Pensey Hayes. Satday, Virgo 24, 2353 AA. 5:16 AM. Westridge Terrace (Arroyo Athenaeum -Artifice Lab 4).
Pensey hesitated dramatically—even though nobody else was in the lab—and dropped a speck of brimstone into her solution of liquorem vitae and preserved fae bone marrow. The orange solution turned vibrant purple, and boiling green froth threatened to spill over the flask.
Pensey held her breath and infused the solution with her wyrd. Try to ‘massage’ it. More like dough than water. She took a deep breath. And hey. If I fuck up, it’s just a grade, right? Well, a grade and about six hours of prep and eight hours of waiting. And money that I will never see again. Her wyrd trembled slightly. Stop thinking about it! Stop thinking!
Skilled alchemists could brew batches of tussis-muta, or tusmut, with anything that was remotely magical, reasonably soluble, and potentially potable. But Pensey was not a skilled Alchemist. I’ll settle for passable Alchemist. As in passing grade. She knew her neophyte brews had a higher chance of succeeding if she used more magically rich ingredients, which naturally carried a higher price tag. If every vial of tusmut was made this way, they would cost about one-hundred-fifty bucks.
Fortunately, Introduction to Pharmaceutical Alchemy only graded based on a grasp of principles, rather than efficiency of practice, so any ingredients were permitted. But not freely provided. While her ridiculously ambitious thesis project required her to grasp the principles of all nine disciplines, she did not need to become exceptionally skilled in any of them. Except magical law. And runic code. So just a little bit of everything except the two hardest ones.
The potion stabilized, settling in a dark purple color with a much thicker consistency.
First hurdle clear! Pensey did a little happy dance, then looked around the empty lab to see if she could share her triumph with anybody. Still alone. It was hardly surprising given the hour. She had a special dispensation to use the lab outside normal sessions, because her schedule essentially left her no other options. “Amagia are made in their ninth year,” as Steinbeck says.
Now for the tricky part. Pensey used the metaphysic animus in her right cuff to start negotiating the terms of the potion’s intended use and effects. She had learned that alchemy was very similar to standard contract magic, except you essentially had more parties at the table. Rather than trying to come to an accord with an animus, you had to reach a compromise that satisfied every element in the equation. Unfortunately, the reagents don’t actually talk to you, which would be, you know, useful.
The Fae Marrow was the most unstable ingredient, not only because it had the most magical ‘juice’ behind it, but it was also treated with a preservative so it wouldn’t immediately turn into dust. Pensey instructed the metaphysic animus to disregard the preservative agent and started weaving the chain of arcane gestures necessary for the potion to block the sounds of coughing and sneezing for eight hours after consumption.
Finally, the potion faded into a pale blue that would eventually become translucent when it was ready to be imbibed. So far so good!
Pensey yawned, stretched, gathered her belongings into her satchel, and exited Artifice Lab 4. She took her potion to inventory control—the one part of the lab that was still staffed—and left the potion with the tenth year on duty who placed it in a refrigerator. It had to percolate for at least eight hours.
Outside, the Athenaeum was lit by the first early reaches of dawn. Pensey chided herself for breaking her rule against all-nighters. But the campus had a special sort of magic at this early, godless hour. Everything was quiet and almost completely abandoned, save for a few joggers who were also in the late years of matriculation.
She had learned to enjoy walking from place to place. The strolls were the closest thing she had to breaks aside from sleep. It’s your own fault though. On top of laying the groundwork for her ambitious thesis, she ran a weekend study group for her cohort, taught introductory leximancy courses on weekdays, and recently volunteered to work on the Homecoming committee, whose first meeting would be at four that afternoon.
There were days when she wanted to cry and times when her mind felt like it would come apart at the seams. But I’m happy. I’m doing good work, and doing it well. She smiled to herself and started humming as she walked toward the upper-class dorms.
— 5:44 AM. Westridge Terrace (Upper-Class Girls’ Dorm – Yew) —
“If I ever have to work with brimstone, fae marrow, and anything ‘vitae’ again, it will be too soon,” Pensey complained as she entered her room.
