It wasn’t often she contemplated cannibalism, but the man ranting at her tested her patience and discipline in the worst way. If only solving her problems were as simple as turning into a dragon and chomping them to death.
Would it even be considered cannibalism if she was a dragon at the time of consumption?
The presence inside her stirred, a soft movement on her arm as the dragon tattoo known as Ilith used Tate’s eyes to peer out at the world. Her chuckle was a rumbly tickle in her mind before Ilith said, Too chewy. Wouldn’t be worth the trouble.
Tate kept her sigh internal even as she conceded Ilith’s point. It was vexing knowing there was nothing she could do but sit here and listen.
Ilith kneaded Tate’s arm in sympathy, the dragon’s claws sending a disconcerting shiver under her skin. Tattoos weren’t supposed to do that.
Tate was considered Dragon-Ridden, one of the few capable of forming a bond with a dragon. One of the side effects of that bond was that the two shared one body, able to move between the two forms. At present Tate was human and Ilith a tattoo on her arm.
It was supposedly an honor, but Tate had yet to feel particularly honored. Especially since that honor seemed to come with a shit ton of strings, more like ropes, that were determined to hang her.
“Are you listening to me?” Instructor Daiske snapped, his all-black eyes making Tate think of a dead fish.
She pasted on an attentive look, though the answer was no, she had not been listening.
There was a snicker from somewhere in the room. The other students in the class took pleasure when Tate was put on the spot, which happened regularly. As the oldest person in the class by a few years, and one of the few who hadn’t earned her spot through endless study, she could understand how it might be amusing to see her get her comeuppance.
Daiske gestured sharply to the board. Tate followed his gesture and frowned. Crap, they were back to summoning elements. So far, she was zero for ten. Daiske knew that too. She didn’t know what he hoped to accomplish by making an example of her. He knew she didn’t have a choice about being here. The powers that be had ordered she attend classes to learn all that they felt a member of the Dragon-Ridden should know, since she was now technically above the nobility. That meant lessons in history, politics, deportment, military strategy, sword play and other weapons, languages and magic.
Surprisingly, she hadn’t done half bad in most of the subjects. The sole exception being magic.
“We don’t have all day, Fisher.”
Tate gave Daiske a look, letting some of her dragon peek out.
Daiske was a tall, thin man. Handsome, as all Kairi seemed to be, with long, black hair pulled back from his face in a series of complicated braids. There was a faint impression of golden scales along his forehead and jawline.
His eyes narrowed and his face became implacable as he once again gestured at the board.
Tate huffed, conceding the staring contest and examined the board more closely. She recognized the symbols at least. Looked like he wanted her to call fire. Because nothing said good idea like calling a fire elemental indoors where things like books and buildings could go up in flames.
“You want me to summon fire,” Tate said, making her words a statement rather than the question that would invite more reprimands.
“And if you could do it today, I’d be especially pleased.”
He turned and headed to the front of the room. Tate stood and followed across the glassy floor. The entire room looked as though someone had melted rock and then super cooled it to create a perfectly unmarred surface with an obsidian like sheen.
Someone had etched a circle into the ground. Chalk symbols were drawn at the four directions, North, South, East, West, and it was within this circle that Tate stopped. It was the only break in the floor’s surface and acted as a containment field in case a student’s spell got out of control.
Tate hadn’t needed one yet as she’d proven an utter failure at any sort of magic.
The rest of the class stared back in varying degrees of amusement, derision or boredom. Most of them had waited years to be accepted into Daiske’s class. He was considered one of the elite in his field and had a gift for bringing out the maximum magical potential in his students.
The rest of the class had parents who were willing to pay an obscene amount of money to be pushed to the front of the line.
It didn’t help that Tate was years older than the rest. The oldest here was only twenty to Tate’s mid-twenties. At least Tate thought she looked like she was in her twenties. Who really knew? She certainly didn’t. She had no memories prior to waking up in a glass cylinder a little over a year ago. Her age, among many other things, remained a mystery. About the only thing she knew, was that she was bonded to a dragon named Ilith and her real name was Tatum Allegra Winters.
