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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Lyssana 3

Chapter 3: Dreams and Memories

Smoke churned all round her, the stinging pain bringing tears to her eyes. There was no relief. The mountain was so unkind. Her child-mind did not comprehend why this was happening. Why had she been sent to an island of fire? There was only pain and sorrow in her heart as she looked on through the flames, knowing her new guardians would not let her out until she had paid her time. Lacuna wept, tears streaming clean rivulets into the soot that covered her face. 

“Father! Mother! Please help me!” Her cries were swallowed by the sounds of lava surging beneath her perch on the cliffs edge, heat rushing to meet her tender face. She curled tightly in on herself, trying to be as small as possible. Lacuna could feel the strands of her hair singing in the heat, and it burned as it whipped around her huddled frame. Hours went by; until she had no more tears to cry and until her voice ran away from all the strain. Then she hid her face in her knees, begging everyone she had ever met for it to be over. Even the images of her sister smiling down at her brought no more strength. She had given it all to the angry fire below. 

She did not know how long she silently wept, but when her arms grew tired from fatigue, and she let her face rest against the side of the cliff; she wished for death. She hoped and prayed for death, angry that she did not have the energy to pull herself over the edge into the river of lava below. It was all she could do to simply exist. Closing her eyes, she felt herself drift away. 

Lyssana woke to the sunlight warming her face as she blinked the dream away. Lacuna. She had been called that in another life. It meant “The one with a missing piece,” or so she had been told. How cruel to name a child so. A cold feeling of anguish curled tightly in her chest, but she took a shaky intake of air and let it melt away. It had been ten years gone since the last dream of her childhood invaded her sleep, and it disturbed her that these memories should surface now. She allowed herself a moment to breath before rolling out of bed, opened the doors to her living space, and froze. The food she had bought the previous day covered the marble floor, smears of light pink pulp sitting on top of the counters. Her eyes narrowed as they settled on the two heads that popped out of the basket and tilted in opposite directions at her arrival. It wasn’t anger that stilled her feet, only shock at the sight. 

She quickly closed the doors once more and turned, pressing her back to the dark wood as she took a deep breath. She had read that the Corpegara were mischievous when bored, but her rooms were a mess! Why had she made such an impulsive decision to bring home two creatures she knew so little about? Another breath was inhaled to suppress the rising panic, and she flung the doors open and strode forward into the kitchen, hands on hips as she looked at the two stone creatures. They turned to her again, faces full of picturesque innocence. She stared them down for a moment before sighing and letting her hands fall to her sides in defeat. At this change in demeanor, both of the Corpgegara jumped out of the basket and sat on the counter in front of her, chirping excitedly, though as she continued to watch them, their ears fell back against their heads and they seemed to sink into themselves. “Are you both quite finished now?” They both looked back up at her, ears once again lifting to their full height, dark eyes meeting hers. “Very well. Let’s get you both cleaned up. Follow along now.” With that she turned on her heel and walked back toward the bedchamber, two stone figures in tow. 

Giving them a bath had begun quite easy, as Lyssana discovered they very much enjoyed staring at their distorted reflections on the copper bathtub as they splashed in the shallow water.  The shop keeper had claimed they could understand the common tongue, and so far they had seemed to comprehend everything she said, so she began chiding in a gentle tone. “If we are all to cohabitate peacefully, then we need to set some ground rules.” They both stopped splashing and turned to her, as though giving their complete attention. She smiled and began washing the smears of fruit off their intricately carved bodies with a soft cloth she had found stocked in the washroom pantry. “Firstly, no more destroying my food for your entertainment. It is very costly and a lot of work to walk into the market to buy. I will get you whatever toys or materials you require for entertainment so long as you promise not to destroy my things. Do we have a deal?” 

Both Corpegara turned to each other before looking back to Lyssana with a nod and a quiet chirp. Their wings unfurled as they sat in the copper basin, waiting patiently for her to continue cleaning them. “Excellent,” she mimicked their chirp with the pitch of her voice and a smile broke across her face as she moved the cloth down the length of their wings. They really were quite spectacular with their hard gray skin that seemed to be carved with tiny ruins. Some level of intellect was present because they really did understand her words and react accordingly. They were impressive creatures to say the least, and she very much looked forward to reading more about them in the evening. “Secondly, you both need to remain in my apartments when I am away. That means classes and whatever related errands I will be required to participate in. I can’t have you both making a mess of the city while I’m away.” She regarded them seriously, stopping her cleaning to drive the point across. They didn’t seem pleased with the notion, and the smaller one snorted its displeasure. “Will you agree to this rule if I promise to take you with me when I go on personal errands around the city? Is this a compromise you can agree on?” 

