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Chapter 1, Jessica
There exist seven forms of magic. And there exist six races, each given mastery of one of the forms and a basic understanding of the others.
The first four are elemental. Those who wield Fire, known as the Embers, dwell in great desert cities where the sand has been melted into glass structures that tower into the sky and form bowls to collect groundwater deep beneath their feet. Then there’s the Boulderers: men whose very bones are made from stone, and make home in the world’s greatest crater, where they live below the bedrock and seek the secrets of the Earth. The masters of Air are said to live among the clouds, walking between each like garden paths, and are known as Angels for the wings that sprout from their shoulder blades. And there’s Water, the Scales, whose gills let them live under lakes as clear as crystal. Stories tell of those who live deep in the ocean as servants among the ancient dragons.
Other than these forms of magic there are two more—that of Light, and that of Darkness. The masters of Light are known as Brights, bearers of terrible lances constructed from colors alone, and walkers of the day. Those of Darkness are the Shadows: experts at concealment, and able to converse among the dead.
But of all the forms of magic, there is one that belongs to no race. A form of magic that is experienced by all, but mastered by none—a form that the gods forgot to bestow upon man.
That form is Life.
Precious few have appreciated its gifts, and even fewer have beheld them. But Life is the strongest form of magic, because all others are subject to it. All others bend their knee to mortality.
And it doesn’t come about like other forms of magic. There’s no conscious control over the height of candle flames, or the water level of a pond, or the hue of sunlight. Rather, Life is more of an instinct. A subtlety.
Jessica made this realization when she was twelve, returning home from the market with a heavy basket for her family’s dinner. They lived in the innermost circle of the city, one reserved for nobles, typically determined by the numbers of those gifted in a family. Both Jessica’s parents and her sister had been gifted, but she had not, resulting in her daily walk to the market while her sister practiced with a private tutor.
She walked with her head down—her father’s looks of disappointment had already done enough damage to her self esteem, and she knew there would only be enough compliments for her sister at the dinner table when she arrived home.
With her eyes on the ground, she never noticed the man until his hands were on her shoulders, and his gray, whiskered face peered down at her.
“Well lookee here,” he said, grinning. He had two gap teeth showing and countless more missing. “Ain’t you pretty? Pretty enough for me, that is.”
“Let me go!” Jessica screeched, flailing against his grip. But he held tight, his smile broadening, and brought a hand before her eyes.
“Wouldn’t want to burn that face now, would we?” he whispered, and she tensed as a tongue of flame burst to life across his palm. Gifted, she thought in panic. But the man did not wear the clothes of nobility, nor did he speak with their accents. Which meant he could only be an outcast, seeking refuge in the city.
Nothing was more dangerous than a gifted outcast—one who had escaped the local authorities after committing crimes, with the equivalent force of several good men locked away in the magic within them.
“No!” shouted Jessica, twisting away, but the man gripped tighter, and the flame in his palm grew hotter.
“Hush up, hush up. Now just come with me.”
He started to drag her into an alleyway. She swung the market basket at his skull, breaking a dozen eggs that dripped into his hair and a jar that cracked against his jaw. With a cry, he let go.
She turned to run, but stumbled over her dress, falling to the ground. In an instant, his figure loomed over her.
“Bitch,” he hissed through his clenched jaw. He raised his palm, and fire exploded from his fingertips and raced toward her, eager to consume her clothes, her body, her bones.
But she could feel it coming—could feel the magical force lines that emanated from his life force and created the flame construct, the lines angled menacingly toward her. And by instinct, she bent those lines around her body, and pulled them down into the ground.
The fire blossomed over her, bathing her in a red, glowing light, but she couldn’t feel its heat. Above her, the outcast yelped in surprise as blisters formed across his hands, burns that should never affect an Ember.
He ran, smoke trailing from his clothes and his hair singed. And she stood, her breath caught in her throat, staring at the charred outline of her body on the stone where she had fell.
Chapter 2, Jessica
“Father!” cried Jessica on entering her family’s estate, dashing through the gardens and bursting through the front door. “Father! I’m gifted!”
“Is that so, Jessica?” asked her father, frowning as he read over a letter from his brother in Lisera. Lisera was the capital of Angels, those gifted with power over the element Air, and their current city was one of its smaller sisters.
“Father, I’m serious,” said Jessica, stomping her left foot. Above her, she could hear her sister’s lessons—lessons that she had never been able to participate in. Lessons that made Alina special among the two daughters.
“Alright Jessica, show me what you can do,” he said, his eyes still on the letter.
“Watch me first!” she demanded, and he looked at her, his eyes full of amusement. Amusement that was seldom replaced by the pride that Alina so often received.
Taking a breath, tongue hanging slightly out of her mouth, Jessica focused on the letter on the table. It looked so light, so easy to move, and all she would need was a slight breeze. A puff of air. A feat that even the lowest of gifted could manage with ease.