The name was familiar, so she assumed it was hers, though she kept that to herself. Most knew her as Tate Fisher.
Tate let her mind wander as she worked on putting herself in a near meditative state. Thinking of nothing was a lot harder than it sounded. The only way she could achieve the state was by thinking through everything bothering her before forcing those thoughts to quiet.
The point of this exercise, as far as Tate understood, was to reach into the next world and grab a being they called an elemental and bring it into this world. Ilith tended to call this space the ‘between’, though Tate had never heard Daiske refer to it as such.
Tate had yet to figure out how this could be done. For the others in the class, it seemed to come easy. They closed their eyes, held out their hands and then an elemental appeared. Most were usually small, but in a few rare cases the summoned element had taken up all extra room in the circle. Daiske had been very impressed.
Distantly she heard the classroom door open and two pairs of feet, one in boots and one not, pad along the edge of the classroom. She discarded the distraction, turning her focus inward.
Her conscious dipped abruptly as if it was floating on a string and someone had given it a sharp tug.
A hint of heat sparked at the edge of her perception, and her focus narrowed on it. Her forward progress halted as if she’d hit an invisible force, and the hint of heat darted away.
She opened her eyes and shook her head at Daiske.
He frowned at her. “Try again.”
Someone smothered a giggle in the back. Tate looked at the rest of the students but couldn’t figure out who’d laughed. Her eyes snagged on her friends—Dewdrop, a former pickpocket who’d somehow attached himself to Tate, and Night, a creature she’d met in the tunnels earlier this year. Nobody had a name for what he was, but Tate tended to refer to him as a bearcat.
She suspected the two of them had been the ones to enter the classroom.
Tate released an angry exhale. She was an adult and yet Daiske tended to make her want to revert to being an angry youth.
She slammed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. She cast her senses out searching for that spark.
There. She grabbed at it, her thoughts slipping and sliding around it.
This was the part she always had trouble with. She could sense the elementals easy enough, or at least what she thought was an elemental, but getting it to come to her was another story.
Daiske had said there were three parts to a summoning. The first was sensing it. The second was aligning her essence with it. The third was the call.
She centered herself and tried to project heat by thinking of fire. She called for it, using the word Daiske had made the class memorize. It was a waterfall of sounds in a language long lost to them. She had to fumble her way through them, her tongue struggling with some of the notes, and hope for the best.
She tried again. Still nothing
Daiske muttered something. She ignored him.
She used her senses to examine the thing she sensed. She didn’t know if her visualization was based on reality or simply something in her mind’s eye, but there was an alien intelligence to the spark. Almost like it knew what she was trying to do and found her feeble attempts amusing.
She cocked her head, frowning. Yes, that felt like thought patterns, similar to the kind Ilith made when she was dreaming. There, but not. Like they were just out of hearing distance. A persistent buzz that never coalesced into anything meaningful.
Tate didn’t bother sorting through the thoughts, having a feeling that it wasn’t the sort of thing she could comprehend without going a little insane.
She was stumped. She had no idea how to pull the elemental to her if it didn’t want to come. It had resisted her call and already was fading from her perception. It was everything she could do just to keep track of it.
Ilith, any ideas? Tate sent to the dragon.
The dragon’s presence moved closer. A shadow across Tate’s mind growing larger.
You’re out of sync, and your call is all over the place. It can’t create the bridge.
Is that all? So helpful.
Ilith’s tail thumped against Tate’s brain.
You’re the one who asked for help.
Chastised, Tate turned back to summoning the elemental.
How did one vibrate in tune with fire?
What was fire? At its core, fire was the exothermic chemical process of combustion. It could be caused by friction or when any type of flammable item met with a spark. None of this helped show her the way to call it though.
Concentrate. Try visualizing a string. One that is wrapped tight with barely any slack in it.
Not having much choice. Tate did as Ilith asked.
Good. Now imagine you pluck that string. It vibrates. Do the same to yourself until the vibrations put you in line with fire.
Tate concentrated, not sure how to accomplish that. Her thoughts receded and warmth flooded her body as pressure built around her. Tighter and tighter until it felt like she’d be crushed under the force.
She directed that force at the spark. The world snapped back with an audible crack and explosion.
