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.