Thursday, March 30, 2017

Chapter Three: The School of Sorcery(Part Two)



"You're just in time," Tori commented, as Belthor swept into the classroom. He nodded.

"I know. I know!" He glanced around the circular ring of taken seats facing the central podium where a gray-haired woman with glasses was shuffling notes. "I, um...I'll just-"

"I saved you a seat." Sam patted a chair next to him. "Right here."

"Oh. Thank you." Belthor sat, putting his staff in another of the little circular cubbies. He pulled out his notebook and pen, pulled the stopper out of his ink vial, and generally made sure he was prepared. "It's just an introductory lecture, right?"

"Yes." Tori grinned. "They're going to go over the basics. Gods and stuff."

"Oh. I know about gods." Belthor glanced around. "Where's Agnete?"

"She's over there." Sam nodded to the other side of the room, and Belthor let out a little noise of confirmation when he spotted the redhead sitting at a small desk by herself, with no staff and her own notebook open. She wiped at her forehead, and Belthor wondered why - but he had to quickly look down when she glanced up, to avoid eye contact.

"Oh. Good." Belthor nodded. "She seems lonely."

"She was there when we got here," Tori said. "I don't know how. I didn't see her taking the cut-through behind Dorm Six."

"What?" Belthor blinked. "That's real?"

"Well, of course." Sam looked nonplussed. "The paths are crap. Whoever designed them was drunk or smoked-up. Are you telling me you took the hike here?"

"Um." Belthor glanced down. "Yes."

"Well, it's a good leg workout," Tori pointed out, voice chipper. "I do that sometimes too. But only if I have a lot of time to kill."

"I thought it was a prank when Theron told me," Belthor admitted.

"What, he actually told you about the cut-through?" Sam looked impressed. "He must like you, Belthor. I thought he told you to take the path just for the laughs. Theron's a notorious prankster."

"...oh."

"Good morning, everyone. I am Master Vignette." That was the woman Belthor assumed was their teacher, and he turned his attention to the center of the room. She adjusted her glasses. "Are you all settling in well?"

A chorus of varied responses came back at her in response to that, including Belthor's own affirmative. She nodded genially.

"For those of you who know how this School works, I hope you're up to the challenge," she said. "For those who are new, allow me to take a few moments to explain the way things work here." Master Vignette raised her hand and a tall, smooth, white-wood staff floated to her side, where she took it from the air. "This is your constant companion while you are here. Your staff is your identification. It is proof you are a wizard and a student. Carry it with you at all times."

She glanced around at each student in turn, and Belthor thought her gaze lingered for a moment on the staffless Agnete. For her part, the redhead seemed unperturbed, just watching quietly through her dark brown eyes. The master moved her gaze on after only a moment.

"Each of you is here to learn mastery of magic," she said. "To this end, you will study with each of the Masters, in the arts of the lesser and greater gods alike. We will teach you the theory of spellcraft, and for those with Runes, we will allow you to use the powers you are gifted." She paused. "The staff is your identification, but it only entitles you to this theoretical knowledge. It only entitles you to classes and projects. It makes you an Initiate in the ways of the arcane.

"For those of you who wish to advance to the next level, there is this to strive for." Master Vignette reached into her cloak with her free hand, and she produced a thin wand that appeared to be made of driftwood, engraved with several runes Belthor couldn't quite make out, and that he was sure he wouldn't be able to even if he held the thing in his hands. He felt a warm flush when he saw Nerien's intricate box, though, amidst the carvings.

"To students who rise above and beyond the call, we provide these," she said. "A wand is your key to the masters' full instruction, to personal apprenticeship with one. A wand marks you a true Magician, and any who hold a wand are to be treated with nothing but respect by any without one." She eyed the assembled class. "Any with a wand are welcome wherever in this school they seek to learn, regardless of how you acquired it. This should be your goal: to acquire a wand through feats of skill and bravery."

Feats of skill and bravery, Belthor noted. He eyed the master's wand as she put it back in its sheath inside her cloak. He was far from the only one.

