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Bone would not hold flesh ants for long, even if its matrix was harder than any natural source should be.
Yam spent at least an hour, probably more, coaxing a thin layer of stone from the wall and over his bone plug. Every single time he took a break and saw how little progress he had made, the young Len wanted to scream and weep and curse and quit.
And every single time he pushed past his feelings and continued. He couldn’t let the creatures flood into the unsuspecting upper levels. Not because of his incompetence.
And it only got harder as he went. Especially since the geomancy-induced migraine wouldn’t stop.
Yam found himself feeling more tired, alone, and young than he had let himself feel since he first left the caravans.
Back then, he had dreams about some hidden genius being exposed. How he would find a mentor who recognized his potential and who would guide him through the arcane at an accelerated rate. He imagined awards, luxurious libraries, and girls who would try to talk with him. He spent hours mentally choreographing the magic duels he would win, and deciding what he would learn first; how to fly or how to become invisible.
Pfft. Yeah, right. Some god he was shaping up to be.
When he finally cajoled the stone up to the edges of his not-for-eating-knife, Yam found that he didn’t have enough left in him to remove the blade and fill in the gap. He left it there, sticking out of the melted-wax-rock of the archway.
Back aching, he picked up Abomination and made his way to the corner, with its blocks of stone stripped away up to the height of his collarbone to reveal a vertical passage.
The climb was horribly long for someone who was hurting and exhausted. But it was not nearly as tall or perilous as he had thought it was during his fall. Just annoying. Especially in the dark and when trying not to smush the Qupee tucked into the front of his wrap. He had to half-crouch and extend diagonally to reach the next step with his hands. Then hop across the small open space so his butt landed on the next stony ledge and he could scoot backward until he was in position to take the next hop up.
Seeing it now, his fall probably hadn’t been much worse than tumbling down some stairs. But bowel loosening terror just had a way of spicing things up; of enhancing the flower’s bouquet so to speak.
He should have smiled at the thought, maybe a wry or defiant grin. That’s what a hero in campfire stories would have done.
But he didn’t have it in him.
Without any attempts at subterfuge, the disheveled Len made it to the light, walked through the bookshelves, grabbed his bag, and stumbled out of The Understacks.
It was early morning outside. The edge of the sun was not quite over the horizon but still colored the air in a prelude to its rise. He had enough sense to stick to the populated streets, to walk along gray stone avenues and dusty roads where vendors were already preparing their stalls.
In that manner, he managed to avoid being mugged in a alley. Though it would have been incredibly easy for someone with light fingers to walk away with his purse.
Not that there was much in it right now. He had needed to burn gold to power the geomancy.
Fate help him, he was probably going to need to spend even more money to get herbs, wasn’t he? There was no way he could survive a workout with Combs unless he made himself a poultice for the bruises.
His slight figure, fur sticking up, wrap bulging around the chittering form of Abomination, shambled its way to the dorms and into the horrible olfactory assault of the downstairs bathroom. Like the world’s most unsanitary smelling salts, the scent (practically a taste it was so strong) woke him up enough that he was able to notice something amiss when he entered the hidden cavern.
Nothing was overtly off, but he had left a few indicators to warn him of trespassers. A strand of hair stuck to the wall, a bit of dirt he wiped smooth before he left, and other such children’s tricks.
If any one or two had been altered he would have dismissed it. But four indicators showed that someone, or something, had entered his sanctuary.
His sudden exhalation shuddered more than it should have on the way out, and he dropped his head.
This place had been safe. This place had been his.
But it seemed like he didn’t get to have safe places. Not in Istima.
With the soulless precision of a summer court golem, he hauled his body back up to the bathrooms, through the hallways, and to his assigned room.
At least the door locked. Plus, he had been in the room so infrequently that, if someone was looking for the Len that had offended them or stolen their Qupee, it was probably the last place they would look.
He leaned against the door as he opened it and stumbled through.
“Oh,” said an unfamiliar voice.
Yam’s head snapped up in time to see an adolescent human with wheat-colored hair, sun-darkened skin, and an athletic build sitting on the room’s other bed.
“I’ve been looking for my roommate,” the boy said, a warm smile coming to his face, “but this was the last place I expected to find you.” The other student came to his feet with a good-natured laugh and held out his hand, “Ironic, eh? Nice to meet you, I’m Rorick Groveman.”
Yam stared at the proffered hand of his roommate: his spring court partner, and the informant meant to stop any extracurricular experimentation.
The cramped room stood in silence, Yam barely through the door and already forcing the tall human to stand with the back of his knees pressed against the bed opposite his own.
