Chapters

Cal 8

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

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

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

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

“Seriously, what is that?”

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

“Allie, it’s the weekend.”

“And I’ve got things I need to do.”

“You work too hard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

“Though I doubt you could afford their prices.”

Cal winced. “Figures.”

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

“Point me there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then this should be easy for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took a few minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

“I expect so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not bad,” she muttered.

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

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

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

“I… that is theft.”

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

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

“Who are you?” He finally said.

“I am a customer.”

“Do you have a name?”

“Of course, don’t you?”

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

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

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

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

“Study Yam Hist. And you?”

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

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

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

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

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Lyssana 7

Chapter 7: Forbidden knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I swear it.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyssana only scoffed and rolled her eyes. 

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

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

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Yam 7

1.07

The representative of the Spring Court was an older woman who looked like she was built with sinew, bones, bags tattooed under her eyes, and no extra room beneath her skin to store even an ounce of pity.

“You are early for our appointment,” she said.

“I planned to spend significantly longer negotiating with the Night Court.”

“Your first time speaking with them?”

He nodded, and the Spring Court representative, Mrs. Reed, glanced at the secretary who had been eyeing him suspiciously for the last two hours while he stared at the wall. 

“Give me your letter.”

He pulled the parchment bearing a headache-inducing wax seal from his pouch and handed it to her. “How did you know I would have a note from them?”

She scanned his letter with a furrowed brow, “They are strange but not inconsiderate. The Night Court knows the impact they have on…”

The representative’s words trailed off as she read the note a second, then third, and even a fourth time. With a tightly controlled surge of magic, glyphs, spell circles, and various workings diagramed themselves on the air and flowed from her into the letter. She examined the seal with more than six spells before telling her secretary to move all her appointments back an hour and hauling him into her office.

“Eat this,” she ordered handing him an orange from a drawer in her desk. 

His voice came out dull and monotone, “Thank you for your generosity.” 

“I am a healer,” she said dismissively, “and you have come in contact with a very ancient mage if that letter is to be believed.”

“It is to be believed,” Yam took out one of his handkerchiefs and deposited the orange’s peels inside so he wouldn’t dirty his host’s desk. 

The woman grunted and they sat in a surprisingly comfortable silence as Yam ate. 

Finally, once he had finished, the woman spoke, “I’d have you tell me about the being you saw,” Yam opened his mouth but she interrupted him with a glare. “No. That will take time. Let’s discuss your joining of the court first and then move on.”

He glanced out the window and took in the position of the sun.

Mrs. Reed was perceptive, or maybe he was just not at his best,  “Don’t worry,” she said, ”Len are not unfamiliar to the court. Your people’s affinity for mind magic predisposes them to our approach. The negotiations will not take long.”

Yam nodded politely and kept his face blank. 

The negotiations wouldn’t take long? Maybe she just ‘had a Len friend’. Or she knew one who had been raised by humans.

“Yes”, she said, seeming to read his mind, “I know. Any Len who’s family can afford Istima is a better-trained negotiator than I. So I’ve learned to cut to the chase. We’ll start with my final offer.”

She handed him a piece of paper and he skimmed it briefly. It was shockingly reasonable (which really was a horrible place for her to start from). 

According to this document, he would live on the lowest floor of the new students building, be given two meals a day that were ‘conducive for magic training,’ have an entrance token to the physical training facilities, start with new student access to the Spring Court main library, and would be given limited special dispensation for books related to Osteomancy. There were several other concessions, such as a stipend for clothes appropriate to work in medical contexts, a single free tutoring session, and a certain amount of time in the study halls as well as  access to the training supplies therein. 

It really was an excellent deal. 

“This is entirely unacceptable!”

“Then tell me about the being you met and you can be on your way.”

Yam pulled his bargaining face into place and worked to make his diction more professional, “No. I still think there is promise in the Spring Court, but I just cannot accept these terms.”

“Then don’t,” the woman said, “That is my final offer.”

“You have no ability to flex? A mage of Istima must be able to offer a few drams for books at least?”