She would have to limit her time in the city with these two in tow if she was to avoid drawing attention to herself. Perhaps only shopping under the cover of night would help? Lyssana very much doubted it, but she didn’t know what else to do at this point. Two less enthusiastic hums  answered her and she nodded in satisfaction as she grabbed a towel from the wash stand. 

“Very good. We will most likely have to add to these rules as time goes on, but for now these are the only two I will put in place.” She paused, draining the tub and watching their curious stares as the water swirled down the drain. “I suppose you’ll both need names. What shall I call you?” Lyssana rose from her crouch, motioning the two figures to exit the tub so she could dry them off. They very much enjoyed the soft towel as she rubbed them down in turn. They had not responded to her question, though she had not expected them to suddenly speak names to her, so she tentatively spoke her next words, wishing not to offend. “Sarpia and Halvard?” They paused, turning to regard her with their dark, non blinking stare. After a few moments of silence, they chirped to each other and nodded, their wings rising and falling as they seemed to discuss her proposition. The smaller of the two circled her and sat at her feet, staring up expectantly as Lyssana lay a tentative hand on its head. “Sarpia?” The creature chirped and nodded, swinging its head to the other and chirping again. “…and Halvard?” At this, they both cooed and began prancing around the bathroom, as though proud they had names. “It’s settled then! Welcome home, Sarpia and Halvard.”

 She could not stop the grin from springing to her face again as she draped the cloth and towel over the tub to dry. Now to clean the rest of the mess and go buy more food. 

She remembered well the places she had visited the previous day and her trip to market started just the same, with the exception of the two Corpegara wheeling and circling overhead. For two creatures made of stone, they seemed to float effortlessly through the air, rising and falling with the birds that rode the wind. She could not feel that wind in the streets below her two companions, due to the unnatural weather patterns produced by the Courts. 

The chill of the Hibernal Court did not bother Lyssana, for the fiery magic in her veins kept her body at a comfortable warmth, though she supposed the large fireplace in her sitting room would keep anyone who did not have this ability cozy enough from the wintry air that surrounded her residence.

 The Corpegara didn’t seem to mind the cold either, which made taking care of them a little easier. Their distant calls were never far  as she continued her shopping. The Merchants were the same discriminatory scoundrels, though she had learned from her observations and wore a muted orange dress, still silk, though no embroidery. The prices were slightly less, higher than the people in linen or wool paid, but less exorbitant than before. Lyssana wished she could wear the linen dresses, but she knew people watched her, and her appearance must be kept for those spies of her family. For now, however, she had to get ready for the first days of class, and that meant cleaning her apartment and getting Halvard and Sarpia whatever they required to entertain themselves in the days to come. 

After two tragic mishaps that resulted in the purchase of nearly a dozen small shelled creatures, three large fruits that resembled trees, and a pair of femurs from what she only assumed was a goat; Lyssana finally trudged back into her apartment with two shapes waiting patiently on the deck. She happily gave them the bones they had dived a shopkeeper for and set about cleaning the mess they had made the previous night. 

The pulp from the carintas was easy to clean from the marble floor, and after an hour passed, her rooms were back to the pristine condition in which they had been given to her. With a sigh of relief, she walked back to the deck to find her two companions purring contently as they gnawed on the bones she had given them. They seemed to be slowly eating the entire thing, their stone teeth grinding the bones down as they ate. It was fascinating to watch, and she found herself mesmerized by their methodical chewing. The sun would be hitting its zenith soon, and she was appalled that so much of the day had already passed. With a final look at the Corpegara, she donned her hooded cloak and set out to find the materials she would need for her first classes. 

The main building of her court, where she had done her testing, was no less spectacular that her first visit, and she found herself observing the stained glass windows as she walked the corridors to the main lobby. The room that had been previously cleared now held rows of tables, each full of food and lined with the students of The Winter Court. She frowned for a moment, weighing the option of eating here or waiting until after she got back home to make food, but the hunger in her stomach made the decision for her. She grabbed a plate at the nearest table and began piling it with food. 