Tate opened her eyes anticipating some type of fire elemental to be waiting for her. Instead, she gaped at the jagged grooves in the floor radiating out from where she stood. The spidery lines bisected the etched circle rendering it inert.
Daiske’s eyes widened as he looked at the devastation in the floor. Several students whispered in horror among themselves.
“How did she do that?”
“I thought the circle couldn’t be destroyed.”
“Do you see an elemental?”
Tate looked around. There was no elemental and no fire anywhere around her.
“What did you do?” Daiske shouted, finding his voice. He looked around his circle in disbelief, shaking with anger.
“I did what you asked. I tried to summon an elemental.”
“No. Summoning an elemental wouldn’t have had this affect. You’ve broken the circle and destroyed the floor. This entire room is unusable now.”
She could see that. There wasn’t a big enough area of unblemished stone to be able to draw a circle. Unless they melted it down, Tate didn’t see this place being used for magic lessons ever again.
“That’s a problem,” she said.
For a minute, she thought Daiske might try to strangle her. His black eyes glared and he looked inches from some violent act. It was kind of like being stared at by a wild sea creature from the depths of the ocean. You just knew it was trying to determine whether it was higher in the food chain or not.
“Go back to your seat,” he ordered.
Dewdrop looked like he was trying to smother a smirk as she made her way to sit beside him. Night swished his tail in amusement and twitched his whiskers at her. She’d been around him long enough to know that was his version of a laugh.
“Thought the professor said you weren’t allowed to bring your pet anymore.” The speaker was a boy, no more than twenty, with blond hair and brown eyes. He sat three desks away from Tate but never passed up an opportunity to needle her.
“We’ve been over this before, Sam. Night is not a pet. He is an intelligent creature fully capable of understanding every word out of your mouth. I’d be careful if I were you. His teeth are sharp, and he’s exceedingly good at using them.”
On cue, Night exposed a set of gleaming white fangs. Tate knew from witnessing his hunting prowess exactly what he was capable of with those teeth and claws.
She also knew he wouldn’t use them on such insignificant prey as the students in the class. Not while he was trying to gain recognition from Aurelia’s government as a fourth species. To gain full rights such as owning territory and being able to go out without being hunted down, he couldn’t be seen to act like an animal. Sam didn’t know that, though.
Sam gave Night a wary look and shut his mouth on his next comment. Tate didn’t blame him for being cautious. Night looked dangerous. His body was a cross between that of a barbed tail cat and a sun bear. Brown, black, and gold stripes ran along his back fading into cream colored fur covered in black rosettes along his limbs. He had a flat nose and pointy ears that were longer than a typical cat with tufts of fur sticking out of each ear. His tail ended in sharp barbs that could cause a lot of damage.
He was an apex predator. Made deadly efficient by the same Creators who had made the Kairi and Silva. Like them, he had a couple extra features thrown in to make him even more dangerous. He also had the same complex thought processes of a human and could strategize and reason like one too.
Combined, these traits made him something to be feared—deadly and dangerous.
He was like Tate in that he’d also woken up from a long sleep with few memories of his prior life. What he remembered spoke of darkness, blood and death.
“Class is dismissed. Thanks to your classmate, we will not be able to proceed. Check the main hall announcement board this afternoon for the room assignment for tomorrow’s class.”
There was a collective groan from the students. While everybody put forth maximum effort in all the subjects, they were here for the schooling on magic. A passing mark from Daiske opened doors in Aurelia, many of which led to significant wealth and power. A delay in classes would not make Tate any more popular with this crowd.
The group began to pack up.
“Fisher, Lord Ryuji will be informed of this incident,” Daiske snapped.
Tate’s mouth twisted into a frown. He wasn’t going to be happy. They’d already had two discussions this month about complaints from Daiske. Ryu was worried that all of this would reflect poorly on Tate, especially since she was still technically under probation for having an unsanctioned dragon. She’d barely escaped a treason charge during the Donza Festival.
“You really have no luck,” Dewdrop said, watching the instructor leave. “That’s what? The second time this month.”
Third, Night inserted.
Dewdrop whistled. “You’d think he’d run out of things to complain about.”
