It was windier than she imagined. Standing on the observation deck of the gondola, the valley below was a churning maelstrom, with clouds ebbing and flowing like waves on rough seas. Even as the gondola pilot steered the vessel inwards and upwards, Cal saw something move on the forest floor below. It was like a deer, but larger, with black horns curling outwards in tight spirals.
“Marvelous, isn’t it?” Said the man in the tailored black robes. “Why, I remember my first time crossing over the valley. I wasn’t much older than you, my lady.”
“Fascinating,” Cal muttered, not looking up as the deer-creature disappeared behind a passing cloud.
“We’re nearly there, we should make our way towards the front if we wish to avoid the rush.”
She allowed the man to lead her through the crowded interior of the gondola. As the city came into view, Cal wasn’t the only one who gasped at the sight.
The floating structure was diamond-shaped. The bottom half was hewn of rough stone, like an upside-down mountain. Above it, the upper half was covered in countless structures and towers.
The crowd pressed against the front railing, clamoring for a better look and for the chance to be the first off when they arrived. Cal found herself struggling to breathe as the gondola touched down.
The port itself was abuzz with merchants and travelers. Cal had never seen so many people in one place before. As she stepped onto the dock, she knew that this was the perfect school for Lady Callion Augurellia, firstborn daughter of the Duke of Wystenvane.
She only hoped that no one realized it was all a lie.
Her real name was Fen Calton, or Cal to anyone who knew her. The real Lady Augurellia had died a week before, asphyxiating on her own bile while she slept. It was by sheer luck that Cal had been the first to happen upon her. Granted, it was because she’d been trying to rob the rich girl in the middle of the night.
Cal had been desperate. The luck she’d had when she first came to the two-bit town was quickly wearing off. The guards were starting to remember her face and the bar tabs were piling up. Even the local priests were beginning to doubt her poor orphan story, and the pieces of bread they gave her were getting smaller and smaller. She’d hoped the finely-dressed woman sitting in the inn would be her ticket out.
And, in a way, she’d been right. Among the girl’s possessions, Cal found the acceptance letter to the University. In a flowery script, the letter touted Lady Augurellia’s magical ability, familial legacy, and high application scores. The plan had formed in her mind and when morning came, the new Lady Augurellia had taken the waiting carriage out of town.
It wasn’t completely ridiculous. In the right light, the two of them could have passed for sisters—or at least cousins. Cal found the velvet dresses a little tight, but gave her the right look and kept anyone from asking too many questions.
The man in the black robes tapped her on the shoulder, stirring her from her musings. “We have an hour or two before the official orientation begins. Might I offer you a tour, my lady?”
“That’s alright,” she said, wishing she remembered his name. “If it’s alright with you, I think I’d like to wander by myself for a while. I can find my way to the orientation afterwards.”
“As you wish,” the man bowed. He departed and, in moments, was swallowed by the crowd. Instantly, Cal sighed in relief. It was hard to think straight when she was constantly being watched.
The University! She could hardly believe it. She’d heard tales of it since before she was a young cutpurse. And while the towers weren’t literally made of gold—a detail she’d always been cynical about—the city was full of rich merchants, powerful nobles, and other unsuspecting targets.
She felt in her pocket for her first goal. A small, cream-colored piece of paper she’d long since committed to memory: Property of Lady Callion Augurellia. Redeem at the House of Bergan and Sons.
It didn’t take her long to find the right place. The ostentatious building clashed with the more utilitarian look of the docks. Cal passed through the gilded doorway and found herself in a small reception room. The thin man behind the desk peered at her through small glasses teetered precariously on the end of his nose. Behind him, the back wall was lined with small metal boxes, each with a complex-looking lock.
Without a word, she walked to him and slid the paper across the desk. The man glanced down and read the slip quickly before looking back up and studying her face. For a moment, Cal froze. Had he seen through her disguise? Damn, she wished she’d checked for guards before she entered.
But then he smiled at her. “We’ve been expecting you, my lady.” He stood and walked to one of the boxes and unlocked it. From within, he drew out a parcel and a letter. He placed both before her and bowed. “Thank you for your patronage.”
Cal furrowed her brow. She really wished people would stop bowing to her. It was unnerving. She nodded to the man and went to pick up the parcel, only to find it to be much heavier than she expected. It was barely the size of her palm, but it felt like a brick. Peeling back the brown paper wrapping, she had to stifle a gasp. Inside were three small bars of gold.
