Another first-year student would be afraid of debating the price of tutoring with someone from The Winter Court. They were more amicable than any other faction when it came to inter-court tutoring. But their motto was, ‘Second to none but nature.’ That referred to the harshness of their lessons and the scale at which their anger made itself known.
Luckily, Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers was the very spirit of tact and social grace.
“Without rancor or exaggeration, I can say that I have seen men sell their children for less. Your ego is big enough to serve as a local landmark. No second-year student is worth that many drams unless they shit silver, and piss liquid enlightenment. Make me another offer or I say you are a buffoon and not worth my time, let alone my gold.”
He felt a tremor go through the ground as the muscles in the young woman’s jaw flexed.
“Oh, truly now? You would call me that?” she said, the smile on her bargaining face laughably stiff.
“If you said that to a pyromancer, I’d hesitate to call you anything but an imminent burn victim.”
“Luckily,” Yam grinned, spotting the game in her words, “I’m only talking to geomancer.”
“Only a geomancer?” she said, going completely still.
“Only a geomancer,” he confirmed, folding his arms and leaning back.
His potential tutor clenched her jaw and glared.
They were standing in a small courtyard near the entrance of her court and Yam was finding himself grateful for the thick and layered spring court clothes he wore. All the trees lining the scenic, bench-lined nook between buildings were leafless. They did live in perpetual winter after all. But the Hibernal court refused to let something as simple as a supernaturally inhospitable climate get in the way of their aesthetics. The trees were barren but still managed to be hauntingly beautiful, branches swimming through the air in cultivated sweeps and elegant lines as they searched for a non-existent pocket of warmth and sunshine.
The pause in their conversation only lasted a moment before the elementalist mastered herself and summoned her own bargaining face.
Again, her smile was amateur. It came across as wide-eyed and feral rather than politely interested. But Yam was becoming used to how unpredictable human social cues were.
She tilted her head to the side, disconcerting smile still on full display, “You said you wanted tutoring in control because you had difficulty moving more than a fist-sized stone?”
“Correct. Tutoring in control and general geomancy. There is rock I need to be able to move and reform on short notice.”
She stared him straight in the eye, not responding to his words.
Her smile widened, becoming sharp as a butcher’s cleaver and even less forgiving, “First lesson then. A Winter Court classic.”
“We haven’t agreed on a cost.”
“Oh, this one’s for free.”
Two days before, Yam had left the meal with his roommate and found that a double dose of the wakefulness potion was potent.
Phenomenally, euphorically, manically potent.
The seller had given him several small containers. A glass bottles barely the height of his thumb. All filled with an unappealingly thick liquid and kept shut with small corks. He was advised that the doses were for large humans and that half a vial would be more than enough for him.
But he had also heard the wakefulness pills would keep him awake better than any black tea could.
Two full vials later, his bones held the same impossibly fast rattle that he had felt as a child when he would run alongside a fence dragging a stick down the slats. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Going so fast his teeth seemed to buzz like a bee’s hive.
In some ways, his fervor had been enlightening. Yam felt like he was able to do anything. He was invulnerable, unstoppable, already a god, and seconds away from learning how to fly.
Obviously, he had realized in a burst of inspiration, when a master craftsman took an apprentice they made them do hundreds of thousands of repetitions. They did not just read about how to weave, sew, or hammer metal. They did.
The way to be able to do something, was to start doing it.
And Yam’s focus was unstoppable. He hardly had to think of a task before he found his body moving to do it.
If he had any idea how to make a familiar bond, then he would have run to the Understacks at that exact moment. With the amount of energy in him, he knew in his heart that he would have opened that whole doorway to the Flesh Ants in a single surge of magic.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to make familiar bonds so he could start doing like a craftsman’s apprentice. And he couldn’t still the thunderstorm in his veins long enough to sit through a book on the topic.
Instead, he cleaned and oiled the leather of his belt, sharpened his remaining knife, ran out into the moonlight to scrub all of his clothes in a fountain, and practiced control exercises ceaselessly.
The control exercises were what gave him the idea. Yam had seen a stubby building with stacks of crates piled against the wall. Immediately, he wondered if his work with Coach Combs had made him strong enough to climb to the roof. So he tried it. He had also picked up a foreign coin off the ground and known immediately he should practice control exercises. So he had.
Doing both at the same time had been difficult, but he was unstoppable.
Which resulted in him sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of a roof, fingers scratched and bloody, clothes still wet from washing, and using Autumn Court gravity manipulation so the coin would be lighter and easier to move with his geomancy.