Which was fortunate, for though they were gifted, none of the members of Jessica’s family were exemplary in the art. They possessed enough to retain their noble name and to never be called
into war, but their skills were suited best for leisure entertainment or party tricks. Tricks that kept their status above nearly the entirety of the city.
Of them her father was the most skilled, and he proudly presented the two knobs at his shoulder blades to support that fact. Only the best grew wings, and though his were only buds, they only added to his status.
As Jessica focused on the paper, she closed her eyes. Blow, she thought, wrapping her fingers into fists. Blow.
Her heart leapt as she heard the paper skidding across the tabletop.
“See Father!” she exclaimed. “See-”
But as she opened her eyes, she saw her father’s finger pushing the paper along the table, a teasing smile on his face.
“It’s alright, Jessica,” he said, “not everyone is gifted. You’ll find your spot in the world.”
She knew what that meant. It meant finding a husband of nobility, or wealth, or suitable for her hand by other means. It meant waiting years, and it meant depending on others.
“But I did use magic, Father,” she said, suppressing tears that had flooded her eyes at the trick. “I was attacked on the way here by an Ember man, and I got away!”
“You? Against an adult Ember? Jessica, you must at least make your tales believable. And what’s this? Why is your basket empty? Where is the food for dinner?”
“I hit the Ember with it.”
Her father’s face muscles tightened as his smile disappeared, and he looked down at her.
“I’ll tolerate fools play, and I’ll tolerate pretend, but I won’t tolerate lies to cover up you skirting your chores. Now dinner will be late tonight, because I’ll have to send your mother to the market. Upstairs. To your room, Jessica. Up!”
Though she protested, and though she cried, her father refused to change his stance. So she stomped up the stairs, her golden braid swinging wildly as tears fell from her face, and she slammed the door.
She wasn’t invited to the late dinner. For the next hour, she listened to the wisps of air current rushing in the room next door, where her sister practiced her gift, and the praise of the tutor as candles were magically extinguished.
Chapter 3, Jessica
For four long years, Jessica watched as her sister’s talent flourished. Alina continued to be the pride of the family—she was always the first one introduced during dinner parties, and now that they were growing older, the first to catch the eyes of suitors. During those years, Jessica kept the sporadic development of her own talents to herself.
There was the time that she had been bartering for poultry at the market, for instance.
“Here you go, miss. That was three pounds of meat, here is your change.”
The merchant smiled and handed her four silver coins, but something about his attitude seemed off. Maybe it was the way his eyes avoided hers, or the way he pushed the coins on her in a hurried manner.
“That’s it?” she asked, keeping her hand outstretched against the wooden counter of the stall.
The merchant flushed a deep red before recovering himself.
“Are you calling me a cheat, miss? I’ll have you know that Hartsle, son of Gamei, son of Anches, of the ancient Huson house, is no cheat!”
“Fine,” said Jessica, her brows furrowed. Her hand remained outstretched.
“Take an extra copper, and be gone,” said Hartsle, practically throwing the coin at her. It clinked down to the road below, and she sniffed, raised her head, and left it where it lay among the stones.
Two weeks later she saw Hartsle’s stand being confronted by two members of the city guard, who later carried him away, red-faced and screaming. According to rumor, Hartsle’s scale had been weighing poultry heavy.
Hartsle, son of Gamei, son of Anches, of the ancient Huson house, had indeed been a cheat.
There were other occurrences as well. Once, her mother had knocked a flower pot off of a window ledge with her elbow, and Jessica’s hand was ready to catch it before her mother had even made contact with the pot. And outside Jessica’s window each morning, a yellowfeather, a bird native to parts a hundred miles south of her home, would wake her each morning with melodious song that had the neighbors speaking of good fortune to come that season.
Then, when she turned fifteen, Jessica noticed that she could feel when her sister was in a
lesson. Each time the candles were extinguished, she felt something like a bird rushing overhead, or an object visible in the corner of her eye, or the tingling feeling on the back of her neck when she was being watched. When she turned sixteen, Jessica realized she could do more.
It was morning, just before breakfast, and Alina emerged from her room. She looked normal—a dress she had worn prior that week, the same slippers, her eyes still a little droopy from sleep—except for her hair.
“Alina,” said Jessica, her mouth open, “how did you do that? What did you do?”
“This?” asked Alina, and gave her head a shake, showing the blond curls that were so similar to Jessica’s. But now they were wavier, seeming to reflect off more light. “It’s an Air magic trick. A way that you aerate your curls so that they fall more naturally.”
“It’s beautiful.” Jessica said, “Can’t you do mine?”
“Sorry, Jess,” said Alina, “it’s a gifted thing. Besides, your curls look fine just how they are.”
At breakfast, Jessica’s fists clenched under the table as she caught glimpses of Alina’s curls.
“Father,” she said, “can’t you do my hair like Alina’s? It takes Air magic to do.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know how,” her father said, looking up from his meal, “Alina, can you?”
“Oh, I’m too tired today,” she said, “Besides, I have a lesson, and I need to save my strength.”
