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Alinore Valmont. Jovday, Aries 4th, 2348 AA. 3:16 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Training Hall H).

Alright, Lin. You’ve got this. Stay calm. Gather your wyrd. Don’t rush it. Consolidate your power and cast.

The Trial of the Brazier was the cohort’s introduction to fire magic. From their second year, they had started working with contracts. At first, they were only permitted to use sensory anima—spirits that were relatively stable, and unlikely to cause serious injury in the case of a miscast. In their third year, they moved up to kinetic anima. But now, with the date of their Declaration and the Chirothecam fast approaching, they were suddenly being exposed to a broad spectrum of elemental anima, posing new and exciting possibilities for spells.

And I am not about to fuck this one up.

Lin reached to the fire animus in her right cuff and the spirit thrummed to life. It was lively, impatient, and a touch haughty. Lin formed the conditions of the contract in a split second. Light the brazier as powerfully as possible, but cause no harm to myself or others. In return, I shall lend you my power and perform the sigil of Cindermast via somatic gesture. The spirit agreed, and its energies started to augment Lin’s wyrd as she knotted her fingers in the arcane language promised.

Perfect. There we—then the spasm hit. Her wyrd seemed to vanish and returned with an erratic spike. The flicker broke negotiations with the anima, and the spirit discharged itself into her wyrd. No! No, God, why!? Fire wreathed Lin’s outstretched arms, singeing her uniform and burning the palms of her hands. As the animus finished exhausting itself a small concussive pop knocked her on her butt, smoking.

“Valmont, are you alright?” Elroy asked, kneeling before her in a flash. Pensey and Vetha rushed to her side as well, while onlookers muttered variants of “oh shit,” “close call,” and “what happened?”

“I’m fine,” Lin said tersely.

Elroy asked to see her hands, and she obliged. They shook and glowed, red palms pocked with the beginnings of blisters. It hurt. Of course, it hurt. But she was barely aware of her body.

It isn’t fair. It isn’t fucking fair! I’ve worked so hard. I’ve read everything there is to know, changed my diet, done visualization exercises and doubled my opus practice.

When she turned fourteen without incident, she allowed herself to think the medithurge who diagnosed her as a child was wrong. My dysviria must be mild, if I have it at all. Even if it manifests later, I’ll be able to control it myself. Lin scoffed internally. I was such a little idiot.

The first time it happened was in Capricorn, late last year. It was binding practice as usual. Trial of the Pendulum, where students were supposed to use a kinetic binding contract to stop a swaying weight dead in its tracks. Lin formed the contract parameters in her head in a fraction of a second, but when it came time to cast, her wyrd spasmed, just like this time. The contract misfired its energies into her wyrd. Rather than arresting the pendulum, the botched spell seized her left shoulder instead, keeping it uncomfortably immobilized until Master Bronte could use a counter-contract to release the spell. At first, her cohort dismissed it as a rare fluke. Even Little Miss Perfect has bad days. But it happened three more times in Aquarius. By Pisces, it was a weekly occurrence. Now it happened almost daily when practicing Contract magic.

“Please let me try again,” Lin implored, Elroy.

Elroy looked between Lin’s hands and face with an incredulous frown.

“I think it’d be best if you call it a day, Lin. These anima aren’t as powerful as the ones you’d use professionally, but they still have enough power to cause permanent injury.”

“Master Elroy, I can’t afford to fall behind on this.”

“Which is why I don’t want you wasting time recovering from skin grafts or a torn wyrd. Go to the infirmary. Get some burn ointment and bandages and see if they can soothe the damage to your wyrd. Don’t touch anything on the way there—burns infect easily. Ms. Hayes, would you escort Ms. Valmont?”

Pensey bobbed her head and gently led Lin out of the training hall. Lin didn’t resist her guidance, but keep her head down. Teeth clenched and eyes tearing at the corners.