Then The Idea hit him like a horse’s hoof to the stomach.
There were dozens of ways to levitate a coin. Hundreds of combinations of different court’s styles. That was the truth of control exercises. And realizing every combination he would need to master— it was so daunting that he actually cried. Right there on the roof, moons shining silver on his damp fur, he wept.
That was the truth about magic too, he realized. Like layering tissue paper until the overlap in the middle became dark and impossible to see through. That shape in the middle was reality. All these ‘natural laws’ falling unevenly, one over the other, until each individual factor had overlapped to make the shape of the world.
The overwhelming massiveness of it bowled him over. The thought of confronting such immensity on his quest for godhood made his heartbeat so fast that he briefly thought he might be dying. Short of breath, chest aching, and dark thoughts whispered to him about his age, about how he couldn’t possibly master so many thousands of combinations, and about how his weak body would give up while he was still friendless and sleeping in a cave.
It overwhelmed him.
Until he leaped to his feet and started laughing so hard that the tears came even more heavily.
Because the truth about control exercises not only showed him his failure but the way forward. It gave him The Idea.
He could strain with all his might to fight directly against the shape of reality. Or, he could use the hundreds of spells, the thousands of combinations and the five types of magic to nudge all those different factors. To shift a few pieces of tissue paper and make the opaque shape in the middle of the pile one where what he wanted was easier: where god-like feats were almost natural.
The key was to not tie himself to one approach.
Why just lift a boulder with nothing but telekinesis and raw power? He could reduce gravity to make it lighter, harden the air below it so it was rolled up a shallow incline, bend space so an inch of the movement shifted it a mile, and automate it all with mind magic.
It would take a fraction of the power, and he would only need to be a passable novice at any of those skills, instead of being twenty years into the single-minded development of his telekinesis.
That was the solution to the Flesh Ants. To familiars. To how he would become Aehp.
Under the effects of the potion, his confidence was as boundless as his energy. Mastering all of those disciplines was easily within his grasp.
The first step filled his focus like it was the only thing in the world: Flesh Ants. They would be his. The coin fell forgotten as he sprinted for the crates he would need to clamber down. It never occurred to him to look at the steep fall next to him as he skittered across the rooftop made slick by dirt and dust.
He would be, and with the potion still buzzing inside his skin he felt like he already was, Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord. And obviously, Aehp was going to know every single way to make himself familiar.
That was how he would learn the divine truth; how he would see all the ways of lifting a coin. One at a time put down a new piece of tissue paper and see the overlap. In this case, each piece of paper was a different approach to making a familiar. He would look at similarities and outcomes until he figured out the truest, most powerful, familiar spell there could be. All he had to do was find the best parts of each court’s magic, throw away the dumb pieces, and focus on the parts that were showed up repeatedly.
With that goal in mind, everything until the next morning descended into a single continuous blur of activity.
He woke up back in the underground cavern of his dorm, even though he had sworn not to go down there until he knew how to lock the entrance. The young mage found himself surrounded by nearly seven drams worth of paper covered in frantically written notes. Very few of them made sense.
But, aside from learning that he really did only need half a vial of potion, he took one other important lesson from the experience.
He was not going to let the Flesh Ants win. And he could not afford to wait and read until a teacher told him how. The time to learn by doing was now. If he waited until he was prepared, until someone cared about his tragic backstory and tears, then he would wait until he was dead.
Two days later, and after nearly an hour of silent meditation and harmonic resonance, Yam was able to recover from his first flailing attempt at geomancy. At least well enough for him to bend space again.
The ground of the Winter Court had slid almost up to his waist. Or more accurately, the geomancer had made the ground open up so that he fell and was swallowed up by it.
It was a particularly harsh first lesson made all the worse by how cold the Winter Court was, and how the stone leached away his body’s heat.
Either way, the now solid-stone had constricted the opening of his money pouch and pressed it both wide and flat against his side, like a disapproving mouth. With the lightest spatial manipulation, he was able to increase the distance between the two lips until his fingers could slip inside.
Ideally, he would have pulled out the small, stiff leather tube where he stored the gold shavings; the change he used when his sticks of gold were just a little too heavy or too light for whatever he was purchasing.
However, the width of the spatially-altered opening precluded him from pulling out something so wide, and he was forced to bring a small finger of gold rather than the shavings.
It would do.
“Excuse me, excuse me sir!” he called out to a nearby student. A boy who was taller than he was short, more blond than he was brunette, and very loud.
Solitarily, and without equivocation, loud.