“Alright then, she’ll do it tomorrow Jessica.”
“But Father,” protested Jessica, “she won’t actually do it. She’s just saying that!”
“Jessica,” warned her father, “it’s barely morning. Do you really want to start this day with an argument?”
“That’s enough, Jessica. Besides, you look beautiful just the way you are,” he said, and continued eating.
When Jessica slammed her breakfast bowl on the counter after she had finished eating, her father sent her to her room while Alina hid a sly smile.
From her room, Jessica felt her sister’s morning lesson beginning—felt the force lines that
constituted Air magic whirling around her. Ever so slightly, each time her sister concentrated to blow out a candle or levitate an inflated ball, Jessica picked at those force lines, just as she had with the Ember man.
Each time her sister tried to gather magic, the candlestick would clatter to the floor, or the ball would smack into the wall that separated them. Once, when Jessica could firmly grasp the force lines, the wind whipped around Alina’s private tutor, nearly removing her dress.
“That’s enough for today, young lady!” came the shout from next door. “It’s remedial magic for you for the rest of the week. Back to the basics. And if I find out you’re doing this on purpose, it’ll be for the year!”
Jessica smiled as she heard Alina’s protests, and listened to the tutor trudging down the stairs. Each morning after that, whenever Alina tried to do her own hair and Jessica was already awake, it was always just slightly off.
When Jessica awoke the next morning after her sister’s failed lesson, she noticed the yellowfeather was gone.
Chapter 4, Jessica
“Father, I want to go to Laddergate. Priscilla says I have a chance, and application letters are due soon,” said Alina, her hands steepled on the table in front of her and her private tutor, Priscilla, who had joined the family for dinner, on her left.
“Laddergate, eh? I always knew my little girl was special.” Jessica’s father smiled and patted Alina on the shoulder. Underneath the table, his other hand found and clasped Jessica’s mother’s, while Alina beamed.
“Oh, she is special,” said Priscilla, nodding her head and causing both of her chins to bounce and dust to fall from her gray hair, “and if anyone in this family ever had a chance at getting accepted, it would be her. What a great honor it would be, having someone from our city, from Lorai, among their alumni. It is the best school in all of Corpia. She’ll come back to you a new woman.”
“Laddergate?” asked my mother. “Are you sure that you wouldn’t be more interested in the
Angels’ Academy? Or the local school? Laddergate’s quite the commitment.”
“Yes, Mother,” said Alina, the words coming back like a melodic routine. “Like Priscilla said, it’s the best. I don’t care how far away it is. Plus I won’t only learn Air magic there—they teach the other elements too! Neither you nor Father know any of the other elements, and Laddergate is the closest school that will teach them, and the most respectable.”
“She’s right,” confirmed Priscilla, as Jessica’s father nodded. “A basic knowledge of all four elements is a true sign of nobility. All of Lorai will be jealous.”
“We’ll see,” Jessica’s father said. “We’ll see.” He squeezed her mother’s hand, and he had that twinkle that always filled his eyes before bringing his daughters home a present.
“Can I be excused?” Jessica asked, pushing away her plate, hardly any of it eaten.
“Sure, Jessica,” said her father, turning back to Priscilla. “How many years would it be to graduate?”
Before she could hear the answer to the question, she slipped out of the kitchen and walked toward the front door, heading out into the gardens. She treaded along the small gravel path, passing rows of blooming flowers and small fruit trees, which were more for show than for taste, and came to the wall that separated the estate from the city outside. There was a small ladder that the gardener used to clip the tops of the hedges and fruit trees, and she climbed the rungs, sitting atop the stone wall with her back against the gate.
Her estate was near the center of the city, and from her vantage point, the rest of the city sloped downward. Row upon row of buildings stretched in a descending rainbow before her, each constructed from variations of Airstone, a form of pressed, powdered rock made lighter by bubbles magically injected into its inner structure, and dyed different colors by metal and gas additives under heat. The market was closing in the distance, and above it the sun had nearly dropped beneath the rounded mountaintops on the horizon.
Lorai had always been her home. She knew it was one of the smaller cities of Corpia, tiny in comparison to Lisera, where her father had brought her to meet their family, though to her Lorai was the most important. But now that her sister was leaving and she would be stuck there alone with her parents until an adequate suitor came by to liberate her, it felt more like a cage.
She sighed and tossed her braid on the other side of the wall, listening to the remnants of conversation from inside the house.
“Excuse me, miss?” The voice came from the outside of the wall, and she jumped, whirling to see the figure of a middle-aged man. He leaned heavily on a curved cane, and she noticed a limp as he approached. When he spoke, he revealed a perfectly white smile underneath a black
mustache to match his hair.
“Um, yes?” she replied hesitantly, squinting to make him out in the thickening darkness. She had failed to notice the man approach or hear the tap of his cane on stone, though the road leading up to her house was straight for at least thirty yards.