Then Rorick laughed, “Don’t worry,” he said, hand dropping to his side, “I’m no spring court wet-nurse here to follow you around. But I am excited to have a roommate.”
Yam stayed silent and trudged until he could lean against his desk and stare at the human.
“I don’t know any Len customs, is there a particular way your people do greetings?”
“And what is it?”
Yam unclenched his teeth. He straightened his spine and pushed aside the fatigue as he switched to a more formal diction. He was a man of good breeding after all. “I am a Study of the Ken Seekers.”
“Does that mean I’m a study of magic?”
“No, you are old enough to pursue learning a craft and have picked an area to master; you are just ‘a Study’. And you are a son ‘of the Grovemans’.”
“Okay, so you’re a Study of the Ken Seekers and I’m a Study of the Grovemans. Got it. What comes next?”
Yam frowned, his poor, aching brain laboring to keep up with the conversation while simultaneously cataloging what evidence of his adventures was in his backpack and needed to be hidden or burnt.
“You did it wrong,” he said. “I say my position, you ask what knowledge I’m pursuing. Then I introduce my name and make a show of virtue. In response, you introduce your own position and I ask the question.”
“Alright, then. You’re a Study from the Ken Seekers. What are you studying at Istima?”
An ember of annoyance flared to life in Yam’s stomach, and he latched onto it, tried to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. “No. I’m a Study, who is a Ken Seeker. Obviously, I’m seeking ken; knowledge. You ask what knowledge I am pursuing.”
“Ahh, so this is like, a ritualized thing,” the boy said with an easy-going grin. “I spot what you’re sliding.”
He asked the question properly, but his smile still came across as inexplicably annoying.
“I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers, and I am studying magic at Istima so I can step over the wishes of my less competent peers. Then I will force the world to heap prosperity and recognition on my family as well as my caravan.”
“Whoa,” Rorick blinked, “that’s raw.”
“Honesty is a virtue.”
“True, true. But yeah, I give my position now, right? Well,” Rorick cleared his throat, “I am a Study of the Grovemans.”
“And what knowledge are you pursuing?”
“I am at Istima studying magic because I’m naturally good at it and want to get an easy job where I can spend most of my time lazing around. Maybe learning an instrument or going on walks. Wherever the path takes me, you know?”
Yam’s mouth fell open and the other boy grinned in a very self-satisfied manner.
“Pretty good display of honesty, right?”
“Yes,” Yam grimaced, unable to point out what specifically was making him angry, but finding himself increasingly certain that he hated Rorick.
“Thank you. Much appreciated, my friend. Though I may need you to walk me through the steps a few more times so I can remember.”
Yam stared and the other boy spoke when the silence had stretched for too long, “So, what if someone isn’t a Study? Do you—”
“Are you warming me up for negotiations?”
“Negotiations? No, I just figured—”
Yam’s eye’s narrowed and his words came out in a sharp burst, “Virtue does not stop after introductions.”
“There is no need to talk around issues, and we will know each other too well for false displays of concern to endure,“ he said, struggling to keep up the formal, business-appropriate speech when all he wanted was to sleep. “We both know that every member of this Court is one mistake away from being labeled as a dark mage. We are informants who will be rewarded for seeing the other fail. So, tell me, what do you want from me? What do we need to do so I can work in solitude and neither of us will wake to find ourselves face-to-face with a Bird?”
The other boy blinked, and Yam tried to take in all the details he could. The young Len strove to note anything that would let him read his opponent better during negotiations.
Physically this boy, Rorick, was tall, with long athletic muscles and broad shoulders. His scalp was a mop of fur just long enough that he habitually twitched his head to the side to keep it from his eyes. There was an expensive-looking piece of shaped wood propped in the corner behind him. It was taller than the boy, an oval that tapered to blunted points at both ends, and it was professionally engraved. His clothes were decent, for a human, but well worn. His tan showed no pale patches that would indicate a love of jewelry.
“What do I want?” Rorick repeated.
“Huh. Dunno, man. I guess I want to get a job helping plants. Maybe doing some weather stuff? Then just live life, you know?”
“Please, I am very tired and very sore. Either we have a frank discussion about how to handle this arrangement, or I’ll find somewhere else to sleep and you can leave me a note when you’re ready to talk terms.”
Walking away was always a valuable negotiating tool. Especially after you had done so at least once and proven your resolve. But Rorick reacted in a way Yam hadn’t expected; he laughed.
“Oh, okay. I get it, I get it. It’s like you said, you’re here to heap rewards on your family, right? And it’s awfully easy to make a mistake that lands you in the cages.”