Any who hold a wand, he finally scribbled, as the master moved on. He debated what to follow that up with. Finally, he nodded as the words came to him.

Well, word.

Any who hold a wand belong.

***

Bump!

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Belthor scrambled, and he managed to catch one of his unfortunate victim's spellbooks before it hit the ground. The other one clocked him on the head, though, and he winced. "I'm so sorry."

"You're sorry?" The man knelt with Belthor, and he started collecting the young man's books. "You're like, half my size, kid. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Belthor paused. "You're..."

"Hastel. Hastel Greenhaven." He offered his hand. "Belthor, right? I heard you get introduced."

"Yeah, you as well." Belthor hesitantly got his hand crushed. "I'm in Dorm Six with your brother."

"That's what I thought." Hastel effortlessly lifted Belthor's spellbook collection under one arm, and took his own under the other. "Where's your seat?"

"Uh." Belthor glanced around. "I hadn't found one yet-"

"Well, sit with me, then." Hastel set both piles of books on the nearest desk. Belthor glanced back across the classroom at Tori and Sam, but both looked more amused than anything else.

I'll sit with them again next time, he told himself. Or maybe all four of us can later.

"Okay." Belthor slid down to a seat on Hastel's right. He shifted his books to the side. "Sorry again."

"Don't mention it." Hastel seemed amused. "Anyone Theron likes, I like. And he must like you or I'd have heard about it by now."

"You're close with your brother, then?" Belthor asked. Hastel nodded.

"Like a Master and his wand," he agreed. "You have brothers?"

"Uh, yes." Belthor blinked. "I don't know that I'd say we're that close, though."

"Missing out, kid." Hastel leaned back in his chair. Belthor examined his hawthorn staff for a moment. Unfortunately, the younger Greenhaven brother noticed. "You like it?"

"It's...yes," Belthor said. "Mine's not as natural-looking."

"Hey, yours is cursed." Hastel grinned.

"Uh..."

"Cursed." His smile faltered. "Come on. Everyone says cursed. It's like...nice, but better."

"Oh. Slang." Belthor let out a breath. "I get it. Cursed. We didn't say that where I come from. South Shara's a bit of...well..."

"You're a farm kid?" Hastel guessed. "I mean, I'm more educated than most on most things, but I hear South Shara and endless cornfields is what I think of."

"Well, as a South Sharan, I'd like to take exception to that," Belthor said. "I'd like to, I just...can't."

Hastel laughed. He had a booming laugh, and Belthor chuckled along with him, glancing out of the corner of his eye at Tori and Sam and their amused eyes as he whispered something to her that made her giggle. Despite being sure it was at his and Hastel's expense, Belthor didn't take offense.

"My father's a basket-weaver," he admitted after a moment. "But my brothers work fields. My sisters too."

"Got a lot of siblings?"

"Seven of them. Older than me, that is." That made Hastel cough on his next laugh. Belthor carried on. "Two younger. Both girls."

"...ten kids?" Hastel asked. "Holy..."

"So it's just you and Theron, then?" Belthor asked him.

"Well...yeah," Hastel admitted. He paused. "Oh, here comes the weird girl."

"The weird-" Belthor paused as he saw Agnete hurry into the classroom, coat slung over her arm, face glistening in the light. She toweled at it with her coat, and Belthor frowned. "She must have gone for a run or something."

"Only way she could be sweating like that in here," Hastel agreed. "It's cold." He made a show of shivering.

"Colder outside, though," Belthor said, and Hastel could only nod. Agnete paused, glancing around the room with a nervous air.

Belthor Spellweaver mustered all the courage that had led him to face Jason Slattery armed with nothing but his fists.

I mean, I got wrecked for it, he admitted to himself, but it was still courage, wasn't it?

Here's hoping I get a different result this time.

"Hey!" He waved, and Agnete twitched. "You can sit here, if you want." He patted the seat to his right, insides tense and twisted. He almost held his breath.

"...thank you for offering." Agnete approached, despite that sounding to Belthor like a refusal. She sat beside him, putting her books on the table. "Belthor. B-E-L-T-H-O-R."

