surprised to know that each class also has a ranking system. Your position within the class rank is a factor in your overall rank, since it is reported to the Court Council. So, each class you attend has a rank, and each of those ranks contribute to your overall rank within the Hibernal Court. Due to the complexity of the ranking system, no student knows their exact rank at a given time, though the Council keeps a close watch on everyone. However, you will be given updates at certain checkpoints throughout the year! That way you generally know where you lie in the rankings. The checkpoints are never the same in consecutive years, and are assigned randomly to students. This means that Lyssana may receive her checkpoint two weeks ahead of Dalain here.” 

A girl in the back of the class raised her hand before speaking, “So if we don’t know our ranks but for a few times a year, then how are we supposed to know where we stand in regards to everyone else? The ultimate goal is to be the best, but how do we know exactly who it is that we are trying to beat?”

A smile curved slowly up Professor Hurst’s mouth, as though he had been waiting all class for this question. “Why, that’s easy. You all need to beat the best in your class, and then you can worry about the best outside of it. So you have to outrank Lyssana.”

All eyes swiveled to her and she openly glared at the professors back. A blade between the first and second vertical spinal bones would cause total paralysis, then he wouldn’t be teaching anyone… The thought caught her off guard and she let her eyes fall to the floor. The Saakaran ways were so ingrained in her being that she reverted to their savagery at the first slip of control. Anger flared at herself and when the gong sounded signaling the end of class, she threw herself out of her seat and flew past the other students. It was unfair of him to have put a target on her back like that! Every student in the class would now be trying to outdo her specifically. It was going to be like Hrovati all over again, and she would be ready. 

She was the first out the door, striding angrily down the crowded hallway. Professor Hurst had no right to call her out in front of everyone like that! She was beginning to resent the kind man. She distantly heard her name being called, but ignored the voice and continued forward, not wanting to cause a scene in front of so many people, who were already looking around for the person shouting. 

A hand suddenly grasped her arm and she reacted without thinking. A column of fire burst from her free hand, flinging the assailant against the opposite wall, along with whoever was unfortunate enough to not move quickly enough from her path. Her eyes widened to match the green eyes staring back, and she took a step forward, hand raised in hesitation. Neal just stared at her in shock as he stood up on shaking legs, rolling out the shoulders that were sure to have massive bruises by tonight. 

“You are not a very good people person, you know that?” 

Abby launched herself between them, then, hands outstretched as a barrier. “I think you’ve crossed a line here, Lyssana.”  The pyromancer opened her mouth to protest that it was reflex, but was cut off by the fiercest words to leave Abby’s mouth. “You should leave. Now.” 

She was surprised to see that people weren’t staring, but hurrying away with eyes diverted, practically running once they were out of sight. She sighed in irritation before stalking down the hall and out of the building. 

To say she was on edge was clearly an understatement. The appearance of the Saakarans had shaken her far more than she had admitted to herself, and so she decided to face them head on. Tonight she would seek them out and demand to know why they were watching her. Until then she would go home and try to sleep; a nap should help her head clear. 

She had not spoken a word since the incident this morning, instead opting for silence as she sat cross legged in the fireplace. Sleep had eluded her, and so she chose the second most soothing activity: meditation. Flames danced along her naked flesh as she channeled all anger and rage into the void of her mind. Runes carved into her skin flowed down her spine, helping her focus the energy she exerted. The Saakarans had thicker skin, and when they earned their runes, it became a part of them. Lyssana’s thinner skin had posed a problem when it came to her carving day, and so the runes were actually carved so deeply they cut into the bones of her back. Many years had passed and they were healed, but the focus they provided was vital in certain situations and helped her attune with outside energies. It also meant she was more volatile to those energies as they mixed with her own, and this new place held far too many different magics for her to filter out. Meditation would have to become a daily ritual if she was going to keep her calm. 