The representative sighed and glanced over Yam’s shoulder to look at a large mechanical clock on one of her book shelvesl, “I am a very busy woman. Lives are lost when I am not in the wards, and plagues profit each minute I am not in my lab. If you do accept our offer I would counsel you to not make your teachers repeat themselves. But,” she said, a frown tugging at the wrinkled leather of her face, “I am aware of your culture and will accommodate you . Give me the offers you gathered from the other courts. But, be warned, I will look at them once. If you try to schedule another meeting to show me counter offers then I will burn the papers and have you carried from my office.”

Yam kept his mask firmly in place but he felt a bead of sweat form on his temple. 

Still, he had always planned on showing the other other offers. He would prefer to drive the price higher and only use them to spur her onwards after  her first or second plateau, but with such a strong initial offer he was willing to be flexible. 

She looked over each paper, including her own, without expression. Finally, she set them side by side and began speaking. 

“The Summer Court,” she said pointing at the ‘offer’ with its fraudulently high sum, “Would not offer you so much money. Your magic is too tainted with elemental influence for their preferences and they would see you as spoiled and lacking ambition if you needed cajoling to join them. This sum is a joke, a trap, or you are blackmailing them. None of those scenarios mean I should waste money that could be used on  something of actual value like tsunami prevention research.”

Her finger moved to the Autumn Court’s offer, “They sent endless spies into our cohorts,” she scowled at the letter like it had personally wronged her, ”and none of them were the least bit competent while using up our resources. The physical training and nutrition research they ‘stole’ from us was thirty years out of date when we leaked it, and is ancient now. You already have a superior program in the mandatory physical education courses. The access to advanced texts they suggest? It would either be a waste of our time, or ruin your foundations and be a waste of your potential. If you submit yourself to the Spting Court we will not allow either.”

She calmly folded her hands into her lap and continued to speak in the same measured tone she had started with. But Yam caught her eyes darting impatiently to the clock on the mantle.

“If the Winter Court cared enough to offer you anything then your magic would be too contaminated to be of any use in healing. And you did not choose to speak with a weather mage or someone involved in agriculture, so you are stuck with my priorities as a healer. And, finally, if a mage from the upper spires, let alone one of the Night Court, has set its sights on you, then nothing living will stop them. Including my objections or your own.”

At some point,  during her monologue Yam’s eyes had grown very wide. 

“In conclusion,” said the Spring Court representative, “no. There is nothing that will make me increase my offer, though I am entirely capable of it. 

He open her mouth, but she cut him off before he could speak. 