Lin mumbled a sleepy greeting and stretched awake. Then Pen saw she wasn’t alone in bed. Azmuir lay next to her, shirtless. Ah. Right. She asked if I was coming home last night. I should have figured she’d have him over, but I completely forgot about it.
“Sorry,” Pensey said, averting her eyes. “Should I take a walk?”
“Give us just a sec,” Lin said apologetically. “Az. Wake up.”
Pen retreated into the hallway and leaned on the wall.
A couple seconds later, Azmuir emerged in a disheveled uniform. Physically, he was the definition of tall, dark, and handsome: amber eyes, wild black hair, and like most Keeper Aspirants, chiseled musculature. But to Pensey’s eye, he was a creep who smelled like cheap deodorant losing a battle against sex and sweat.
“Miss Hayes,” Azmuir said, giving her an easy salute.
“Morning,” Pensey said with a polite smile, and ducked back into her room before he could say anything else.
Not interested in you trying to win me over again. It’s been nearly a year now, and you’re still a moody, broody jerk.
Inside, Lin had started a shower. Pensey liked to believe that their spacious suite with a private bathroom was the administration’s way of recognizing their contributions to their cohort. She and Lin were the respective role models for Leximancy and Peacekeeping. Lin suspected the privilege might have to do with her mother’s meddling, though.
Pensey flopped down on her bed, then reviewed her amail on her phone. A couple minutes later, Lin came out of the bathroom wearing a fresh uniform, hair already pinned in a bun, holding an extra sock. Pensey emanated curiosity at it.
“Az lost it,” Lin said, somewhat sheepishly.
“For the billionth time, I don’t get what you see in him.”
“And for the billionth time, he’s handsome, good in bed, and just—”
“Just smart enough to not act like an idiot in front of cameras, I know. That joke would be a lot funnier if it wasn’t an actual, comprehensive list of Azmuir Stillman’s positive attributes.” After a second she added: “I swear, Lin. He gives me the creeps.”
“Thanks, mom,” Lin said as she tugged on her boots.
That joke would also be funnier if it was less true.
Lin did have a thing for sad boys who were also bad boys, but the real draw—so far as Pensey could tell—was that Lin’s mother, Mirian Valmont, hated Azmuir. And the piece de resistance was that Azmuir, prick though he was, was starting to develop genuine feelings for Lin. She’ll beat herself up for leading him on later. Pensey didn’t care if Azmuir got hit by a bus—he mistook sadness for intelligence and meanness for wit. She just didn’t want Lin to have any excuse to trap herself with him.
To be fair, you hate the guy I like too, so I guess one of us has shit taste in men. Despite being known as the ‘boy crazy one,’ Pensey had dated sparingly throughout her time in the Athenaeum. She found the boys in her Discipline dry, but the main reason was that she had a very stubborn crush.
Pensey had an eye on Hace Matthews ever since they entered the Athenaeum. At first, she thought he was a jerk too. When Carroll asked his History and Tradition of magic class to name topics of personal interest, she had responded with “romance,” and Hace had sung “Someday My Prince Will Come.” It was a slight that Pensey suspected Lin had yet to forgive, nine years later. Pensey’s attitude toward him had evolved, however.
On paper, Hace seemed remarkably similar to Azmuir. They were both dashing ninth-year Keeper aspirants. Both smart and eloquent with powerful wyrds. But whereas Azmuir was too cool to apply himself—mocking and baiting teachers—Hace seemed almost desperately earnest. He asked intelligent questions, made thought-provoking points. And like Lin, he was constantly pushing himself.
Sadly, she had barely seen him for the past five years outside of social media. Most of what Pensey heard about Hace came from Lin, who always painted him as a contemptible showboat and unrepentant man-slut. Admittedly, the latter charge was hard to argue against. He had slept with nearly a dozen women. Putting that aside, Lin’s view of him had always been lensed through bitter rivalry. When class rankings were announced after the Chirothecam, they ended up beating the bloody shit out of each other on the east dining hall’s rooftop to settle who would have won the canceled final match of the kumite. They severely injured each other, but in the end, Hace emerged the victor. Ironically, that was about the only thing Lin didn’t hold against him.