It isn’t fair. Valmonts had a natural aptitude for contract magic. Something about their wyrds allowed them to work with anima—even multiple anima—extremely efficiently. They could also cast spells faster, by nearly fifty percent. She had that same talent. When she successfully cast contracts, they were quick, precise, and beautiful to behold.

But maddeningly, I have to fight against bad biology.

— Leo 12th, 2339 AA. Around 4 PM. Remington Memorial Mediclave and Hospital. —

“You have many gifts young lady,” the medithurge told Lin, beaming. “But there is one anomaly in your blood work that may be cause for concern if you intend to enroll in the Athenaeum.”

“I’m enrolling,” Lin said, dead sure and dead serious.

The doctor and Athenon, who was also present for Lin’s physical, both chuckled.

“Are you familiar with dysviria?” he asked.

Lin shook her head, failing to notice the stiffness in her father’s expression.

“It’s quite a common condition these days. It typically expresses itself shortly after the onset of puberty, manifesting as micro-stutters in a person’s wyrd. A sort of flicker. These involuntary spasms typically don’t interfere with sorcery, but they can be extremely disruptive to contract magic. Like Attention Deficit Disorder, these spasms are caused by a deficiency in certain neurotransmitters that govern urdic control.”

“That sounds like a highly technical explanation for poor discipline,” Athenon said mildly. “I am confident that Alinore will be able to overcome urdic spasms with diligence and dedication.”

The medithurge opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of correcting the current Archon of Ericia, reconsidering his words:

“Well. Yes, there are certainly mental exercises one can perform to limit the frequency and severity of symptoms, but ultimately, the problem isn’t behavioral. It’s caused by a chemical deficiency. Fortunately, it can be safely treated with a number of common urdo-stimulants…”

“That won’t be necessary,” Athenon said with a frosty smile.

Again, the doctor froze. Lin didn’t understand the tension in the room at the time. She was barely aware of it. But thinking back, she realized that the medithurge knew, definitively, that it wasn’t the sort of problem where mind could prevail over matter. The medithurge adjusted his glasses, trying to argue his case, however meekly.

“I assure you the medications we have are perfectly safe, with very minor side effects…”

“But there are side effects,” Athenon insisted. “Urdo-stimulants can be addictive to the point of dependency. They also bolster the overall intensity and strength of one’s wyrd. My daughter doesn’t need any handicaps. Drugs are out of the question.”

The doctor chuckled to cover his discomfort and set down his clipboard.

“Well. Like I said, we can revisit the issue when the condition manifests. If it manifests.”

“I consider this matter settled. My daughter has been graced with a great many gifts, including our bloodline’s talent with contracts, and a determination that could turn steel. It is my experience that the proper mentality, exercise regimen, and diet can work wonders for chemical imbalances.”

Then Athenon turned to Lin.

“Alinore, if you are to represent our family in the Athenaeum, you will do so without the aid of performance enhancing drugs, like your brother, myself, and our forbearers before us. Is that understood?”

Lin nodded vigorously. She didn’t understand the medithurge’s stricken expression. If her father said it wouldn’t be a problem, it wouldn’t be a problem. Plain and simple. End of story.  

“Thank you, Med, but I don’t want to take any drugs if I don’t need them.”

The medithurge smiled with melancholy acquiescence. He knew what was coming. He knew what my father was demanding was impossible. And I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Athenon had campaigned for Archon within the Amagium on a staunch platform of combating alchemical substance trafficking, citing abuse and addiction as chief motivations. His speeches often lamented the state of the over-diagnosed, over-drugged youths, whom he felt were being raised to walk on crutches. But those biases were invisible to Lin at six-years-old. All she knew was that using drugs to cheat was shameful and she wanted to make her father proud.

— Jovday, Aries 4th, 2348 AA. 3:33 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Infirmary). —

“I won’t ask if you’re okay,” Pensey said “Because I bet you want to burn the world down right now. But how is your body? Those burns look painful.”

Pen had been silent for the first part of their walk, having learned that Lin liked to have ample time to process her tribulations before discussing them.