For the most part, everything was delicious. The exception was the orange pie she had tried that ended up tasting like cinnamon, but had an unsettling musty odor. She discovered later that it was made from a lichen that grew to the far north of Apaernore, making it a delicacy for the fine tuned palates of the Hibernal Students. She would leave the sweets to them, for she preferred the spicy dishes that were mostly untouched on the tabletop. The fermented spicy cabbage had been quite delectable, and she would need a recipe for that to make on her own time. 

As she filled a second plate, a figure took the empty seat beside her. His head was level with hers and covered in dark, shoulder length hair. Dark green eyes sparkled mischievously as he extended a hand in her direction. “Hi there, I’m Neal. I saw you sitting over here by yourself and figured you could use some company!” 

She stared at him, her only response a blink of annoyance at her disrupted peace. Dealing with the Corpegara the last few days had left her little time to cook for herself, so this space in the dining hall was already an unwanted necessity.

Neal dropped his hand, his smile faltering slightly. “That’s alright, you don’t have to talk, we can just eat quietly.” He looked smug as she turned back to her food, opting to ignore him completely. “Oh, yum, this pie is my favorite!” He openly laughed at the disgust that crossed her face, and quieted again at the anger that replaced it. 

“If I wanted company during my meal, I would have chosen a seat around people. You’re intruding upon my peace.” Her voice was strained, appetite suddenly gone as she looked at the food on her second plate. The tribe she was raised in taught her to let nothing go to waste, so she ate methodically, tasting nothing. 

“Maybe you just didn’t realize you wanted company. Or maybe you’re just too shy to ask for friends? Waiting for a dashing stranger to sweep you off your feet?” 

Hands closed tightly in a fist around her fork, and the room seemed to grow slightly warmer as she glanced at his smirk. This man was clearly getting enjoyment from trying her patience, but Lyssana Terasu didn’t have any patience. It wasn’t needed in her previous lifestyle; for elemental magic followed the emotional stereotypes well. Her keepers, the Saakarans of the Isle, were some of the greatest elemental magicians known to date, and they were not a patient people.

His voice was grating. Each word forcing her fists tighter around the steel. “You know, people are going to have to collaborate to get through these classes. I’ve heard they are pretty brutal. We could be partners, you and I, and-” His voice was cut short by a yelp of surprise as her fork landed next to his hand on the table. A sliver of smoke rose from the polished wood where it landed, and her fist unfurled from the handle. 

“Your hospitality is…endearing.” She sneered the word through a clenched jaw. “But I am not in the mood.” Her chair echoed as she pushed it backwards in the now silent room, and an amused laughter of “Fire mages are so touchy” followed her exit. 

She calmed considerably as she made her way to the library; all the pent up emotion now dispelled. A smile greeted the third year student behind the desk. “I’m here for my class schedule and supply list.” 

“Name, please.” 

“Lyssana Terasu.” The man behind the desk shuffled through stacks of folders, a bored expression on his face. He looked much older than any of the other students she had seen thus far, but the name plate he wore clearly stated a third year rank. 

“I got a late start.”

“Pardon?” 

“You’re wondering why I’m so old and only hold a third year rank, right?” She nodded, though any embarrassment she should have felt was nonexistent. “I had to work here at the library for a few years before I saved up enough to attend Istima, so I got a late start.” No remorse filled his voice. The words were spoken matter of factual, as though he were oblivious to the fact that many other students would be embarrassed to admit such a low social status. 

“There is nothing wrong with a delayed start.”

“There is also nothing wrong with being yourself, as many here would try to make you believe.” His words had a cryptic feel to them and he handed over a folder with her name scrawled across the front, face still bored. “So many people come here to be something else, but they are all still the same on the inside.” She accepted the paperwork and he turned away without another word, humming a seemingly familiar tune as he shuffled more papers around.

She shook the conversation from her mind as she wandered the shelves, selecting the books listed on her parchment. A few other students meandered through the meticulous library, though each was keen on their objective.

The first day of class was nauseating. Lyssana was so nervous, but she refused to let it show. With a straight back, she walked into the meticulous, well lit room.  A large window took up most of the back wall, and fifteen desks filled the room, five precis rows of three. The jars lining the left wall were all facing the same direction, labels written in a fancy, flowing script. The desks appeared unassigned, so she took the middle desk in the second row, sitting forward as other students filed in and filled the surrounding seats. A familiar face slid beside her with a cheeky grin. “Hey there, stranger!” She glanced at him, acknowledging his presence with a nod, her irritation masked with nervousness. Despite his overly pushy demeanor, it was nice to see a face she recognized. 

