The orientation building was at the edge of the docks, where the roads began to slope upward. The hall was built like a cathedral, with grand arches and stained glass windows. Cal could swear she saw the colored panels moving as she walked, creating scenes of swirling stars and planets in the light.
“Ah, you’ve arrived,” the man in black said. His voice echoed through the hall. He was standing with a small group of overly-dressed young men and women. “Come and meet some of your future classmates.”
“If we get in, that is,” one of the boys said.
“Oh, posh, Jasten,” a girl tittered, “we both know this whole thing is a charade. With your connections, I’m surprised they’re making you test at all.”
“Perhaps they merely wish to be impressed.” The one named Jasten raised a hand and a flame erupted in his palm, turning from red to blue to green. With a flick of his wrist, the fire was launched upwards before exploding into sparks.
The girl giggled and flashed her long lashes at Jasten. Cal struggled not to roll her eyes.
“But, we are being rude,” Jasten turned to her. “I am Lord Jasten Forthale, son of the Count of Ritania. And you are?”
“Lady Callion Augurellia, daughter of the Duke of Wystenvane.”
The young lord made a sweeping bow. “I didn’t realize you would be here, my lady. Our fathers would be glad to know we’ve been properly acquainted.”
“They would?” Cal felt a growing worry in her stomach. Her disguise had fooled commoners, but they never questioned authority anyway. Now she was among the elite, and they would pick her apart like a pack of wolves.
“Yes, after all, Istima is the birthplace of many fruitful… relations.” Behind him, some of the other boys snickered. The girl he’d spoken to earlier pouted.
“And rotten apples, apparently,” Cal muttered.
“Pardon?” The boy asked. Before she could respond, an old man approached. He wore robes of deep purple and carried a staff of red lacquered wood.
“Attention, prospective students!” He said through his thick white beard. “Welcome to Istima. I am Garren, one of the deans of the university. Might I congratulate you on getting this far. But there is one test remaining!” He held up a single knobbed finger. “It is the most important of all: a chance to demonstrate your skill to representatives of the five courts. Do well, and you will be given opportunities few could dream of. I would also like to thank all of you for your generous donations which afforded you advanced test placement. In a moment, I will call your name and you will pass through these doors over there.” He held up a scroll and read from the list. “First up, Callion Augurellia!”
Damn. Cal had hoped for a little longer to come up with a plan. Instead, she found herself marching toward the impressively large wooden doors at the end of the hall.
The room beyond was an amphitheater, with five people sitting in chairs in a semicircle opposite her. She noticed each was seated beneath a stained glass window representing their court. In the middle of the room was a small table with a brass tube on it.
“Lady Augurellia,” said the woman beneath the snowflake. “Your family legacy precedes you. I was a classmate of your father’s. I trust he is well.”
“Naturally,” Cal said.
The woman gave a small smile. “Good. I am Professor Turin of the Winter Court. My colleagues and I are here today to judge you. Now, to the matter at hand. Please, show us what you can do.”
Walking up to the table, Cal felt for the ring on her finger. She angled her hand away so that it remained hidden from view as she grabbed hold of the table and lifted. Her audience muttered amongst themselves, some taking notes.
“Impressive, my lady,” Professor Turin spoke again. “I see that you continue the family trend of spurning the Winter Court.” The men and women laughed politely. “Perhaps some of my colleagues would like to comment?”
“Yes,” said the man beneath the stained glass picture of a leaf. “This was certainly a great demonstration of power—and without even touching the battery! I’m willing to make an offer based on that alone.”
“Hold on, Rasmus,” said a man beneath the picture of a flame. “Let the rest of us have a go at her first.” He turned to her. “You gripped the table as opposed to lifting it from range, why?”
Cal could feel the eyes on her now. These people were clearly expecting some kind of educated answer, but she had none. What was it the woman said when she bought the ring?
“Gravitic mitigation,” she said.
The man raised an eyebrow, but nodded, accepting the answer. “Bold of you to attempt such a thing. It’s more advanced and, arguably, less impressive to the casual observer.”
“I would argue that the people in this room are not casual observers, professor,” Cal shot back. The man laughed.
“A question!” Cal turned to the woman beneath the symbol of the moon. “Why did you assume the table was real?”