“Is something the matter, my lady?” The clerk asked. “Were you expecting more?”
“No, no, this is definitely adequate,” Cal said, rewrapping the bars and stuck them in her pocket. She grabbed the letter next. It had an ornate wax seal of two herons beneath the word ‘Augurellia.’ She tore it open and poured over the words within.
Your mother and I feel that this sum should suffice for your needs for the year. I know you talked about wanting more independence and responsibility and, while I have my reservations, I’ve decided to acquiesce. This will be the only funds you receive from us, try to budget wisely. If you should find yourself out of money, I recommend you find a means of income. If that is too distasteful, then perhaps school isn’t for you. Should that happen, simply write home and I shall arrange for your return.
Duke Alton Augurellia
Damned again! She’d been planning to milk her new “parents” for more funds, but apparently, she wouldn’t have that luck. She lifted the gold again, hefting the weight in her hand.
“How much is this?” Cal asked the clerk.
“The gold? It’s 300 drams.”
“Drams?” She cocked an eyebrow. She’d heard of thalers, shims, and a dozen other coins, but this was new. The clerk seemed to notice her confusion.
“You are a new student?” He pointed at the bars. “Each of those is one hundred drams. The university plays host to dozens of nations and, to avoid appearing biased, has chosen to adopt a more… universal currency. In this city, we pay by weight.” He pulled out a scale, a small knife, and a glass jar. “Shops will place the price of an item on one side of the scale and you pay with an equal amount of gold on the other.” He demonstrated by placing several tiny weights on the scale. From within his clothes, he withdrew a small rod of gold and, using the knife, shaved small curls of gold onto the other side. Slowly, the scale balanced.
“Seems overly complicated.”
“Perhaps, yes,” the clerk said, sweeping the gold flakes into the glass jar. “But, it has its merits, as I’m sure you’ll find, my lady.” He handed her the knife and another jar.
Cal nodded her thanks and turned to leave, more confused than before. As she stepped back out into the sunlight, she had to keep herself from feeling for the gold in her pocket. It was more than she’d ever held in her lifetime. If she hopped on a gondola and left the city right now, she could live comfortably for at least a few years.
But that wasn’t satisfying enough. If they were willing to hand her 300 ‘drams’ just like that, there were certainly more to be found.
Cal remembered her guide mentioning an orientation. Glancing at a clock tower, she saw she still had a few hours to go. More than enough time for her to get some information. She took a detour off the main thoroughfare and ducked into an alley. Here, where the air reeked of stale beer, urine, and desperation, it didn’t take long to find what she was after.
A man was slumped over against a brick wall. He was young, perhaps no older than she was, but years of hard living had clearly taken their toll. She nudged him with her boot.
“Huh?” He mumbled. “What d’you want?”
“Information,” Cal knelt down by him, “and I’m willing to pay.” At this, the man cracked open an eye, like a dog smelling food. She shaved off a bit of gold and handed it to the beggar, who snatched it hungrily in his grubby fingers. “Tell me about the university.”
“What do you want to know?” The man said, studying the gold in his hands.
“Where are the richest magicians?”
“They’re all loaded, but none near as much as the ploughin’ summer court.” He shifted, bringing his threadbare cloak around his shoulder.
“Them’s the ones who enchant and brew potions. Fuckers, the lot of them.”
“Focus,” Cal said, proffering another small sliver of gold. “Next question, what do you know about orientation?”
“Worst time of the year. Kids get walked in front of professors like livestock. If they like you, you’re in. If not, you’re gonna need to pay to get anywhere.”
Cal chewed her lip. She’d hoped that her letter of acceptance would be enough. “And what do they like?”
“Fancy magic. The more powerful, the better. A few kids a year might even get in free.”
“And everyone else?”
“Gotta pay to study. Not a problem for someone rich like you.”
“You sure do know a lot about this.”
“I was a student once. This place chews you up and leaves you broken.” He spat on the ground. “Now I’ve answered your questions. Pay more, or piss off.”
Cal put away her gold and left the alley, breathing deep as she reentered the sunlight. There was still some time before the orientation, but she couldn’t relax. She had to find some way to get into the school. The beggar had said the Summer Court was rich, so that would be her target.