“Good morning, Neal.”

“You just aren’t a very cheery person are you? Or is it that you’re not a morning person, hm?” There was a hit of playfulness in his tone, but she would not take the bait, instead turning back to the front of the room as the professor walked in. His robes were immaculate, and a deep purple, which accented the auburn hair on his head.

“Good morning, students! Welcome to your first class here at Istima! My name is Professor Hurst, and you all find yourselves in Intro to Elementalism.” His cheery voice grated her nerves even more, and Neal chuckled at her lack of response with the class as they returned the salutations. 

The mood quickly turned to business as he began the lesson and Lyssana found herself fully engaged in his teachings as he explained the fundamentals of elemental magics. “Elementalism is so fascinating because it requires a family heritage in order for the correct energies to be felt and manipulated. This means elemental magic can’t be used by just anyone, you have to be born with the ability for it!” His enthusiasm was impalpable, and she wondered if every person in this forsaken court had lost their mind to a peppy disposition.

 “That means each and every one of you is special. Your magic is unique to yourself alone. Though the Winter Court is currently working on a project that will isolate the exact criteria that gives us this ability to manipulate specific energies, we are still a long way from discovering it. Perhaps one of you will discover those secrets in the future, with the help of your classes here at Istima.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Now, we all know that one’s ability in elemental magic varies between mages. Some have a very strong ability, and others can barely manage to move water in a bucket. Most elemental mages can only control one form of a single element, but there are a rare few who can have a disposition for another class of an element. This being said, it is possible that some of you can manipulate energies outside the element you normally control. However, it is important to remember that this talent is very rare and difficult to master.” Several confused glances from the other students confirmed Lyssana’s own thoughts as she listened to the lecture. 

Professor Hurst must have noticed her face in the crowd as he stopped to smile, as though he had expected this reaction. “Miss Terasu, I presume?” The room fell silent, all eyes turning to face her as the room fell deathly silent. She gave a slight nod. “Your display during orientation was quite impressive, I’ve been told.” He waited only a moment for a response, in which she gave none, though a few irritated faces glanced between her and the professor. “You are confused about my earlier statement, yes?About the ability to work with more than one elemental class?” It was clear he would not continue until he elicited a response, so she spoke.

“I am only curious what you define as separate elemental classes?” More hushed whispers followed her question and the professor gave a satisfied nod. She ignored the glances that fell on her, and the quiet questioning mummers about her testing. She wondered if she may have to accept that a disadvantage was in place here at Istima. If these professors spoke so openly about her in front of the students, she was sure to have a following against her. Professor Hurst had just put an open target on her, and already she could feel the hatred in a few of the glances. 

“A very good question,” he praised. “There are four primary elemental categories: fire, water, earth, and air. Within each of these categories are classes, or forms, of that element. For example, within the category of fire there are multiple forms this element can take. These are referred to as classes within the category.” He grabbed a piece of chalk and began drawing a circular diagram as the class scrambled for parchment to copy. “The secondary form of fire is magma, air has a class of wind, water has ice, and metal is a class of earth.” Each of the elemental categories were encased in a large circle with the classes written in a smaller circle directly attached to the class, forming a diagonal and horizontal line with the circles. 

“Now it’s very important;” he turned back to the class, locking eyes with each student before continuing. “This is only the most basic breakdown of the elemental classes. From here, the elements begin to work together to form the other classes. This is where elemental mages must work together in order to complete complex tasks. This is where your first assignment of the year comes into play. You must pair up with another elemental mage in order to complete a simple task. The task can be anything you decide, but it must be completed with magic alone, and it must require the elements of each mage in the pair. Any questions?” He gave little time for anyone else to speak before he started pairing students. Of course, with a class of fifteen, there was need for a group of three, and who better to end up with two partners but Lyssana? Neal seemed ecstatic to be partnered with her, and she rolled her eyes at him, though the petite blonde woman with bright blue eyes seemed terrified. 

The task itself was vague and could be anything, though the rules of the assignment were specific enough. Neal was an earth elemental, and the woman who had quietly introduced herself as Abby was a water mage. That gave them many options of creation, and Lyssana’s mind filled with ideas as the professor continued. 