Lin spared her a weak smile, emanated gratitude, and gestured dismissively. But now that the adrenaline had faded, she realized her miscast had been more destructive than she anticipated. The skin of her hands felt like paper; it was brittle and tight against her flesh, studded with swelling blisters on her palms and fingers. Her wyrd also ached. Etheric respiration imparted a faint but inescapable soreness that clung to her like fog.

“It doesn’t feel great,” Lin admitted. “But I’d gladly go through this every time if it meant I could just avoid the damn spasms.”

“If this happened every time, there wouldn’t be anything left of you after twenty casts,” Pen said.

“I think I’d be happier for it,” Lin said petulantly.

“I can’t believe your father,” Pensey said. “It’s fucking science. Not politics. It’s like he’s dismissing somebody for not being able to walk off a heart murmur.”

Lin smiled grimly.

“I imagine his argument would be that not everybody was born with the heart to run marathons, and they should spend their time finding a better use of their talents.”

“Well, my counter-argument is that he is a deterministic, shortsighted bastard,” Pensey snapped.

They walked in silence for several more minutes, but Pensey paused as they crested the hill leading to the Student Health building. She put a hand on Lin’s shoulder and stared at her in the face, gravely serious.

“Lin, do you think less of me for using Focaline?”

Pensey also had dysviria, but her parents had insisted she started treatment for it as soon as her medithurge identified it.

“Pen, you know I don’t.”

“Then do you think you’re better than me?”

The question hit Lin’s heart like a pickaxe.

“No! Of course, I—how could you ask me that?”

“Because you seem to believe suffering from an impossible handicap is fair and reasonable. And I hate it! How can you consider us equals—partners—when I am getting treatment you’re denied?”

Lin said nothing. She had never thought of it that way before. It wasn’t her intention to look down on Pensey. Is it? Pen continued:

“In your head, it’s fine because you are the Alinore Valmont. It’s just another burden of your amagiate heritage. But I don’t think you can just slug this one out. Your brain literally doesn’t work right.”

Lin sighed and replied testily.

“I don’t have a choice! Everyone in our family is an extension of my father’s political legacy. His administration. He isn’t Archon anymore, but he still has to defend his platform and decisions—”

“Fuck his politics!” Pensey said. And for once, she sounded intimidatingly, convincingly angry.

Lin would have been touched and proud if the words didn’t torque her chest horribly. Why are you saying this? There’s nothing I can do and you know it.

“Pen, if I requested a prescription, it would show up on my academy health records and my father would use his parental rights to have me pulled from the Athenaeum.”

“Have you talked to him about it since you were first diagnosed?” Pensey asked.

“I mentioned I was having trouble with dysviria just after New Year’s. Dad brushed it aside, telling me to try a different diet and practice my opus more frequently. That was that.”

“It’s gotten much worse since then, though. You need to admit you’re struggling. I’m sure you can persuade him if we come up with the right argument.”

Lin shook her head, despondent.

“It would just make him angry. And make me look weaker in his eyes. Worse yet, it might give my mother leverage to convince him to pull me from the Athenaeum after Declarations.”

Pensey was quiet again as they finished their walk to student health.

They walked inside the building, and went to the infirmary. By the end of their third year, every aspirant knew their way around Student Health and the infirmary. Injuries during sparring were inevitable. Lin had been luckier than most, but she had still suffered sprains and near-broken ribs during erudensis practice. She also fell ill to expulsitis; the urdic equivalent to the common cold, which congested the wyrd and periodically caused outbursts in the form of nonsensical emanations. Just like sneezes.

As they waited for the medisoph to check Lin in, Pensey’s frustration boiled over:

“You’ve got to try again, Lin. It’s scary, and it may mean picking a fight, but you need to try to stand up for yourself. We have to get this resolved before the Chiro begins.”

Lin frowned and nodded. Pen’s right. I practice my opus between every class. I eat foods that are rich in the proteins associated with the chemicals I’m lacking. I meditate and visualize and exercise and… none of it works. The spasms are becoming more common, every damn day.

