Yam 6

1.06

Yam’s next meeting was with the Night Court. He entered their territory deprived of sleep and sustaining himself with black tea he had left to steep for so long that its taste was a near physical assault on his mouth. 

However, once he walked through the gate to the Night Court, Yam quickly realized that he was far from the only person functioning on foreign substances. In fact, he would go so far as to bet that the people who had originally built the Night Court had been on significantly stronger substances in significantly larger doses. 

Significantly. 

Not that it was upsetting or horrifying. The court was set under a beautiful starry sky. All light not from the moon came from glowing orbs, torches, and the eyes of things swimming largely unseen through the perpetual night. 

Several of the buildings seemed to be alive. A few of them also appeared to be sentient. But not every sentient building seemed to be alive. And, at least at first glance, none of the buildings he had noted appeared to be either sentient or alive in the same way the others were.

Which was not a description that would have made sense anywhere other than Istima.

There were a few locations where students stepped off the ground and onto the walls without seeming particularly interested or bothered. Several other spots had people transition to swimming through the air, playing hopscotch without stopping their conversation, and one side street where everyone fell asleep for thirty seconds at a certain spot before standing up and continuing. 

To an extent, small anomalies like this showed up everywhere across the academy. But in the Night Court it seemed to be more of a rule and less of an exception.

The overall impression he received was that this place seemed like the painting of an almost child-friendly dreamworld. Nothing was consistent, very little made sense, but none of the oddities came across as overtly threatening or sinister. 

 Even with that, what struck him the most was the way it managed to look like a Len caravan felt.

Just like the Night Court representative from the tavern, who was serving as his current guide, the students around him had something very similar to a Len’s Presence. Whatever it was lacked the substance and the immediate impact on his body. If he had to describe it he would say it was like they played a similar tune on a different instrument. 

Those with the greatest pseudo-presence swept through the streets like royalty and the court swayed around them, leaving visible oddity in their wake. Plants grew in the footsteps of one such student, the world lost all color behind another and, for a particularly strong presence, everyone within ten feet of the student suddenly appeared as a giant arcane lizard beast wearing regular human clothes.

In an actual Len settlement, being caught in a powerful Presence felt like the world had turned on its head. Your body informed you with no room for questions that the other person was a Len, and what your relative status was compared to them. If someone with enough personal force told you the sky was red, it was hard to disagree. 

“You’re not screaming as much as I expected you too,” said his guide. 

“I am not screaming at all,” Yam replied calmly. 

“Odd. Testing. One two. One TWO!” His guide dug into his ear with a finger. He shook his head vigorously and turned back to Yam. “You’re right, you’re not the one screaming. My apologies.” The boy pointed to a group of students sitting in a circle, all bearing looks of inebriated concentration as they passed around a pipe burning something pungent. “Are they screaming?”

“No. They seem quite peaceful.”

His black-cloaked companion turned to the empty air opposite Yam. “Are you the one screaming?” 

He did not appear to get a satisfactory reply and they walked through the Night Court in a distinctly uncomfortable silence. 

Yam cleared his throat and tried to keep his speech professional. ”Yes, well… the displays of personal power seem quite flagrant here. Not like the other courts.”

“They’re side effects mostly. Not displays. Mostly.”

He had only wanted to break the tension, but Yam felt genuine interest stir in his chest, “Side effects of what?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” The senior student shrugged. ”Maybe the reality around here has gotten embarrassed. Decided to help us out so it can tell all of its friends that this was actually what it wanted to do the whole and that there was never any bullying involved.”

“Bullying?”

 “Sometimes. Other times flattery. Are those people screaming?”

“No, they’re just burning an effigy. How does one flatter reality?”

“With will.”

“Will? As in the power of personal determination?”

“Exactly. That and some magic. You’re Len, can’t you feel it?”

“The Presence?”

His guide pointed a finger at a student who made the ground bounce under his feet like a hungry Slime and who seemed to distort the air with the intensity of his gaze. “That isn’t a Presence. Humans don’t have all the ingredients to make one of those. But will is a part of Presence, and will is the basis of all Night Court magic.”