“Other elemental classes require more than one category of the elements to make them work. Mist, for example, requires the primary use of water and a secondary use of wind in order to manipulate it. Most of the time this requires two mages – one of air and one of water – but there are some mages who can manipulate certain classes of another element.” Excited voices erupted around the room, and Neal looked at her with an eyebrow wiggle. She shot him a dirty look and proceeded to copy the new circles on the board. “Working with wood requires the use of Earth and Water.” He drew circles connecting all four elements of the board, writing words in them. “Acid, earth and fire. Lightning, fire and air. And they only get more complicated from there.” When he finished, there was a diagram of circles, all connecting within the elements. “Now you understand your assignment. You must work together to create something or complete a task that one element alone cannot accomplish. Class dismissed.” 

Since this was her only morning class today, Lyssana had quite a bit of free time to begin the assignment, and it seemed Abby held a schedule similar to hers when the three compared. Neal had another class immediately, but promised to meet in the dining hall for the midday meal. The smile she pointed toward Abby was an attempt at comforting, but the woman shrank back with a flinch, and the smile faded. “Should we wait in the dining hall then?” The young woman glanced at her and shrugged, eyes returning to the ground in front of her. “Do you know how to speak, or are you a mute?” Lyssana’s words were riddled with irritation as she began walking to the dining hall. Abby followed, though she said nothing, a pout setting on her face. 

“I’m not used to being around people. I’m sorry.” Her voice was quiet, nearly a squeak as they walked down the bustling halls. People seemed to move out of Lyssana’s way, so a path cleared in front of them, but she took no notice. 

“Don’t apologize for something you have no control over, it only makes you look weak.” The words were out before she even realized what she was saying, and a wince was suppressed. “Those words were ingrained in me as a child. I know they are harsh, but they are necessary. Especially in a place like this.These students will take every advantage they can get, even at the expense of someone else.” She glanced back at the shorter woman, eyes now wide as she comprehended the fiery mage’s speech.

“Your family must be very harsh for such words. They may hold some truth, but that does not make them kind.”

“I would not know, for I have not met my family. But I do know that kindness is unnecessary for learning, especially in this place.” She paused for a moment, contemplating her next thought. “I…must admit that I am envious. You have clearly been raised in a much more…gentle environment. I wish I had a family like that.” 

Abby started, confusion marring her porcelain features. “You have me mistaken, Lady Terasu. I was raised by my mother alone. I have no other family.” Sadness filled her eyes, and they began to water, though she blinked it away quickly. “I was raised in Akatsan. My mother is a teacher that studied their culture and language, so I’m more used to being around the Akatsi than I am humanity.” 

Lyssana let out a snort, though she flashed the water mage a smile. “The Akatsi are long winded and social within their tribes, yet you do not carry these characteristics. I do see how being around so little of humanity would have you shy. Worry not, I can feel the potential you have, and I think you will do fine here.” It was as close to a compliment as Lyssana knew how to give, and Abby didn’t seem so bad. A complete polar opposite, but a decent talent, with her energy nearly half what Lyssana held.

“And what about you? You say you don’t know your family, but you clearly have money, and a reputation it would seem. Professor Hurst mentioned your testing at the orientation. What did you do?” 

“You sure do ask a lot of questions, Abby. Perhaps one day I will indulge, but now is not the time. Too many ears to hear, you understand?” 

Abby did understand, and she begrudgingly let the conversation fall away. They reached the dining hall in very little time, as the path cleared before Lyssana. She had an air of command about her, and people seemed to feel it as Abby did. The woman was absolutely terrifying, but Abby was happy to be on her good side…at least she thought it was the good side. Now it was just time to wait, and eat. 

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Cal 3

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

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

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

“Rathana, isn’t it?” She said.

“Callion,” he nodded.

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

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

“And the bullshit begins,” Cal muttered.