“Do you want to grab breakfast together, or do you need to crash?” Lin asked.
“You don’t have a class to teach?” Pensey asked, surprised.
If Pensey’s schedule was irresponsibly busy, Lin’s was psychotic. She took on the maximum number of courses—well beyond the credits she needed to move onto tenth-year studies—and the maximum number of assistantships. But it’s right for Lin. Socializing had never been much of a priority for her, and relaxing made her anxious.
“Esana owed me a favor, so she covered my morning exercises,” Lin said. “I do have to train fifth-years in sorcery at seven-thirty though.”
“A quick breakfast sounds good,” Pensey said. “Don’t want to wake up hangry.”
“How long will you be able to sleep?”
“Hoping for about five hours. Study group at one. Homecoming committee meeting at four. Then I have to check on my potion.”
“I can’t believe you agreed to do Homecoming,” Lin said. “Completely thankless work.”
Pensey shrugged and smiled sheepishly.
“Somebody has to do it.”
And I have my reasons.
— 6:02 AM | Arroyo Athenaeum – East Dining Hall —
Lin drove them back to campus so Pensey could have more time to sleep. When they reached the East Dining Hall, Lin stopped to buy a paper, as per usual. It was a habit Lin’s mentor, Master Carroll, had fostered over the past few years, and Pensey had adopted it as well, borrowing the sheets as Lin finished them. Pensey usually only read the headlines unless there was something truly newsworthy or something pertaining to leximancy.
Lin got an omelet, which Pensey stared at enviously as she settled for cereal and a banana. I get that she spends a good portion of her days working out hard enough to kill literal monsters, whereas I read fucking depositions and stare at incanter screens all day… but it’s just not fair!
“You want a bite?” Lin asked, smirking.
Pensey made a sort of whimpering noise. Lin laughed. When they sat down, Lin pushed roughly a third of her food onto Pensey’s plate. In response, Pensey made a sort of praying gesture and bowed. Lin beamed.
“I’m glad we’ll be seeing more of each other the next two years,” Lin said.
“Me too!” Pensey said. “We sleep in the same room but it feels like it’s been months since we’ve… interacted. Steinbeck has been a slave driver since he asked me to be on that special project for my thesis. I think he’s trying to see how motivated I am. What my limits are.”
“That’s awful,” Lin said. “Carroll has been oddly hands off with me. This entire year. He says that he wants me to grow on my own for a bit, but I think he’s honestly taking it easy on me during ninth year. He makes himself available for consultations… but he seems a little harried.”
“Lin, he has a toddler. Doddy is two, right? And you said the administration has pressured him into taking on more mentees lately. Besides, I’d love it if I had some more time to—” Pensey gestured vague frivolity.
“More time to join Homecoming planning committees?” Lin provided.
Some damnable, deeply ingrained reflex made Pensey knit her brow and puff her cheeks. Then she realized she was doing it, again, and forced herself to stop. Lin laughed.
“No, look. Somebody has to make this experience at least mildly sociable, okay?” Pensey countered. “Some of us want a little romance in our lives. Most of us want some happy memories to look back on. We can’t all be heartless… perfect… soldier golems!”
Lin laughed harder. God damn it, that was the meanest thing I could think of. If I could steal any one of Lin’s multitude of gifts, it would be her ability to intimidate people. Pensey was aiming to be the sort of leximancer who rarely—ideally never—went into court. But I still want the option! How am I supposed to stare down the opposition when I look adorable instead of angry?
Pensey consoled herself with Lin’s omelet and her cereal. Lin started to read the paper. Before she finished the first sheet, she knit her brow and muttered:
“What the fuck.”