The Chirothecam was arguably the Athenaeum’s most important test. It was a cohort-wide examination encompassing the total breadth of their studies to date. It included written assignments, day-long academic tests, and practical magical challenges. It was also accompanied by a martial arts tournament that Lin was determined to dominate. Students’ test scores and tournament placements determined what magical Disciplines they could declare for the rest of their studies, as well as their tuition rates. It was the great filter. In certain years, up to half a cohort ended up withdrawing as a result of their scores.

And gauging early aptitude for contract magic is a major emphasis of the test. If I don’t conquer these spasms, I might wash out myself.

“Alinore Valmont?” a medisoph called from the door exiting the waiting room.

“Here,” Lin said as she stood, then turned to Pensey. “You should head back. But you’re right. We’ll talk it over after classes and I’ll call dad tonight.”

Pensey smiled and gave Lin a hug.

“Feel better,” she whispered.

“Will do,” Lin assured her.

The soph took her into a small exam room and immediately poured an alchemical burn salve on her arms and hands. As her skin absorbed the chilling, mint-scented liquid, the soph took her vitals as per standard procedure; her temperature and blood pressure were normal. The soph left her to get a medithurge, who arrived a few minutes later.

Lin recounted the incident as the medithurge carefully scanned her wyrd with a medical urdoscope.

“You really did a number on yourself,” the medithurge said. “The sudden expulsion of energy stretched your wyrd pretty drastically. There’s no tearing, but it seems like a near thing. That means you will have trouble drawing in and shaping etheric energy for a while.”

“How long?” Lin asked.

“Hard to say,” the medithurge said. “Could be just a couple days. Could be as long as two weeks. I think you should take five days off from practical magical studies, and then I’ll reassess the strain and see if you’re ready to use magic again.”

“I have to be ready in five days,” Lin said, deadly serious. “I’m a fourth year, and the Chirothecam starts on the 15th.”

The medithurge nodded her head sympathetically.

“I understand the urgency. Which is all the more reason you need to take it easy until I see you again. If a misfire like this happened again, right now? You’d be looking at surgery, therapy, and possibly permanent loss of power, even after recovery.”

“Shit,” Lin swore. Her eyes started to tear up.

“Have you discovered your opus yet?” The medithurge asked.

“Needlework,” Lin said, then looked at her burned hands with horror. “Especially, cross-stitching.”

Oh God. Exercising your opus is the best way to speed urdic recovery, but with my skin like it is, my hands will be bloody and useless by the end of the day. And the pain will prevent me from achieving any kind of meditative flow to restore my wyrd. What the hell am I going to do?

The medithurge pursed her lips and thoughtfully drummed her index finger against her chin.

“Wait here a moment. I have something that should help.”

Lin nodded despondently. Her mind harrowed her with thoughts of failure. Falling behind her rivals. Slipping to the level of people who weren’t even on her radar. At this rate, there’s no point in even trying to persuade dad to let me use stims. I’m dead in the water already. She snarled at the empty room. No! I can’t just give up. I’ll work my hands raw if I have to. I don’t care how badly it hurts or how much I bleed; my wyrd will be ready within five days.

The medithurge reemerged, holding what appeared to be a packet of incredibly thin bandages, or possibly tape. They were as narrow as broad noodles. But Lin could feel powerful enchantments coming off of their clean white fabric. She probed them with her wyrd, finding that they produced varying medical effects—pain relief, hydration, anti-inflammation, temperature regulation—but these numerous spells were also deeply entwined with a very complex kinetic binding and animation enchantment.

“These are Aesculapian bandages,” the medithurge said as she removed the plastic cover from the packet. “Are you familiar with them?”

Lin shook her head, fascinated.

“They are special dressings designed for injuries to areas that have a great deal of articulation. Hands and joints especially. They’re slightly cumbersome, but they will protect your hands from infection and prevent your burns from worsening, while preserving at least some of your dexterity. I’ve never cross-stitched, but if it’s anything like suturing, you should be able to manage, clumsily.”

