EPISODE 19: BAIT AND CODES

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Alinore Valmont. Merday 12, 5:18 AM, 2344 AA. Arroyo Athenaeum (Girl’s Dorm – Yew).

Carroll made good on his promises to allow Lin to train with other mentors that day, giving her a grand tour of sorcery with Elroy, erudensis with Falkner, and even allowed her to join a firearms lecture from Hemmingway. In between the lessons, Lin and Carroll discussed the implications of terrorism, more than the Samhain massacre in any specifics, which he seemed rather distant and distracted about. Lin had discussed similar topics with her father and brother—it was usual dinner conversation with a head of state as a parent.

When Lin got back to the dorm, tired but exhilarated, she found Pensey waiting on her, biting her lower lip and fussing with her uniform nervously. As a rule, Lin was bad with faces, but she had come to recognize that demeanor as Pensey’s “fresh gossip” look. Though instead of her usual kitten-with-a-goldfish smugness, she seemed worried.

“Oh no,” Lin said. “What did you hear?”

“Cyphira’s mentor took her and Hace into the Faed at LA Live, and they barely made it back alive. Fitzgerald, their mentor? She has a broken arm. Cyphira can’t do physical exercises for the next six weeks because she has two broken ribs!”

“Holy shit! What happened?” Lin asked.

“I dunno. Cyphira said that she shouldn’t have said anything and doesn’t want to get their mentor in anymore trouble. Apparently, she’s being written up for it or something.”

No physical training for six weeks? That would drive me insane. Holy shit, no erudensis, no conditioning, no combined physical and magical exercises. She’s gonna fall way behind! Lin was disappointed. Cyphira was an excellent point of reference for gauging her own prowess and progress.

“Is she okay? I mean, how’s she taking it?” Lin asked.

Pensey shrugged.

“She’s in kind of a funny mood, but she’s in the common area near the symvision if you want to chat.”

Lin emanated gratitude and found Cyphira in ratty asfalis clothing. Her face was bandaged and she was propped up by several pillows.

“Heard you cracked a couple ribs,” Lin said.

“Guilty as charged,” Cyphira said with a smirk.

“What happened? Covering for Matthews?”

She meant it as a joke. People liked jokes. Pensey told her jokes were usually a good way to get people to like you. Oh shit. She also said that my sense of humor is kind of mean, and mean jokes can be risky. Lin frowned internally. That one was kind of mean.

“No, he was actually the one trying to protect me. I fucked up.”

Lin had not expected that.

“I guess next time he should do a better job,” she offered weakly, still trying to make another joke of it despite the meanness. “Though I’m not surprised to hear he tried. Think he has a thing for you.”

“Right,” Cyphira said with a snicker. “Forgot you’re still allergic to ‘boy cooties.’”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lin demanded, her eyes locking onto Cyphira’s. Nicety died. Any attempts at concern, courtesy, or even civility will be hereby discontinued, forthwith.

“It means it would be a lot easier to take you seriously if you stopped acting like such a prim little virgin,” Cyphira said condescendingly. “But I guess that’s what sells papers. Can’t have daddy’s darling soldier girl looking like a slut.”

“Ah. So you have a thing for him too,” Lin had no idea whether that deduction was even remotely accurate, but she said it with perfectly snide confidence. True or not, it’s guaranteed to piss her off.

Cyphira looked like she couldn’t be bothered to laugh.

“Yeah. That’s… absolutely what I meant, Valmont. Clearly, we’re destined to be together. Star-writ lovers. A couple of akrasiac scaches who will save two pure humans.”

“Alright, put your fucking hands up,” Lin demanded. She let her wyrd swell sharply, and assumed a fighting stance. Pensey and the other first year girls noticed the commotion, and the rest of the room started to get quiet.

“What?” Cyphira asked, genuinely exasperated.

“I don’t care if you call me a slut, or a cunt, or a whore, but I won’t let you insult my intelligence and integrity.”

“Your ‘integrity?’ You do know what those dirty words mean, don’t you, Ali?”

