Belthor sat, chewing on his thumb. He eyed the papers before him, muttering past his nail as he tried to come up with additional words.
"What're you casting?" Theron asked, as he slipped his cloak on and admired himself in a mirror-spell hanging in the air before him.
"What?" Belthor blinked. "What am I..." he sighed as Theron gave him a patient look. "Oh. Slang. What am I casting. I get it."
"Some days, I really can believe you're from South Shara, roc," his roommate said. "When I hear South Shara, though I may be wrong, I immediately think-"
"-endless cornfields," Belthor said with him. Theron laughed, and the initiate shrugged. "Yeah, well, there's a bit more to it than that. Not a terrible load. We have the occasional potato field."
"Probably the odd spot of squash too," Theron said. He waved his hand, and the mirror-spell dissipated. Belthor watched with fascination.
"How do you do that?" he asked.
"You didn't cast a spell, did you?" Belthor asked. "Not without a staff or a wand-"
"Oh." Theron made a face. "You're not at that level. It's advanced stuff. But hand magic is a thing."
"It is?" The initiate stared in wonder. Theron chuckled.
"You look like a South Sharan farm-boy when you do that, roc," he said, but it was only teasing and not mocking. "What does a staff do?"
"Um...translates your impulses to spells," Belthor said. "It lets you affect the world around you."
"Why do you need the tool?" Theron inquired.
"Because...I can't just wave my hand and open a door." The young man furrowed his brow. "I've tried. We all have. It doesn't work."
"It takes strong magical skill and a lot of practice," Theron said, "but hand magic is a thing. Pay attention to the Masters, and occasionally you'll see them do it."
"Why do we have staffs, then?" Belthor asked.
"Because it's easier to use a staff or a wand," Theron said. "And Runes can be put on them without putting them on your body. The upside of a Rune as a tattoo-"
"-is that you can use the power without a wand or staff," Belthor said. "The downside is that the deity in question can take that power away at any time or cause you pain if they're unhappy with you. And it's more taxing to use the power without a tool."
"Exactly. You're a smart cookie, roc. You remind me of me." Theron winked. "So we put runes on the tools instead of us unless we're really comfortable with the god in question. Plus there's all the other myriad rules about Runes. But!" He lifted his hand, and Belthor watched his hat soar from the hat-rack over to him. "You've done it before, I'm sure. With your staff."
"That's the staff, though," Belthor said. Theron shook his head.
"Nope! That's all you. If you know you can do it, it's a lot easier, and a lot of people start by summoning something they already know is magical and paired with them. They think that's why it works." He reached down and plucked Belthor's quill from where it lay. "Here. Call it."
"Um." Belthor adjusted his shoulders. "Do I do anything but-"
"No. Just wish it over to you, like you would if you had your staff in your hand." He held it out, about two feet out of reach. "You want it. You want it in your hand."
"I..." Belthor cleared his throat. He let the impulse override even his conscious thoughts. He breathed low for a moment, then stuck his hand out just like Theron had.
The quill twitched. Belthor gasped...but deflated when it didn't come to him.
"That was well-done," Theron said. "Most people's first tries go worse than that. Practice it, roc. In your copious free time."
That reminded Belthor that he was supposed to be writing an essay. "I will. Can I have that back though?"
"Sure." Theron handed it over. "I've got to run. Potions class with Master Protec. I'm going to find out the result of a little bet I made with him. Not to be cocky, but I think I've got it in the bag."
"You go, and good luck," Belthor said. "I'll just finish this essay for Master Vignette." He paused. "Theron?"
Belthor gestured. "You, ah...back of your neck."
"What?" Theron rubbed at the area in question with his sleeve. He glanced at the red lipstick he'd picked up. "Oh! Hah. Didn't even feel it. You get so used to it, you know?" He winked at Belthor.
"...no," the initiate replied. "I don't."
"Don't lose heart. It'll be you, someday: the sexy senior no one can keep her hands off of. You're already off to a good start! I would have killed to have two hot lady friends in my first semester." He considered. "Well, one hot and one cold."
"Agnete is just a friend," Belthor said quickly. "And so is Tori. They're not hot lady friends. I mean, they're not ugly, I'm not...but they're not hot and-"
"Stop stammering," Theron said. "Word of advice, roc: the ladies love a man who knows who he is and doesn't apologize for it."
"...doesn't that mean arrogant?" Belthor asked.
"Exactly." Theron winked again. "Fine, fine line you've got to walk there...but you'll do fine. Men with the Rune of Healing tend to have lots of luck with the ladies. They like the sensitive types, you know, like us."
"Catch you around, roc." Theron waved as he turned with a flourish of his cloak, sticking his hand out and summoning his staff and bookbag alike. Belthor watched him leave the dorm, whistling a funeral dirge to himself.
"...I do not understand that man," the initiate finally muttered to himself.
"Hand magic?" Agnete asked. Belthor nodded.
"Yes! Theron just waved and there was a mirror-spell hanging in the air. And he undid it the same way, and called his hat..."