The student was speaking animatedly to a young woman who seemed politely disinterested in what he had to say. When Yam called, she interrupted to point out the young Len hailing them.
Though Yam could not hear what the boy said, he could swear he saw the student’s mouth from the words, ‘can’t be talking to us’.
“No!” he yelled, ”I am very much am talking to you!”
The young man turned his back and tried to continue speaking with the young lady.
”YOU! You the human mage who gives off the energy of an earth elementalist! I am YELLING at YOU!”
The boy hunched his shoulders and gave a very insincere laugh to his conversation partner.
“Young miss! Ma’am! I will give you gold,” he waved his money and spoke very loudly and very slowly, “if you, yes you, bring the earth elementalist over here. Right! Over! Here!”
The pointing and arm waving seemed to do the trick. She excused herself. The elementalist started to follow before she blocked him with a hand and left at a very determined pace.
“Now that you are unoccupied!” he continued shouting, ”Could you—”
“I can hear you!” the student yelled, scowling ferociously, “what is so important?”
“Well, my…” Yam almost said ‘good sir’, but he was not yet desperate enough to speak a falsehood, “my young and aggravated earth elementalist, as you can see, I am stuck. Would you help me?”
Before Yam could begin implementing any of the four B’s (barter, batter, bribe, or berate) the earth mage stomped his foot, and Yam was launched to his feet.
Where he immediately fell and, after the minimal justified amount of swearing, began massaging blood back into his legs.
“Ahh,” the boy winced, his posture less stiff than when he had been talking to the young woman, “I’m sorry. Should have remembered. You alright?”
“I am deeply uncomfortable, attempting to be angry, but also overwhelmingly glad that I did not die of dehydration.”
“Dehydration? No, the stone would have reasserted itself. Permanent changes are hard.”
“Yes, I had deduced as much?’
The young Len nodded, ”Originally I was buried to my ribs.”
The boy winced, “I know the feeling.”
“Of course. This is the Winter Court.”
“I don’t understand.”
The other student shrugged and came to his feet, “I’m sure you will. But I’m afraid that I really need to be—”
“Please,” Yam said, forgetting his stiff legs as an idea took hold of him, “I owe you a drink.”
The earth elementalist paused, “A drink?”
“Yes, and a conversation.”
“Ohhh. Yes. About that—”
“Two drinks, I meant to say.”
“Well!” said the elementalist, with the exact same forced laugh he had used on the woman, ”Like I was saying, my most fecund and furry friend, I’m famished and really need to find a place to feast!”
“Of course,” Yam nodded, as the student laughed at his own alliteration, “I know of a nearby tavern. Would you like to join me?”
“And what was your name? I’m not sure I caught it,” he said, managing to avoid choking on the barbarian’s introductions, even though it made him feel like a child still learning their letters.
“I’m Neal!” The elementalist said, throwing an arm around Yam’s shoulders and steering him towards the center of Istima. “And you’ll have to tell me about how you ended up chest-deep in the literal court of the Winter Court. Ha! I’m sure it’ll make a great story.”
“Well, it happened like this—”
“Wait, friend. I hate to be rude, but perhaps this story is best saved for when we have drinks in hand and food on the way?”
“You are quite persistent about your compensation,” the young Len nodded, face serious, “I respect that.”
“Exactly right! That’s what they say, ‘Neal is all about wine, women, and wanton acts of wizardry’ they say,“ the elementalist threw his head back and barked out a short, strong laugh.
“Yes,” Yam said, surprised that his smile at the barbarian equivalent of humor was more genuine than not, “I have heard a person say that. Quite recently too.”
“Oh really. Was the person me?”
Neal clapped him on the back and laughed again, “Very nice! I’m sure we’re going to be fast friends. You said the first three rounds were on you, right?”
Yam nodded and found himself oddly touched. Honestly, he had thought the man too dumb to notice the small game in his words. He certainly hadn’t expected him to immediately call it out without any attempt at subtlety or tact. Combined with how bold-faced he was about up-selling him on the drinks and Yam was finding himself to be pleasantly surprised.
Not quite Len, but better than most humans.
Also, it would be a lie to say he hadn’t noticed that this boy’s magical presence was substantial. From his limited understanding of this court’s hierarchical system, that could mean that Neal was rather highly placed. Perhaps highly placed enough to know about how the Hibernal Court bound their familiars?
No matter what, the potential knowledge he could gain from an amicable geomancer was great.
All he had to do was play it cool. Summon the good old bargaining face, use his impeccable knowledge of human norms, and turn up the charm.
Poor barbarian didn’t stand a chance.