“Is this the Falcon estate?” he asked, his gaze passing along the wall and coming to rest on the gate. Had he walked just a few more paces, he would have seen the family insignia wrought in iron—that of a falcon with its wings spread, an eagle in its talons and a crown in its beak. The eagle represented an old feud with the Eagles, a rival family in Lisera, while the crown was the only remaining memory of her family’s brief stint in royalty some four hundred years before.
“Yes, it is. Can I help you?”
“Yes, yes. You see, I’m looking for a girl who lives here. She’s gifted, blonde, young. About this tall.” He held out a hand, and the cane balanced on its end.
“Oh, you must mean Alina,” guessed Jessica, with a huff. “She’s inside. Want me to get her?”
“Erm, no. Actually, I was looking for a… a Jessica? That’s right, it’s Jessica?” he asked, turning to his side, where a bird perched on his shoulder—one that had blended into the twilight and she had missed.
The yellowfeather trilled, and he flashed his perfectly white smile again.
Chapter 5, Jessica
“Excuse me, did you just ask that bird what my name was?” Jessica said, inching backward on the wall. The city guard kept Lorai under a close eye, but it was not unheard of for a lunatic to be loose on the streets. After all, she had met an Outcast once.
“No, I didn’t ask him. I was merely confirming what he already told me,” said the man, and the bird hopped down his shoulder to his arm, then onto his wrist, where it focused two beady black eyes on her. It spread its wings, revealing the pattern on the underside that gave the bird its name—a single, long, yellow streak standing out amongst its red plumage.
“Birds don’t talk. Besides, I think you have the wrong Jessica,” she said, folding her arms. She considered slipping off the wall and running back to the safety of the house, but she was high enough up that the man would have trouble reaching her.
“Oh, I don’t think so. The one I’m looking for is very special indeed.”
“Then you’ve certainly found the wrong one. And by no account am I gifted,” she huffed, and she swung her legs to the other side of the wall, preparing to leave.
“Now wait right there! I’ve heard she is gifted. I heard she can read, is this true?”
“Well, yes, that much is true.”
“Aha! Well that makes her gifted on its own, above most of the population in this city. And I hear she can do sums too—they say no one can shortchange this Jessica at the market. Is that true?”
“Yes, that’s true. But that’s normal among nobles.”
The man nodded, then lowered his gaze to the ground. But he continued talking to the cobblestones.
“Then she’s gifted with noble blood as well! Perhaps she’s gifted with cleverness, and kindness, and patience. And perhaps, just perhaps, she’s gifted with—” He cut himself off suddenly, and turned swiftly toward her such that his coat flapped behind him, and raised a hand upwards. Jessica felt the heat before she saw the fire form in his palm, just like the Ember man, but this time it was focused into a white hot star. The magical lines converged toward his hand as the fireball flared to life, but something was different about the way they had formed. They lacked the hastiness of the lines conjured by the Ember. And she had never realized that her sister’s magical lines had been clumsy and mangled until she felt the order behind his.
And she would have appreciated it, had the fireball not been aimed directly at her face, and approaching with speed to rival an arrow.
She shrieked, the sound barely leaving her throat as she instinctively picked at his force lines, destroying their order like a rope split into fraying ends. The fireball singed the hairs on her right arm as it broke apart, erupting into a mass of less energetic flames that fanned around her and dissipated before they reached the gardens.
“—magic,” whispered the man, finishing his sentence as she finished her shriek. The yellowfeather trilled with excitement. “Now the real question is this: Does she want to learn how to do more?”
“You can’t just do that!” shouted Jessica, standing on the wall and massaging her burnt arm, “You can’t just throw fire at me on my own property! Or anywhere, for that matter! I’ll have the city guard on you. They havegifteds among their ranks, trained to deal with people like you, and they’ll lock you up for years.”
“You didn’t answer my question, my dear. Do you want to learn more? Maybe humble that sister of yours? Show your family who the real special one is?” suggested the man as he turned his back on her and began to walk down the street.
“No, I don’t want anything to do with you! And how do you know about my sister? Stay away from my family, you… you creep!”
“Suit yourself, my dear. But if you should change your mind, I’ll be at Gemini’s tavern four days from now. Precisely an hour after the sun has set. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a beer that I’ve truly enjoyed, and I hear they’re the closest to my favorite in the East. I’m sure I’ll be disappointed. Anyway, ask for Cesaro.”
Then he continued to walk down the street, leaving her standing alone on the wall top, her estate behind her and the world before her. Just before he turned the corner she heard him speak to the bird one last time.
“Good thing you were right, Herald. What a mess that would have been if she had been the wrong Jessica.”
Chapter 6, Jessica
“Ooh, that must be the examiner!” exclaimed Alina, running toward the front of the house as soon as she heard the brass ring knocking against their front door.
Priscilla stood in the doorframe of the lounge, smiling as Alina rushed past her, and Jessica’s mother and father shared the couch. Her father squeezed her mother’s hand, and her mother replied with a nervous smile and raised eyebrows.