“Bribes and family connection mean nothing to us. Any amount of healing, weather working, or ecosystem magic guarantees our very comfortable employment, for life. More importantly, the Vernal Court is a meritocracy. This,” her finger stabbed at the paper she had offered him, “is what you deserve because it is all you have earned. If I am mistaken then you can, quite literally, earn complete access to the library and take my office tomorrow. It merely takes displayed competence. And,” she said, once more looking to her clock,” it can all be done without wasting any of my time trying to talk about it.”

~~~

Yam left the medical mage’s room almost as stunned as he had left the Night Court.

Now that was a woman.

If she was just twenty— well, maybe thirty years younger…

Fate help him, merchants would weep when they came for groceries and rival’s would quake to ask for even a cup of tea. 

He stumbled into the Spring Court’s main office and presented his official welcome letter to the Vernal Court. In quick, efficient motions he was provided keys to his lodging. He also received a stipend for spring court clothes as well as a list of requirements for the sort of attire he would eventually need. They even suggested reputable stores to buy them from. There were other instructions and booklets in his welcome package. An appointment was set for him to choose his classes and he hurried back to the day court. 

He was able to move all of his belongings, and the large pile of texts from the Bookkeeper, in a single trip. 

While walking between the two courts he thought. In the end, he had not been able to drive up the offer a single dram. But he didn’t let it bother him. His opponent at the bargaining table held all of the power and was exquisitely aware of it. 

Fate help him! But she really had been. If she had only been thirty—, well, maybe forty years younger…

Finally he was left sitting on a bed in an otherwise empty room. The floorboards of the dormitory were creaky, some of the nails were rusted and not quite flush, the desk was ink stained, fire stained, acid pocked, covered in craved initials, and smelled uncomfortably of reptilian blood.

It was amazing. He had never had entire bed to himself before! 

 He really had made it. He was finally in Istima, in the court he had wanted, and was about to start his training as a Healer; a shaper of flesh just like Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord. 

Like the person he was supposed to be. 

Yam fell back against his own personal bed and let the moment wash over him. A bed to himself, the world’s greatest experts teaching him magic, and a literal pile of books

            The only thing that could make this better was if the caravan was here and the matching desk and bed in his room were not. 

            He had fought Mrs. Reed fang and claw over that. But he had been told without an ounce of pity that every member of the Spring Court was assigned a partner and that they would be together as much as physically possible. 

It would make covertly ‘acquiring’ magic from the other courts extremely difficult— which seemed to be the point. The Spring Court was apparently, ‘A hair’s breadth from falling into the depths of dark magic and perversity on its best day,’ according to Mrs. Reed. Power over life, death, poison, specialized mind magic, plague crafting, overcoming a body’s inherent resistance to magic tampering, and all manner of other skills were needed to save a life. The slightest experimentation or spur of the moment improvisation would leave you marked as a practitioner of black magic. And then it was only a matter of time until the Birds swooped in to arrest you while you slept.

On the bright side, if he caught his partner doing dark magic he would earn five free tutoring sessions! So at least there was that. 

Yam sighed and pushed himself out of bed. It was lumpy as a sack full of rocks but he had not seen a single bed bug and none of the hay poked through the linen to stab him. He should be grateful that the Spring Court coddled its new students so much, rather than complain about a partner he hadn’t even tried to bribe yet. 

With practiced movements, the young Len went about leaving physical and magical markers about the room so he could tell if someone other than himself had disturbed anything. He would have experimented with climbing out of his window, but it  was too narrow. Likely to stop young students from escaping their partners so they could secretly experiment with cursing sexually transmitted diseases onto thier competitors. 

Instead, Yam put on his back pack and began systematically walking through the hallways of the new student dorms. 

It took nearly two hours of feeling for air currents brushing his whiskers, questing out with his various magical senses, knocking on walls, going through closets, and checking behind wall hangings for the stagnant scent of earth before he found what he was looking for. 

There was an extra large stall in one of the communal bathroom/bathing facilities for the first floor. It was a horrid, putrid place. Only a brave few ventured in over the course of twenty minutes. Otherwise it was mostly occupied by those who were ill. Either through means mundane or, in the case of one student violently vomiting a strawberry scented rainbow, more magical afflictions. 

The large stall in the corner seemed to be made for Akatsi or other students with unusually large bodies. There was no toilet, just a hole in the ground that was far too narrow. And, as such, was crusted with things that were… unspeakable. Unexpected, unspeakable, and best left forgotten.

Inside the large stall was a small closet, more of a pantry really, filled with cleaning supplies that had long since been deemed inadequate to the challenge at hand, and abandoned. When Yam first found the pantry he had felt a subtle flow of air that was suspicious. He had to stand still for nearly ten minutes (holding his breath for as much of that time as was possible) before it came again. Butby then he was certain; the air was going towards the closet. Despite it having nowhere to go.

The little pantry was completely dead to his magic senses and he found no other obvious hints of subterfuge. Eventually he took two chicken wings he had picked clean for lunch and inserted them into a pair of deep scratches at the corners of the closet. Using osteomancy he then lifted the bones. It took wiggling in a very specific pattern but he eventually shifted the panel disguised as a wall to reveal a rough hewn tunnel and a degraded lip of beeswax that rats had obviously nibbled at. Had they not done so he would never have felt the air current that alerted him to the passage’s presence. 

In total he found more than five secret rooms that stank of lovers’ retreats, three tunnels leading outside of the dormitory, several collapsed passages, and a few other route of questionable safety that led into the underground cave systems. 

Apparently the student’s of the spring court took the practice of secret magics and (debatably) illegal arts, seriously. 

He really had chosen his court well.

Of the passages, he prefered the bathroom pantry. It was guarded by the horrid conditions of the shared bathroom, had extra protection in the form of whatever depravity had been visited on that standing toilet, and there was even an extra entrance. 

On the second floor there was a similar pantry, in a similar bathroom. Though this one was simply guarded by a magic construct that talked to you the entire time you were in the stall. It was distressingly intimate, knew his full name immediately, and, when it wasn’t intermittently screaming like a murder victim, it plyed Yam with subtly insulting implications and passive aggressive comments. 

The pantry on that second floor stall had a similar mechanism in the walls. This one opened to reveal a ladder going to the same passage the first floor entrance led to. Both routes terminated in a comfortably sized cavern with a waist high waterfall in the corner. The water was perfectly drinkable as far as he could tell. The cavern was excellent ventilated, softly lit by strange plants, and held some stretches of wall that were so perfectly smooth that he was certain they had been altered with earth magic. 

It seemed like the most secure place he could possibly set up camp. But, it was best to check. He set up indicators to see if any other students knew of the location. They were the same tricks he had used in his assigned dormitory to detect anyone tampering with his belongings.

That done, Yam closed his eyes and hummed happily to himself in his new hidden get-away. Surrounded by knowledge and escape tunnels was how he was meant to be. 

He was not able to linger for long though. He kept falling asleep and was forced to return to his room. Even though it felt incredibly vulnerable to sleep where everyone expected him to be. But he needed a window so that the sun could wake him in time for his next step. 