Dewdrop was the same age as a lot of the other students. Sixteen or seventeen by his best guest. His fresh, baby face seemed to support that. Unlike the rest of the students, he hadn’t had the benefit of the best education that money could buy. His knowledge was more the kind you picked up when living hand-to-mouth and needed to adapt to survive. He made a damn fine pickpocket.
Bet she’ll be in Ryu’s office before dinner.
“Naw, I’m betting she’ll be called in within the hour. Daiske was looking a mite more irked than usual. He’s probably making a beeline for one of the mirrors.”
Great. Just what Tate needed.
“I did exactly what he requested. I tried to summon an elemental.”
Dewdrop gave the broken floor a skeptical look. “Granted I’ve never tried my hand at summoning, but I don’t think it’s supposed to do that.”
Tate looked at the floor. No, she didn’t either. Just one more thing that set her apart. As if having no memories and a living dragon tattoo wasn’t enough.
Dewdrop clapped her on the shoulder. “No worries, fearless leader. I think it’s pretty impressive. If I was an elemental, I’d want to be called by a badass summoner like you.”
Any idea what went wrong? Night asked.
“No clue. One moment I was trying to vibrate in tune with the elemental, next it was like the world exploded.”
“Vibrate? How does one go about doing that?” Dewdrop asked. He started shimmying in place. “Like this? Maybe I can summon an elemental if I do it too.”
Tate laughed. “Stop, you look like you’re having a fit.”
Dewdrop followed her, shimmying and shaking the entire way, as she and Night walked towards the door. “What? I’m vibrating. Don’t you like it?”
You look like one of those jumping ants on hot stone, Night said.
Dewdrop stopped shaking. “You’re just jealous of the awesome elemental I’m going to summon.”
“What are you two doing here anyway?” Tate asked as they made their way slowly down the hall and out into the courtyard.
It was hot outside, the kind of heat that made you feel like you were in a warm oven. It was everywhere. It left Tate wanting to strip and find a cool rock to lie on. One that was preferably submerged in a pool fed from glaciers. It was probably why they were the only ones brave enough to risk being baked alive by the sun.
Despite the heat, the grass still looked green and the flowers pretty even if they were a little wilted around the edges. Gardeners spent hours every morning tending to their upkeep.
They made their way along one of the loose pebbled walkways to a bench shaded by a tree in the corner of the courtyard. Its branches arched overhead, the leaves providing a welcome respite from the unrelenting sun.
“Remind me again why we can’t stay inside like normal people,” Dewdrop complained.
“I spend all day inside attending classes. It doesn’t hurt you to spend a little time outside.”
Tate and Dewdrop collapsed onto the bench, grateful to be out of the direct sun. Night walked over to the tree and used his forelegs tipped with claws to muscle his way into its branches. The leaves barely rustled as he padded along the branch until he reached the crook right over Tate and Dewdrop’s heads. He stretched out, crossing his paws and laying his head down. His tail flicked lazily back and forth.
“A little time, my ass,” Dewdrop muttered. “We had to walk all the way from the Lower to reach this place.”
Tate felt impressed despite herself, and a little bad she’d made them come back outside.
The city of Aurelia was broken into two parts. The lower half cradled the half-crescent harbor of the port. This was where many of the markets were located and was home to those without an excess of wealth, many of them the working class. The area referred to as the Upper perched on top of the massive black cliffs overlooking the Lower city and harbor. It was the seat of the Empire’s government. If you lived up here, it meant you were part of the upper echelons of society.
Aurelia’s Academy, the building where Tate spent a good part of her day, was located in the academic district on the border between the Upper city and the Lower. It would have taken hours of uphill walking to reach her. It was a journey she’d made every day for the last month.
We took the elevator.
Dewdrop glared at the oversized feline above them.
Tate’s lips quirked in a half smile. She felt a lot less bad now. The elevator built into the side of the cliff would have cut their journey down to twenty minutes.
Seeing the look on Tate’s face, Dewdrop snapped, “It was still hot.”
Dewdrop rolled his eyes, acting very much like the little brother Tate sometimes treated him as. He tugged on his ear as he shifted on the bench.