Pen gestured curiosity in between bites of cereal. Lin pushed the front page of her newspaper toward Pen and tapped on the top headline: Mysterious Illness Claims Sixth Victim in Arroyo. She read the caption of the cover photo—A grid of four faces, and two other people reclining in hospital beds—over Lin’s shoulder:
“‘In the past two weeks, four asfalis citizens in Arroyo have died from brain hemorrhages stemming from spontaneous urdic collapse. Two amagia who suffered from similar attacks remain in critical condition.’”
“The victims all have different ages, ethnicities, circumstances,” Lin observed. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t urdic collapse usually associated with botched rituals? Or huge amounts of magical energy misfiring? Like, more than asfalis license would even allow?”
Pensey nodded. It’s almost exclusively associated with amagia.
“Yeah. It’s basically what happens if you skip exus. Your wyrd doesn’t tear so much as it pops. Which makes your brain hemorrhage.”
They read the rest of the article. Pensey was idly concerned, and curious, but she recognized the look on Lin’s face. Oh no. Pensey knew that look. The article had become a knot in her head. And Lin did not suffer knots to live.
“Any ideas, Detective?” Pensey asked.
Lin shook her head, brow furrowed as she rescanned the contents of the article.
“I don’t think it’s environmental. Otherwise more people would be sick. But it is local because it’s only happening in Arroyo… I wonder if Carroll knows anything.”
“You telling me you can’t crack this one on your own?” Pensey asked, teasing harmlessly.
But for some reason, the rhetorical challenge found purchase. Lin wasn’t actually angry, but a wrathful smile stretched across her face. It was the look she wore to hype herself up. It also made her look like a villain.
“No, you’re right. I’ll look into this myself. See what I can find out.”
— 3:50 PM | Arroyo Athenaeum – Student Union —
Five hours of sleep were just what Pensey needed. She had become alarmingly good at sleeping ad hoc, sneaking in naps when she could afford them; especially after all-nighters. Which are always bad ideas, Pen!
Her Leximancy study group was productive for all parties. She got to review the material from different angles, and helped her fellows augment areas where they felt uncertain. Pensey adored study groups because they were so pragmatic. Generally, the only people who showed up were serious about being there, meaning they had their own insights and techniques to share. It was social, which made something as dry as legal contracts more palatable. And if you run the group, you get to decide what you’ll be reviewing half the time!
Now she climbed the stairs to the Student Union balcony, where those who signed up for the homecoming committee had scheduled to meet. She was pretty early, but was delighted to find Hace Matthews already waiting there. He was with Dravnik Sokolov as well, who was always entertaining if a bit boisterous.
“Hey guys,” Pensey said.
Hace did a sort of double take as if he didn’t recognize her. He doesn’t remember my—
“Pensey! Hey. You here for the committee?” He asked.
“Yeah,” she said, suddenly flustered. Then she looked around. “I’m surprised you didn’t convince Glem to—Oh! He graduated, didn’t he?”
Hace sighed and nodded. Glem had graduated three years early, becoming the first person to do so at the Arroyo Athenaeum in over fifty years.
“Bastard left us behind. Finished his course work and defended his thesis at the start of Summer. Three years early. I did ask him to help us out anyway but—”
Drav held up a finger to interrupt:
“I believe his exact words were ‘bitch, please.’”
He started laughing and Pensey joined in.
“That was how the speech started, yeah,” Hace said, wincingly. “Anyway. I’m glad you’re here. We need all the help we can get.”
“Don’t you usually have a girl wrapped around your finger?” Pensey teased.
Hace looked like she had dunked him in frigid water.
“He got dumped. Again,” Drav said, shaking his head and placing a heavy hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“We are not talking about this,” Hace said to Drav, tersely.
“Oh, this sounds juicy!” Pensey said.
“That’s a good word for it,” Drav confirmed, laughing.
Hace sighed and muttered that he was going to the bathroom. Pensey apologized as he left, then looked at Drav.
“You know his akrasia, right? He—” Drav shook his head. “Sorry. I shouldn’t say more. I gossip too much and it makes him mad. He’s also truly embarrassed about this one, even though it wasn’t his fault.”