Jessica herself occupied a cushioned chair across from where Alina had been sitting, arms crossed over her chest, and her face creased by a frown that had stained it for the last four days. Maybe I will go to Gemini’s tonight, she thought as Alina squealed at the door, but then shook her head. I should be happy for her. I should be happy, and stay home tonight to celebrate, and be the daughter Mother and Father expect me to be.
After their discussion at the dinner table, Jessica’s father and mother conceded to Alina’s pleadings and Priscilla’s praise. That night they had completed a letter of application to Laddergate, and Priscilla had hand-delivered it to the headmaster of Wings, the local Air magic school, who was a certified examiner for Laddergate admissions.
The headmaster had become certified at Laddergate twenty years ago, after failing the admission exam himself, in the hopes that one of his own pupils might attend after graduating from his own academy. In that time, only one of his students had passed the Laddergate exam. The headmaster commissioned a local calligrapher to write the student’s name in gold lettering on the side of Wings, where it has remained alone for the past twelve years—though the student never did graduate from Laddergate.
But as far as Wings’ informational pamphlet for potential students was concerned, Wings now sent students to Laddergate. And that was more than most schools could claim.
“This way, this way,” said Alina, ushering the examiner into the lounge.
“Scott and Mary. The Falcon estate welcomes you. May you fly high,” said Jessica’s father, rising to shake the examiner’s hand as he introduced himself. The muscles on the examiner’s hand barely tensed as their palms met, and he failed to make eye contact with her father as they shook.
“Gristh,” he mumbled, his square face failing to register a change in expression, and he set a medium-sized case on their low table, the word Laddergate engraved into the darkly stained wood. He fumbled in his pocket while Alina rocked on her heels behind him, found a pouch containing a pair of square glasses in a style from before Jessica’s birth, and fit them over his short nose, where they barely managed to perch. Alina’s rocking continued as he proceeded to remove his coat, which appeared to be held together by patches alone, and straighten his clothes, flattening numerous wrinkles on his trousers that reappeared with insubordination as soon as his fingers had passed over.
Then he flicked open four clasps set into the wooden case, colored gray, blue, red, and brown, ignored two faint indentations and screw holes where additional clasps had been but were now removed, and pulled out a folded yellow piece of parchment.
“You are being administered an initial test approved by Laddergate admissions,” he began in a steady monotone. “This test in no way guarantees admission itself, and additional tests may be performed at the discretion of Laddergate off-”
“Enough, enough, Gristh. I read it to her this morning,” interjected Priscilla. “She’s all ready. Proceed if you will, let’s get past the formalities.”
“Is there anything you would like clarified before we begin?” asked Gristh, looking to Alina. Jessica marveled at his voice’s ability to neglect even the most minor of inflections as he asked the question.
“No, no sir. Let’s get started.”
“Alright then,” said Gristh, and folded the parchment. “Laddergate requires proficiency in one of the four elementals. Which test will you be taking?”
“Air. I’ll be taking air,” said Alina.
“But she could likely pass any,” said Priscilla, leaning over Girth’s shoulder.
“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves,” interrupted Jessica’s father, holding up his hand. “She will be testing for air.”
“Air it is then,” said Gristh, and he pulled a foot-long wooden rod and a rounded base from the case. He screwed the rod into the base, such that the rod rose vertically on the table, and then extracted a circular Airstone plate from the case, gray in color, with a wide hole bored through its center.
“The object of the test,” said Gristh, dropping the doughnut so that the rod rose through the hole in the middle and it clattered against the base, “is to raise the Airstone above the end of the rod. This test must be completed using only Air magic—any use of Earth or any other magic will result in immediate disqualification. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Alina, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. “Easy.”
“You have one minute, on my mark.”
Alina’s brow furrowed, and magical force lines grew around the base of the Airstone doughnut. To Jessica, the lines were fuzzy at the edges, and they fanned out too far – some of the lines missing the Airstone entirely and looped over its top, where they would create air currents counter to the direction Alina would want.
Clumsy, she thought, and pursed her lips.
“Begin,” said Gristh.
The force lines snapped taut, and with a whoosh wind rushed around the room, billowing the curtains that covered the windows and blowing the folded parchment from the table. The Airstone plate shot upward, propelled by a sudden pressure from underneath, cleared the end of the rod in under a quarter of a second and slammed into the ceiling before falling back to the table.
“Very good!” cheered Priscilla as she clapped her hands.
“Yes, good. Eager, but good. So concludes the tutorial,” intoned Gristh, and removed another object from the case, this one much smaller than the other equipment. “Do you know what this is, young lady?” he asked, holding it up.
The entire room leaned forward, including a reluctant Jessica, to see the object in his hand. It was a loop of wire, slightly thicker than a human hair and silver in color.
“A ring?” asked Alina.
“Yes, young lady, but not just a ring.” For the first time, pitch crept into his speech, “This is a ring made from vrael, which in case your lessons have not yet covered it, is a magic dampener—an extremely rare and expensive absorber of all things magical. Slip this ring on, and the metal will attempt to consume all magical energies you produce. How you perform with this ring, or rather this set of rings, will determine your first test score.”