“I… I’m sorry?”
“Bah!” The woman threw her hands up, “have at her, dogs. The Umbral Court has no need of someone so… grounded.”
“You mean sane, Theodosia,” grumbled the man under the sun.
“Words!” The woman said.
“Pay her no mind, my dear,” the man smiled. “Now comes the time for us to make our offers. On behalf of the Summer Court, I extend an invitation.”
“On behalf of the Fall Court, I extend an invitation.”
Professor Turin smiled softly. “On behalf of the Winter Court, I feel your talents would be wasted here. No invitation.”
“On behalf of the Spring Court, I extend an invitation.”
“The Umbral Court shall not take you!” The woman beneath the moon jumped to her feet, pointing an accusatory finger. She stood for a moment, lowered her arm, and proceeded to walk out of the room.
“Somebody please fetch her,” Professor Turin sighed. “In any event, you have three offers to consider, my lady. Do you have a preference?”
“The Summer Court,” Cal said.
“Really?” Turin arched an eyebrow. “Are you certain? The path of the Summer Court is not easy by any means. With all due respect to my fellow professor,” she nodded to the man under the sun, “that school tends to attract the worst sort of miscreants, scoundrels, and cheats imaginable.”
The man beneath the flame grunted. “I’ve heard worse from better people.”
Miscreants, scoundrels, and cheats. In other words, I’ll fit right in, Cal thought. “I’m certain, professor.”
“Well then, I must congratulate you on your acceptance. Welcome to Istima.”
Half an hour later and Cal was waltzing down the street, class schedule and paperwork in her hand. It’d stung more than she’d like to admit to have had to pay the tuition fee—almost all of her remaining gold—but the promise of opportunity hung in the air. After all, she thought, spend money to make money, right?
After her test, a kindly old administrator had walked her through the process and gave her directions through the city towards her dormitory. The notion of having a bed to call her own was a strange feeling, but not an unwelcome one.
Checking the schedule, she saw that classes weren’t set to begin until two weeks after all of the admissions testing had been completed. That left her with a week to settle in and scout out—
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Someone was following her, she was certain. She made a hard right and entered an alley.
From inside her boot, Cal drew out a knife. It was small, and the metal was pitted and stained, but sharpened to a razor edge. She hid in an alcove and waited.
A moment later, a figure passed by her and she leapt out. The figure cried out in a surprisingly high-pitched voice and Cal saw the flash of a blade. She quickly grabbed the figure’s wrist and twisted until the knife clattered to the cobblestones. The hooded figure struggled as she pushed them against the wall. Only when her own knife was pressed against the throat of her assailant did the fighting stop.
“I yield!” The figure cried. Cal ripped the hood back to reveal a woman, no older than her. Thick blonde hair fell in loose curls around a pale face. “You can put the knife down.”
She kept the blade at the girl’s neck. “Who are you?”
“Is that a joke? Gods, I know you can’t be that… hang on.” The girl narrowed her eyes. “You’re not Callion.”
“Tell me who you are.”
“My name is Alendra Kaestellus, which you would know if you were Callion, seeing as we’ve known each other since childhood.”
“If that was the case, then why would you attack me in an alley?”
“Because I wanted to get back at her—“
“With a knife?”
“It was just for show! I’d never actually hurt her, but I figured it’d give her a scare.”
“You hate her?” Cal lowered the knife a fraction of an inch. This girl didn’t seem like much of a threat.
“Gods yes. Callion made my life a living hell. She once locked me in the cellar during my own birthday party. It took hours for anyone to notice.” She shook her head. “But, you aren’t her, so who are you? And where is she?”
The color drained from Alendra’s face. “You killed her?”
“No, but I found her body. One thing led to another and…” she gestured to herself. “Here I am.”
“I never liked her—I mean I really hated her—but I didn’t want her dead!”
“Well then it’s a good thing you didn’t kill her.” Cal shook her head. “Now focus on the here and now. This is a place of learning, so consider this your first test: you just found out I’m an impersonator and I’m holding a knife to your throat, what are you going to do?”
“I’m not going to tell anyone, if that’s your concern.”
“I have no assurance of that.”