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

She faked a smile. “Lead the way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The room was silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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Lyssana 2

Chapter 2: New Beginnings 

Lyssana eyed the rooms she had been directed to, gold gilt covering the legs of the three chairs in the sitting room matching perfectly with the maroon pillows; the golden tassels streaming nearly to the marble floor. A vexed gasp caught in her throat. She would have been happy with a hut in the courtyard, but an ‘anonymous sponsor’ had paid the rooms off for her. Not even past the first day and people were already trying to purchase her loyalties. No doubt the owners of said sponsorships would be slipped to her in a way that would be made to look like a mistake, but already she found herself seeing the clear currents of deceit and privilege intermingling here. But I could navigate the waters of the islands, I can navigate these. A thought that was supposed to have been encouraging only made the tension in her stomach seize again and she dropped her bag with a thud to the chair closest to the door. All three sat circled around a pristine marble fireplace as tall as she was. Why anyone would ever need such a thing confused her, but she walked past to discover the other atrocities that lay in wait, for it seemed the entire apartment carried the same theme. 

The bedchamber was more extraneous than she could have ever imagined and she closed the door quickly, blocking the view of the posted bed that held a canopy nearly to the ceiling. The floors were marble as far as she could see. A small room lay open opposite the bed chamber. What was most excitedly a kitchen! She would not have to sit with all the other students in the common rooms. The first smile of the day graced her lips and a small sigh of relief dropped the tension that had been holding her shoulders stiffly. Golden tiles lined the deep sink and wood stove, surprisingly unstained from soot or ash. It was going to be awful keeping that clean.

With hesitation, she walked toward the large double doors that led to the bedchamber. They opened without a sound, the heavy wood gliding effortlessly to their open resting places against adjoining walls. She had to stifle a gasp as the horrendous sight before her was washed in light from the sitting room. A large four post bed was the staple of the room, with a carved wardrobe sitting opposite it. A stand mirror reflected an open bathing chamber around the corner, the copper bathtub shining brightly in the dark room. She walked to the closed windows, throwing back the curtains to let the sun bathe the room in brilliant light. It seemed the room caught aflame, the bright silks coming to life under the brilliant rays. Bright reds covered the bed in all shades, while the cushioned stool at the foot hosted a dark burgundy to match the curtains. The wood was all a dark color, an unfamiliar variety and all carved and gilded with gold. The wardrobe was a masterpiece with animals she had never before seen carved along every inch. She found herself drawn to it, eyes wandering over the carvings as she opened the doors. The creatures almost seemed to move, their movements likely reflecting how the animals moved in real life. The enchantment was heavy and probably the result of a master enchanter. A piece of furniture this large and so strongly enchanted must cost a fortune!

Disgust instantly washed over any awe she previously held toward the furnishing, but she pulled open the doors anyway, stifling another groan at the sight. Silks in all shades of red, yellow, and orange filled the wardrobe, with muted browns peeking through on occasion. She fingered through the garments, holding up a few and gaping that they were already her size. All of this had already been here on her arrival, her place in this school already guaranteed. She had not earned her place after all, but it had been bought for her. Anger then replaced disgust as she paced the room, kicking her silk skirts with every step. Lyssana Terasu was not a woman to be trifled with, even by her own blood. She had been brought to this school with the purpose of earning a name for herself in the eyes of her father, but in this moment she wished nothing more than to bring him down. Her feet stopped pacing as she turned back to the wardrobe, a plan falling in place and a slow smile creeping on her lips. She would do what was asked of her, but Lyssana Terasu already had a well earned name that she carried with pride. The title she had been given upon exit of her naming trials; of which the Saakarans were quite harsh. Their overall dislike for humanity had already put her at a disadvantage on the island, but she had risen quite high within the tribe before her summons here. She would show her family that she was good enough, and before this was done, her father would pay for all the wrong that had been done to her. 

With a final look through the wardrobe, she discovered several large purses of gold, two daggers with batteries sewn into the leather hilts, and a belt embroidered with golden runes. She pocketed some gold and tucked the daggers into her boots before standing before the large mirror in shock. The reflection was not the Sakaaran warrior she had worked so hard to become. The runes in her skin were all covered beneath the silk gown she wore; her hair slightly frazzled from the day. With a sigh, she reached up to straighten it, hoping the image staring back at her was suitable enough for a noblewoman. One last glance in disgust at the woman in the mirror and she was off to search the city for some food. 

She had no idea how to cook. Somehow there was a vendor with fresh fish on the floating island, though none of the species she recognized. Asking directions on how to cook the rainbow striped fish resulted in an exasperated look by the few other people at the stand, and mutters about “didn’t the lady have servants for such menial tasks?” She had paid the man and quickly left the stand, berating herself at her idiocy. Life here at the school was going to be a difficult adjustment, but she was a survivor. She would rise through the ranks and stop only when she was killed, for her life had been given a new purpose. 