Lin’s eyes blazed. She hated being called ‘Ali.’ She made sure to tell people to call her ‘Lin,’ but somehow people always found that infuriating little button in her brain, and after that there was no stopping people from pressing it. Goddamn it. Who told her? She glanced at Pensey, who was frantically shaking her head and mouthing for her to stop. Instead, Lin turned back to Cyphira:

“If nothing else, sluts have a good time, cunts can be a force to be reckoned with, and whores are survivors. But a bigot who projects her self-loathing onto others? That’s just pathetic.”

Cyphira looked Lin up and down and laughed.

“I gotta hand it to you, Ali. We’ve certainly come a long way from ‘Quiet Girl,’ haven’t we?”

“Put your hands up!” Lin snarled, reminded of how much she hated that first nickname.

“I have a broken rib, princess!” Cyphira snapped back. “I can’t even run today. Hell, it hurts if I breathe wrong. You want to wail on me? Go ahead. I literally cannot stop you. But there isn’t a whole lot of integrity to be had in that, is there?”

Fuck! Lin looked around the room. The second and third-years looked on with amusement or mild annoyance, while most of the first-year girls looked horrified.  A few excused themselves and jogged upstairs; possibly going to get a proctor.

“I’ll take a raincheck,” Lin said darkly. Pensey was now actively attempting to usher her back out of the common area.

“And I’ll happily cash it,” Cyphira waved dismissively. “But for now, get the hell out of my face.”

— 5:58 AM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Athletic Track) —

Lin and Pensey hit the track together and immediately fell into a shared pace. Lin had steadily, but subtly increased their lap speed over the past two months, since Pensey complained about her poor speed and stamina early on. I wonder if she even realizes that she’s passed about 60% of the class. If we didn’t talk while running, we’d probably be in the top 80%. But the talking was usually for Lin’s benefit, so she was happy to take it easy.

“Why did you let her bait you?” Pensey asked, patient but concerned.

“I was trying to be nice! I went to go ask about her injury and let her know that I was worried.”

“Did you say that?”

“Of course not. You can’t just go up to somebody you don’t know that well and say ‘are you okay?’ when they obviously aren’t. It’s insulting! And saying ‘I’m worried about you!’ is like… it sounds mentally stunted.”

“What did you say, Lin?” Pensey asked.

“I just made fun of Matthews! He was there when it happened, and he got away without any injuries. I figured she or their mentor must have protected him or something.”

“How did that get you two in a fight?” Pensey asked, incredulous.

“I don’t know. I think she likes him!”

“Really? What did she say?” Pensey’s face seemed to blossom at the prospect of gossip.

Lin looked at her with disgust.

“Uh. She said that he actually tried to protect her.”

Pensey smirked and said:

“Let me guess, you said something like ‘I guess he sucks at protecting people,’ didn’t you?”

Lin opened and closed her mouth then turned her attention back to the track, scowling. Pensey exhaled heavily. They ran in silence for a moment, and Lin festered with guilt. She’s trying so hard to help me, and I’m still a caustic bitch. Worse yet, we’ve grown so close I’ve started taking her patience for granted. Saint or not, she’s still human. Come on, Lin. Get it together.

“What happened next?” Pensey asked a moment later, huffing.

“She called me a slut,” Lin said.

“Wow, really?” Pensey’s eyes bugged.

“Not exactly. She said I was ‘afraid of boy cooties.’ That I was afraid of looking like a slut.”

Pensey started to giggle, falling behind.

“What?” Lin demanded.

Pensey broke down into full-on laughter and stopped running. She laughed until she used up what little extra breath she had left. Lin led her off the track to a nearby drinking fountain so she wouldn’t impede the rest of their cohort.

“First of all, cooties,” Pensey said, wiping away tears. “Just a funny word.” She giggled again. “But secondly, those are two very different things. Like, nearly complete opposites. But somehow, you’re offended both ways.”

“They’re both rude! It’s like she was saying I’m too scared to be a slut, which is honestly worse!”

“Oh my god. Lin,” Pensey said, burying her face in her hands and groaning. “Look. She’s clearly sensitive about what happened. And if Hace tried to help her… like, put yourself in that situation.”

I’d be in his debt. Oh. Pensey nodded at Lin’s repulsed expression and said:

“See? That’s where she’s coming from. And if she does like him, it’s like a thousand times worse.”

“What? How is that worse? The guy she likes is willing to put himself into harm’s way for her! Isn’t that supposed to be romantic?”