Her eyes narrowed. He was normally a superb liar, able to stare someone in the eye as he lied through his teeth. Over the last few weeks, she’d taken the time to learn some of his tells. She was sure if he concentrated he could make her believe up was down and vice versa, but in unguarded moments he tended to give himself away.
There were only a few reasons she could think of that would make him want to keep something from her.
“You did another job for Ryu, didn’t you?”
His hand dropped and he cursed.
Told you she would figure it out.
Dewdrop tipped his head back and glared at the feline on the tree branch.
That was all the confirmation Tate needed.
“I can’t believe this. Again?”
He spread his hands. “We need the money. We’ve got five mouths to feed.”
He was right. They were running critically short on the money she had accrued from being part of a pirate crew, and Tate couldn’t easily make more locked up in classes everyday learning about important but inedible things.
“Wasn’t it you who said Ryu was a misbegotten son of an ass who couldn’t be trusted not to make everyone else as miserable as he was?”
“That was you.”
Tate paused and frowned. That’s right. She’d said that after he gave her the order that consigned her to death by boredom.
“But Ryu? Couldn’t you find some other way to make money?”
“What? Like pick pocketing?” He shook his head. “That route closed as soon as I left Lucius’s gang. It’s too dangerous to try to work in the Lower city. The Night Lords have carved up every street between themselves. Anyone caught poaching is dealt with decisively. And the Upper city is no safer with the Black Order patrolling every corner.”
“Maybe something a little less illegal. And dangerous,” Tate tacked on to the end. Anything Ryu was involved in was bound to be extremely dangerous. The last time she’d gotten sucked into his machinations she had almost died and was brought to the attention of the empire. Something that she had a feeling would have been better off avoided.
There’s not a lot of options for us. Not many people want to hire a creature like me or a former thief like him.
Night’s eyes were closed as he rested on the branch. To the outside world, he would seem relaxed and napping.
She hadn’t realized he was involved in this too.
“It wasn’t too bad, Tate,” Dewdrop said earnestly. “Neither one of us have a scratch.”
“What did he have you do?”
Dewdrop face was guilty as he gave a half-hearted smile. “We can’t tell you that.”
“Come on,” Tate scoffed.
“That’s always part of the agreement with Ryu. He doesn’t want things spread around.”
“Even with me?”
Especially with you.
What did Ryu have these two involved in that he didn’t want her to know of it? And since when did he think a little thing like confidentiality was going to stop her.
She gave Dewdrop a sidelong look, assessing the likelihood of her getting the information out of him. He gave her innocent eyes as if he didn’t know exactly what she was thinking. Chances were low of her cracking him right this minute. She’d wait. He’d let something slip eventually.
The gravel crunched and Night lifted his head. Tate and Dewdrop turned to look as another student rounded the hedges a few feet from them. The woman paused when she caught sight of the three of them. She had no choice but to pass right next to them.
“Tate.” Not a hair of her light brown hair moved from her sleek chignon as the woman gave a perfunctory nod, her almond shaped brown eyes flicking to the other two and away again. She was one of the few students in the class who seemed a similar age to Tate, appearing only a year or two younger at most.
Roslyn’s lips tightened slightly at the lack of title. She didn’t like the fact that Tate outranked her. As a direct descendant of a Savior, Roslyn was used to being the ranking person at any gathering. She wasn’t quite sure what category Tate fell into. Technically, Tate existed outside the nobility since she was Dragon-Ridden. She supposedly only answered to the emperor himself. In reality, Tate wasn’t born a noble which made her little more than a street beggar in many eyes.
Tate suspected it was Roslyn’s rumored rocky relationship with her family that was really the culprit behind her chilly reception.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” Roslyn asked.
“It was canceled.”
“Yeah, someone destroyed the summoning circle,” Dewdrop quipped.
Tate shot him a glance as he smothered his grin.
Roslyn’s eyes moved between the two of them as she put two and two together.
“You destroyed the circle?” Her forehead furrowed as she peered at Tate with a grudging respect.
Tate shrugged, uncomfortable with her utter failure at summoning the elemental.