"That's my name," he agreed, blinking. "And this is Hastel Greenhaven."

"How do you do?" Hastel asked. He waved across Belthor. "H-A-S-T-E-L."

Agnete's cheeks went bright red. "Oh. Thank you." She opened her notebook and started scribbling, practically burying her face in the thing.

"Very strange duck," Hastel whispered, very low, in Belthor's ear. He could only nod - and then pause when Agnete's scribbling picked up for a moment.

He was pretty sure she'd heard.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Chapter Three: The School of Sorcery(Part One)



Belthor considered for a long moment. Finally, he flipped to an empty page of his notebook, dipped his quill pen in ink, and wrote for a moment.

Classes start today, he wrote, trying to be as quick about it as he could without sacrificing his penmanship. He waffled for a moment, then: I'm nervous.

He held the note up at chest-level, turning his notebook to face outward. He waited for a moment, sitting on his bed facing his tiny nightstand.

I'm never going to get used to this, he thought, as he watched the figure seated on her own bed inside the six-inch shard of dull-edged glass propped against one of his spellbooks. He didn't know what she'd propped her glass against, but she could evidently see it pretty well, because she nodded slowly at Belthor's comment, raven hair flowing behind her like silk.

Though, personally, Belthor would have called it midnight hair, just for the pun.

Estelle Marona scribbled for a moment as well, and Belthor patiently waited. Finally, she looked up, turning her book around for him to see.

For the first little while, you can know nothing, she advised, which Belthor had to parse through for a moment. Later, you'll be worried about not seeming a fool, but for starters, ask all the stupid questions that any idiot should know the answer to. You're new. They won't judge you for it.

I suppose, Belthor replied. Were you nervous?

Estelle almost seemed to laugh for a moment before replying, and Belthor wished he could hear it. She had a very pretty laugh(that she used a lot around him, and he didn't think it was because Estelle was easily amused) - not that he had a crush! Estelle was a princess and honestly, she scared him.

But he liked her laugh. It was musical.

I, Belthor, was washed away on an abandoned island, alone except for Kui, cast at the doors of a monastic order that said the right things, and offered the chance to train under the man I was lusting after, she said, with frankness that surprised him. I don't think nervous is how I'd describe it. Call it simultaneous excitement and terror. Her amusement softened to something else after a moment, and she started writing again before he'd formulated a reply. He waited.

Do you need anything? she asked.

Belthor shook his head, very quickly. He scrambled to write before she could keep pressing. You've already been more than generous. I don't need much.

Is it cold? Estelle asked. I see snow outside your window. Do you have a good enough coat?

You don't have to, Belthor insisted. Estelle raised one jet-black eyebrow, and then she gave her chest a solid whack, right where the bulletholes he'd healed had been. The meaning was clear.

It was my pleasure, he demurred. Healing is what I do.

It doesn't have to go unrewarded, Estelle insisted. And let's not forget you saved Luna.

With Mister Kui, Belthor protested. He did most of the work.

Interesting. That's what he says about you. Estelle tilted her head to the side. And let's also not forget that you saved my mother. Yes, son of Morse, I kind of do have to show gratitude. And more than that...it's my pleasure.

She really was scary. It was like she timed exactly how long it would take Belthor to read that last quip, and her eyes sparkled and she smiled perkily just as if she'd delivered the line in person. Belthor sighed.

Yes, it's cold, he sent her way. No, I don't have a particularly nice coat.

In the future, let me do things my way, Estelle advised, while she said something aloud to someone Belthor couldn't see. It spares us a lot of this. And I'll win in the end anyway. Before he could reply, she moved right on. Make any friends?

Yes, Belthor replied, idly thankful that at least he couldn't stammer this way. He spent a moment talking about Tori and Sam, in the broadest way possible. Estelle nodded seriously, and Belthor wondered if she really took any interest in his academic experience. She may have been his patron both as Estelle and as Midnight, but she was no magician, witch or Gifted.

And there was another girl, Belthor finished. Estelle tilted her head, and he moved on to describe Agnete's surprise appearance. She talks funny. Very awkward, very nervous around people. But I like her. She seems interesting.