“Would you want to be rescued?”

“Oh,” Lin said, humbled and hollowed.

Pensey went to get a drink from the fountain, and then Lin did the same.

“I would be happy,” Pensey admitted. “But I personally like the idea of having a knight in shining armor. Cyphira definitively doesn’t. And I don’t think you do either.”

The bell rang, calling the end of cardio and the beginning of joint exercises. Lin urged Pensey to hurry, and they jogged over to the proctor. But Pensey’s comment weighed heavily on her, recalling a particularly sharp criticism from her mother. “You are so intent on playing the hero. But honestly Lin, men don’t want to be rescued. Would it kill you to let a boy take the lead for once?” Lin had proudly declared that it would.

I’m willing to be rescued if I need it. But I’ll die before I act like a damsel.

— 3:15 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Rune Lab 1A) —

“I hope you’ve paid close attention to Master Bronte’s lessons, because they will serve you well here,” Master Steinbeck said, impossibly nasal voice affecting a permanent verbal sneer. “Runic code and binding magic share a common structure; loops. Both forms of magic require a complete circuit of energy to produce their effects—Mr. Carlyle! Am I boring you?”

You’re certainly boring me. Lin thought, but knew better than to speak up. Why do teachers with poor senses of humor lend themselves to mockery so readily? Lin reviewed the core runes that they would be using in her textbook.

The runic coding facilities were the newest addition to Arroyo’s Athenaeum, and they were state of the art. Rune Lab 1A was the largest non-lecture hall classroom on campus, and every seat was outfitted with a powerful Incanter with various coding software.

“Who can tell me the most common function of runic code?”

Lin raised her hand but did not look up until several seconds had passed. Steinbeck seemed to be searching the room for any alternative. Finally, he sighed and nodded at Lin.

“Tell them, Valmont.”

“Spell housings.”

“Indeed. In both digitized code, and physical inscriptions, the leximancer or artificer will most often be creating frameworks, or ‘housings’ in an object’s Inherence that will receive and prolong the effects of contract magic. And the most commonly housed enchantments are sympathetic in nature; connecting two distinct objects. Sympathetic housings are the lynchpin of modern enchantment techniques, used in everything from magic license attunement to standard sympathetic door locks…”

Lin glanced to her left at Pensey, who seemed to be falling asleep. Vetha, who sat on the other side of Pensey, caught Lin’s glance and gestured ‘kill me now.’ Lin snickered and gestured back ‘same.’

“Tell me, what are some ways you can boost sympathetic efficiency?”

“Symbolically defining and emphasizing commonalities,” Lin droned, then winced.

“Five demerits, Miss Valmont. I understand this must be tedious for a prodigy such as yourself, but kindly wait until I call on you before blurting out the answer.”

Lin gestured apologies and emanated respect at Steinbeck. Her wyrd was faint enough to seem borderline sarcastic, but he simply shook his head, and hopelessly complicated Lin’s clearer, more succinct answer.

She noticed that Cyphira was seated by herself today—her normal spot to Matthews’ right was occupied by Kimiss Knight instead. Come on, Kimiss. Have some taste. Cyphira was instead seated in a row to herself in the back, already fiddling with the reagent kit they had been handed at the beginning of the lecture.

“Ms. Quinn, please wait until I explain what to do with that. We only have so many spares,” While Steinbeck was lecturing her, Cyphira was etching a rune into a wire and clay loop. She looked up when she finished. “Ms. Quinn, are you listening?” Cyphira pointed a finger-gun at the wire loop, and fired a sharp pulse from her wyrd. Steinbeck looked down then staggered back in horror. “My God!”

Really? Lin snickered. You utter child.

The runic circuit had no outlet for the energy Cyphira put into it. Worse yet, the rune she inscribed appeared to be an extremely efficient weave. The pulse of energy traveled increasingly quickly through the wires in the clay. The clay steadily baked around the accelerating current, the runes eventually growing brittle. Finally, the whole device exploded in a shower of sparks and tiny clay fragments.