If the matriarchs had seen that display they would be ashamed, and she would have been forced to join the fishing boats on their next expedition. The thought of forcing a penance on herself had crossed her mind briefly, but there was no body of water large enough to isolate herself. A part of her was happy over this. Being water locked was as strenuous as an earth elemental being held in the air, arms and legs bound, or the water elementals being forced to the highest peak of the fiery mountain. The air elementals had it the hardest though, being buried in a box below ground for hours on end. The Saakarans were not a forgiving people. Their punishments were harsh, but their rewards were worth it. 

Being in a second level class in her first year proved that already, but now she would have to maintain and excel in her classes in order to rise in ranks. Now that she was feeling more rational, she realized that none in her first level class would be capable of outranking her without cheating, so she would need to be on guard at all times. Neal and Abby would likely not want anything more to do with her after the little display earlier, so she would have to hope that all future projects could be done by herself. A deep breath inhaled as she allowed her mind to clear, focusing only on the heat of the flames encompassing her. She would not fail. She would be worthy. 

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Kelim Hurst smiled deviously as he watched her back disappear around the corner, watching closely to be sure no one saw the facade drop from his face. These new students would know soon enough the hardships this school had to offer, and just how kind the staff was. Truthfully he had been annoyed at his initial orders to make life hard on the girl, for what could be so special about another spoiled brat?  Now he realized why. Her strength was unlike any first year he had seen, and she would need to be pushed in order to unlock her full potential. Perhaps even broken. The child was not malleable enough yet, but Istima was good at bending students to their will. That Lyssana Terasu would be ensnared so deeply in the traps being set around her that she would never be allowed to leave. Kelim delighted knowing he would be rewarded handsomely for his role in this, if all turned out as it was supposed to. Otherwise he might find himself with a slit throat before any could protest. The next class began to file into the classroom and he smiled happily, greeting the students with a renewed fervor, mind mulling greedily over the possibilities.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Time passed quickly in the nothingness of the flames, and when Lyssana opened her eyes, the sun had passed its zenith and cast long shadows from the balcony. She stood easily, her vitality renewed and energy centered. It would be time for her next class soon. The Corpegara had taken posts to either side of the marble pit and stirred when she stood, ears twitching as their heads swiveled to meet her gaze. “I’m feeling much better now, my friends.” Her smile was genuine as they came to her, purring and chirping for attention. Halvard nuzzled her outstretched hand and a quiet laugh escaped her lips as she eagerly obliged, and the petting frenzy began. 

Her second class began without incident, and she threw all her attention to the continued lesson on energy frequencies. It was more mathematics than she had ever done in her life and she struggled to keep up. The concepts they had learned in the previous class were now all assigned numerical values, making the calculations for each frequency arduous and complex. The simplified version of the scale was an assigned number between 1 and 20, 1 being the hardest known rocks and minerals, and 20 being the hottest magma deep under the earth. Knowing these numerical assignments would help further in the class once the students were ready to learn which frequencies they most closely resonated, and they would eventually be able to fine tune their own energy reserves to focus on said frequency and be more efficient with their use of magic. It was quite fascinating, though she looked forward to moving away from the arithmetics and learning more of the elemental use as a whole. 

Her professor was just as kind and hospitable as the first few classes and Lyssana thought she would quite enjoy learning from the woman, who directed them to simply call her Educator Rosa. She was a short woman; her blond hair fell freely around her shoulders as she taught, and though her tone was always kind and patient, there was something about her that made Lyssana feel like she could be sharp when she needed to be. Lyssana was honestly just happy to be another face in the crowd and not singled out. She was sure her ranking in this class was the lowest, so hopefully none of the other students saw her as a threat. 

The class passed quickly, and since the students were unable to make their introductions their first time, Educator Rosa ended the class early so everyone could make their announcements. The teacher started with herself and instructed all to follow her lead. “My name is Rosa and I actually grew up here at Istima. My mother was an Educator and I grew up roaming these halls and dreaming of being where I am today. Teaching the next class of pyromancers is what I love to do, so I promise to give each and every one of you every opportunity to grow and learn and be the best you that you can be.” She ended with a smile as she gave them a small bow and then gestured to the student sitting closest to the front. 