Pensey nodded and gestured that she would back off. Damn. Off to a great start, Pen. But at least he’s single now. This is my chance. And I’m not going to waste it. She had kicked herself for five years straight that she didn’t dance with him at their Declaration ceremony. And lo and behold, that very night, he started dating Senice. Since then, he had been available for only a couple months in a given stretch. Not that I see much of him anyway.
Hace returned a few minutes later, and they waited idly for a few minutes as other students who agreed to plan the homecoming committee showed up. After about ten minutes, Hace peered out over the crowd and addressed the twenty or so students who had assembled.
“Alright, I think this is about everyone,” Hace said. “Fitz is supposed to be our faculty advisor, but she told me to ‘handle it.’ Since she’s my mentor, and we will need to get her approvals on budget and stuff, I’m willing to be president if nobody else—”
Pensey threw her arm up and emanated sharply.
“I’d like to be president.”
Hace looked genuinely surprised, but shrugged and nodded.
“Okay. It’s basically the most work, ‘cause you have to coordinate with everyone. You good with that?”
Pensey smiled as close to wickedly as she could manage. When they were briefly paired in the Chirothecam, Pensey got to see Hace in action. She knew he was an effective leader. He had protected her, defeated the rival team members who tried to sabotage them, and at the end, he did this stupid little “ladies first,” bow when they reached the exit. It was cute. Like a cherry on top. She still remembered it clearly, five years later. But this time, I’m going to show you what I look like in action.
“I’m good,” she said.
Hace waved deference to Pensey.
“Take it away.”
“Alright! First thing is roles. Unfortunately, because there aren’t that many of us, all of us will need to help decorate, but I’ll try to make sure that this doesn’t eat up too much of anybody’s time. First off, who wants to handle the budget?”
Hace raised his hand.
“If you let me do it, I have a feeling that Fitz will hand me a blank check so she doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.”
Pensey’s eyes grew wide.
“That’s… a very good argument. Okay. Hace is in charge of our treasury and acquisitions. On the night of the actual dance, somebody will need to be our MC, the person who coordinates the alumni speeches, dinner—”
Drav’s had shot up. He had a psychotic grin on his face. Uh oh. Nobody else had the enthusiasm to match the hulking blonde Soviet.
“Looks like Drav is our MC,” Pensey said.
He clenched his hands in victory. Pensey was nervous, but she was also grateful. Now that three people had volunteered in quick succession, the others were more willing to put themselves out there. The other roles—alumni outreach, photography, refreshments, decorations team, and so forth—went quick and easy.
“Okay! That’s settled. Now, usually the faculty advisor handles stuff like chaperones… But since we are short an advisor, should we reach out to our mentors and see who would be willing to cover the event?”
Hace raised his hand and shook his head.
“Fitz will handle it, or she can chaperone it herself with her girlfriend. I’m not going to let her fob everything off on us.”
“Fair enough. But it doesn’t hurt to have a backup plan.”
Chaperones at upper class Amagiate dances were fairly serious business. The Athenaeum kept its students too busy to really have much of an outlet, so dances tended to be volatile affairs. Lots of sex, drugs, and occasionally some very dramatic fights. Lax chaperones could be a genuine health risk. And from what little I’ve seen of Master Fitzgerald, she seems like a bit of a loose cannon. Pensey shunted the thought to the side and continued:
“Alright! Now the fun part. Who has an idea for a theme?”
Dead silence. It was like all of their momentum had been shot dead. Ah fuck. Pensey had a number of ideas but they all felt lame to her. Everybody did ‘Evening in Paris,’ or ‘Fantasy Renaissance,’ or other ‘Storybook Stuff.’ But I am determined to have a proper theme, damn it! ‘Generic Party Number Twenty’ won’t make anybody any memories.
“What about the turning of the seasons?” Hace suggested. “This is the last week of summer. Well, in most of the world. Never really stops being summer here. But I was thinking we could do like, an autumnal… something or other? Changing of the leaves and all that.”