Maybe it's just you she's nervous around, Estelle suggested, and Belthor swore she was trying to hide a smile. Sounds like you have a crush.

No! Belthor shook his head wildly as he offered that message up. Estelle sat in gargoyle-like stillness, just watching him make a fool of himself. I don't like girls. Unfortunately, that was up and out before he realized all the myriad problems with his choice of phrasing.

I'm a girl, Estelle pointed out, and Belthor breathed out in relief as she visibly took mercy on him instead of needling him about the other problem.

You're different, Belthor replied. I like you, but not... he broke off, trying to figure out the words to use. Regretfully, he just held the incomplete thought up.

She seems like a fish out of water, Estelle commented, and at least she looked very amused. She could probably use a friend.

Match-maker, Belthor accused. Estelle just nodded once, still smirking. Belthor took a breath. I should go. Classes soon.

Estelle threw up her hands as he approached the glass. He paused, and she scribbled again.

Pick a color, she ordered. Belthor blinked.

"Green," he said aloud, before remembering himself. He quickly wrote that down and passed it on.

Estelle's eyes flicked over him, like she could judge his size through a small magic mirror from fifteen hundred miles away. Belthor wouldn't have been entirely shocked. Then she raised a hand and waved, and he could almost forget that she was a princess giving him her leave to depart.

He wondered if she forgot that detail.

The image disappeared as Belthor touched the shard, and he slipped it into the pocket of his robe. He claimed his staff, adjusted his warm cap, disposed of his scribbled-over pages, picked up his notebook and spellbooks, swore again to himself that he needed a bag, kicked himself for not mentioning it to Estelle, and then took a breath and opened his door.

"Hey, roc." Theron was in the central room, with a plate of eggs he was in the process of demolishing. "Grab some before you go. There's bacon too."

"...oh..." Belthor paused. "I'm not much for meat."

"Are eggs meat?" Theron asked. Belthor considered for a moment.

"I'm not sure," he finally admitted. "I think it could be argued both ways."

"Have you not had to make this decision already?" Theron inquired. Belthor shook his head. "Don't get a lot of chances to eat eggs, do you?" Belthor had to repeat the gesture.

"I've been traveling a lot," he said. "And I usually sleep through breakfast anyway."

"Oh, don't we all." Theron nodded agreeably, and Belthor fought down the temptation to ask if he knew the name of the lady who'd put those red marks all over his neck. "I had a late night. Figured I'd just stay up instead of sleeping at all."

"I...okay." Belthor made his way to the kitchen and acquired breakfast. He eased himself to a seat on the other side of the little wood table from his roommate. He bit into his eggs, and then also down a question about who, exactly, had been in here cooking while he'd been talking to Estelle.

Theron doesn't seem the culinary type, he reflected, and supposed he already knew the answer to his unasked question.

"So. Midnight, huh?" Theron asked. Belthor nodded, mouth full. "How'd you do all that?"

"I, um." Belthor struggled with words. "I helped her a bit."

"What's she like?" Theron pressed. Belthor considered.

"Scary," he finally said. "Nice...but scary."

"Magnificent." Theron's eyes seemed to shine. "She sounds fantastical. I'd love to meet her."

"Well, I can't really arrange that," Belthor said hurriedly. He scrambled to finish his eggs as fast as possible. "We're not in contact, Midnight and I."

"I suppose her getting mail would be difficult," Theron agreed. "With the mask and all." He watched as Belthor cleaned his plate. "Hey, roc?"

"Yes?" Belthor stood. Theron gave him a lazy salute.

"You need any help, especially on Nerien or Ezraval's spells, and you come to me," he said. "Or potions. Rejuvenation, preservation, compulsion, enhancement...I'm looking to be an expert in all of that sooner rather than later. I can give you some shortcuts."

"I'll bear that in mind," Belthor said, entirely honestly. "Thank you, Theron."

"Ignore the footpath," Theron advised. "The Hall of Honors is actually just behind this building. You'll get there faster through the snow."

"Thank you," Belthor repeated. "See you later."