He pulled nine more rings from the wooden case, and set them on the table. Each identical, and one for each finger.
Alina donned the first ring, and Jessica watched as the force lines lost their shape, contorting themselves in the direction of the metal.
“Begin,” said Gristh, and wind once again filled the chamber. But this time, the Airstone plate barely cleared the top of the rod before clattering to the table.
Alina frowned and donned another ring, and Jessica watched her face contort as some of the magical lines embedded themselves into the metal.
I could help, thought Jessica. I could straighten them out. I could help her pass.
But then she saw the look of anticipation on her father’s face, and held back her interference.
The plate rose, fell, then rose again to scrape over the edge of the rod, and Alina exhaled heavily. Then she donned the third ring, and each of the magical lines circled away from the base of the Airstone and back to the rings on her fingers.
“Begin,” said Gristh, and the Airstone rattled on its base. But it did not rise. Alina’s face fell as Gristh produced a pen and started to write a score under the section labelled “Test 1.”
“Give me one more try,” she pleaded. “I lost focus.”
Gristh paused. “It’s against protocol—”
“Let the girl show her talent,” said Priscilla.
“Fine,” mumbled Gristh. “But no more after this one. Begin when ready.”
Alina began to focus, but the lines remained contorted, unyielding, and Jessica saw tears beginning to form in her sister’s eyes. With an effort of will, Jessica coaxed the lines away bit by bit from the vrael, where they clung together like tarred cord, and back to the Airstone until the plate began to rise and currents of air filled the room.
Gristh squinted as the Airstone moved, looking around the room at each of them through the thick panes of his glasses. And Jessica released the lines as his gaze fell on her, turning to hide her blush as the plate fell onto the rod. Gristh scribbled a large three on the scorecard.
“So concludes the first test,” Gristh said, and gathered the rings from the table. “Now on to the second.”
Gristh removed ten more rings from the wooden case, setting them in place of the vrael ones. Picking one of them up, he showed it to the room, his voice taking the same quality it had when introducing the vrael.
“These rings are made from atriel, vrael’s opposite and sister metal. Where vrael absorbs and dissipates magic, atriel concentrates it. Your task, while wearing the atriel rings, will be to raise the Airstone plate from the table and place it back onto the rod. Understood?”
Alina nodded, and put the first of the rings on. As she began to concentrate, Jessica felt the magical lines grow rigid, vibrating with an intensity similar to strings on an instrument.
“Begin,” said Gristh, and the Airstone exploded up from the table. Jessica managed to lower it back down to just above the rod, where she held it as it thrummed with energy. It jolted left, then right, then left again as violently as the wheel of a ship in a heavy storm, before Alina released it and gravity pulled it to the base.
She added another ring while Gristh removed the Airstone, and waited for his command.
“Begin,” he said.
Priscilla barely had a chance to duck before the Airstone hurtled toward her. With the addition of the second atriel ring, Alina lost control over the plate, which shattered against the wall where Priscilla’s head had been moments before. Wind coursed through the room, spraying the Airstone dust over them all, and raising a coughing fit from Gristh.
Removing his pen, he wrote a large one on the card under “Test 2.”
“You have reached the end of the admittance test, with a score of five out of a possible twenty for novice level strength and control. Laddergate thanks you for your participation, and will send you your results by letter at the end of the application period,” he recited, and began packing away the testing equipment.
“Was that good enough?” asked Alina, holding on to the atriel rings.
“It all depends on how the other applicants score,” said Gristh, avoiding her eyes as well as her question.
“So it was good then?”
“It was excellent,” exclaimed Priscilla. “That plate hit the wall with more force than I’ve ever seen in all my lessons!”
Jessica’s father frowned at that statement, and Alina turned to him.
“I did well, didn’t I, Father?”
He paused, considering his words, and Alina’s face reddened.
“Well it’s not like anyone else in this family could do better! I’ll still uphold the family name no matter how well I score on a test!” she snapped, looking at Jessica. Then she stomped from the room, Priscilla hurrying after her as her father sighed.
Jessica’s arms tightened across her chest and her hands formed fists at her father’s continued silence.
Tonight, she decided, she was going to Gemini’s.
Chapter 7, Jessica
“I’m looking for, um, Cesaro,” said Jessica to the hostess as she entered Gemini’s. The petite hostess looked up towards her, squinting her eyes through the hazy atmosphere that was sustained by Gemini’s clientele, and nodded.
“You’d be the one,” she said after a moment’s doubtful inspection. She raised a pale hand that stood out like the midnight moon against a dress constructed entirely from jet black feathers, and led the way deeper into the tavern. A sea of smoldering red pipes acknowledged her as she passed, the smoke curling about her shoulders like beckoning fingers, drawing her into the darkness as the hostess ahead blended into the scene, only traceable by two golden talons that clutched her earlobes as they weaved through the crowd.
