“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times!” Teagan said as she marched into the room carrying a smoldering sack. “If you don’t properly anchor the runes on your projects, all you’ve done is hand in a fucking time bomb.” She reached in to withdraw a twisted hunk of metal before chucking it in the direction of a mountain of a boy sitting in the third row. It landed next to him with a dull crunch. Teagan leaned against her lectern and rubbed her temples.
“Gods below, Yaxley, students like you are the reason I drink!” She paused for a moment and frowned. “Alright… one of the reasons.”
She launched into her daily lecture. As usual, class took the form of Teagan explaining what mistakes were made in the last challenge. Sometimes, the mistakes were basic, such as Yaxley’s failure to anchor his runes, causing the energy contained within the magic to seek new and explosive means of expression. Other times, the issues were more esoteric. Many of the students would try and act like nothing she said phased them, but from the discomfort on their faces, it was apparent when Teagan was talking about their mistake.
“One of you turned in this design,” she continued, holding up a metal vest. Cal saw another student, a girl named Viraen, wince in recognition. “It is designed to be worn and to deliver an electric shock to anyone who strikes it. Fine, clever enough, and the runes serve their purpose.” Viraen relaxed slightly, which was a mistake. Teagan locked eyes with her.
“But there are three mistakes in the design. The first and most glaring is that there is nothing to stop the vest from shocking the wearer. Next, the runes are not protected, and even light damage to them could cause them to fail, or worse, cause a catastrophic discharge of energy. Lastly,” she held up the vest to her own torso, “what good would this do against a determined attack? It barely covers the vital organs, and the metal plating is so thin it might as well not even be there!” She tossed the vest back into the pile with the rest of the projects.
She sighed. “There is one additional problem that almost all of you had.” She looked around the room. “Your last assignment was to create something to defend yourself with. I would’ve thought the wording in this task was pretty clear, but apparently not.” She gestured at the pile of items. “Everyone, with the exception of Callion, handed in a defensive item. Or in Yaxley’s case, a tool I can only assume was designed to assist in suicide.” She scoffed. “Shields, means of escape, even a very loud whistle that is, and I quote, ‘supposed to alert the guards.’” Her piercing gaze could’ve melted ice. “Callion was the sole member of this class who decided to go on the offensive.” She withdrew Cal’s gravity crossbow and fired it at the wall. More than one student flinched as the bolt shattered the stone and sent a hail of shrapnel down upon them.
“A shield will not stop a sword, it will only delay it from reaching its target.” She gently set down the crossbow and turned to look each of her students in the eyes. “If you are attacked, stop them, subdue them, and while there are those higher up in the administration who would rather I not say this, kill them if you must. If you are unable to handle the inevitability of conflict, then you shouldn’t have joined. We are the Summer Court, you milksops!”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I think it goes without saying, Callion wins this challenge. For those of you keeping score, this puts her in second place for the whole class, one point behind Rathana.”
Cal sucked in air. When she’d first arrived, she’d thought partaking in the challenges would give her the appearance of a proper student. She hadn’t expected to do this well in them… or to enjoy them so much.
“What’s more,” Teagan continued, “I suppose I should congratulate all of you on having made it this far. We’ve reached the midpoint of your first semester at Istima, and only four out of twenty of you have dropped out. To those of you dragging your feet, it’s time to start thinking about advancement. Only the top twenty-five percent of the class, based on points accrued, will move on. The rest may either try again or leave.” Her words hung in the air. With sixteen students in the room, only four of them could advance. Cal was aware of the eyes on her now.
“There is still half a semester left, and many things can change, even for those of you who haven’t won a single challenge.” She threw a pointed glare in Yaxley’s direction. “But, as of right now, Rathana, Callion, Viraen, and Lorrel would be the students moving up a rank. The next four closest to them are Jasten, Bachan, Koris, and Arden.”
Perhaps Cal was being paranoid, or perhaps she was beginning to understand how this ridiculous school worked. Teagan wasn’t just letting everyone know where they stood, but putting a target on the backs of the top four. Still, it felt good to see Jasten’s brow furrow in consternation. All semester, he’d lagged behind her, and his annoyance had begun to turn into anger.
“With all that in mind, this next challenge is special for three reasons. One,” she held up a finger, “you can make whatever you want. The only goal is to impress me.” She waited for the students to stop murmuring to each other. “Two,” a second finger went up, “there will be three winners.” The whispers were louder this time, and took longer to die down. “And three,” she extended a third finger, “each winner will receive three points.”
Across the classroom, Cal saw Jasten sit upright. He couldn’t have been very far behind Viraen and Lorrel. Winning this challenge could put him into the top four. For almost everyone else, three points was at least enough to bring them back into the running. Teagan leaned back and smiled, pleased with the firebomb she’d just dropped on them.
“That’s it. Class is over. Everyone but Callion, leave the room.” Cal froze in place, raising an eyebrow in question. “We have something to discuss, my lady.” The title dripped off her tongue like acid.
As the rest of the students made their way out, Cal approached the lectern.
“Nice speech,” she said.
“Nice toy,” Teagan gestured to her gravity crossbow. “I think I’ll sell it.”
“I registered it with the Bank this morning,” Cal smiled. “But I’ll give you resale rights for, oh, say, a twenty-five percent take of the profits?”
The faintest hint of a smile formed in the corners of Teagan’s mouth. “So, the stuck-up little noblewoman can learn a thing or two.” She folded her arms over her chest. “How’d you learn you about these runes?”