The popping noise jolted Pensey awake with a yelp, and she jerked upright on her stool. The sudden gesture made her tip over, and—with a second yelp—she fell into Vetha. They both would have toppled to the floor if Lin had not supported her with sorcery. The whole class howled with laughter, save for Lin’s bench and Steinbeck who was frothing at the mouth:

“Cyphira Quinn, twenty demerits!! I explicitly warned you not to experiment with…”

“I’m sorry, Master Steinbeck,” Cyphira interrupted, voice golemic. “You’re right. I clearly didn’t know what I was doing.”

She spoke in blunt. Words unaccompanied by gesture or emanation. It was about as crass as a person could be. Steinbeck’s wyrd blossomed with hatred. He flung his pages of talking points into the air, like a damn lunatic. I know Pensey said he has a short fuse, but my God. I assumed she was exaggerating.

“Detention!” He bellowed. “Detention for the rest of the term! Do you hear me!?”

Lin shook her head in disgust. Cyphira briefly looked beyond Steinbeck and winked. Steinbeck didn’t seem to notice, but Lin traced the glance back to Matthews, who was howling with laughter and gesturing enthusiastic approval.

They really should save two other people.

— 9:08 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Girl’s Dorm – Yew) —

“You have to admit, it was a little bit funny,” Pensey said, as they were laying down to bed. The story of Cyphira’s Circlet-of-Destruction was racing across campus, much to Lin’s exasperation.

“You almost fell out of your chair and cracked your head,” Lin scolded. “You nearly took Vetha with you too.”

“And even she thinks it’s funny!” Pensey argued.

“Is he always like that? Steinbeck, I mean. Man went berserk.”

“I usually don’t try to deliberately piss him off, so no,” Pensey giggled. “But he’s always a jerk.”

“Then I guess it’s kind of funny,” Lin conceded at last.

Pensey cheered and Lin laughed. There was a brief pause as they both laid down. They would wait five minutes before speaking, and if one of them fell asleep in that time, they would both endeavor to sleep. Otherwise, they would chat. Lin had devised the rule as a last-ditch defense against Pensey keeping her up until midnight every night, but tonight, she was the first to break the moratorium’s silence.

“You were wrong about something earlier,” Lin said.

Pen sat up on her elbow.

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I do want a knight in shining armor.” Pensey’s eyes glowed, her mouth hung open. Lin gestured for calm and continued: “Not because I want to be rescued, but… who doesn’t want a partner who will fight for them? Somebody I can trust, who will trust me in turn.”

“Somebody like….?” Pensey wheedled.

“Don’t get excited,” Lin said, glaring. “I… I know I, like, ‘like’ guys, but honestly, I’ve only figured it out since I’ve come here. When I was eight, I started wondering if I was gay. Because, like, my mom has been trying to set me up with suitors since I was literally three years old. Some of them were handsome. And many of them were nice. But I didn’t feel anything, so I figured I must like women, even though I didn’t feel… ‘attracted,’ to girls either.”

“That’s really messed up of your mom,” Pensey said. Lin nodded and shrugged.

After a moment, Pensey asked:

“How did you… figure it out?”

Lin flushed. I figured it out when I started thinking about naked guys during my morning shower! Jesus Pen, what do you want me to say? Pensey looked down and chuckled before continuing:

“I’m glad though. I had to admit, I was curious. And a little nervous.”

“Why nervous?” Lin asked.

“Well. I’ve always liked boys. Like, always-always. So, I was afraid you… maybe… liked me.”

Lin smiled.

“That’s actually part of it. If I was going to fall in love with a woman… I’m pretty sure it would have happened already.” Pensey swooned. Lin chucked her pillow across the room and hit Pensey in the face with it. Pensey laughed and Lin continued: “I mean. I do love you. You are the first real friend I’ve ever had. And until your prince charming arrives, I will gladly play knight-in-shining-armor as-needed.”

“…But you don’t want to sleep with me?” Pensey clarified.

“No! I mean. I don’t want to sleep with anyone yet!” Lin corrected.

“What if you had to?” Pensey asked, eyes sparkling with mischief.

“Did you literally not hear a thing I just said? I want love on my own terms,” Lin insisted.

“You can choose one guy. Everybody else is dead. Up to you two to repopulate the world.”

Lin extended her arm toward Pensey’s bed and retrieved her pillow with sorcery.

“Good night, Pen,” she said, laying down.

Pensey booed and complained:

“You suck!”