Yam’s mouth tightened. But he was quick in putting his bargaining mask in place. Whatever offer followed that threat wouldn’t get a reaction from him. He refused.
Rorick nodded his head, “Thing is, I’m not here to put anyone away.”
‘I’m not here to put anyone away. BUT…’, Yam said in his head, waiting for the follow-up.
“So, don’t kill anybody in front of me or do messed-up shit like that. But as long as you’re not doing anything that’s like, extra fucked up, then I say live your life. No bribery needed.”
“I… don’t follow. What are you asking for?”
“Nothing, man. I mean, I’d like to be pals. Maybe talk about pretty girls, or pretty boys, whatever butters your bread. Seriously though, I’m just here to enjoy the ride. And nothing makes a journey better than a-journeying with good friends, right?”
“You want me to purchase you… companionship?”
“No! I just want to hang out. I haven’t made many friends in school yet.”
“And how long would we need to spend ‘hanging out’ for you to not inform on me or inquire into my business? Would I be helping you negotiate deals, or writing essays while we ‘hang out’ ?”
Rorick puffed out a breath and plopped abckwards onto his bed. “Have you been spending time in the Summer Court or something? I mean, and take this very literally, that you don’t need to bribe me. Like, at all. I’m just trying to find some new buddies and enjoy being a student; drink a little too much, complain about teachers, go to parties, and those sorts of shenanigans.”
The words almost didn’t make sense to Yam. Not that he didn’t know their meaning, more that he kept waiting for the next sentence. For the rational ending; the ‘but’.
‘I don’t like money but I love being able to buy food.’
‘I don’t want to have a library, but I want to have already read all the books’
A moment passed.
“But…” Yam said, “this is Istima.”
“And? It’s just a school.”
The wariness, the bruises, the memories of helplessness and fear, in a moment some strange alchemy his body transmuted all of those feelings into acid, fire, and pure explosive rage.
“Just a school? Just a school!”
He flew across the room and shoved his finger in the other boy’s face, “I have almost died here! I have gone days without sleeping, weeks without eating a bite of civilized food. I have been constantly accosted by self-righteous exhibitionist barbarians. For weeks! This isn’t a fucking joke where you ride the tides of mediocrity to completion. Everyone here is fighting and competing and conniving to reach the top. And people will DIE based on those results. People will lose their families. And some of us are working ourselves to death so we can change our lives.”
With a snarl, he bared his sharper than human teeth, even though he knew it made him look like an animal, and pressed his face close to the other boys, “So you need to tell me. Right. Now. What it will take to keep you out of my business. Because I am here to win, and I would see your blood on the floor before I make my family spend an extra hour waiting for me to come back as an Istima mage.”
Rorick had slowly leaned back and Yam had followed him until the human’s back was pressed against the wall.
“Oh. Well then,” said Rorik, ”I, uhhh, I guess I do have something you can do.”
Yam pulled himself upright and laboriously smoothed his expression until his bargaining mask was back in place.
“Then let us talk terms.”
“Yeah. I mean first off, I’m sorry you almost died. That’s raw and just like, super intense. That being said, try not to yell like that? I can get that nearly dying set you on edge but, maybe try not to be an asshole about it?”
And just like that, once again, the strange human’s words ceased making sense.
“Also,” said Rorick, ”I’m about to swing by the dining hall, you should come.”
“Cause, being all honest and forthright here,” he nodded to Yam as he referenced the virtue, “you’re acting like a bit of a prick. I’m not getting bad vibes from you though. Maybe you’ll be less cranky after you get some food. Also, I don’t know how old you are, and this may be a Len thing, but you definitely look like someone who shouldn’t be skipping meals.”
Yam collapsed onto his bed and covered his face with his hands. This would take so much time. He already couldn’t find enough hours in the day. How was he supposed to also convince someone to like him?
“Can’t I just give you gold?”
“I mean, you can. But I’m still really curious about how you almost died.”
“Why are you so set on this?”
He heard the other boy shift and assumed he had shrugged.
“My dad’s still best friends with some of his old roommates. So, I always sorta wanted to see if… well, you know.”
Yam winced, and, for no reason he could explain, he felt his eyes start to burn.
“Why couldn’t you have been a morally bankrupt gambler.”
“I know. Friendship is way harder than gold.”
“I’m not your friend though.”
“Pfft. Obviously. But it’s worth a shot. Go with the flow, follow the rhyme and see what happens, yeah?”
“No, I don’t know. I have never heard that saying in my entire life.”
They sat in silence for several minutes. Then Rorick cleared his throat.