Pensey nodded thoughtfully. It seemed basic on the surface, but something about the juxtaposition of autumn leaves and a Southern California sunset seemed deeply appealing. Pensey looked to the others for confirmation, and nobody contested the suggestion or offered an alternative.
“Autumn it is,” Pensey said.
— 4:23 PM| Arroyo Athenaeum (Artifice Lab 4) —
The rest of the meeting was extremely efficient. Pensey scheduled follow-ups and worked out marching orders for everyone in under fifteen minutes. Hace and Drav took their leave fairly quickly, as they had obligations at the mediclave. Pensey made fast tracks for the lab after, heart in her throat about the status of her tusmut potion.
Please be translucent. Please work.
She found the lab to be about as busy as it ever got. When she went back to storage, she found Renair Grant, an eleventh-year alchemist set to graduate at the end of fall term seated at the inventory desk. On the counter, there was a plastic animal carrier open, and a small black kitten grooming itself.
Pensey’s heart exploded when she saw it. She completely forgot about the tusmut.
“Oh my god! Renair, is that your kitten? Can I pet her?”
Renair looked up from his computer and seemed surprised to find the cat out of her carrier.
“Wow. I mean, you can try. I’ve had that thing open for like two hours and all she did was hiss and swipe at me when I tried to—oh. You’re just going for it. Okay.”
Pensey already had the kitten in her arms. She was in fact a she, and completely black save for a small blaze of pale fur on her belly. It purred loudly at her. Pensey wasn’t sure how old she was. A few weeks? A month at most. The kitten scratched its right ear with her paw, paused, then attacked her own feet.
“She’s so adorable!” Pensey squealed.
Renair gave her an apprehensive, wincing look.
“Yeah. I know she is,” he agreed. “Unfortunately, I’m supposed to euthanize her and vivisect her this afternoon.”
“What!?” Pensey cried out and turned away from Renair, as if to shield the kitten from him.
“Yeah… Whenever bio-arcanists finish with their lab animals, it falls to us to euthanize them and put them in preservative fluid. Easily the worst part of this job,” Renair tsked and shook his head. “It’s asinine because most of these ‘samples’ just end up gathering dust in storage.”
Pensey was horrified. The thought gutted her mind.
“How is that ethical?” she demanded.
He gave her a pained shrug.
“They’re all legally ‘monsters’ in Southern California, so…”
Pensey nodded, suddenly understanding. Anything legally classified as ‘monstrum’ is more or less dead to all rights, unless it also qualifies as ‘property.’ The kitten batted at Pensey’s hands as it lay in her arms, purring.
“And they can’t put her up for private adoption because of liability reasons?” Pensey guessed.
“She’s been experimented on, so she could be magically ‘unstable’ in some way. But I’ve had her here since two and she’s mostly hid in her cage and hissed. She really seems to like you, though.”
“I really like her too!” Pensey said, cooing at the kitten. “What did they do to her? If that’s in the records?”
Renair pursed his lips, then held up a finger. He looked at the cage, and tapped something—probably a serial number—into his desktop incanter. Then he furrowed his brow, and a funny expression came over his face.
“What?” Pensey asked.
He spun the screen so she could look at the form. The top of the form was populated with photos of the kitten. A red “0960” was displayed across each image.
“What’s 0960?” Pensey asked.
“That’s the euthanasia order, but that’s not the strange part.”
He scrolled below the pictures to the cat’s specs. Her name, or serial number, was blank. The experiment title was blank. Under species, it specified: cat. Not American shorthair, or any specific scientific genus. Just cat. Under gender, it specified: Female. Almost every other field, including the amagia or team running the research, the summary of experiments conducted—came up empty. Except for the cautionary notes at the very bottom of the file:
“Is that a single exclamation point?” Pensey asked.
“I believe it is,” Renair confirmed.
“Does that… mean something?”
Renair opened his mouth and shook his head slowly.
“Not that I am aware of, personally. Never seen it before.”
He turned the screen back around and looked at Pensey.