Yam stopped moving and his guide came to a halt as well. The young Len looked around the cobbled streets and matched the pseudo-Presences he sensed with the distortions that each student caused.

“What about chants and spell formulas and invocations? How can just will power be magic?” 

“Don’t know.” His guide said, focusing rather intently on plugging and unplugging each of his ears in an attempt to isolate the ‘sound’ that had been distracting him. “It probably isn’t. Unless you force it to be.”

“With will?” Yam guessed.

“With will.” The older student nodded.

“So, if you have an errant thought about walking upside down, your magic makes it happen? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Danger is a complicated assessment that begs many questions about risk, causality, and advanced probability. But yes, that would be dangerous. Our magic just do that, so it’s not that dangerous; it’s a different dangerous. Provided, I’m assuming, that we’re referencing the same metaphysical thought construct for ‘danger’. ”

The young Len narrowed his eyes. “Is that the Night Court way of saying that you won’t explain your magic to me unless I bribe you?”

“No, but good guess. The magic systems are dead simple and ours is the simplest.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Rocks don’t scream right?”

“No, they do not”

“Do they whisper?”

“Will you tell me about the magic systems if I answer that?”

“Sure.”

“No. I’m sorry. Rocks do not, in fact, whisper.”

“Damn,” his guide glanced at a sundial, which was casting a shadow directly against the light of a nearby lamp. “Well, generally, the Winter Court makes magic at the frequency of their element and it’s like poking a hole in a cask. They pull loads of naturally-occurring elemental magic from that opening. They just have to sustain the hole and control what happens as it comes through. The Autumn Court uses words, incantations and gestures to cast their spells. The grammar and dialect interactions are supposed to be complicated. So they have to memorize exactly, be orderly, and be detail-oriented.” His guide shuddered in apparent revulsion as he said the word ‘orderly’, ”The Summer Court writes their magic out. But, unlike the Autumn Court, they can’t use willpower to intervene and correct gaps or inaccuracies. Everything happens exactly how they write it down. They also mix potions.”

“How do they do that?”

“Spoons. Sticks. Ladles.” Rhe guide shrugged, ”Depends on the container. The Spring Court does complex systems. So they use mind magic to make packets of pure understanding that know how to do a single specific task. Then they assemble a bunch of packets to handle all the different parts of a single complicated spell. The Night Court is simpler and subjectively objectively superior.”

Yam scratched the side of his head but decided not to interrupt. 

”We decide something is real, put some magic in our will, and then convince the world we’re right. If we win it more or less happens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yup. If you can conceptualize it, will it, or believe it, then you just do it.”

“That’s how you cast spells?”

“That is how we cast spells.”

“And it works?”

“The short answer is yes. The long answer is a philosophy class.”

“And, all you need to do is train your will?”

“You also need to change your mind so you can think of things more persuasively.”

“How do you do that?”

His guide glanced over his shoulder at another circle of students sharing a pipe and a girl who was dangling upside down from a tree limb while reading a book titled Social Constructs Adjusted and Demon Summoning Trusted: A Memoir.

“That’s the hard part. That and remembering which real you’re in.”

“As in the ‘real’, you are making with magic or actual reality?”