Streets jutted into dark alleys at every turn and she watched everyone closely. In some of the alleys she thought a figure shrouded in darkness could be seen, but she dismissed them as students practicing magic in preparation for their tests. Who was she to understand the Umbral Court and the darker magics they prided themselves on? 

She paused at a stand with round, red fruit as the prided item for this shop owner, and as she inspected one of the items, the conversation happening around her caused brows to furrow. 

“Yes, I’ve told you already, the carintas are a half dram each…” at this Lyssana raised her head, for the last patron had been told the carintas – that had to be the red fruit in her hands – were a whole dram each. Then she noticed the shop owner eyeing the patrons as he spoke. “… and if you don’t like my prices, you can find another shop! But I guarantee you’ll not find any as fresh as these unless you carry yourself to the orchards to pick them!” 

The woman he spoke to wore a linen dress with no embroidery and she frowned deeply as she handed a gold bar to the man to be weighed. As Lyssana caught the man eyeing her, she hastily put in her basket and handed over a few coins; for though she was unaccustomed to the noble life, she knew she needed to learn all she could before someone thought her out of place, and so she paid the outrageous prices for her wares without complaint, all the while holding her head high and looking down at those around her. 

Lyssana found herself walking further up the tiers of Istima as she wandered the city. Past the large cathedral like buildings that seemed to rise from the ground at random intervals to the docks where more eager students were unloading themselves and hurrying to the center of the island. The evening would be upon them soon and the last students would be in their testing for the day. She wondered if the school went silent at night, or if it was always so bustling. Her gaze found the stormy moat surrounding the island and a sense of calm washed over her. She could feel the static energy from the lightning in the clouds and she let the chaotic energy mingle with her own. It was an odd sensation, though pleasant enough. If she closed her eyes, she could almost reach out and feel the bursts of energy as the churned beneath the surface. It was exhilarating as she added her own magic to the mix, causing colorful bursts to mingle with the lightning, creating a muted light show beneath the clouds. 

With a start she realized a few people were pointing to the displayed phenomenon and she slipped back into the crowd before people could begin questioning the cause. She did not believe any had seen her, but she chastised herself for being so drawn in to something she did not know. It would not do to get herself killed before she had even been here a day.  It was so strange being in this tide of chaos. Someone had all but bought her way into the school; so how many others in these streets were here by money and not talent alone? 

These thoughts haunted her as she made her way back to the apartment, eyeing store fronts that seemed of interest and making a mental note to explore when she was not so exhausted from the day. She stopped in her tracks at an enchanters store, her feet moving toward it without her volition. The inside was filled with magical objects of every shape and size, some carved with runes and some clear of any markings. Something tugged at her energy, drawing her deeper into the store with almost a sense of urgency. Never had she felt such a calling at this level and it concerned her. She did not stop until she stood before a pair of gargoyles, their features carved in exquisite detail to the point that their eyes seemed to follow her every movement. She found herself fighting back the urge to reach out her hands, for she was unsure what magic would activate at her touch. A shopkeeper was beside her in a moment. 

“Ah, good lady, I see you’ve found the stone guardians! You are the first customer in twenty years to have expressed an interest! What a grand day this is!” 

She could not hide her shock, turning quickly to look at the young man with eyes wide before her attention fell back to the creatures before her. “What exactly are they and why do I feel them drawing me in so?”

The man smiled in her peripheral vision and spoke in a smooth tone. “The stone guardians are exactly that: protectors. But they aren’t the average guard creature, no! They choose the people they wish to serve and protect! Your energy must be what’s attracting them to you, so they reached out to get your attention; it’s how they communicate, though they also understand the common tongue in which we are speaking. They are officially known as Corpegara, though no one quite knows what they are in truth. They’ve just sat here on this shelf for nearly twenty years, occasionally grabbing the attention of a passerby, but none have been chosen to take them home.” 

Lyssana stared in awe at the guardians, her hand moving forward of its own accord to touch them each in turn. They came to life under her touch, their wings stretching as though they were woken from a nap. The shopkeeper took a startled step back, gawking at the creatures in shock. “Th-they’ve never awoken before! I-I think this means you must take them with you now, for they’ve chosen you!” He sounded as shocked as she was feeling and a grin broke across her face as she handed the man the pouch of gold at her waist. 