Then he was out, hurrying toward the cold, staff in hand. He paused as he reached the Dorm Six doors, glancing at the path half-buried in fresh snowfall, then at the corner of the building.

"Faster by...why wouldn't there be a path there if it was faster?" he wondered. "It looks cold too." He turned back to the footpath. "Probably a prank. Trying to make me late."

Belthor took a deep breath as his staff thunked onto the brick pathway through the thin snow.

Then he was off to start his first class at the Grand School of Sorcery.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Chapter Two: The Newcomer(Part Two)



"Well, Agnete is weird but she'll thaw out over the next few weeks," Tori predicted. "They always do."

"Do they?" Belthor asked. "You sound like an authority."

"She is." Sam didn't even look up from his food. "Do you have a Gift, Belthor?"

"I don't think so," the young man admitted. "If I do, I haven't found it yet. I just want to be a wizard." He glanced between them. "You study magic and Gifts alike?"

"Both of our families are from this area," Tori said. "We grew up together, Sam and I. Then we kind of went separate ways...and when we both wound up looking for someone to teach us about our Gifts, where do we wind up? Right here. And we ran into each other again." She punched him on the arm. "And it's like old times!"

"Exactly like old times," he groused, with a smile in his eyes.

"Well, the point is, we studied our Gifts for a while," Tori said. "The Gifted students sit over there-" she waved to the other end of the hall, and Belthor turned to look "-whereas the magic students are up here. We decided that since we were here, we might as well try out for staffs, and what do you know? We did well in the trials and Master Protec let us into the wizards' classes."

Belthor nodded. "I had to overcome three other students to earn my staff."

"How'd you get it in the end?" Sam inquired. "Patronage, right?"

"Well..." Belthor hesitated. "I kind of shot Vivian in the leg and stole it." He swallowed as his tablemates traded glances. "But it was for a good reason! Someone had kidnapped Luna Marona, and I had to team up with an Islander with a light Gift to rescue her before these crazy people started the next Iron Sea War..." he broke off. "I healed Vivian when it was over! I offered to give the staff back!"

"And Master Kulkas chose you after all of that?" Tori asked, one eyebrow up.

"...Lady Marona was quite grateful," Belthor muttered. "Patronage and all that. Midnight was also fairly happy with me, since she was fighting the same battle. And Master Kulkas seemed to think it fairly impressive that I stopped a war."

"Kulkas is a very odd one," Sam said, and Belthor almost took offense for a moment. "Of all the masters, he's just...the odd one."

"What do you mean?" Belthor asked.

"You know magic is a discipline, yes?" Tori inquired. Belthor nodded seriously.

"Oh, of course. Mastery of the rules and knowledge of the gods is critical."

"Well, Kulkas is...a maverick," Tori said, and Belthor got the sense she was being extremely diplomatic in her word choices. "I...what's a good example?"

"What about that time-"

"Students!" Master Protec's voice cut Sam off. "Your attention to the dais, please."

Belthor turned, in tune with most of the rest of the hall. Master Protec stood on the raised dais, a smile on his face.

"The welcoming party will continue well into the night," he warned, "but now those of us with early classes and roles in the morning will be retiring. We've all had a chance to meet each other and learn a little bit about our new students, so we will leave you with a few words of wisdom before the Masters withdraw." He cleared his throat. "Do well in your studies. Your books are your friends, and success here at the Grand School will save your life and your future someday. There is no substitute in this world for the hard-earned glory of academic success."

Belthor clapped with everyone else as Protec stepped down. Seven more Masters came up and spoke crisply for a moment, offering much the same sentiment in different words. Belthor tried very hard to memorize their names and appearances and opinions as best he could.

And then it was Kulkas, gnarled staff floating by his side as he glanced around the room.

"We all come to the Grand School for a reason," he said, voice carrying well through the halls. Belthor couldn't help but glance to his table, and there sat Agnete, fidgeting as if being apart from the Master left her physically taxed. "The gods above know what they are doing. All of you are here because the School is the next step in your lives." He considered his words. "However, I would remind you all that just because this School is your next step, that does not mean success in your academia is. We all learn much when we study here...though what you learn in your books may not be what you are here to learn."