“How about this?” Her hand shot up and Cal’s world turned sideways as she was lifted off the ground.
Being levitated was, as Cal found out, extremely unpleasant. The pull of gravity was all wrong, and there was nothing to grab onto for support. It took significant effort not to throw up as she was lifted ten, then fifteen feet up.
“I’m not helpless you know,” Alendra said. “So now I have a test for you: the girl you were threatening has lifted you in the air and could throw you to the ground at any time. What are you going to do?
“I could throw my knife,” Cal mused.
“If I lose concentration, you’ll fall.”
“I could shout for help.”
“I’d claim self-defense. After all, I just uncovered an imposter.”
“Your word against mine.” She swung her arms, reorienting herself towards the ground. To her surprise, Alendra was smiling.
“Then we are at an impasse.” She lowered Cal to just a few feet above the ground. “So I have a proposal.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Let’s work together. This place is dangerous, and it’d be nice to have an ally.”
“That’s rather trusting.”
Alendra shrugged, the slight movement caused Cal to bob in the air. “The way I see it, you’re going to need help to pull off this disguise of yours. No one knows Callion as well as I do.”
“And what do you get in return?”
“Who knows? But it’s the game of the nobility to collect favors. Who knows what I might need?”
Cal thought for a moment before nodding. “Alright.” Slowly, she was lowered all the way to the ground. As soon as she touched down, Alendra bent over, gasping for breath.
“Sorry, that took a lot out of me. Another minute of negotiation and I might’ve dropped you.” She wiped her brow and stood up, sticking out a hand. “Let’s start again. I’m Alendra, and you are?”
“Fen Calton.” She reached out and shook. “But my friends call me Cal.”
After another half-hour of walking, Cal made it up the various tiers of the city toward the center of the city. At this altitude, the air was noticeably chilly, and the lungs had to reach for every full breath.
The highest level of Istima was devoted to the six courts; one for each of the schools and another for student housing and the odd classroom. The gates to each were laid out in a large courtyard in the center. Cal noted the location of the Summer Court—Estival—the professors had called it. But for now, she needed to settle in. Nearby, she found the Day Court. Unlike the others, the gate to the Day Court wasn’t maintained. The few stones that weren’t covered in ivy were stained and pitted. The statues guarding its entrance were crumbling and disfigured, more than one looked like it had been vandalized.
Passing through the gates, Cal was surprised by a sudden wave of warmth. The skies above were azure and cloudless. She walked backwards out of the Day Court and the cold returned. When she looked up, the sky was thick with clouds.
“Confusing, isn’t it?” Alendra said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”
“But…” Cal slowly raised a finger at the bright skies through the gate. “Huh?”
“Eloquently put.” Alendra walked through the gate and turned back to her. “Are you coming?”
Cal shook her head and followed. Once inside, she took her eyes off the sky long enough to take stock of her surroundings. The courtyard was circular, with three large towers on the perimeter, each showing signs of repeated repairs.
“This place is…”
“Old?” Alendra finished.
“I was going to say ‘a dump,’ but yes, old too. And empty.”
“That’s just because this is only the first day of admissions. By the end of the week, it’ll be packed. Not that it matters to us, though.”
“Well, you’re not planning on actually staying here, are you?” She raised an eyebrow. “Please tell me you found somewhere else to stay.”
“What’s wrong with this place?”
“Gods, just wait and you’ll find out.” She shook her head. “Why not use some of Callion’s money to get lodgings?”
“Her parents decided she needed to be independent. So they’ve cut ‘me’ off.”
Alendra laughed. “I would have paid good money to see her face when she found that out. In the meantime, we can at least get you settled.” She turned to towers. “To the left is the women’s dormitory, to the right is men’s, and the middle is purportedly used for meals. I doubt whatever slop the university is willing to give out is going to be edible though.”
“Considering how much it costs to go here, it better be,” Cal mumbled.
“The administration is of the opinion that if you don’t like it, you can just pay to get better somewhere else in the city.”
“You sure know a lot about this place.”
“I’ve only dreamed of coming here since I first learnt magic.” She spun around, taking it all in. “Speaking of which, I never did ask, how did you learn magic?”
“Oh, I can’t do magic.”
Alendra stopped spinning and stared bug-eyed at her.