A curly haired woman a little older than Lyssana stood up and faced the class, her hands wringing nervously in front of her as she spoke. “Hello everyone, I’m Kenali, I uh, moved around a lot growing up and got into Istima on my second round of orientation. This is my third year here and though it’s been a difficult journey, I wouldn’t trade it for the world!” Kenali’s reservoir stood somewhere on even ground with Abby, though it was difficult to make a comparison without seeing what her elemental ability was. 

The class continued to introduce themselves in order, each student claiming that Istima was their dream, or that they would fight to be the best. It was a lot of what Lyssana had heard in her other class, though she had to remind herself that these students were far more advanced than the beginner class she was in that morning. 

The strongest student stood then, a tall man with darker skin and pale brown eyes. “Hi all, I’m Cavit, and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He avoided eye contact with everyone, staring just above their heads as he spoke. “I was actually adopted at a young age, so I’m not sure where I was born, but my family raised me for the purpose of coming to Istima, so it’s always been my life goal. Now that I’m here, I quite enjoy it, though I do miss my family quite a lot.” He seemed to realize he had been rambling and sat down as a red tint crept up his cheeks. 

Then it was her turn and she stood with all the confidence her afternoon had granted. “My name is Lyssana Terasu. I also am not sure where I was born, but I was raised by-” she hesitated a moment, searching for an explanation that would appease the curiosity of the class without giving anything away, “close family west of the Mountains of Angewine. I had heard stories of Istima growing up, but didn’t really know if I would fit in here, but I’m going to do my best to succeed.” It was brief and a lie. She had known her fate since young adulthood, but these people didn’t need to know that, and making herself seem uncertain would perhaps make her seem less of a threat. 

“Very good, thank you class. I look forward to the progression of the year and I hope we can all get to know each other better. Istima is a very good place to have friends to help you along the path.” Rosa’s tone changed just slightly then and Lyssana looked up to see the Educator looking directly at her, just long enough for a single moment of eye contact before turning to the other students. Lyssana almost wondered if she had imagined the underlying warning that seemed to be hidden in those words. The gong sounded and the students began to file out. 

Lyssana was just about to veer off down the hall when a throat cleared awkwardly behind her. She turned to see Cavit, arm slightly extended in greeting. “I’m Cavit, but you already know that from a few minutes ago.” She looked at his hand but did not accept. He pulled in back quickly and stuck it behind his back. “Um, sorry, I’m not good at making friends. Not that you’re a friend, but that uh-” He stopped, ears burning as he fumbled over his words. She felt confused. How could the most powerful student in the class have such an uncomfortable demeanor? “Educator Rosa said Istima is a place where it’s a good idea to have friends and I know this is your first year so I thought I’d offer to be an acquaintance. We are probably going to need partners in this class at some point and you’re the closest in strength to me, so I figured I’d properly introduce myself, if you’d be so inclined to accept, Miss Terasu?” His last words were more confident and she wondered if the awkwardness was an act. Could she trust him? Absolutely not, she couldn’t trust anyone, but having a partner would probably be more beneficial than not. 

“Lyssana. You can call me Lyssana.” His shoulders relaxed at her words and he offered a small smile holding out his hand once more and she hesitantly accepted it with a small shake. “Do not think I will be easy to take advantage of because I am a first year student.” She gave the warning in a pleasant tone and was satisfied to see him blink before answering. 

“I wouldn’t think of it. It takes guts to be allowed into a higher level class, and I don’t think you’re someone I’d like to have on my bad side.” 

“Then I think we will get along nicely.” Her tone dropped slightly as she offered a small smile and he chuckled quietly. 

“I’m not making a mistake by associating myself with you, am I? Because I don’t need a death count on my hands if I’m going to succeed!” He laughed aloud and it was a boisterous sound. Had he just made a joke? It was hard to say, but she decided to play along. 