“I wish.” His guide sighed, seeming genuinely tired. ”Just finding your way out of the-real-you-don’t-know-you-made is hard enough. Let alone finding and remembering the realest reals without destroying the other reals you need to believe in for your older spells.”

~~~

The rest of the trip was an unintelligible explanation of other ‘reals’; how they overlapped, where they differed, and apparently how they tried to deceive you with their feminine wiles. It was fascinating, unintuitive and somehow painful to think about. 

And it was completely wiped from his mind the moment he felt who he was supposed to be meeting. 

The Presence was unspeakable. 

He did not know of numbers, or comparisons, or even mathematic functions based on comparisons, to express how large the Presence was. The moment he walked into range he blacked out and found himself with no memory at all of the journey he took to reach the individual. 

To say it was a Len was to say a four-limbed God was human. 

Its form was one he had never heard of, read about, or even imagined. 

His own father’s will had been unshakable, and he had found a hidden form one or two forks down the Reptilian path. Even people who went only a single step deeper down that mammalian path than Yam, had their Presence increased formidably. An advanced form like his father’s had multiplied the man’s already intense Presence until it felt like standing in the summer sunlight just to see him smile. Knowing the secret to reliably achieving that form had made his family virtual nobility among the caravans. 

But this, this, was many orders of magnitude greater. 

The being in front of him had chosen a body along the Mammalian branch, but it was so far from the first, default lupine-human mixture that Yam wore. 

The shape in front of him was like a centaur. The upper body was  perfectly human. Every feature was of flawless, elegant masculinity. The lower body was that of a bear with the addition of a long and agile tail.  However, what Yam had mistaken for a massive bearskin cloak, the head of the beast serving almost as a hat, shifted as the man saw him approach.

The being’s human upper body leaned forward, the fur cascading down his shoulders  folding forward like a cocoon, like a venus fly trap. The thick skin and dangling paws seemed to gain definition and volume. 

In a breath that human upper body was completely encased until a third set of bear legs, ones that had been hanging behind the man’s shoulders met the earth. The abruptly six-legged bear-creature moved forward, no trace of its human body visible.

The being’s second set of features had been mixed from the pride of a feline, the noble cast of a wolfhound, and all of that without losing an ounce of ursine gentleness. Though he did notice that its paws had opposable thumbs.

Yam went unconscious again. 

~~~

He woke up with human eyes colored a  piercing jade looking at him. The Len’s animal body was once again folded back and draped over his shoulders like a bearskin cloak.

With an abruptness that left him dizzy the sense of Presence around him disappeared until it felt no stronger than a first form grandfather; warm, slightly senior to himself, but comforting in its pressure and completely unthreatening. 

Words left his mouth without his permission. “You can’t do that!”

The being cocked his head to the side and grinned. “No little one, your language is imprecise. What you meant is, ‘I have never known of the ability to retract my Presence’. And, as you will be working with the Night Court, I suggest adding the word ‘yet’ to any statement of limitation. It’s very motivational.”

“But I haven’t decided to work with the night court.”

“You haven’t decided. Yet. But don’t worry, I already have.”

On reflex, Yam steeled himself for a surge of Presence to batter against his mind. Instead, the older Len just smiled. 

“I won’t force you to obey. It would rob you of your drive.” Idly the man’s fingers flickered and a small ball of light began dancing across his hand and changing colors. It was odd to see such a basic control exercise being done by something so powerful. Though the strange Len appeared to be doing it without notice, like a tik. 

”Let me inform you of the situation as I see it,” said the ancient being. ”Then we can get to the meat of the issue.”

“I am powerful. Most powerful mages at Istima never leave their towers. Though it’s more accurate to say that most leave their bodies behind on the material plane where Istima’s towers are, and never totally return to them.  I took a break from my spire to spend a few years learning spatial magic. Your bloodline gift, or natural power, or whatever it’s called now, interests me. No matter what court you chose I would have you help assimilate the Night Court’s knowledge of spatial manipulation with the aid of your natural talent. I will study the process as well as the results, and use them for my own ends. So, tell me your aims and I’ll compensate you for your assistance.”

It was a rare experience for a Len to be struck speechless by another’s candor. In fact, it rarely happened outside of fables that were trying to show a hero’s extreme dedication to truth, forthrightness, and etiquette. 

Like any well-raised boy, Yam had been taught to express a great and potentially risky truth to demonstrate his respect and veracity. But this… this was so much free information.

“I haven’t told anyone what my ability is.” He muttered, still trying to process what he had just heard.

“You showed spatial manipulation at the entrance test. Didn’t you?”

“But,” he tried to swallow and found his throat bone dry, “I did it when it would look like teleportation and other magic. I was going to use the mystique for bartering.”

“Truly?” The ancient Len put his hands on his hips. “Doesn’t the current culture value intangibles like being offensively honest above everything?”    

Offensively… honest? 

Both words made sense on their own. But they seemed strange when placed next to each other. Like, ‘savory lemon’ or ‘carpeted kitchen’ or ‘too much money’. 

Yam found himself parroting a common phrase, once again robbed of his mental footing. “Honesty is the backbone of character, but it does not remove the obligation to listen for game and jest.”