“You can’t do what? Gods above and below, Cal, this is a damned school of magic! How did you even get in?”
Cal held up her hand and wiggled the finger with the ring on it. “I may have cheated.”
“That’s… actually rather impressive. But still, how do you intend on keeping up your disguise? Sooner or later you’ll have to prove you can do something.” She shook her head. “That won’t do.” She turned and began walking towards the women’s dormitory tower.
“Where are you going?” Cal called after her.
“We’re going to get you a room, and then we’re going to teach you magic.”
“Okay, everyone always tells you to clear your mind and focus on the action of magic.”
“Sounds reasonable enough.”
“It’s bullshit.” Alendra held out her hand and a small white flame appeared on her palm. “I wasted weeks trying to empty my thoughts because my tutor told me to. He only told me that because he was ancient and it sounds nice.”
“Then what should I do?” Cal shifted in her seat. “Do we know if I can even do magic?”
“Anyone can do magic.” She paused. “Okay, technically, anyone can do magic. Just like how anyone can technically be a master musician, or a great swordsman. But only a fraction of people even have the time and energy it takes to get good at it.”
“Just tell me what to do.”
“Hold out your hand.” Alendra did the action as she spoke. “Now, how much do you know about science?”
“Alright, then let’s start at the basics. Your body contains and uses energy. For now, let’s use your body heat. You can feel when this drops because you get cold. With me so far?”
“Good, because here’s where it gets tricky. That same heat you hold is the same energy needed for a fire, but it could also be the energy to make light, or sound, or gravity. All we do with magic is funnel your energy in different ways. So, I want you to feel the heat of your own palm.”
“Okay, I’m thinking about it.” Cal held out her hand and stared at it. It felt silly, but she really was trying.
“Now, try and make your palm warmer. Finally, here’s where it all comes together. Think about the air above your palm. It’s there, even if you can’t see it. I want you to try and transfer the heat in your hand to the air above it.”
Cal narrowed her eyes and, for the slightest of moments, she felt her hand go cold. More than that, it felt like the heat was being siphoned out of her. A small flicker appeared in the air, nothing more than a spark.
“That’s it!” She said, clapping her hands together. “Well done!”
The light died and Cal breathed out, suddenly very tired. Her hand was shaking, and the tips of her fingers were numb.
“Why do I feel like I’ve got a hangover?” She asked.
“That’s the drawback. Magic can’t make energy out of nothing, so it takes effort to do anything impressive. When I first started practicing, I fainted constantly. It gets easier, I promise. In the meantime, practice making that little flame whenever you can. Once you have that, we can work on more complex transfers.”
There was a week before classes. It was both agonizingly long and way too short of a time for Cal to prepare. It didn’t help that she didn’t even know how to prepare. Alendra kept her word and helped her practice, but she wasn’t going to be studying in the Summer Court.
“It’s not boring!” Alendra said, stirring the steaming bowl of broth.
“You just said your entire school is based around rules, Allie.” Cal shook her head and tore a piece of bread, dunking the pieces into her own soup.
“Well, yes, but it’s not like I’m one of those elementalists shooting fire out of my hands, now is it? If I don’t know what I’m doing when I levitate something, it could go flying off into the air, or send me flying in the other direction. You’re lucky I’m so good at it, or our first meeting could’ve been very different.”
“I guess, but still…” Cal looked at the towers of books heaped around her. “You sure all of these are required?”
“They gave me a list.” Alendra pulled out a small booklet. “Texts, supplies, schedules, it’s been rather helpful. Didn’t the Summer Court give you anything?”
Cal extended her empty hands and shrugged.
“Figures,” Alendra sat back, leafing through the booklet. “The only rules they care about are the ones they can break.”
“Any rule can be broken.”
She smirked. “If you think that, they’re not going to teach you anything new.”
“I don’t need them to,” Cal said between bites, “I just need them to drop their guard long enough to show me where they keep their valuables.” She saw Alendra frown. “What?”
“Listen, I’m not going to bore you with some lecture, but you did manage to get in to the most prestigious institution of learning in the world. Most people in your shoes would want to take advantage of that.”
“Oh, I plan to take advantage of everyone I find.”