“So, food? Also, we could call it a term if you want, but can you tell me what the thing is in the front of your… skirt-shirt? I actually don’t know what it’s called. Looks real comfortable though. But, point is, do you have a puppy in your shirt?”
He and Rorick separated, agreeing to meet each other in the Spring Court’s dining hall as Yam needed to stop by the market first.
His roommate was very curious about the Len and about Abomination. Apparently, he had several Aketsi friends and had enjoyed learning about their people.
In other circumstances, Yam would have loved to talk about his culture. Few enough humans made the effort to learn. And, with his family’s reputation, he had been forced to avoid other Len.
He really should have been pleased, but Rorick’s questions just made him angry. He didn’t want to think about his family right now. To imagine how they would react to his string of failures. He certainly didn’t want to dwell on how much he missed home.
All of those complex feelings clothed themselves in layers of insulating anger. Anger that was only made stronger by what he was wearing.
His great wrap was covered in dirt, dust and needed mending after his frantic retreat from Stanislov. Because of that, he was wearing his spring court garb. The tailor hadn’t been able to make him another wrap. The best he had been able to manage was a few tunics and trousers made of hearty canvas. It had also come with a stiff apron and comfortable underclothes.
He hated it.
A great wrap went several times around the waist and then looped over one or both shoulders. In these restrictive human clothes his chest felt too hot. The trousers tugged against his knees with each step, and the layers caused entirely too much fabric rubbing, bunching, and wrinkling for him to manage.
And it constantly disturbed the lay of his fur.
He stalked through the market, and his temper only worsened as he went store to store, stall to apothecary, and found no pills more potent than those that had failed him in the Understacks.
Finally, after the third shopkeeper had spotted Abomination sleeping in his arms and asked to pet the Quepee, his patience broke.
He had no time and soon he would waste even more trying to be friendly with the emotionally needy informer that had been assigned to share a room with him. All he wanted to do was to sleep or pull out the pamphlet he had stolen from the Tooth and Claw; the care instructions for Flesh Ants that he had never quite found time to read.
But it wasn’t safe to do that on the street.
And, apparently, it wouldn’t be safe to do in his own room either.
Yam snarled and turned down a side alley. Decoding each patch of graffiti, he searched for symbols that would lead the informed to something stronger than simple wakefulness pills.
He no longer had a safe place to rest; so be it.
He had to waste time building a relationship with Rorick so the boy wouldn’t inform on him; fine.
He was a pansy whose blood betrayed him and made him pathetic enough to genuinely dread the prospect of a gymnasium; he would endure.
And he was so naive, so used to his privileged life as the well-bred son of a successful family, that he couldn’t even explore a library without tempting death?
It didn’t matter. He would try again. He would learn. And, so long as he planned on trying again, then his attempt hadn’t ended. Which meant that it certainly hadn’t ended with him as a failure.
Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers was many things, but he would be drawn, quartered, and burnt on a pile of books before he became a quitter.
The odds against him were steep. He had always known that he wasn’t strong, or smart. But he was only now coming to realize that, at his core, he just wasn’t a good enough person to weather the temptations of Istima. That was a fact.
Viewed that way, the path forward was simple. Yam just fundamentally didn’t have much to offer. But that also meant he didn’t have much to lose.
He could willingly sacrifice his virtue, his hope of self-respect, to succeed. Because if he didn’t, what would there be to respect in the first place?
So Yam would win by taking more punishment. By working harder than anyone else was willing to, and by sacrificing more of his comforts than anyone else could.
It wasn’t as though someone like him deserved to sleep anyway.
Yam turned a corner and saw an unhealthily skinny man sitting at the junction of two narrow streets. His lips were cracked, his eyes bloodshot, and nervous energy kept him fidgeting, scratching, or adjusting in constant subtle twitches.
But, more important to Yam, he saw the chemical stained hands, the burn-scarred arms, and the way his fingers deftly went through a bundle of flowers. Some were tossed to the side, others were pulled apart and separated into baskets.
To anyone who had ever visited a town where Len were not allowed in respectable apothecaries, the signs of a common man’s potion maker were clear as day.
“Hello, sir,” Yam said, crouching in front of the twitchy human so their eyes were level, “what would you suggest for a student who wants to delay sleep and increase his energy and focus.”
”Depends,” the greasy-haired man said, eyes darting from the poppies he was de-seeding to Yam and then the streets surrounding them, ”how many drams is this student willing to part with?”
Yam’s bargaining mask slid into place. “As many as it takes. All you need to do is tell me your best estimation,” he said, a faint smirk coming to his mouth as he fell into a familiar cadence. “Then we can bargain, and find out how to come to a mutually beneficial accord.”