“I’ve only seen that happen twice. Both times the summoner tried to call something too big for their ability level or the space allotted.”
Was that what happened?
“It’s rare to break a circle. Usually your call will just terminate before the being can try to cross the bridge. It takes a lot of power to create and maintain the bridge so few people even attempt it.” She gave Tate an assessing gaze. “Those summoners ended up in a coma from the snap back and power drain. How are you feeling?”
Now that Tate thought about it, she had a hellacious headache starting at the base of her neck and she was feeling chilled despite the heat.
“Just a mild headache.”
Roslyn’s nod was slow as if she didn’t quite believe the partial truth. “You’re lucky if that’s all. I’m surprised Professor Daiske didn’t take you to the healers to be sure.”
“He was too busy ripping Tate a new one,” Dewdrop muttered.
Roslyn’s attention shifted to him. “That is not the action of a teacher. The blame lies with him for not ensuring she knew the limits of the circle.”
“You seem to know a lot about this magic stuff,” Dewdrop observed.
“I should,” Roslyn said crisply. “This is my second time through the course.”
Tate’s jaw dropped. What could be so interesting that she would want to sit through this twice? And how much money would it have taken to secure a seat the second time around?
Tate was all for learning, but she was much more suited for action. Beyond the practical skills like weapons and military strategy, she found it difficult to pay attention to the hours and hours of lectures.
“You decided to go through this voluntarily?” Dewdrop asked, his horror reflecting Tate’s.
Roslyn looked a little uncomfortable by the statement. “My family and I decided there was value in going over the material in case I’d missed something the first time.”
“Sounds like you’re pretty much a master at this,” Tate said, leaning back on one hand.
Night chuffed his agreement, drawing Roslyn’s eyes upward. Interest sparked behind her eyes before a veil slammed down hiding her thoughts.
“There is always more to learn,” Roslyn said, a thread of discomfort weaving through her voice.
Tate decided to drop the subject, not wanting the conversation to end just yet. This was the most Roslyn had spoken to her, or any person in the class, since Tate started attending. Surprisingly, the woman wasn’t as difficult as Tate had assumed given the icy disdain Roslyn normally projected. When she forgot to keep that wall up, Roslyn was actually pretty interesting.
“True enough,” Tate said. “I wish I could just get the basics down though.”
Roslyn gave her a small smile. “It would certainly benefit all defenseless summoning circles.”
Tate snorted as her laugh surprised her. She hadn’t expected Roslyn to make a joke.
“What brings you out here?”
Roslyn’s face shut down. Tate could see she was about to excuse herself.
The doors to the courtyard slammed open and a man in the uniform of the emperor’s guard strode toward Tate and her friends. He wore brown pants and a green shirt with the crest of the emperor embroidered over the left side of his chest.
Roslyn looked both hopeful and terrified as his long strides ate up the distance.
“Tate Fisher?” he asked.
Roslyn’s face fell before she locked her emotions behind a mask of polite interest.
“That’s me,” Tate said from her seat on the bench.
“Lord Ryuji sent me to escort you to his office.”
“Is this about the damage to the circle? Because that wasn’t my fault.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Tate sighed. Of course he wouldn’t. Why give him all the details so he could settle Tate’s piece of mind?
“Don’t suppose this could wait? They’re serving cinnamon rolls at the midday meal. They only make those once a week.”
“I’m afraid not. He said you were to report to him as soon as you received his message.”
Yup, that sounded like him.
She looked at Night and Dewdrop. “You staying or coming?”
Dewdrop looked torn between the promise of warm, buttery roles and watching Tate get chewed out. Again. He always got a perverse joy out of watching it happen.
I doubt they’ll let us get any of the rolls if you’re not here. Night jumped out of the tree, a waterfall of movement.
The guard gave a tightly controlled jump as Night landed next to him.
Dewdrop shrugged in agreement. “It’s always fun watching you get yelled at.”
Tate walked toward the guard. “Guess we’re all going with you.”
He nodded and turned, trusting they would follow.
Roslyn watched them go with a curious expression on her face. Tate was tempted to invite her along as well, but she didn’t want any more of an audience than necessary.
Tate gave her a small wave before following behind the other three.