“A death only counts if you’re caught.” Her tone lightened a little and she offered him a more genuine smile. “I suppose only time will tell if either of us has made a mistake.” 

“I suppose you are right. I will bid you a good evening, and I’ll see you in class tomorrow.” And with that he gave a small bow, turned on his heel and strode down the hall, back straight and head high. No, she did not believe that was a man she would trifle with.

Her evening was free since neither class had given assignments other than some reading and the Corpegara were more than happy to fly around the town as she walked along the rooftops. It was an easy walk as the roofs were mostly flat in this part of the market and close enough together that she could jump from one to the next with ease. It was good to be moving her body again, and the silk trousers and soft leather boots she had changed into were perfect for the job, plus it kept her out of the street and from being seen. 

She wandered long into the dying sun, the playful chirps reaching her ears as she occasionally checked on Halvard and Sarpia. The differences in the courts were distinct from her view and as the left one and entered the next, the roofs grew more sloped. They were not a problem for her deft feet, she was used to running laps around the island barefoot. Perhaps this would be her new exercise routine. More importantly than her footing, the changing of seasons as she passed through invisible lines awed her. How it could be always snowy in her court and always warm in the Summer Court she did not know, but it was a refreshing change, so she slowed her pace. 

Movement on the street below caught her eye and she noticed a spindly creature, surely one of the Len sneaking along as though stalking. She stopped and watched to see what they were after when she saw a robed figure in the alley ahead. Another in silk emerged and they seemed to be arguing before the robed one handed the silken clad figure a letter, in which they suddenly seemed friends. Her eyes narrowed as the Len began to stalk after the silk figure, and out of curiosity, so too did she. Long did she follow the shadowed figures, almost losing interest before they seemed to slow to a stop once more. 

Lyssana landed softly on a roof directly over the empty alley where the boy – she could see he was male now – stepped into the space with a cocky grin. A smaller figure crept into the ally behind the boy then, feet silent as the male did not turn from what held his attention. Suddenly the woman – it was a woman she thought – threw her hands in front of the silk boy’s face and a flash of brilliant light erupted followed by a scream. Lyssana raised her brows but made no move to help. This was not her fight. Then the woman was gone as quickly as she had come. It was quite impressive, really. 

The Len followed and tried to help the boy to his feet. How kind this one seemed, for she had also seen him give coins to the beggar. But the boy on the ground yelled something and the Len kicked his legs out from under him and stole the bag on his shoulder. She couldn’t help but stifle a laugh. Never insult a Len, even a child knew that. She was growing increasingly happy that this was not her court, if a chance encounter showed her this much cutthroat savagery, though perhaps she could use some of these people as friends to watch her back. More likely than not they would put a knife in it, but it was an idea to mull over. 

The moon had just begun its ascent when she closed the door to her rooms. She tossed the Corpegara some food and drew water for a bath. It was time to take advantage of this beautiful tub, and as she soaked, she read through the books of her second level class and started to understand the frequency algorithms, though her knowledge was faint at best. She would need to do better in order to pass this class. Perhaps Cavit could actually help her? He would be seeking something in return though, and she was unsure what she was prepared to give in exchange. Abby and Neal were clearly in it for her knowledge and power, if they were still on speaking terms, but this Cavit was stronger, so what did he have to gain? With a sign she closed the books and drained the tub, closing the bedroom doors as she crawled into bed. Hopefully tomorrow would bring a better day. All she could do was hope. 

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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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Cal 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” Cal said.

“Wonderful! Sable, if you would?”

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

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

“Got lucky.”

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

“What do most thieves come to find?”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?”

“Cal.”

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

“I’m fine. What’s going on exactly?”

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

“To do what?”

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

“But… why? This is a tailor’s shop.”

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

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

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

“I… need to know the details.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Or even legal,” Sable added.

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

“And where do I come into all this?”

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

“And why should I trust you?”

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

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

“That is?”

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

“Stay? We aren’t a boarding house.”

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

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

“Hang on a minute—“

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

“Fine,” Cal said, crossing her arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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