"I have seen Master Kulkas do this," Agnete replied. They tromped through the thick snow side-by-side, Belthor bundled up far more severely, while the drow seemed to enjoy being out of the heat of Sam and Tori's dorm. There was color in her cheeks, and Belthor liked seeing her happy. "Not often, but every once in a while..."
Belthor paused outside the diner. He glanced around, unsure what he was expecting to see while Agnete related her story of Master Kulkas' hand magic. He supposed that green in the dark would be a fairly good start-
"You do not have to protect me." Agnete said it quietly, but it cut through Belthor's world. He met her brown-Glamoured eyes.
"You're my friend." He said it quietly.
"Friend." Agnete seemed to roll that concept around in her mind. "I have never had friends."
"I'm sure you did in your village," Belthor started.
"No." She was blunt about it, as snow flicked into her hair where it scattered from under her cap. "No, my village lived on the edge of the wild. Most of my life I spent at my uncle's elbow, and he, while wise and while kind enough, is harsh, and not at all friendly. He was forged in the ice of the north, caring for our people with his hands and mind and words and weapons alike."
"So, he's...a chief?" Belthor asked. "You're the chief's niece."
"We call him mayor," Agnete said, which made him wince. "But yes."
"Do...you have other family?" Belthor asked. "Aunts? Father?"
"I never knew my father. And you know what happened to my mother." Agnete considered while Belthor kicked himself for prodding. "I have no siblings. My uncle has sons, but I never knew them well. I don't suppose I belonged, even back home, for my heart was full of dreams of the outside world rather than the ice of the north. I did have an aunt, I think."
"You think?" Belthor asked.
"She left," Agnete said. "There was an incident when Highland warriors occupied the village she had settled in with her husband, across the mountain range from us. This was before I was born, but she fled to settle in our village. There was some sort of scandal she ran from, and it eventually drove her on further by the time my mother died."
"...oh." Belthor fidgeted. "I didn't mean to pry. I'm sorry, Agnete."
"You asked a question. I supplied an answer." She frowned. "I do not understand what is impolite about asking a question."
"It's...some people don't like talking about things like that," Belthor said. "And it's none of my business anyway."
"Master Kulkas says that asking questions is the mark of a healthy mind." Agnete still looked lost. "Are there times you are not supposed to have a healthy mind?"
"There are some questions that people would rather you didn't ask," Belthor said.
"Not necessarily secrets," Belthor hedged, "though there are those too. Just...things that are painful to talk about, or that the other person doesn't really need to know. Like..." he hunted for an example. "Like, if someone was interested in someone else, but a third person asked...it's not really their business."
"Oh. I see." Agnete mused. "So one should not directly ask questions like that?"
"Not usually, no," Belthor agreed. "I mean, if I was interested in you, I would be supposed to tell you myself."
"And if I was interested in you...I see." Agnete nodded slowly.
"Well, usually, it's the boy who says it," Belthor told her. The girl frowned thoughtfully.
"Oh, I see. Your mating customs are very heavy on the separation between stud and mare." She winced a moment later as Belthor sucked in breath. "I am so sorry. I do not mean to insult you like this. I do not think before I speak."
"That's...all right," he said. "Don't worry about it. I know what you meant."
"Good." She shined him a relieved smile. "I am still sorry. But I have a question."
"What is it?" Belthor wondered if they were ever going to go inside. He promptly shelved the thought: Agnete liked the cold, and he got to be warm all the time. The least he could do was let her be as comfortable as possible for as long as possible.
"If a...girl is interested in a stud," Agnete asked, "how is she supposed to inform him?"
"Um." Belthor resisted the urge to pry at his collar. "I'm not really an...expert on that sort of thing."
"What would communicate to you that a girl was attempting to convey her attraction?" Agnete asked, sounding for all the world like they were discussing an arithmetic problem. "Provide me with examples, please. I would like to understand your mating rituals."
"Um." Belthor finally gave in to the urge, and he pulled at his robes, letting cold air in on his neck. "Um. I suppose, if a girl...I mean...if she..." He waved his staff helplessly. "Words. I'm struggling with words."
"I just want an example," Agnete said, her voice low.
"What!" Belthor jumped, and his staff fell from suddenly nerveless fingers. He spun-
The big man from the diner loomed in front of him, almost seven feet tall, his muscles bulging like boulders on his wide frame. Belthor retreated two steps, scrambling to pluck his staff from the snow.
"Can...can we help you?" he asked. The big man glanced at Agnete, who Belthor noticed gravitating behind him.
"I think it's a mutual thing, really," the man said. "That girl's the Gifted one who froze half the joint, ain't she?"
"We....yes," Belthor admitted. He clutched his staff. "If you're here to take her-"
"You got jumped by those crazy green-eyed birds just out of town, yeah?"
"...yes," Agnete whimpered, while Belthor tried to decide whether to simply hex the man. For his part, he looked remarkably unfazed by the initiate raising his staff defensively.
"Put that toy down, kid." He patted the tip of the tool carelessly. "I ain't here to kill you and take your woman - I could if I wanted to, but that ain't how I go."
"Then what are you here for?" Belthor asked, proud that his voice didn't crack.
"I'm here," said the big man, "to tell you that I saw which way Yvette and her girlfriends went."