Lin’s eyes went wide with gratitude. She looked at the Medithurge’s name for the first time. Keene. Medithurge Josala Keene. Lin embraced her around the waist, almost wailing with relief:

“Thank you. Oh God, thank you, Medithurge Keene.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Keene said, chuckling. “You might find them too hard to work with. But I figure it’s your best shot. Take off your licenses and hold out your hands. Good. Now spread out your fingers.”

Lin did as she was instructed. Keene’s wyrd, deep and oceanic, swelled to life as she began to cast an activation contract, one hand flickering through a variety of arcane gestures, the other holding the packet of bandages. She closed her eyes and murmured a trigger word, then the bandages rose from the container like a tiny cobra, before whipping out at Lin’s hands.

The incredibly soft, soothing cloth coiled itself around her right wrist and progressed up to her hand at astonishing speed. It split and weaved between itself until every inch of her skin was tightly wrapped, down to the tips of her fingers. The folds were perfectly flat and flush with each other. When the spell completed, Lin flexed her fingers experimentally. They were responsive, even though she appeared to be mummified in boxer’s tape. Keene repeated the spell on Lin’s left hand, and by the time she finished, the pain in Lin’s right hand had receded.

“Sit tight while I write you a note. Give it to your advisor, and they will explain the situation to all of your other teachers. If anybody gives you trouble, send them my way and I’ll set them straight. I’m also writing you a prescription for a potion that should nullify pain and inflammation in your wyrd. Should help it heal just a little quicker.”

Lin bobbed her head appreciatively as she reclasped her licenses over the bandages. Licenses didn’t need to make direct skin contact in order to nullify the binding tattoo ink—they just needed to be in close proximity of a person’s forearms. Not that I will be using my licenses much in the coming days anyway.

She stared at her new mummy hands again and decided that they were kind of cool. It would definitely be harder to stitch with them, but Lin knew she would be able to manage well enough to achieve some opus flow.

“Just doing my job. Oh. The enchantments on those bandages are pretty potent, so they burn out in about twenty-four hours. You’ll need to come back tomorrow to get them replaced, but a soph should be able to handle it so you can get in and out.”

“Can you do it instead?” Lin asked, hopeful.

Keene gave her a sidelong glance that straddled confusion and offense. Lin explained herself:

“I just figured you could look at my sprain every day. Let me know as soon as it is safe to start practicing magic again.”

Keene snickered and crossed her arms.

“You’re really driven, aren’t you? If there are other students with more pressing conditions, you’ll have to settle for a soph. But I’ll change your bandages and check your wyrd if I’m available. Sound fair?”

“More than fair. Thank you again, Medithurge Keene,” Lin beamed.

— 4:47 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Carroll’s Office). —

“If you bleed through those bandages, I’m going to take away your needle and thread,” Carroll chided.

Lin scowled as her bandaged fingers danced and sewing needle darted in and out of her current project; an adorable pattern of a red panda amidst bamboo that she had downloaded from the arcanet. She had started practicing her opus the moment she left Keene’s exam room. There was a delay at the student pharmacy, but fortunately that suited Lin fine, giving her ample time to adjust her fingering to accommodate the bandages. Once she had her prescription, she ran to Carroll’s office and immediately resumed her cross-stitch as she filled him in on the afternoon’s updates.

“I told you, I’m fine now. The more pressing issue is my father. Pensey’s right. I need stims to avoid spasming like this. I have to persuade him to let me take some medication.”

Carroll nodded gravely.

“I still can’t believe he objected to them in the first place. But medical science is on your side and there is a strong personal appeal to be made with that injury. I can’t imagine he’d deny you a prescription before your Chiro. I can write it myself.”

Most masters held licenses in only one or two disciplines. But Carroll seemed to collect degrees for sport. Since taking on Lin as his apprentice, he had started working on a criminology license that would permit him access to a greater variety of forensic spells. Whenever Lin marveled at his achievements, he brushed off her praise, stating that most of it was a matter of strategic completion. The knowledge for one license often half-satisfied the requirements for another, and that compounded as one collected more degrees.