Jessica stared as she walked, mouth slightly open, and happy the darkness hid her blush when she realized just how out of place her yellow sundress was in the establishment. Her father had always held a deep disdain for taverns like Gemini’s, and as a result she had never looked inside one, let alone become one of their customers.
They’re for commoners who like to pretend they’re nobles, he would say, wrinkling his nose, The drinks are overpriced mud water garnished with whatever happens to wash into the gutter that week, the attire—if you can even call it that—a mockery of the proper fashions, their mere presence an obscenity to the city.
But to Jessica the tavern was an undiscovered land; an uncharted territory in contrast to the walls and formalization of her family’s estate and activities. Each table that she passed was an island, its own indigenous people occupying the chairs, speaking their own language and enjoying their own customs. She gawked as she passed a couple openly kissing in the back of a booth, a pair of slender wings painted where eyebrows should have been occupying the space above the woman’s loosely shut eyes, her inch-long, sharpened, red-dyed nails curling around the neck of her male suitor. Jessica caught a hint of a smile through his own kiss before he shifted and turned his back on her, exposing two thick knobs rising out of the space between his shoulder blades through a gash in his shirt, the skin around them swelling like clenched knuckles.
“Miss,” said the hostess as they neared the back of the tavern, “have you provided your own mask? or will you be utilizing one of the house’s?”
“Excuse me?” asked Jessica, snapping her vision away from her surroundings and back to the hostess in front of her. The floor for the next twenty paces was empty, surrounded by a semicircle of tables extending from the wall. An array of five booths were sunken into that wall at ground level, artificial branches wreathing each, and leafy curtains stretched aside for privacy if so desired. A walkway set into the wall led up to a second row, where three booths extended like a shelf above the first, and a single booth occupied the third tier. Above that Jessica saw pinpricks of light and realized that portion of the tavern had no roof—she was instead gazing straight into the stars.
“It’s customary,” said the hostess, somehow managing to hold her nose higher than Jessica’s despite her stature, “to be masked when entering the nests.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Should I inform your partner that you will not be joining him at the top nest? I’m sure there is no shortage of women who will be clamoring to join him there, considering the expense of reservation.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll take the house one,” said Jessica, and the hostess lifted a mask over Jessica’s eyes. The blue plumage invaded the corners of her vision, and a curved beak fit over her nose. After tying the mask into place slightly too tight, the hostess donned a mask of her own, a raven to match her dress, and led Jessica through the semicircle of tables. Hushed whispers began when they neared the nest wall, whispers turned to full conversation as they climbed the narrow ramp up the second level, and silence replaced words as Jessica ascended to the third.
There, illuminated by the light of a single candle, Cesaro waited in the booth. He smiled through his own mask, an imitation of Herald the yellowfeather, and gestured to the other side of the c-shaped booth.
“Lovely,” he said as Jessica took a seat on the red leather. “Thank you Clarissa. A beer for me if you will, the shipment you received just last week from the East. And a glass of the red wine for the lady. Something from far, far away from here.”
“Frothed and bubbly?”
“Of course, Clarissa, of course. Now,” he said, as the waitress began to descend the walkway, “it’s time to talk business. Naturally, I found us the most private spot in the place.” He laughed and waved below, where at least a dozen faces hurriedly turned away from their speculation on who exactly the new patron of Gemini’s was and how genius his partner had been in wearing a sundress as the perfect clash against fashion.
Chapter 8, Jessica
“Mr. Cesaro, I don’t know what you expect from me, but I’m certainly not here to conduct business,” said Jessica, pushing around the lit candle between them.
“You’re free to leave anytime you wish, Jessica. But I must inform you that I am here strictly to conduct business. Go on.” He draped an arm over the edge of the booth, and waited. She met his eyes and spoke through gritted teeth.
“I’m just here for the wine.”
“You’re here for the curiosity, dear. You have so many questions—questions that you will always have if you continue hiding behind estate walls. Stay, listen to my proposal, and you just might find some answers.”
“And what exactly is this proposal?”
“That’s the spirit! It’s quite simple Jessica. I require an apprentice. Ah, here come the drinks.”
Clarissa appeared on the walkway outside, setting a clear pint glass onto the table, filled two thirds of the way with a thick, brown liquid, followed by a glass of wine supported by four twisting stems.
“Frothed,” she said, extending an index finger and submerging it into the beer up to the second joint. Bubbles erupted around it, streaming around the edges of the glass and stirring up a thick head that rose to occupy the last third of the pint.
“And bubbled,” she continued, and extended her pinky this time such that just the very tip touched the surface of the wine. Miniscule streams of bubbles streamed downwards, swirling into a thin fizz that disappeared into the deep red fluid.
“One more thing, Clarissa. We’ll take a dish as well. Something bready, if possible?”
“Of course, sir. The house poppy seed pastries are the chef’s pride, lighter and flakier than anything else you’ll find in the city.”