“Is this sufficient?” She asked, turning at last to the man who nodded fervently as he took the pouch to the front counter to count the gold. The creatures made quiet chirping noises as they watched her, each taking a turn being pet with her free hand. Were they sitting on the ground, they would come no higher than her knee, but they seemed to enjoy their perch on the shelf, vying for her attention. She could not stop smiling over making her first friends at the school, knowing full well that her apartment was going to feel less empty with these guardians present. 

The man came back with a significantly lighter pouch, but she paid no mind, knowing full well there was gold to spare in her wardrobe, but a frown crossed her face as she looked down at her only free hand. “How will I get them home?” The frown deepened as the man stiffed a laugh behind his hand at her ignorance; though he quickly stopped at the look on her face. 

“Ah— my lady, they have chosen you and are now bonded to your energy signature. They will follow you home of their own volition. They are your problem now.” That last line was meant to be muttered under his breath, but he did not take into account her incredible hearing and her frown deepened. To remedy his clear mistake, he handed her a locked book. “This will give you all the information you need to know… free of charge.” She doubted that very much. Judging from the gold missing from her pouch, he had taken enough for a library. 

“Very well…” Lyssana took the book, obvious questions beginning to surface as she turned it over in her hands, but  the young man bowed his way out of her view and around the corner. 

“No refunds!” She heard him yell from a distant aile, but curiosity quickly replaced the annoyance she felt as she examined the book. It had an enchanted lock unlike anything she’d ever seen before, tiny engraved runes in a neat row along the metallic spine. She sighed, wondering what she had gotten herself into as she looked to the Corpegaras a final time before waving them to follow.

“Come little ones, let’s go home.” 

A crowd of people gasped as she walked from the store and the two winged beasts flew out after her, shooting high into the sky and flying circles around each other. So much for not making a scene, she thought bitterly, but was unable to harbor such negative thoughts as she watched them fly and play overhead. 

Her rooms were in the largest tower on the second highest tier of the city, giving her a  view of the school from one window and a view up at her court from the other. The highest tier was dedicated to the courts and while some courts held students in their midst, the Winter Court used that space for extravagant displays of their magic within, leaving the students to the tier below. Lysanna didn’t mind though, for it was fewer stairs for her to climb.

Upon reaching her room, she deposited her basket in the kitchen and opened a door on the opposite end of the apartment that led to a balcony where her friends already waited. They cooed as she sat in a wooden chair, turning the locked book every which way to try and figure it out. After a few frustrating minutes she looked to the creatures, holding out the book with a look of irritation painted quite plainly on her face. Another chirp sounded as the smaller of the two – yes she was just beginning to see the subtle differences between them – extended a granite looking snout and tapped the book on the spine above the runes. The engravings flashed brightly and the book fell open in her hands. She eyed the one ruefully before settling in to examine the ancient looking pages. 

Lyssana began to read aloud, which they seemed to quite enjoy as they curled around themselves on the ground at her feet.

“The Corpegara are a rare creature that are shrouded in controversy and a bit of mystery.” The book was written in a fine, flowery script that she found difficult to read, and almost rolled her eyes as the tone began to reflect that whimsical handwriting. “Though mages argue about the origin of the Corpegara, most can agree that they are the result of enchantment gone wrong. One theory is that they first began as statues that were used for experimentation by several mages to try creating life. Another theory is that the creatures were already alive, but significantly altered by a transformation spell.” The script then went into theories of magic that she could not follow, and she skimmed the page until the words made sense once more. “Despite the origin debates about the Corpegara, one this is for certain: they are fiercely loyal and quite mischievous if given the opportunity.  One scientist wrote that they ‘tend to share many personality traits of a housecat, but with wings. They are quite terrifying in that aspect and you couldn’t pay me to have one, as they sometimes require attention for hours on end!” Lyssana chuckled quietly to herself as she looked over the cover of the book at the sleeping forms beside her. They looked  innocent enough, surely they couldn’t be as terrible as the book stated. A few hours of play seemed like a decent price to pay for some loyal companions. Ignoring the unease in her stomach, she read far into the night, pausing only when she was hungry enough to tentatively try some of the food she had bought from the market. With the first feeling of content since her arrival, she settled in for her first night at Istima.

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