“I could contact him myself and recommend the prescription so you don’t have to,” Carroll offered.

Lin shook her head.

“I think the only way he’ll respect the request is if it comes from me. Even then, he won’t want to listen. I need you to help me practice this argument ahead of time, or else I won’t sway him. And then all of this will be for nothing,” she held up her bandaged hands and cross-stitch.

Carroll stroked his chin in consideration, then nodded.

“I had scheduled you to join in Hemmingway’s erudensis lesson this afternoon, but given your injury I don’t think it would be that beneficial anyway. How shall I help you prepare?”

Lin smiled, already having concocted a plan.

“Roleplay. I want you to act like my dad. Think of every possible objection to urdo-stimulants and try to poke holes in my argument. Then point out the flaws in my counter arguments and help me when I get stuck.”

Carroll looked at Lin for long moment, smiling. Then he tapped his white queen on his desk twice, and said:

“Very well. Let’s get started.”

— 7PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Girl’s Dorm – Yew) —

After dinner, Lin and Pensey went straight back to their room instead of joining their usual study group. She had no idea how long the conversation would run, but Carroll had left her well-prepared, rhetorically, and she wanted to give herself as much time to persuade her father as possible.

When they shut the door, Pensey hopped on top of her loft bed, and Lin mirrored her, pulling out her symphone.

“You ready?” Pensey asked.

Lin hesitated. He won’t like this. But I can do it. I will do it. I don’t have a choice.

“No time like the present,” Lin said with far more courage than she felt.

She took a deep breath, flipped her phone open, and dialed her father’s dedicated line. As a former Amagiate leader, he had several direct lines exclusively reserved for emergency contact with his immediate family members. The phone rang once. Twice. Come on! And then she heard the receiver fizz to life.

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise!” Athenon said.

“Hey dad,” Lin said.

“Usually, you’re too busy with your studies for a call midweek. Shall I fetch your mother as well?”

“No!” Lin said, desperate. “No, I really want this talk to be between you and me.”

“A talk, hmm? What’s going on? Is everything alright?”

“Not really,” Lin said. “I suffered a miscast with a fire animus today. A pretty bad one.”

Carroll had told her to lead with the accident. Establish the fact that her untreated dysviria posed a physical threat to her well-being. “Pull at his heartstrings! Really throw the book at him in terms of guilt. Use every dirty daughterly trick you can think of.”

“Oh no. Are you hurt? What happened?”

“We were doing the Trial of the Brazier and I had a dysviric spasm,” Lin said. “When my wyrd flickered, it spooked the anima. The spell’s energy burned my hands and the etheric backflow strained my wyrd pretty severely. The medithurge put me on practical leave until I can heal.”

Pensey sat on her knees across the room, fists clenched tight against her thighs. She’s nearly as nervous as me.

“How long did he estimate recovery would take?” Athenon asked, full of concern. “Do you need to come home?”

“No!” Lin said quickly. “She said it could be up to two weeks for a full recovery, but she believes I might be able to recover in as few as five days if I work my opus hard. Normally, with my hands burnt, I’d be in trouble, but she gave me Aesculapian bandages, so I have good articulation. Been stitching up a storm.”

“Thank God,” Athenon sighed.

“I also asked her to check my injury daily to see if I can start practicing sooner.”

“And she agreed? That really goes above and beyond. What is her name? I’d like to thank her.”

“Medithurge Josala Keene,” Lin said, then quickly added: “But please don’t let mom send her fresh fruit or something. It’s embarrassing.”

“I’ll do my best, but no promises,” Athenon laughed. “You know I’ll have to tell her about your accident, and you know how stubborn she can be. How do you feel, sweetheart? Are you in any pain?”

“Yes,” Lin fibbed. “My fingers are bleeding through the wraps a little bit, and stitching despite the burns is pretty agonizing but I can take it. What really scares me are the dysviric spasms.”