~~~

He awoke after fourteen hours of oblivion ready to exploit his free tutoring session. 

Awake, energetic, magic filled to the brim, Yam packed up his entire bag. He made particularly sure to place his black tea, food, and drams within easy reach at the top of the bag. Then he set off for the building where he would finally be introduced to the magic of the Spring Court. 

There was no doubt that others had noticed the same loophole that he had. The fact that it remained seemed to be implicit encouragement of his plan.

When he had discussed tutoring, Mrs. Reed had told him that tutoring pairs were senior students who rotated after certain stretches of time unless one had earned the privilege of scheduling private sessions. That being said, if one waited their room, the rotation would ensure that they learned from three pairs, six different perspectives! All within a ‘long’ three hour session. 

With a happy hum, Yam stepped off the cobbled path he was on and gathered some kindling that had fallen off a beautiful tree. With practiced motions he stripped all the leaves from the wood and wedged them into his traveling pack so it would neither knock against his cooking pot or dirty the great wrap that served as his clothes and bed roll.

Though a three hour session was ‘long’, one earned access to the tutoring building. Not, he had clarified, access to the building for a pre-determined amount of time.

The eternal spring sun warmed his fur as he filled two large traveling canteens with water from a fountain, and Yam couldn’t help but smile. 

Yes. Until they caught on, Istima really was the best place in the world for him to be.

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Cal 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, sounds good.”

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

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

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

“Was there something you needed?”

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it that different from what you eat?”

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

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

“I apologize for the lack of seating.” 

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

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

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

“You enjoy the food?”

“S’ good,” Cal said between bites.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s it?” She asked.

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

“I can get behind that.”

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

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

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

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

“Your pronunciation is excellent!”

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

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

“That was… bring drinks please?”

“Very good, Lady Alendra.”

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

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

“That’s not even magic!” Cal said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow!”

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

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

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

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

“Intriguing. Aketsi don’t have tutors.”

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

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

“Allie. Just say Allie.”

“I did not wish to presume familiarity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Think?”

“Shut up.”

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

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

“You’re babbling.”

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

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

“What?” Alendra whispered.

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

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

“What?”

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

“Allie, you’re drunk.”

“Not that drunk. C’mon, lemme help.”

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

“Got it.” Alendra tensed, concentrating.

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

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

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

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

“Cal!”

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

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

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

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

“Gods, your hands…”

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

“Shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next time we get drunk you mean?”

Alendra laughed. “Yeah.”

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

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Lyssana 6

Chapter 6: Playing with Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait…rooms? As in more than one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Such cold words from a lady of fury.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” She asked sharply. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

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.

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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 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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Cal 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, but I’m good. Just be safe.”

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

The Akatsi saw her and limped over.

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would have to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you need it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You, uh, noticed that?”

“I did. So, where is your project?”

“I’m wearing it.” She lifted a boot.

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

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

“Is something supposed to be happening?”

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

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

Cal gave her a blank look.

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

“Oh.”

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

“Yes?”

“Did you blind another student?”

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

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

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

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