All eight other Masters looked pained. The room was silent. Kulkas nodded slowly. "I think that about covers it. There's a nice little diner down in the village. All kinds of fun and exciting people come through there. Take the time to meet some of them. Their knowledge is just as important as that in your books, if not more so." He frowned. "All right. Good night, everyone!"

The applause following his speech was more confused than earnest. Belthor tried to parse through his mentor's words almost one at a time, hunting for the moral they were supposed to impart.

"Well," Sam observed. "I suppose if I had to give an example, that would be a pretty decent one."

Belthor watched as Kulkas descended from the dais and made his way over to his table. His staff paced him, and with a wave of his hand he claimed it. It thunked on the floor as he made for the exit to the hall-

And Agnete rose to join him, looking almost relieved.

"Hang on a moment. I'll be back." Belthor rose before he realized what he was doing, and then he was hurrying off in their wakes.

The cold bit into him as he stepped outside into the snow. He waded through it at a trot, until he was only a dozen yards shy of the Master and the newcomer.

"Agnete!" he called. She froze, but Kulkas just seemed amused.

"I see you've already made a friend," he complimented the girl. "You know this young man, yes?"

"His name is Belthor." Agnete's lips moved, and Belthor slid to a halt as he realized she was spelling his name out under her breath. "He is also chosen of you."

"He's a very wonderful, very intelligent man," Kulkas said. He smiled at Belthor, who basked for a moment in that praise. "Did you want to speak to her?"

"Yes, please, sir," Belthor said. "Just for a moment."

"Master Kulkas," Agnete started.

"Of course!" Kulkas smiled. "That seems a wonderful idea. Everyone needs friends, and you two have more than one thing in common." He started whistling as he turned back into the wind.

"Master Kulkas-"

He paused, then turned back to Agnete. Belthor frowned as he saw Kulkas give her a very strange, almost reproachful look.

"Yes, Agnete?" he asked, and by his tone, Belthor wouldn't have noticed anything off.

She sighed, her breath coming out as a thin cloud of steam. "Nothing, Master Kulkas. You're right."

"Kind of you to say," the Master said, waving his hand. "Time will be the only judge, I suppose. Don't be up too late, either of you: there are classes to be taken in the morning." He turned back into the darkness.

"Yes?" Agnete asked. Belthor jumped.

"I just...I just, um..." He inhaled. "I wanted you to know I enjoyed talking to you. It was..." he hunted for an adjective. "...nice."

"Thank you?" Agnete blinked once, and Belthor admired the brown in her eyes. "I am not used to spending time with...other humans."

"Other...well, neither am I, really," Belthor admitted. "Are we going to be taking classes together?"

"Why would we not?" She frowned.

"You..." Belthor wanted to hit himself. "I'm not...I don't mean anything by this, it's just...I couldn't help but notice..."

"What?"

"...you don't have a staff," he finally muttered, shivering.

"I do not." Agnete seemed a bit nonplussed by that admission. "I hope to get one soon, though."

"Oh. Okay." Belthor managed a smile. "So, um, if you want to sit with me in the future-"

"It is cold." Agnete stepped back. "I need to get inside and become warm, because the cold is unpleasant."

"Uh...fair enough." Belthor blinked. "But do you-"

"Do not freeze," she encouraged. "Freezing is not at all pleasant. Warmth is infinitely preferable." Then she turned and practically bolted after Kulkas, spraying snow as she vanished into the dark.

"...well, Belthor," he muttered to himself, "you sure can pick them, can't you?"

***

Belthor was glad to be back in Dorm Six, no longer shivering in the falling snow. He held his staff in one hand as he made his way to his and Theron's door, listening to his own footfalls on the carpet and very little other noise. Tori and Sam had left him at the door, heading to their own dorm with an encouragement to come by at any time.

"Remember," Tori had said, "school can be intimidating at first. But we're here for you if you need some help or just some friendship. Well, I am." She'd scooted between Belthor and Sam at that. "Forget about him. Shouldn't be hard."