“Those will do nicely. See if he’ll sprinkle some sunflower seeds on top, will you?”
“Of course, sir,” she replied, disappearing below yet again.
“You’re not going to buy me off with food and drinks,” said Jessica, crossing her arms and leaning backward. “Or the seating. I know when someone is trying to put on a show.”
“You can drop your guard Jessica. Stop looking at me like I’m about to spit fire,” he chuckled, and raised his glass. “Besides, the show has yet to start. A toast to that, the show, that it may exceed both of our expectations.”
He drank, downing nearly half his beer, foam clinging to the tips of his mustache. She followed his lead, the wine stinging as bubbles nucleated on her lips, inhaling the fumes filled with notes of peaches and blackberries as she swallowed.
“Close,” muttered Cesaro, eyeing his drink inquisitively and speaking more to himself than her, “but not quite.”
“You were saying something about an apprenticeship?” asked Jessica, unable to hold back the question as he looked into the beer. An apprenticeship of what? she thought. It doesn’t matter. I’d be crazy to serve a man with no regard for my safety. And Father would never approve.
“Oh, of many things. Many things, Jessica. Including that gift of yours.”
“About that,” said Jessica, taking another sip of her wine. “How did you know? No one else believed me. Not even my own father.”
“A deaf man cannot hear song, but I listened, and you sang. Herald brought your song to me, and beautiful it was indeed. But it can be so much more,” he said, leaning across the table. “So much more. And look, the show is starting.”
Below them, men and women turned their chairs toward the center of the floor, to the semicircular space unoccupied by tables. A lane formed, leading to the room’s entryway, and two lanterns blazed to life at the end, illuminating the silhouette of a walking man. As he passed tables, more lantern pairs sprang to life with the tempo of his footsteps, and the sound of the tavern died to silence as the light grew. The man stepped into the semicircle and raised his hands to the stars, holding them there as lanterns rippled across the edge of the circle, illuminating the two knobs that emerged through the rip in his shirt.
Music began to play. Quick violin and fiddle strokes lanced through the room. The man skipped around the perimeter of the circle, raising his hands at each lantern, and a tornado of fire the height of two men whipped upward as wind blew through holes drilled into the lanterns’ bottoms and spewed flammable oil into the air.
“What’s going on?” asked Jessica, leaning over the edge of the booth for a better view of the action below.
“The show, of course,” said Cesaro as the man crouched in the center of the floor, his head down.
Two dancers leapt from the base of the circle, spinning such that their long dresses fanned around them and revealed skin up to their thighs. They converged on the man in the center, jumping just above his head, their hands reaching out to join with one of his mid-flight. He thrust his chest upward, arching his back as a powerful wind current rushed toward him, catching the dancers and lifting them ten feet into the air as they performed double frontflips. They landed on their hands, cushioned by a patch of thickened air provided by the man, and the crowd entered into alcohol-fueled applause.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” said Cesaro as the dancers lined up, preparing for their next trick. “So powerful, yet so delicate. The world is like that, Jessica. Stone towers with cornerstones made of twigs. And someone has to protect it.”
“And that’s what you do then?” she asked as the two female dancers interlocked legs, their dresses forming a sail between them, and rose like a leaf born by the autumn wind to their level, one of the dancers blowing a kiss to Cesaro. “Protect people?”
“Precisely,” confirmed Cesaro. “I provide a service. My agents shelter those in need. Covertly. Discreetly. Look there below, Jessica. See the performer? See how in control he is? how balanced?”
The performer was rising into the air now, holding himself steady five feet above the ground, his face sweating as the dancers twisted above him. Cesaro reached out a hand, and suddenly she felt his presence—a presence that rushed toward the force lines of Air magic below and nudged at them, pulling at precisely the wrong angles. The crowd shrieked as the performer tumbled and crashed to the ground, both of his dancers tucking into a roll high above. At the last instant both of the performer’s palms flipped upwards, blasting an updraft that slowed the dancers so they could land on their feet.
“Yet so easy to topple,” finished Cesaro, lowering his hand.
“You ass!” exclaimed Jessica, her voice full of disgust. “Do you enjoy hurting people? Do you—”
Her voice was cut off by a scream from below, followed by a deep moaning. She turned to see the performer on his hands and knees. He screamed again, his muscles bulging, his forehead against the ground.
“Stop it!” she shouted at Cesaro, seeing his hand raised again. “Stop!”
But he took no notice of her and simply spoke again, his face focused.
“So easy to topple, but so hard to build up. May you fly high, young man.”
The screaming intensified. The man clawed at the ground, blood streaming from under his shirt. Jessica watched as the bulges on his back strained, knots moving under the skin. Then his skin split down the center, tearing sinew and muscle alike, and white shapes unfolded from underneath.
Jessica’s jaw dropped as she watched the performer kneel back on his heels, tears running down his face. Tears originating as pain transformed to those of pride as he stretched two broad, feathered wings. Wings that could easily curl about his body. Wings that only a select few Angels would ever bear.
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