“I’m no going to just—”
“No,” Teagan held up a hand, “I could hardly expect a student to divulge their source so easily. I ask because, despite my personal disinterest, I do have a responsibility to my students. Especially those who actually show promise, which unfortunately, you do. It doesn’t really matter where or how you found out about it, but just know that what you’re now working with is beyond most first-year students. Hell, there are second-years who still haven’t figured out how to make something like this. So be warned that this will get you the wrong sort of attention. In this place, knowledge kills as many as it helps. People may have already begun to see you as a way to get the information for themselves, or worse, as a potential threat.”
Cal wanted to laugh. Perhaps to Lady Callion Augurellia, that information would have been new, but it was a lesson Cal had learned long ago. “Thanks for the warning, but I can take care of myself.”
“It’s only the first semester, things will get far worse from here.” Teagan shrugged. “Sure, you’ve made it this far, I’ll grant you that. But still…” she grabbed the gravity crossbow and extended it out to her. “I’d say it’s best if you hold on to this one.”
“You’re… giving it back to me?” Cal’s brow rose in surprise. “And here I thought you wanted to get rid of me!”
“Would you just take the damned thing?” Teagan seethed.
She smirked, grabbing the weapon and tucked it in her bag. “See you next class.”
Out of the classroom, she made her way down the hall and back into the blazing sunlight. She climbed the steep staircase back up to the main yard of the Summer Court and looked down the two hundred foot drop to the city below. She was glad the sight no longer gave her vertigo as she climbed, and at the top, she found Rathana waiting for her.
“Cal! Congratulations on your win.”
“Thanks!” She smiled. She could tell he meant it.
She hadn’t come to know anyone else in her class aside from Rathana, with the unfortunate exception of Jasten. The rest of the students avoided her, perhaps out of jealousy, or perhaps because she was supposed to be nobility. If it was the latter, Cal couldn’t see the appeal in it. It seemed a rather lonely life, especially if it meant her only potential ‘peer’ was the esteemed Lord Jasten Forthale. She grimaced at the thought.
But Rathana had only ever been genuine with her. She didn’t know much about Aketsi, but they didn’t seem to have a concept of royalty, which suited Cal just fine. But as friendly as he was now, with time, would he become a rival like Teagan warned?
“It shames me that I did not see the meaning behind Teagan’s challenge,” he said with a smile. “I designed a shield meant to absorb the kinetic energy of blows.” He shook his head. “I thought it rather clever at the time.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Cal said. “And you’re still ahead of everyone else in class.”
“For now. We will see what happens after this next challenge.” He sighed, shifting his body from one set of legs to the other. “I am sure you will do well. You have an extraordinary ability to think outside the confines of the challenge.”
“You mean… to think outside the box?”
“The box?” Rathana frowned. “Oh! An idiom, I see. Apologies, your language is… quirky.”
“And pronounceable,” Cal laughed. “I went back to Chirrum’s bar the other day. I still can’t pronounce a damn thing on the menu. Fortunately, he remembered how much I like mho.” She didn’t add that it was also the cheapest meal she’d been able to find in the city. Her trips to Chirrum’s were about the only thing separating her from starvation.
“Well, I’ll have to join you again sometime.” He looked up at one of the numerous clock towers visible in the city below. “I have class to get to. I will see you around!”
As he trotted off, Cal rested her hands atop the stone rail and looked out across Istima. If she squinted, she could just make out the outline of Sable & Burr’s from here.
What was she planning to do for the next challenge? Up until now, she’d lucked out using Rathana’s book and, most recently, stealing designs from the ring she’d bought. But considering how much this challenge was worth, everyone would be putting in more effort. She’d need something truly impressive. Perhaps she could steal a new book on artificing? She shook her head. If it was worth anything, it would have anti-theft enchantments on it. Out of principle and lack of funds, she refused to just buy a book. She turned and looked back across the semi-circle of buildings surrounding the yard. Near the middle, the imposing tower of the Bank stood.
Cal had gone there in the morning to register her design. The inside had been rather plain by Istiman standards, but after the clerk had finished processing her design, she got a peak through the door and saw a staircase leading down to who knows where. How much information was gathered in there? If everyone registered their designs, then just about anything imaginable. That was the real mother lode.
“Well, he seemed nice,” a familiar voice said. Cal was stirred from her thoughts and turned to see Renna leaning against the railing. Anywhere else, Renna would’ve looked inconspicuous enough, but without the robes of a Summer Court student, she stood out here.
“What are you doing here?” Cal hissed, backing up slightly.
“Just taking in the view.” Renna said, flicking a pebble off the ledge, sending it tumbling toward the buildings far below. She gave a short whistle.“Figures that the mages would keep the best view for themselves.”
“If someone were to see us together—”
“Relax, would you? I’ve seen plenty of people come and go through here, quite a few of them shadier than me. You panicking is more likely to draw attention than us talking together.”
Cal returned to the railing, but she didn’t relax. Up until now, she’d been able to pretty cleanly separate her school from the rest of her life. It just didn’t seem right for Renna to be here.
“Okay,” she said, “then talk.”
“I thought I’d check in on you, see if you’d found any leads. I mean, you’ve been going to classes here for a while, you’ve gotta have seen something, right?”
“I’ve had some ideas, just haven’t acted on any of them yet.”
“Yeah? Let’s hear it.”
It had been a lie. Sure, she had her job with Sable & Burr, but she wasn’t going to complicate that by bringing Renna in. She looked around in panic before her eyes settled once again on the Bank. Suddenly, it all became clear. Her next assignment, another job with Renna, and advancement in the court.
She turned back to Renna and smiled. “How about another heist?”