She wandered the market, studying the signs of the various shops. While there were a variety of mundane stores to be found, the area was dominated by the sale of magical items. Color-changing clothes, ever-burning lanterns, hundreds of kinds of potions. The stores and their selections ranged from humble to grandiose, with prices that made Cal’s eyes boggle. But perhaps, one of these items could be of use in her orientation.
The store she picked to finally enter had large bay windows filled with enchanted gear. Inside, it smelled of cloves and citrus, and a finely-dressed woman stood at the counter. The shop attendant glanced up briefly at her entrance before returning to her book.
The store was set up in a series of small alcoves, each seeming to contain multiple small displays and a single device displayed on a central pillar. The first alcove Cal looked into held a glove-like instrument on the pedestal. She held it up in the light, studying the runes etched into the metal bands along the palm. She turned to the attendant.
“What does this one do?”
“An impressive and delicate device,” said the attendant, setting down her book. She hurried over and snatched the glove from Cal. “It’s used for energy redirection. While a normal energetic battery may be quite costly, the one used by this device is only capable of storing kinetic energy, reducing the price dramatically.” Cal nodded along, not understanding a word. She gingerly put it on over his sleeve and flipped a small switch. The device hummed to life. “The controls allow you to store energy or release it.”
The attendant flipped the switch to collection and struck the wall several times. There wasn’t even a noise as her hand impacted the surface. Then, flipping the switch again, she hit the wall again. While her fist hadn’t been moving with any real speed, the stones cracked and splintered at her touch, sending dust flying.
Cal flinched as she was pelted with small bits of rock. “You destroy your wall often?”
The attendant shrugged. “I’ll have a geomancer fix it. Now, are you interested in purchasing this device for only three hundred and fifty drams?”
“Three hundred—I mean, that is, perhaps a bit cumbersome for my purposes. Do you have anything a bit more compact?” She turned to one of the smaller displays in the alcove. “What about that ring?”
“Ah, that’s a gravitic-mitigation device, capable of offsetting weight by ninety percent.” Cal gave her a blank stare. “It helps you lift heavy things.” The attendant grabbed the ring, slipped it on, and placed her hand on the edge of the stone display pillar. The pillar lifted off the ground like it was weightless.
The effect was impressive, Cal had to admit, and the ring was small enough that she could easily cover it up. There was just the matter of price…
“That is one hundred and twenty drams,” the woman clicked politely.
Cal winced. It would set her back, but she had to keep the thought of future gold in mind. “I’ll take it.”
If the attendant was surprised, she showed no signs of it. Instead, she merely walked to the counter, placed weights one side of a scale, and waited for Cal.
Pulling her gold out, Cal placed one of the bars down and then grabbed another bar to shave off the rest of the weight. The attendant waited patiently, leaning over to watch the scales slowly level out. When she was satisfied, she straightened back up and nodded. “Let me just remove the alarm.”
“The what?” Cal leaned in, watching as the attendant moved her hands over the ring.
“Well, you didn’t think we’d just leave something like this lying out did you? We add a magical alarm as a theft deterrent.”
“I see,” Cal said, suddenly very glad she hadn’t tried to pocket the ring. If all the stores were like this, she’d have to rethink some of her usual strategies.
When the attendant was done, Cal took the ring and left. She slipped it on and… felt disappointed. She’d expected to feel some sort of surge of power, but all she felt was the cold silver band on her finger. But she still needed to test it.
She found a rain-barrel in a nearby alley and tried to lift it. It was impossibly heavy. For a moment, Cal felt panic creep into her mind. She had spent a third of her gold on this thing, and it wasn’t even working!
But she shook the thought from her mind. She tried again and, as soon as the ring touched the barrel, the weight was gone. It was still heavy, but not enough to keep her from raising it above her head. A laugh escaped from her lips as she looked up at the ridiculous sight.
While she set the barrel back down, her grip slipped. As soon as the ring wasn’t touching it, the weight returned and she had to jump out of the way as the barrel crashed to the ground. It splintered and the water it held exploded out.
Despite getting soaked, Cal couldn’t stop laughing. She wiped water from her face and rung out her hair. In the distance, a bell chimed. It was time for orientation. She looked down at the ring, the runes glowing faintly. It was time.