"Forget me?" Sam had demanded. "I could shock you right now."

"All words." Tori had smiled. "In seriousness: remember."

Belthor had promised he would.

"Theron?" he asked, as he opened the dorm door. He didn't see his roommate anywhere, so he entered, frowning. "Still partying?" he wondered.

Then he froze as he heard creaking from the direction of Theron's room. A very loud, very female moan followed it, and Belthor sucked in breath.
"
Oh," he whispered as the noise only seemed to increase in volume. "Oh."

He couldn't get into his own room and close the door fast enough. It wasn't protection enough, and Belthor found himself simultaneously mortified and impressed as he completed every one of his preparations for bed without a single break.

He lay under his sheets, thinking thoughts of magic and school and Masters and Tori and Sam and Gifts and Agnete and...

And Agnete, the mystery girl in the snow. He couldn't get her out of his head.
 
"I hope this is a one-night stand," Belthor found himself muttering uncharitably as he tried to block out the noise from the other room.

It didn't stop as long as he was awake.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chapter Two: The Newcomer(Part One)



Belthor watched the girl as she stood framed in the doorway, glancing left and right with a detached air that made him shiver. Her hair was a pleasant auburn under her heavy snow cap, her eyes were a bright, clear brown that seemed to dissect anything they turned to, and though she was short, her body language was determined.

"Who is she?" Belthor whispered to Tori and Sam.

"I've never seen her before," Sam replied, and Tori nodded wordlessly.

"Hurry on up there," said a familiar voice, and Master Kulkas appeared behind the newcomer, gnarled staff in hand as he gestured to the central podium. "You'll announce yourself and everything, then find a place to eat."

"Of course, sir." The girl started forward, her tattered cloak trailing behind her. The soft thumps of her boots on the stone floor were the only sound, and they seemed very light and faint, as if this girl had the tread of a cat.

"Who is this?" Master Protec asked from the podium. "We've already announced the newcomers-"

"I'm sorry. I'm late. Very late." The girl's voice was businesslike and calm, though Belthor wondered if cold was a better adjective. "I'm very sorry."

"Announce her," Master Kulkas ordered, his voice level.

"Does she have a staff-"

"No," Master Kulkas replied, voice cheerful now. "Announce her."

"What?" Tori whispered. "No staff...showing up late..."

"With Master Kulkas," Sam added, and Belthor nodded.

"This is highly irregular," Tori finally tacked on as the girl stood beside Master Protec.

"Well..." The master raised his wand, and again that scroll appeared before him. "What's your name, young lady?"

"Agnete." She inhaled softly. "No last name."

"Agnete." Master Protec examined the scroll. "Agnete was...chosen by Master Kulkas. She is here on his word and patronage." He blinked. "Tell us a little about yourself, Agnete."

"I'm from across the Iron Sea," she said. "The Clans. A far northern settlement. Very little town, nestled in the mountains. It snows like this all year, except for the days it rains." She considered. "I like gardening."

"Well...welcome, Agnete," Master Protec said. He clapped, and Belthor joined in, regarding the girl as she inclined her head, very stiffly, then started down into the crowd of tables.

"Hang tight." And then Tori was gone almost in a flash of smoke.

"She's curious," Sam said, a bemused smile on his lips. "Five. Four."

"What?" Belthor asked, but the young man raised his fingers.

"Three. Two." He hesitated for a moment, shaking his head side to side. "One."

"No, no, I insist." Tori dropped to a seat, and an instant later, so did Agnete, right beside Belthor. He jumped.

"Hello, fellow students," Agnete said, looking distinctly uncomfortable.

Tori and Sam introduced themselves like they did this every dinner. For all Belthor knew, they did.

"Belthor, son of Morse," he said, trying not to smile awkwardly at Agnete. "I'm new too."

"I have heard of you," Agnete said, which made him blink. "You also are chosen of Master Kulkas."

"...I was one of his initiates, but yes," Belthor said. "Not exactly the same."