“So what brings you in today? Need something from storage?”
“Oh! Right. I’m checking up on my tusmut potion,” Pensey said. “I prepared it this morning just before six o’clock? Should be in that fridge there.”
He nodded, kicked his wheeled chair away from his desk, and stood up after rolling away. With two steps, he was at the fridge. Pensey realized how tall he was for the first time. He didn’t project the same sort of comprehensive ‘bigness’ as Drav, but he was easily six-foot-ten. Maybe even seven feet tall.
He returned with a vial of mercifully clear fluid, with the slightest tinge of blue. Yes! Pensey exhaled with relief.
“Looks good to me,” Renair said. “‘Intro to Pharma?’”
Pensey nodded and placed the kitten on the counter after kissing its head. She gratefully received the stoppered vial and carefully placed it into her bag. Then her eyes immediately returned to the cat. Am I really going to just let her die? Pensey sighed. Rules are rules… but we can choose when to make exceptions.
“What are you going to do about the kitten?” Pensey asked.
Renair stared at the cat thoughtfully.
“Are you a gambling woman, Pensey?” Renair asked her.
“Uh, not usually,” Pensey admitted. “But I do have a soft-spot for long shots.”
“Well, to me, this looks like some kind of fucked-up prank. We don’t know how old she is, who was working on her. Like you saw, no experiments are listed on her sheet. Whatever this is, it isn’t legitimate. So maybe the best thing to happen… would be for this ‘sample’ to go missing.”
Pensey’s heart thudded against her chest.
“You won’t tell?”
“I have a feeling I’m gonna regret this,” Renair said. “But you can have the cat on three conditions: One, you have to take care of it. It’s one thing to have an amagia looking after it, another to pass it off to some unsuspecting vet. You’re rooming with Valmont, right?”
Pensey nodded. Renair smirked.
“Yeah, she should be able to handle any unforeseen consequences. Second, if you something goes wrong, or you get caught, you didn’t get the cat from me, okay? That cat,” he said, first pointing at the kitten in her arms, and then at the images on the screen, “is not this cat. In fact, term number three is that you saw me put the remains of this cat in storage.”
Pensey nodded again, biting her lip.
“Oh my god, thank you so much Renair! I owe you.”
Renair considered carefully and then asked smoothly:
“Can I buy you dinner sometime?”
Pensey did a double take. Oh. I wasn’t expecting that. He seemed to read her expression and averted his gaze.
“Ah. You’ve got that ‘I’m already seeing somebody’ look in your eyes.”
Pensey froze and shrugged sheepishly. That’s a neater answer than the truth. But he deserves better. That took courage.
“Actually, I’m not seeing anybody right now, but… there is a guy I’m interested in,” she said.
Renair eased back into his chair.
“Well, I wish him bad luck,” he said with an easy smile. “If you change your mind, consider it a standing offer.”
“I’m flattered. And very grateful,” Pensey said.
There was noise coming from further down the hall. He gestured ‘that’s your cue.’ She nodded and stuffed the kitten, gently into her satchel. It mewed piteously. Pensey hugged the bag to her chest and did her best to muffle its cries with her wyrd, hustling out of the lab.
—9:47 PM | Westridge Terrace (Upper-Class Girls’ Dorm – Yew)—
It’s a good thing we had that study group, because I have gotten zero studying done. Pensey had already picked up food and a plastic dish for the kitten, which she hid in her wardrobe, so as to give Lin the impression that it wasn’t a settled matter. But I’m sure it will be fine. Who can resist this face?
Pensey scratched the kitten’s chin and she blinked slowly at her, purring again. She was exhausted, having spent the last two hours chasing a feather that Pensey swished through the air with sorcery. Just as she was about to fall asleep, Pensey heard Lin’s familiar footfalls in the hallway. She opened the door explosively as usual, and the kitten leapt out of Pensey’s lap with a start, and hissed loudly at Lin.
Lin looked at the cat, then at Pensey.
“Hey roomie,” she said slowly. “Whatcha got there?”