“You know what I mean, Cal!” She was trying to be stern, but it was hard between the laughs. “I’m not going to lecture you, but keep it in mind.” She picked up a book and flipped to her bookmark.
“Are you actually planning on reading all those?”
“I want to get a head start.”
“Fine, be boring,” Cal sighed. She stood up and grabbed her coat.
“Where’re you going?”
“They didn’t give me any books, so I’ll have to prepare on my own.”
“Based on how vague and threatening that statement was, I refuse to ask any more questions.” She shook her head. “Go, enjoy… whatever it is you’re planning.”
Half an hour later and Cal was sitting on a rooftop. She’d ditched the uncomfortable clothes of nobility for something more plain and functional. It was hard to climb in a dress.
She’d been exploring in an increasingly large territory around the center of the city. It was beginning to be familiar, but there was just so much of it. As far as she could tell, Istima wasn’t built on a mountain, it was built on itself. If you went down, you just found more city. If you went down far enough, you stopped seeing people altogether. Maze-like corridors extended in every direction, vegetation and rot crept in and made the air fetid and damp. Cal shivered at the thought. She’d stuck to the upper levels since then.
She watched the entrance to the Summer Court. She had yet to explore beyond the strange gate, covered in strange, glowing runes. At the top of the stone archway, a golden sun hung, it seemed to emit a soft light, probably another pointless enchantment.
Cal slipped off the roof and walked across the central courtyard toward the gate. Despite the dreary, overcast skies around her, through the door, she saw a warm summer day. As she walked through, she felt the chill leave her bones and looked up to see clear skies.
As far as she’d seen, the courts all had the same basic architecture, but each had their own peculiarities, such as the giant floating orb in the Autumn Court. As Cal looked around, she saw that, aside from the three large towers, there was a series of smaller buildings clustered at the rim of the circular court. But in the center, there was a spectacular construction unlike anything she’d ever seen.
It was like a blacksmith’s forge, but bigger, much bigger. A great fire roared in the center of a central burner, smokestacks coiled like snakes around the center, and students worked with tools she could barely understand.
But, perhaps because this was Istima, the design wasn’t just impressive, but beautiful. On closer inspection, Cal saw that the smokestacks were covered in small iron scales, and the ends shaped into the mouths of great beasts, spitting black smoke into the air. The burner was covered in small runes, shifting from red to yellow to orange. The entire thing was functional, yet decorative.
“First time?” Cal leapt back and saw a tall, skinny man looking at her. “Apologies. I have startled you.”
“What?” She asked, looking him up and down. As she did, she saw he wasn’t human. At first glance, it was hard to tell, but beneath the broad hood, his skin was gray and mottled. His eyes were large and yellow, reminding Cal of a frog.
“You were admiring the forge. Most do. I did.” He stuck out a hand. “This is how you greet, yes?”
Cal took the hand numbly. The not-quite-human’s skin was cool to the touch, and his grip was weak as he shook her hand.
“I am Aketsi,” he said.
“Callion Augurellia,” she said, eying him up and down.
“Ah, no, Rathana On is my name, Aketsi is what I am.” He paused for a moment. “You seemed uncertain of my origin.”
Cal nodded. She remembered hearing about the strange swamp-folk of the south. They weren’t common like the Len, or spectacular like the Saakarans, they were just… strange.
“You are a student?” Cal asked.
“I will be. Two days until classes begin. Are you to study in the Estival Court as well?”
“I am.” She bit her tongue. She shouldn’t be sharing this much! She was supposed to go unseen and unheard. The Aketsi had caught her off-guard.
“Then we will see more of each other soon. I will leave you to wander, Callion.” He turned to walk away and Cal called out.
“Wait!” Curiosity got the better of her. “Is it true what they say about you? About your, uh, legs?”
Rathana gave a half smile, as though expecting the question. He reached down and lifted the bottom of his loose robes. Beneath, Cal saw a set of two bare feet. Then, the Aketsi shifted, there was movement beneath the robe and two more legs unfolded, descending until the feet touched the ground. When they did, the first pair of legs lifted and disappeared into the fabric. Then he lowered the robe.
“I hope this answers your question, Callion.” He bowed slightly and walked off, leaving Cal to stare mouth agape as he did.