"Is it not?" Agnete looked confused. Then her face lightened. "No, I suppose it is not. Tell me, Belthor, son of Morse: how did you earn Waverider's favor and come to stand at his side here?"

"...patronage," Belthor finally supplied.

"From?"

"Midnight," Tori said. Sam nodded very seriously.

Agnete blinked. "Should I know this name?"

"You don't?" Belthor asked. "She's caused quite the stir recently."

"I have been traveling the Waste Without Water for weeks." Agnete's voice was very flat, and very calm. "I have heard very little of the outside world in that time."

"You crossed the Waste?" Sam asked, blinking. "Not many people can make that journey. And the Sea of Thorns? The Swamps of the Living Dead?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you take the toll road?" Tori asked.

"It's fairly expensive," Agnete replied.

"But..." Belthor blinked. "You wouldn't have to contend with-"

"I dislike people," Agnete continued.

"But the Swamps of the Living Dead and the Waste Without Water-"

"I dislike people." She blinked, and Belthor belatedly realized that was the first time she had done so since she'd sat down. He tried not to stare, wondering what she was made of, but her eyes fixed on him after a moment.

"What?" she inquired.

"I-I-you-I mean..." Belthor swallowed.

And then salvation came as Agnete's rosy cheeks went white like descending frost. "Oh!" She paused to whisper something in a language Belthor didn't know. "I am sorry! I am so sorry! It is not that I dislike you. I just..." She looked down, becoming very still. "That was offensive. I only meant that I dislike crowds. I do not fit in many places."

"Oh, that's terrible!" Tori leaned her head to the side. "Can I ask how you know Master Kulkas?"

"Um." Agnete squirmed. "There...we have a mutual acquaintance. And there were some things." She twiddled her fingers for a moment. "Actually, I should get back to him. He asked me to dine with him tonight."

"Wait-" Belthor broke off as Agnete stood and left the table, almost impossibly fast. He watched the girl trot across the dining hall as plates of food and goblets of drink fluttered from the kitchens of their own accord, until she arrived at Master Kulkas' side where he sat at his own table.

"No one dines with the Masters on the first night," Sam said, looking very nonplussed. "That's an honor for the best students, the favorites."

Kulkas waved Agnete down, and she sat to his left, looking very, very relieved. She took off her snow cap, brushing a hand through her hair as she seemed to look anywhere but back at Belthor, Tori and Sam.

"Who is she?" Belthor wondered. "And why..."

"She barely blinks," Tori pointed out. "She walks like a cat: one foot in front of the other, light on her toes, hardly making a sound."

"Hang on." Sam paused to claim a floating plate left-handed and set it before him. He touched the staff nestled into a small nook in the table beside him, and food floated from the serving dishes over his way. Belthor blinked.

"Here." Tori touched her staff and the same thing happened for her. "The staff does the work, Belthor. You just think about what you want."

"Oh. Okay." Belthor touched his own staff, and was pleasantly surprised when, after a minute, he had a sizeable dinner laid out before him.

"No meat?" Tori asked. Belthor shook his head.

"I don't eat it," he said. "I try to do no harm to any living thing if I can help it." He winced as he remembered a few times he'd broken that promise. "I guess if I can help it is the operative phrase."

"Something to do with how you earned the Maronas' patronage?" Sam asked. Belthor chuckled nervously.

"Yeah, that...yeah. It was an adventure."

"Can we ask about it?" Sam inquired. "Or are you going to run away to Master Kulkas like Agnete?"

"What?" Belthor blinked. "Oh, no. Of course not. I mean, I'm not running off. It's not that you can't ask." He hesitated. "I mean, I don't know that I really can tell you the whole thing, but-"

"Hey." Tori gently shoved Sam. "Agnete."

"What about her?" Belthor turned as well. "She's just sitting there while Kulkas eats. I think they're talking."

"What doesn't she have, Belthor?" Tori asked. Belthor frowned.

"...food." He leaned back. "She doesn't have a plate. She doesn't have a staff either."

"That lady is weird," Tori observed. Belthor couldn't argue.

All he could do was take her in from across the hall, brimming with questions no one could answer...except the one person he couldn't ask.