One of the older Len’s bear arms stirred and passed through the air like it was wiping answers from a chalkboard. “I do not understand, nor do I have the inclination to do so at the moment. Just tell me what you want so we can get to the fun part.”

This was jus too strange. Though it was extremely rude to use your Presence to force someone to agree with you, and it was considered a subversion of a sacred bond between Len, Presence always colored a conversation. It was impossible not to be influenced when your bones hummed with the absolute certainty that the other person was above you. That was why the caravans operated so smoothly and so quickly. But, right now, there was nothing compelling him even though he knew for a fact that the being in front of him was unimaginably superior to himself. 

It made his head hurt.

Without the power dynamic of a strong Presence, the conversation felt oddly carefree and ripe for a game of words. But Yam found himself unable to even put on his bargaining mask. Not because he was shocked, though he very much was. What stopped him was the voice of his mother whispering to him from his memories. 

He felt like a toddler being gently reprimanded for some mischief he was too young to know he should be embarrassed by.

Whoever this man was, whatever this man was, he had been so direct. And it had been authentic. 

He was not ritually signaling his character. He was a good, virtuous person; upfront, honest, helpful, loving of knowledge, and generous with his fellow Len.

And all to an extent that was almost comical.

The idea of repaying such virtue with game or bargaining made him feel dirty. That was not the man his mother had raised him to be. 

Yam sighed and completely gave up on gathering his composure. “I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers and I have come to Istima so I can become a god.”

“Okay, okay.” The older Len rubbed his chin. ”To become a god or to become god-like? They are different. Both very reasonable, but also very different.”

Yam snorted. That was the first time someone had said his ambition was reasonable. “I need to become indistinguishable from Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord.”

“Hmm. Never heard of him. Must be from after my time.”

“Some would say he is extremely new,” Yam said, feeling his amusement turn dark. 

“Oh? And why would ‘some’ say that?”

“Because some say that my father invented Aehp and the rest of his pantheon so he could make a profit peddling false religion.”

The being’s eyes glimmered and something ancient moved under his gentle grin. “And what do you say young one?”

Yam’s jaw flexed. Then deliberately he straightened his posture, schooled his expression, and forced himself to summon some of the dignity he had once been told was his birthright and his duty. “I say that if I become Aehp, then my father was no liar; he was just early.”

The moonlight reflected from two sets of smiling teeth and two pairs of emerald eyes. “You seek power to make your father into a prophet?”

Yam felt his own Presence stir and bared his teeth in a smile that was far less gentle than his companion’s. “My father was always a prophett. I just haven’t proved it. Yet.

Last Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

Yam 5

1.05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam nodded seriously. Finally, a taste of civilization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam’s only reply was a smile. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those he had fought particularly hard for. 

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

Plus, he already knew which court he would join. 

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

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

~~~

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

The anomaly stood out immediately. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a young woman materialized. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t touch me!”

“I’m sorry! Are you hurt—”

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

 There was a stutter in Yam’s chest. 

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

Just rage. 

Even in Istima. 

Even in the most educated place in the entire world. 

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

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

He had just stolen something from another student. 

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

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

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

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

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Yam 3

1.03

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

A private room. 

With a view. 

And snacks. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a surreal moment. 

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

 Yam looked at the ball of hair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes”

“We could use more of those.”

“Truely?”

“Yeah”

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

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

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

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

Much easier to remember. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yam 2

1.02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they were largely ignored. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again his technical skill was noted and largely ignored. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yam 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “All Len are not thieves! We are

            “Fucking savages!”

            “My people are not thieves and not savages!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “There are beasts that are beyond imagination.

            “Really?”

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

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

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

            “But?”

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

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

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

            “No”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Well caught! You have good ears! ”

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

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

            “Just shut it”

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

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

            “What?”          

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

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

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

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

            The ferryman just grunted and held out his hand. 

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

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

            The Len started, “A tip?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

             “But How?”

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

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

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

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

            “And what knowledge are you pursuing?”

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

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

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

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

Yam did not respond.

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

Again the smaller Len chose not to speak.

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

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

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

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