“Mmhmm,” Lin replied serenely.

But Pensey’s question wormed its way through her head. Truth be told, their cohort had been graced with a lot of good-looking guys. She thought Matthews was attractive when she first saw him, and he was a skilled fighter and caster, which were undeniable plusses. Too bad I have yet to discover a greater turn-off than his shit personality. There’s Azmuir Stillman, I suppose. He had a sort of haunting, tormented artist quality about him. And Theren Kline was smart and funny, though he also struck her as a touch fragile. But at the end of the day, if I had to pick…

“Drav,” Lin said, quietly, but loud enough for Pensey to hear. She regretted it immediately.

“Dravnik Sokolov!?” Pensey exclaimed, far too loud. She was practically squealing.

Lin shushed her, irate. Pensey was glowing though, the room seemed to light up with the joy in her wyrd.

“No, we are having this conversation,” Pensey insisted.

“Not tonight,” Lin grunted.

“Right fucking now.”

“I will choke you!”

— Jovday, Scorpio 13, 5:56 AM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Girl’s Dorm – Yew) —

Mostly to dissuade Pensey from prying about her imaginary sex-life with Drav, Lin asked how she could go about apologizing to Cyphira. They spent about an hour talking through potential scenarios, with Pen playing the part of Cyphira, and Lin navigating the hypothetical conversation like a maze, occasionally asking for hints. Lin lay awake long after Pensey drifted off to sleep, running through other eventualities.

She woke later than usual next morning, showered, and changed into her aspirant robes. Lin was already second-guessing her plan to apologize, but when she saw Pensey hanging around Cyphira, as they had planned last night, she knew the key had already been turned. She approached at a break in the conversation.

“Hey, Ali. You here to knock my block off for disrupting class yesterday, or are you still salty about yesterday morning?”

Pensey warned her that Cyphira usually greeted people sarcastically, and Lin was confident that was what was happening. She chuckled politely.

“Steinbeck’s an ass. He snapped at me just before he went off on you.” Lin said. “And about yesterday morning… I misread things. And I spoke out of turn. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I was trying to—”

Cyphira snickered, put on a tired smile, and said:

“Hey. I feel better if you feel better, Valmont.”

Lin nodded and smiled, relieved. But she noticed that Pensey’s hackles had raised. I missed something again, didn’t I? Was she being mean? Sarcastic?

“She’s trying,” Pensey said seriously.

Cyphira flicked her gaze to Pensey and snickered.

“Yeah, I can see that. And you’re trying to help her. But that doesn’t entitle her to forgiveness,” Cyphira looked back at Lin. “You can’t go lurching around like a mad dog or acting like a frosty bitch and expect everyone to forgive you once you come to your senses.”

Lin simply bowed her head. Pensey’s wyrd seemed to shudder, sparkling with quick little pops of anger. She always went off like a tiny firework display when something pissed her off. Her cheeks also puffed up, which was adorable, but it really didn’t help people take her seriously. Before Pensey could tell Cyphira off, Lin grabbed her hand and gestured for peace.

“She’s right. We’ll leave you alone, Cyphira.”

“See?” Cyphira asked with a smile. She emanated sincere relief and gestured gratitude. “We’re already making wonderful progress.”

Lin gave her a faint, contrite smile. Bitch.

— 6:02 AM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Athletic Track) —

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Lin,” Pensey said, still fuming. “God, she tried to bait you with every word she said! I get why you wanted to slap her around yesterday.”

Lin shrugged and Pensey continued:

“I just figured she’d be… above that, you know?”

She was actually surprised how calm she was, despite Cyphira’s provocations. Yesterday she had walked away feeling cheap and petty. Today, Cyphira seemed like the petty one, which was closure enough for Lin. I try to be nice once and end up pissing you off, shame on me. I try twice and piss you off… then you can piss off! Or something. Lin chuckled and said:

“I’d forgotten something you told me the night we became friends.”

Pensey emanated rapt curiosity, eyes arched like question marks.

“We don’t need to be friends with everybody,” Lin said. “I have you, and Vetha, the twins… I’m not alone anymore. So fuck her.”

Pensey nodded and emanated approval. A second later she laughed wickedly, and added:

“Now we just need to work on Drav.”

I will choke you!

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