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.