“A kitten?” Pensey said innocently.
Lin folded her arms.
“Uh-huh. Where’d you find it?”
“She’s a rescue,” Pensey said. “Like literally.”
Pensey briefly thought of lying to Lin. I could say I found her outside a supermarket when I was shopping for toiletries? In the end though, given the cat’s dubious providence, she went with the truth. Just once I’d like to fall back on a white lie. And she regretted her decision as soon as she saw Lin’s expression.
“Wow. Absolutely fucking not,” Lin said.
“Why not? Other people keep pets!” Pensey pleaded.
“Yeah, it’s against the rules under the best of circumstances. And that’s not a pet. It’s a cat-shaped lab-rat. Jesus, Pen, what if they gave it a virus or something?”
“‘It’ is a she. And she seems extremely healthy. Hasn’t done anything strange all day.”
“Arcanists do all kinds of bizarre shit! It could have poison glands. Shit, maybe it knows pyromancy or something,” Lin said, then added. “Damn thing will burn the whole dorm down.”
Pensey gave Lin an exasperated look, but managed to avoid puffing her cheeks this time. Time for my pocket ace!
“Lin, listen. I’ve already come up with a name. We can call her Ginsburg!” Pensey offered, holding up the kitten and waggling her paws at Lin.
Lin opened her mouth to object, but the name made her stop to seriously consider the notion.
All Amagiate Judges inspired fear, but J. R. Bader Ginsburg was on an exceedingly short list of Judges who inspired respect in equal measure. Most Judges enforced non-magical warfare by working in exceedingly broad strokes. They annihilated anyone who dared to use combat magic—and all of their adjacent allies for good measure. Ginsburg was more terrifying, more efficient, and more just. Instead of wholesale slaughter, she only neutralized people who actually violated amagiate terms, usually before they could finish their spell. She had an effective kill range radius of 300 yards, with what appeared to be perfect accuracy. Survivors never reported misfires or collateral damage, but on rare occasions, combatants reported unmistakable warning shots. How she managed to instantly blast people at range was a literal State Secret for The New Atlantic Union.
Pensey knew all this because Lin had told her personally, at least seven times, since Lin first heard it in their sixth year. She had heard it at least seven more times second-handedly as Lin recited this ‘fun fact’ to strangers. To her credit, it was a solid conversation starter for Keeper Aspirants. Guys especially. I worry about my friend sometimes. But I knew she would love the name.
Finally, Lin shook her head.
“It’s too dangerous, Pen. If you want to adopt a cat, we can talk about it later, okay? But no escaped experiments.”
Pensey was crestfallen. Deep down, she knew it was irresponsible. But what’s the alternative? I’m not killing her. Time for a Hail Mary.
“Just tonight. Okay? I’ll take her back to the lab tomorrow morning. I promise.”
Lin sighed with put-upon acquiescence. Pensey put Ginsburg on her bed and embraced Lin.
“We are not adopting this cat!” Lin said firmly.
Pensey smiled. Yeah, sure.
“Uh. Where did it go?” Lin asked, peering behind Pensey.
“She!” Pensey insisted, and turned to fetch the cat. “She’s right—”
Ginsburg was no longer on the bed. Or beneath it. Pensey started searching with growing panic. Lin assisted her, baffled. The windows were shut. The door was closed. Their wardrobes were empty. She wasn’t in the bathroom, or beneath their desks, or behind their symvision set. The kitten had vanished.
“Maybe it can phase shift as a result of what they did to it,” Lin said, more confused than concerned.
“She,” Pensey corrected again, voice hollow, and then she started to cry.
Lin hugged her and waited for her to finish.
—Solday, Virgo 25th | 2:03 AM—
Pensey woke to a rumbling sound, and a warm pressure on her collarbone. At some point after she went to bed, the kitten had taken up residence on her chest, coiled into a rumbling ball of fur. Pensey glowed, and briefly considered waking Lin, but decided against it.
“Hi, Ginsburg!” Pensey whispered.
The kitten purred louder.