“Yes, that is troubling,” Athenon agreed. “Definitely something you need to get under control before the Chiro begins.”

“I’ve been doing everything I can,” Lin said. “Diet. Opus work. Visualizations and other mental training. But honestly, dad, they keep getting worse. More frequent. More severe.” Lin paused, hoping her father might give her some kind of opening, but he out-waited her. “Anyway, I was actually hoping that I could get a prescription for Focaline, or some other urdo-stim.”

“We’ve talked about this before, Lin,” Athenon said, somewhat wearily. “Stimulants will alleviate your tremors, but they also lead to a lifetime of dependency. As you grow, you gain tolerance to the medication, requiring higher dosage. This is especially true if you start taking those drugs young.”

“A study by Solomon and Nash suggested that’s not necessarily true. And if you periodically take breaks from the stimulants—which I can do on school holidays—the rate of tolerance drops to negligible levels—”

Her father spoke over her:

“There is nothing negligible about alchemy, Lin.”

He’s completely refusing to hear me out. Shit! I saw this coming. I warned Carroll that he would do this! But it wasn’t something they could simulate a solution for in their roleplay. He was certain that her father could be swayed by emotion and reason. But no. Why bother listening to someone else’s reason when you know you are right? Athenon continued:

“Stims are highly addictive and extremely dangerous in their own right. I could send you a catalogue of aspirants who have over-dosed on Focaline or Sophizine in preparation for tests. And when your doped-up wyrd suffers a miscast, the results are catastrophic. Potentially life-threatening, to say nothing of career-ending.”

“My career can’t begin if I suffer spasms a third of the time I cast!” Lin said, hoping the statistic would scare him straight. “Dad, you know I wouldn’t even think of asking if I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary. I’ve completely reworked my diet to produce Etheronin and Urdothine. I’ve tried meditation, physical exercises, going to bed early, and I do opus sprints immediately before every practical class—”

“And when the Chirothecam begins, I’m sure you will find the motivation you need to succeed. Pressure has a way of unlocking things, Lin. It forces the pieces to fall into place.”

Something savage bared its fangs inside Lin. She was relieved that her symphone didn’t have a remote emanator, because she was unable to hide the animosity in her wyrd.

“I am motivated!” Lin said, her voice a touch shrill, even to her own ears. “I’ve read twenty-five studies on dysviria, and every paper I’ve read suggests that a minor dose of stimulants is the next step in treatment after exhausting other possibilities—”

“Those studies are written by two factions, Lin: pharmaceutical companies with private sector alchemy exemptions—exemptions that shouldn’t have ever been approved in the first place—and amagia who have been bought out by said-companies. These people profit off of perceived weakness. Stimulants may get results, but bringing a pistol to a swordfight won’t improve your bladework. It will only make you reliant upon guns.”

Before Lin could think of a rebuttal, Athenon pressed his advantage:

“Take heart, dear. Have faith in your abilities and keep working as hard as you can. Once you conquer this, you will know your wyrd better than I know my own, and you will take pride knowing you have overcome the seemingly impossible.”

“Yes, dad,” Lin said, hating herself for it.

“In other news, your mother has rented out Uematsu for your birthday dinner next week, so feel free to invite as many of your friends as you would like. And I myself am shopping for something befitting your sweet sixteen,” Athenon said, voice light, and a touch smug.

Lin’s mouth twitched in a smile, but there was no joy behind it. She didn’t know what to say. You can’t buy your way out of this, even with a fancy car. I need help, not gifts. I’m spoiled enough already. After an awkward pause, Athenon added:

“I will also be attending the finals of your tournament. And I will be the first to congratulate you on your victory. I love you, Lin. You can do this.”

“I love you too,” Lin croaked.

She hung up the phone and stared for a minute, before hugging her knees to her chest and lowering her head. Then she started to sob. A few seconds later she felt Pensey’s arms wrap gently around her shoulders from behind. And even though she wasn’t typically fond of physical affection, she squeezed Pen’s hand in leaned into the hug.

That’s it. I lost. I am lost.

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